When the Duchess of Cambridge emerged from hospital cradling her first-born, a son, she appeared the very picture of serene motherhood.
Glossy-haired and immaculately made up, it was hard to believe that just hours earlier Kate had given birth to her 8lb 6oz bundle on one of the hottest days of the year.
Her anxious husband was certainly sweating as he struggled to strap George, in his new baby seat, into the family Range Rover for the drive home.
But Kate remained cool, calm and collected in the blue and white polka-dot dress that touchingly echoed the outfit worn by Princess Diana when she presented little William to the world.
It was, however, a different story once the Cambridges and their heir arrived back at Kensington Palace that July day in 2013. Because, like every other first-time mum, the future Queen was plunged into an emotional maelstrom.
But as she came to terms with the life-changing experience of motherhood, caring Kate realised she had also found the cause that could shape her royal life.
“Nothing can really prepare you for the sheer overwhelming experience of what it means to become a mother,” she explained four years later.
“It is full of complex emotions of joy, exhaustion, love and worry, all mixed together. Your fundamental identity changes overnight. You go from thinking of yourself as primarily an individual, to suddenly being a mother, first and foremost.”
In her heartfelt speech to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Duchess of Cambridge went on, “Personally, becoming a mother has been such a rewarding and wonderful experience. However, at times it has also been a huge challenge – even for me who has support at home that most mothers do not.”
Kate knows she is privileged to have a nanny, household staff and the help of her mother, Carole. But her experiences have driven her to put children’s development and mental wellbeing at the heart of her working life and to take on patronages focused on these issues.
Royal expert Katie Nicholl says, “Motherhood really has been the making of Kate. It’s more important to her than anything and it has also given her a focus for her work.
“She has worked with academics and neurosurgeons who are experts on children’s wellbeing and has become a real expert in the field.
“Palace aides say she sees her Early Years work as a ‘legacy project’. She’s committed to it for life and wants to make real change.”
Being a hands-on mum to George, eight, Charlotte, six, and Louis, three, comes before everything. Reminiscent of Diana, it is why the two eldest children have accompanied Kate and William on foreign tours.
And it has given the duchess the same ability to get down at eye level and connect with all the children she meets – be it at a school, on a farm, in hospital or on walkabouts.
The connection Kate has with children was never clearer than on the day in May last year when she made little Mila Sneddon’s dream come true.
Mila, five, had been undergoing chemotherapy for leukaemia and was forced to isolate during the first lockdown, away from her father, Scott, and big sister, Jodi.
A photo of her kissing the kitchen window as her father stood outside their home in Falkirk, Scotland, came to symbolise the pandemic and was selected by Kate for her Hold Still photographic project.
Chatting by phone in August 2020, Kate told Mila, who loves the colour pink, that they would hopefully meet one day, adding, “I’ll remember to wear my pink dress for you.”
“Yay!” Mila replied.
Nine months later, the family were invited to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh to meet Kate.
The duchess walked into the room wearing a bubblegum pink dress and greeted Mila, who was also in pink and wearing a plastic tiara.
“Hi, Mila,” said Kate, “I want to give you a big, squeezy cuddle. I love your dress. Can you do a little twirl?”
Then she sat down on the sofa and chatted easily to the youngster, who was overjoyed.
Royal expert Duncan Larcombe says, “That one little scene spoke volumes about Kate’s natural warmth and compassion.
“She may have been in a pink princess dress but it was a mother’s instinct that helped her connect to that little girl.”
Kate and William are fiercely protective of their children’s privacy but also determined that they get a sense of real life.
When not in lockdown they do the school run, attend sports days, take the kids to Sainsbury’s and host play dates for their friends.
In April 2021, they took George and Charlotte to deliver food to pensioners during lockdown, and the family led the nation in clapping for carers from their front doorstep.
And by speaking openly about their fears and challenges, particularly during the Covid pandemic, the Cambridges have proved the most inspiring and relatable royal parents ever.
Last year in an interview for Giovanna Fletcher’s Happy Mum, Happy Baby podcast, Kate spoke candidly about the pressures of motherhood and admitted suffering from “mum guilt”.
“I think anyone who doesn’t as a mother is actually lying,” she said.
“Even this morning. George and Charlotte were like, ‘Mummy, how could you possibly not be dropping us off at school this morning?’
“It’s a constant challenge – you hear it time and time again from mums, even mums who aren’t necessarily working and aren’t pulled in the directions of having to juggle work life and family life.”
Afterwards, an impressed Giovanna said, “She is the future Queen of England, but, in that moment, we were two mums sitting down and having a chat.
“She talked about how she has to step away from being a mother to do her royal work and how she feels guilty at times. It was a big thing for her to admit, and it made her seem so normal.”
Kate suffered from extreme morning sickness – hyperemesis gravidarum – in her pregnancies and was hospitalised during her first.
But all that was forgotten as she held her first child, George Alexander Louis, in her arms.
“It was amazing, amazing,” she recalled. “How can the human body do that? It is utterly extraordinary.”
She remembered the look of “pure joy” on William’s face, which was then followed by their anxiety when they got home.
“William was like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this what parenting is going to be like?’
“It took us a bit of time to get ourselves settled and going again, but that’s the beauty, I suppose, of having a newborn baby.
“You are pulled to your toughest and most unknown places that you hadn’t necessarily thought about before.”
Charlotte Elizabeth Diana came along in May 2015 and Louis Arthur Charles in April 2018.
And Kate says the three children have taught her that “it’s the simple things that really make a difference”.
Kate said, “It’s spending quality time with your children… properly listening to them, properly understanding what they feel.”
The couple have invested time helping the children to grow their own vegetables.
“We’ve got carrots, beans, beetroot – Louis absolutely loves beetroot,” Kate told Mary Berry in a TV chat. “I think being outside and being in nature is such a great environment for [children] to learn lifelong skills, really. Physical, emotional and cognitive skills.”
She has said teaching their children to talk about their feelings is important, too, “to give them the tools and sensitivity to be supportive peers to their friends as they get older”.
”We know there is no shame in a young child struggling with their emotions or suffering from a mental illness,” she added.
“People often ask me why I am so interested in the mental health of children and young people. The answer is quite simple – it is because I think that every child should have the best possible start in life.”
Chatting to pupils at Mitchell Brook Primary School in north-west London in 2017, Kate explained, “My parents taught me about the importance of qualities like kindness, respect and honesty, and I realise how central values like these have been to me throughout my life.
“That is why William and I want to teach our little children just how important these things are as they grow up. In my view it is just as important as excelling at maths or sport.”
During lockdown the Cambridges homeschooled their three children at Anmer Hall in Norfolk, which Kate described as “exhausting”.
She also revealed, “I’ve become a hairdresser this lockdown, much to my children’s horror, seeing Mum cutting hair.”
While still determined to shield the children, Kate and William have allowed the public more glimpses into their family life since the start of the pandemic.
And it has shown how “normal”, happy and boisterous all three Cambridge children are. In September 2020, they were filmed quizzing Sir David Attenborough as part of William’s environmental efforts.
We learnt that George shares his father’s fears about extinction and that Charlotte has a love of spiders.
But little Louis stole the show by loudly asking Sir David, “What am-imal do you like?”
The Kensington Royal Instagram account also shared photographs for Louis’ second birthday last year of “Instagram Vs Reality”, featuring pictures of his colourful and messy painting.
Then, in December 2020, the children were taken to The London Palladium for a pantomime held to thank key workers, and William revealed that their home was just as chaotic as any other household muddling through lockdown.
Prince Philip’s death in April proved a painful time for William and Kate, and they ensured the children were protected from the global media spotlight that surrounded it.
But when Louis celebrated his third birthday on 23 April, Kate released another of the intimate snaps she has become so skilled at taking.
It showed a beaming Louis riding his red bike and proudly wearing a rucksack as he set off for his first day at The Willcocks Nursery School in London.
And the little lad’s Middleton looks proved that Kate was right when she reportedly joked that Louis is the only one who looks like her.
Later that month, to mark their 10th anniversary, the Cambridges shared that touching video showing the family at play in Norfolk.
Then Princess Charlotte turned six in May – and was delighted to have a proper birthday celebration.
Dad William told a well-wisher later, ”She had a lovely day. Last year it was her birthday in lockdown, but this year we were able to have one other family over. They grow up very fast. It was great fun.”
Charlotte’s birthday portrait featured the Princess posing in a pretty button-front, floral dress by designer Rachel Riley and, of course, it sold out within hours of the photo being released.
Prince George, meanwhile, melted hearts when he attended Euro 2020 football matches with his parents in June and July.
Apparently, the soccer-mad lad had begged to be allowed to go along and he dressed up smartly in a suit to match his dad’s.
But the England v Italy semi-final proved an emotional roller coaster for George. He was seen celebrating wildly when England scored within two minutes, but looked utterly heartbroken when they lost in a penalty shoot-out.
Kate was there to console him though, and George managed not to cry at his first big royal engagement.
And he was all smiles once more in his lovely eighth birthday photo released in July.
George was pictured sitting on the hood of a Land Rover Defender at the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk – a heart-warming nod to his great-grandfather, Philip, who owned so many of the vehicles.
Then, in September, George and Charlotte were both able to return to classes at Thomas’s Battersea Prep School, and Kate and William resumed their royal duties.
As he entered Year 4, George could look forward to his new language and culture lessons. He is likely to be introduced to French, which will delight his fluent Gan-Gan, the Queen.
George, whose nanny, Maria Borrallo, is Spanish, may also start to improve his grasp of that language – having already been taught to count from one to 10.
The siblings are growing up fast and enjoying each new life lesson. And thanks to their remarkable mother, Kate, they have already learnt that love is the most important of all.
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