The stark reality of first-time motherhood at the age of 39 came as a shock to The One Show host Alex Jones – and rocked her happy marriage. In her most candid interview since the birth of baby Teddy a year ago, she opens up to Julia Llewellyn Smith…
Alex Jones is shattered, her one-year-old baby Teddy having kept her up most of the night. ‘It really wasn’t great; he’s teething and has a bit of a cold, so we were up with him every 20 minutes,’ says The One Show presenter ruefully. ‘Normally he’s a pretty good sleeper, but it’s as if babies sense you’ve got something big on the next morning; you end up going through the whole day in a fug.’
Alex, it’s immediately clear, is not a person to be ground down by the odd bad night. Having joked her way through the photo shoot (even if she occasionally closed her eyes between shots), she’s now sitting bright-eyed in the corner of the studio, pouring milk into her mug of tea. ‘Loads of milk, that’s what I need,’ she chuckles.
She’s every bit as warm as she appears on screen, but she’s clearly also impressively driven, having returned to presenting The One Show just three-and-a-half months after giving birth, and choosing to devote every spare second of the past year to writing a book, Winging It! Parenting in the Middle of Life!
‘My friends all said, “Are you mad? It’s not possible,” when I told them I was going to write a book during my maternity leave,’ laughs Alex, 40, her Welsh accent strong, despite eight years of living in London. ‘It was an idea that was put to me when I was pregnant and I thought, “It’ll be fine! I’ll be at home and the baby will be sleeping all the time.” Of course that turned out not to be the case. But I’ve always had a can-do attitude,’ she says. ‘And when you’re a mum you have twice as much to do, but your focus also doubles. When Ted was sleeping, I’d run around the kitchen, loading the dishwasher, putting on the tumble dryer, and then sit at my computer and write a chapter really quickly. Then at night I’d put him down and do a few more hours.’
I’m glad she did; Winging It! is exactly the kind of book I wish had been available to me as a clueless first-time mum. Alex may be a superwoman to have produced it, but her account of pregnancy and early motherhood (interspersed with anecdotes and advice from other parents and experts) is refreshingly human compared to many pastel-tinted ‘celebrity’ baby memoirs. ‘Oh, I know,’ she says. ‘Some of them you think, “Come on!” I wanted to say it like it is.’
Alex is brutally frank about everything from the indignities of pregnancy to childbirth (‘Obviously it feels horrific, but you have to see it as a means to an end’) to postnatal sex. She’s especially honest about how overwhelming she found the first few weeks of motherhood, when the combination of sleep deprivation and the challenges of breastfeeding drove her to the verge of postnatal depression. ‘I tried really hard to breastfeed, but I had no idea it would be so excruciatingly painful. Often I’d be feeding with tears cascading down my cheeks,’ she says.
Exhausted and overwrought, her relationship with her husband, insurance broker Charlie Thomson, suffered. ‘Charlie is a fantastic support and now I think our relationship is a lot stronger because of Ted, but we struggled to find a way to even like each other sometimes in those early days,’ she says. ‘Once I sat upstairs in our bedroom for about four hours trying to feed Ted, feeling so upset and isolated. Or there would be nights when I was waking to feed Ted every two hours; Charlie would be snoring beside me while I felt murderous. It’s not your partner’s fault he can’t breastfeed, but it’s tough.’
By six weeks, breastfeeding was going smoothly; it took longer for her marriage to recalibrate. A flashpoint came when, after seven months, Alex asked Charlie if their relationship had changed. ‘He said, “You don’t want to have fun any more.” I was totally crestfallen,’ she recalls. ‘Again, before Ted, I’d thought, “It’ll be fine; we won’t change as a couple,” but you can’t help it: after a baby your energy’s depleted and you have double the responsibilities you had before. There are a lot of pressures.’
As with so many women of her generation, the sharp shift from carefree TV star to (however temporary) stay-at-home mother came as a shock. ‘For 20 years I’d gone out to work every day, so in those early weeks when the front door shut behind Charlie in his suit and I was left sitting on the sofa in my stained jogging bottoms, I was, like, “Aagh! Now what?”’ she smiles. ‘You have to embrace a different pace and that takes a lot more adjusting to than I expected.’
Alex became pregnant at 39 – nine years older than the average first-time mum. Until she announced her pregnancy, she says, some people assumed she didn’t want children, preferring to focus on work. ‘It was nothing to do with that.
I just felt getting pregnant when I did was the right time for me,’ she says. ‘But we have this very odd way of putting women into boxes: “Ooh, she’s 36 with no kids, she must be career driven.” It’s absolute nonsense. Usually when a woman doesn’t have children it’s because of circumstances out of her control.’
In Alex’s case, she split up with TV host Matt Johnson, her boyfriend of seven years, when she was 32. Shortly afterwards she landed her ‘dream job’ presenting the BBC’s much-loved The One Show every weekday evening and moved from Cardiff to London. She met Charlie the following year, but they waited five years before marrying, something she says they now regret. ‘But at the time we were both very relaxed about our fertility – it just wasn’t really on our radar.’
Only when Alex made a documentary, Fertility & Me, in 2016 did she learn that her mother had gone through the menopause at just 43. ‘That was a huge wake-up call.’ Still, she refused to stop taking the pill until she was married. ‘I was becoming a bit paranoid that I was running out of time, but I wanted to do things in the right order – I didn’t want to force anything,’ she says. ‘In hindsight I guess it could have gone terribly wrong, but if you push a big issue like having a baby it actually drives a big wedge between a couple before you’ve even started trying.’
Immediately after her New Year’s Eve wedding in 2015, the baby interrogations began. ‘Four minutes after the ceremony, Auntie Marian said, “So are you going to start trying straight away?”’ Alex is laughing, but such prurience annoyed her. ‘People can be so presumptuous; we’d have guests on the show asking if I was worried I was leaving it too late. I’m sure they meant well, but sometimes people forget it’s not a given and there could be a big story of heartbreak going on behind the scenes.’
In fact, Alex became pregnant within four months. ‘We have been lucky and I know it’s not so easy for everybody, but I hope my story gives some peace of mind to older women who worry that they are going to have problems with their fertility.’
Then, when Teddy was just weeks old, the questions began about when he could expect a sibling. ‘People ask me all the time,’ she giggles. ‘But again, it’s not a given.’ In her book she implies that she and Charlie started ‘trying’ when Teddy was ten months old. ‘I don’t think of it as trying – you just have sex,’ she says crisply. ‘It would be amazing if Ted had a brother or sister but I’m wise enough to know we’d be very lucky for that to happen so soon.’
The pressure to produce a sibling is one of the few downsides, along with a slightly slower recovery time after birth, that Alex can think of to being an ‘older parent’ – a phrase she finds hard to come to terms with. ‘Times are changing – we’re living into our hundreds and people are looking after themselves so they can have children when they’re a bit older. There are more women over 35 having babies now than under 25. I was one of the youngest in my NCT group; it’s definitely going to become more prevalent.’
The upsides of having babies later are many, she says, not least of which is that she has more patience (‘my lack of it was a real failing in the past’). The downside, she thinks, is that 30- and 40-somethings often ‘have more jam-packed lives’ than 20-somethings into which they need to fit a baby, not to mention greater financial commitments – in her and Charlie’s case, a large mortgage on a house they’d recently bought in Chiswick, West London. It was partly to pay this that she returned to work so rapidly. ‘People outside our bracket tend to be a little bit judgey: “Oh, you’re going back to work?”’ she says, assuming a sly tone. ‘Well, yes! I need to! I’m a freelancer and we couldn’t survive on one wage – we just couldn’t.’
Equally important was making sure her BBC bosses didn’t forget her. ‘I was worried I’d lose my place on the sofa, because in television you can’t take anything for granted. I’d like to stay on The One Show as long as possible, but this is a fickle industry and in two years’ time I might be at home with Ted every day, so I have to make the most of it.’
Still, the first couple of months back at work, followed by even more challenging nights with an unsettled baby, were ‘horrific – I was completely deluded to go back so early. My bosses are incredibly supportive of parents and asked me if I was sure I wanted such a short maternity leave; that pressure came entirely from me.
‘On my first day back I felt like the new girl. I remember going through my wardrobe and thinking, “Oh my God, nothing fits!” But the familiarity was lovely. I take my hat off to women who are full-time mums because working is so much easier than being at home.’ Despite this, Alex admits to frequently worrying that Teddy prefers her ‘fantastic’ nanny Jess to her. ‘There’s still this horrible dichotomy of “I want Ted to be happy but I want him to miss me,”’ she sighs. ‘It’s hard – you don’t know what to do for the best.’
During Alex’s maternity leave, her co-presenter Matt Baker – himself a father of two – frequently visited her on his way to work. ‘Having Ted has definitely brought Matt and me closer. Before, Matt was a family man while Charlie and I were still going to restaurants and bars; now we have the same pace to our lives, we’re on the same page.’
Their friendship could have been tested when BBC salaries were published last year and it was revealed that Matt earns up to £50,000 a year more than Alex, whose wage is in the £400,000 to £449,000 bracket. ‘We didn’t really have a conversation about it because we both find it quite embarrassing to discuss money. But Matt’s salary is based on a whole catalogue besides The One Show – Countryfile, One Man and His Dog, presenting gymnastics and documentaries. It’s not comparing like for like so it’s not an issue for us, though obviously it is for other women.’
After the grind of Teddy’s first six weeks, life quickly improved. ‘Those early days are full-on, but it gets better sooner than you think,’ Alex says. By the time her son was eight weeks old, she was ready to celebrate her 40th birthday. ‘I’d dreaded 30, but I didn’t have time to dread 40. I felt in a really good place – everything had been put into perspective. When it came to all the little things that used to bother me, I thought, “Oh well, who cares? Everybody’s healthy, I have a career I love and Ted’s the icing on the cake.” Though after nearly a year of not drinking I wasn’t sure I was ready for a full glass of wine, let alone a night out.’
Despite such misgivings, Alex hosted a raucous dinner for 35, falling asleep at 3.30am at the after-party in a hotel room. ‘We went for it and I’m glad,’ she grins. ‘It was great to have time out, to feel life was back on track. It’s as important to mark those personal milestones as it is the baby’s.’
Now Teddy has recently celebrated his first birthday and Alex and Charlie are still adjusting to their new relationship. ‘Raising a child has made us fall both in and out of love with each other over the past 18 months and has pushed us, sometimes grudgingly, to relearn how to love each other now that we are a family,’ she says. ‘But having Ted has been the making of us.’
That missing sense of fun is clearly returning. ‘Of course there are times that are brutal, but you have to laugh about it, not count how little sleep you’ve had,’ Alex says doughtily. ‘The benefits of having Ted definitely outweigh the lack of sleep. You just have to say, “Come on! You can do it!”’