Dawn O’Porter: ‘I have an odd relationship with motherhood’
The author, TV presenter and clothes designer on painful career changes, having children - or choosing not to - and moving to LA with her husband, Irish actor Chris O'Dowd
Dawn O’Porter’s new novel, The Cows, revolves around three women in their 30s and early 40s.
Dawn O’Porter’s new novel, The Cows, revolves around three women in their 30s and early 40s.
Dawn O’Porter sat down to write a book about women not having children, just six months after giving birth to her son Art, and found she could not ignore her new experience as a mother.
“I wanted to write a book about three women who had decided not to have children.” she says, speaking from her home in Los Angeles. “That was the book I was going to write. Then I had a child and . . . it was like motherhood, I couldn’t escape it.” She called her editor and said: “I have to give one of these characters a child, ’cause I can’t not write about being a mum.”
The Cows is O’Porter’s first foray into writing for adults, although even in her fiction for young adults she never shied away from a little raunch and a lot of candour.
“I have the impression in my head that teenagers are slightly more forgiving if you give them a good story,” she says, so it was slightly intimidating to produce a book which would “stimulate women of my age who have lived a life, who would be willing each night to sit and read my book.” But it was the right time for her to write adult fiction after becoming a mother, “because my feet are firmly on the ground. I feel like an adult now and I never really did before I had a kid.”
O’Porter’s book revolves around three women in their 30s and early 40s – a blogger, a documentary maker and a PA – whose lives become entangled when one of them is filmed in a compromising situation. O’Porter wanted this book to be about “the choices that women make to not do what is expected of them”. The book’s message is about “taking control of your life”. The hashtag #dontfollowtheherd is big and bold on the book cover.
O’Porter drew a lot from her teenage diaries for her young-adult fiction. So did she reach for inspiration in her own life this time around? She says she never felt under any pressure to follow the herd. She admits that she is surprised to find herself in a traditional family, married to Irish actor Chris O’Dowd of Moone Boy and Bridesmaids fame, with (almost) 2.4 children.
I’ve got friends who don’t have kids and they say people just start conversations with: ‘Aww.’ It’s so patronising
“I have ended up with quite a conventional marriage and family,” she laughs. “But I still hold on to my younger self who didn’t know if that’s what I wanted to do or not. Inside of me, there’s still a girl going: ‘I may not have done this if I hadn’t met Chris.’ And anyone who judged me for that would’ve been wrong.”
She wanted to tackle what she sees as the taboo of childlessness. She called the book The Cows “because there is no other purpose for a cow in this world apart from to reproduce and provide us with milk and in many echelons of society it’s very much seen that that is also the role of a woman, and so a woman decides not to do that and people think: ‘Why, why are you so cold?’”
O’Porter hates “the way women are just considered slightly tragic for not having kids”. One of the characters in her book, Cam, writes blogs about not wanting children, and becomes “the Face of Childless Women”. “I’ve got friends who don’t have kids and they say people just start conversations with: ‘Aww.’ It’s so patronising and, for some women, they’re devastated by the fact they’re not having children, and for some women they did genuinely choose it and they’re very happy and very fulfilled. I think the fact that all women get branded as the same, desperate for love, desperate for children, is just a really unmodern attitude.”
I mention the irony of a new mother flinging herself into an impassioned argument for not having children. Laughing, she says: “Oh my god, some days . . . I’m just like: ‘Why did I do this?’ Because there’s no doubt that motherhood is the most fulfilling thing you’ll do if you do it, but I am so jealous sometimes of my friends who don’t have kids, and the freedom that they have.”
Mothers and daughters
Adult mother-daughter relationships also come under scrutiny in O’Porter’s new book, be they positive, negative or no longer there. O’Porter’s mother died of breast cancer when Dawn was seven years old. She and her sister went to live with an aunt and uncle in Guernsey. This was clearly a cataclysmic event in her life and I ask her if thoughts of her mother tend to come back to her when she sits down to write.
“I mean, obviously in Paper Aeroplanes that was hugely what inspired that book . . . I’d love to say that my mother dying was a catalyst to everything I do . . . It’s really not the case. It was 30 years ago and it’s very much. . .” she trails off here, not entirely committing to the idea.
“I have an odd relationship with motherhood. I’ve never had that relationship of this unconditional friendship, deep bond that you have with somebody, but I have it now with my son. So I know the feeling of what that relationship could be, I’ve just never had it . . . One of the traits that losing my mother really early did for me was it made me fiercely independent.”
I wish my mum had never died but I like the way my life turned out because of who that turned me into
She is very close to her husband, she says, but “for most of my life before I met Chris, the idea of being alone wasn’t frightening to me at all. And sometimes I find the idea of having a mother very overpowering, a person who’s able to tell you what to do, who’s able to control you, who you have this guilt complex with because you want to please all the time. I don’t have that in my life and it’s quite liberating.”
I tell her that it reminds me of the idea that in fairytales, the parents have to be removed through death or some other ploy so the character can live out their story.
“Exactly, that’s what becoming an adult is, you’re inevitably going to lose your parents when you become an adult. When you lose your parents when you’re a kid, you kind of get this freedom and sense of independence way younger. And obviously I wish my mum had never died but I like the way my life turned out because of who that turned me into.”
So despite her earlier protests, “there’ll always be a theme of motherhood in some capacity in all of my books, because, whether I admit it or not, I guess it’s something that I subliminally think about all the time”.
O’Porter may now be very much on the upswing, but around the time she first met O’Dowd, in 2009, things were quite different. Her career was not going well and O’Dowd’s star was in its ascendant. In a frank interview in 2014, she said that in the early years of their relationship, “being with Chris and his success is one of the reasons I lost a lot of confidence”.
Reflecting on that time now, she believes she wasn’t pro-active enough. “It was three years of not much work . . . And it was around the time that Chris did Bridesmaids and we were meeting all these really cool people and I was just like: ‘Oh, I’m the most unimpressive person in the room.’ Everyone would always be like: ‘So, what do you do?’ I never said: ‘Oh, I’ve made all these really cool documentaries and I’ve written books. I just said: ‘Nothing.’ She groans with the memory. “Because I was so bored of myself.”
“Anyway, I’m friends with them all now, so it’s fine, but everyone’s had those nights where you’re having a bad week and you go to something social and you can’t think of any of the positive things about yourself, so you just sound shit and you just wallow in that shit. That’s what I did for a couple of years.
“But at the same time, I’d met Chris and everything was fine”, she says, eager now not to dwell. And it was soon after that that O’Porter’s writing career took off.
Los Angeles is very much home now. “We really love it here, we have amazing friends here, we have a really lovely house. Our life is very small, we do most of our socialising at home. We have a community of mates with young kids around us and its very un-sceney,” She can’t remember the last time she was on a red carpet. “It’s really boring for people to hear that but we have a really lovely domestic life here.”
Despite both working in creative industries, there is, O’Porter says, no rivalry at all between them. “There’s no sense of: ‘Oh, I wish I was doing what you’re doing . . . I don’t even really do TV anymore, so I’m just a mum with a laptop, really, who kind of sits and writes.”
O’Porter is no stranger to Instagram and Twitter, a giddy presence with a lot of followers, she is happy to interact with fans and share small details about her life. At various points, each of her characters in The Cows takes to the bed. They all suffer an element of social anxiety and develop obsessions with social media. Does she ever find herself hiding away from the world?
“As a writer, you can almost do that daily, get so caught up in your own head. After I’ve dropped Art off at nursery and if Chris is away filming, I’m on my own a lot. I remember one time we were living in London a few years ago and I didn’t leave the house for, like, 10 days, ’cause I was just writing, and suddenly I was just like: ‘Oh my God, I have not actually breathed in air . . . You kind of put yourself in this weird depressed state even though you’re not.”
In that time, she had become consumed with social media – “Googling your name constantly, looking to see what people are saying about you . . . You can just actually live online . . . You see some people on Twitter and Instagram and you think: You haven’t left the house all week, have you?” she laughs.
Tying in with that, in The Cows she explores ideas of hypocrisy in social-media shaming. The Mail Online gets a bit of a bashing, as does the way many tend to pile on to the latest object of ridicule. “Social media has given everyone this tool to hide behind their computer and judge and comment and put down without ever having to be honest about who they really are.”
In 2012, O’Porter came in for a spot of ridicule and shaming when she became the face of a particularly frank ad campaign for Andrex Wet Wipes. Janet Street-Porter in the Daily Mail called her a traitor to feminism but O’Porter is pragmatic.
I am essentially a show-off, I like feedback and attention and notoriety, I do. It’s a nice feeling
“I hadn’t worked for four years and I was broke. Andrex swooped in with the kind of paycheque I will never earn again in my life and they asked me to go be myself on TV but just talk about moist toilet tissue.”
She was offered a considerable sum to continue the campaign. “I paid off all my debts – and then they offered me basically for that to become my career, and that was the point where I was like: ‘I’m not in debt anymore, I can walk away now, but y’know they’re literally dangling $1,000,000 in my face.’ And I’m like: ‘What am I doing?’ But it just would’ve been awful, I’m so glad I didn’t do it.” And then she doubles back on herself, as she tends to, to temper her words: “No, it wouldn’t have been awful . . . I got a bit of grief for it at the time but nothing was more stressful than the debt that I was in, so...”
They may have tried to shame her, but O’Porter is a hard worker with multiple projects on the go at any given time. She has a regular podcast, Get It On, a clothing line, Bob, and a column in Glamour magazine. She’s writing her third young-adult book and promoting this new one. Over the years, she has featured in documentary series and ad campaigns. I ask her what drives her.
“I definitely think my ambition comes from wanting to make a mark on this world. Like everyone who knew my mum says: ‘Oh, she was absolutely amazing, she was this incredible woman’ and the people that knew her and loved her think about that and I think: ‘Well that’s great but not enough people knew who she was. I wish more people knew who she was.”
O’Porter considers it a privilege “to be able to leave a legacy of books and articles and TV shows. I should keep going. And I am essentially a show-off, I like feedback and attention and notoriety, I do. It’s a nice feeling.”
However, in a recent Glamour column she said she was now more focused on happiness than on success, having paid the price for overextending herself. She signed her book deal for The Cows when she was seven months pregnant with Art, and she launched her clothes line Bob on the same day.
I have friends who run charities for refugees and do such hard jobs – I can’t even bring myself to say that writing is a hard job
“When I had Art I had so much on. The vision of me with my newborn baby is I was on the bed with an electric breast pump on, Art asleep next to me, on my computer and on my phone running Bob, from when he was, like, two months old. And I managed but there’s no way I’m doing that with two kids. I don’t want to be that mum. I’m not that much of a martyr.”
O’Porter had Art in January, her deadline was in October. When Art was six months old, she got childcare “thinking: ‘Right, I’ll go back to work.’ But your brain just doesn’t switch on like that after you’ve had a kid: you need a bit of a warm-up period; and I panicked.” She had the deadline pushed back a year.
“I had a lot of breakdowns and I found it very stressful. Chris had a really weepy wife for quite a while. I felt like it was never going to happen, and it was hopefully the hardest writing process that I will ever go through.”
And then, aware of not sounding too precious, she says: “But, God, y’know, I have friends who run charities for refugees and do such hard jobs – I can’t even bring myself to say that writing is a hard job.”
The Cows is published by HarperCollins
An afternoon with Dawn O'Porter and Amy Huberman
O’Porter’s second baby is due in July. She’s winding Bob down and giving herself “proper maternity leave” this time. “It’s hard when you run the business and you only get paid when you do the work. I think second time around I feel a bit like everyone can just wait, and I’ll wait. I wouldn’t do that to myself again.”
On Saturday, April 8th, The Irish Times Magazine is giving readers the chance to get up close and personal with Dawn O’Porter and Amy Huberman at a live afternoon event to celebrate the launch of The Cows, Dawn’s latest novel.
Sponsored by Raffaello, guests will enjoy cocktails and canapés, while Dawn and Amy chat about life, motherhood, feminism, Dawn’s hilarious new book and lots more.
There’s the opportunity to meet Dawn and to have your book signed afterwards.
There will also be a chance to win some great prizes on the day and all guests will receive a goodie bag.
The event will take place on Saturday April 8th, The Sugar Club, Leeson Street, Dublin 2, from 3pm to 5pm. To purchase tickets, €45, visit