Ellie Taylor: ‘Motherhood? I thought I’d made a terrible mistake’

She’s the comedian with fans that include Madonna and Jennifer Aniston. But having her first child left Ellie Taylor with little to find funny. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith why she wrote the parenting book that no one else dared to.

Five years ago, comedian Ellie Taylor decided she was going to join in with the latest Facebook craze: the Motherhood Challenge. Women were being asked to post five images that made them proud to be mothers. Ellie’s contribution, as a happy ‘non-mother’, was to put up photos of herself asleep cradling a wine bottle, captioned ‘such special memories’. The reaction was phenomenal. Among a number of ‘likes’ there was worldwide fury. ‘No wonder it [sic] does not have children. Look at its big teeth,’ one person from Mexico wrote, summing up the prevailing mood.

‘I was always pretty ambivalent towards children, never felt broody. I felt coo-ey towards cats, not babies,’ says Ellie, 37, who plays Sassy in the wonderfully warm Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso, as well as starring in comedy shows Mock the Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats. She admits, however, that like a lot of women, she’d been under pressure to have babies for years. Nearly all her friends in her home town of Brentwood, Essex, had children and both her parents and in-laws were desperate for grandchildren.

Ellie Taylor
Karla Gowlett

One Christmas, before she and her husband, Australian television news reporter Phil Black, were even married (and he was based in Russia, so they rarely saw each other), Ellie’s mother-in-law gave her a copy of the book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. When her husband asked his mother what on earth she was thinking, she replied, ‘Well, sometimes accidents happen.’

‘That was quite sensational,’ Ellie laughs. ‘There was so much pressure everywhere.’

Eventually, having decided it was now or never to start trying, Ellie quickly became pregnant, but despite giving birth to a healthy baby girl in November 2018, she suffered a number of problems. She’d had an elective caesarean, which left her in so much pain she couldn’t walk. ‘When my daughter was born it was like a grenade was lifted out of my body and my optimism was turned upside down and inside out,’ she says. ‘You’re dealing with this physical trauma and a newborn and my mind sort of collapsed. It was just the most intense experience I’ve ever been through.

‘The house felt really dark and lifeless and it was a while before the sun came out again. I loved my daughter but I thought, “We’ve made a terrible mistake.” I didn’t understand how I could be the person I was before. It was like I was acting the role of myself, thinking, “Is this the kind of thing that I say? Do I watch this TV show and eat this food?” I thought that for a long while. It was proper existential angst.’

Ellie relates her trauma in her memoir My Child and Other Mistakes, a book that manages to make you laugh out loud, despite the clear trauma of those early years. It acts as a forceful reminder that for most women – no matter how deep your love – having your first child is a brutal and irreversible shock.

‘I’ve written the book that didn’t exist when I was pregnant: a very honest account of the whole thing, from trying to get pregnant right through to having a toddler,’ Ellie says. ‘It’s not an instruction manual. You’re not going to learn anything useful such as how to cut up your toddler’s grapes; it’s a reflection of countless women’s experiences that otherwise go ignored, which is, they have a baby and it’s: “Tick! Move on!” like shelling peas. People don’t dwell on it, but even in the most perfect circumstances, having a baby is a seismic shift in your life. Becoming a mother is the most profound thing I’ve experienced.’

Ellie Taylor
Ellie with her daughter earlier this year. Image: Instagram/@elliejanetaylor

In hindsight, Ellie thinks she probably had postnatal depression. ‘Or the fringes of it. It feels like I’m being dramatic just saying that but then I think, “No, be fair to yourself.” I was really low for quite a while but writing about it really helped. It was cathartic.’

It took about six months for Ellie to start feeling like herself again. ‘Now I feel such a passion for new mums everywhere. I know what they’re going through and how broken they feel. If I see one, I just swoop on her and say, “It is s*** now, but it’s going to get better.”’

As funny and warm in person as she is on stage and TV, Ellie’s sure that motherhood was made all the more harsh by the fact that until then she’d enjoyed a glamorous career working all over the world. Before becoming a comedian she spent some time modelling. It’s easy to see why – she’s 5ft 11in, with amazing bone structure and a stunning smile. ‘I was such an awful model,’ she says cheerfully. ‘I’m tall but gangly. I’m not at all graceful. I couldn’t pose. And although I like being in the spotlight when I’m in charge, as a model it’s never about you. You’re selling something, and I didn’t like that.’

Her work included campaigns for Matalan dressing gowns, Asda bras, Pantene shampoo and a brand of greek yogurt. Inevitably, though, she encountered a darker side. ‘There were times when I thought: “What am I doing here? This really doesn’t feel like the safest place.” There were weird castings, when I’d just be in a pair of knickers and thinking, “Was that fine or not?” I was working in Greece and ended up at a photographer’s house covered in baby oil, doing all these sexy shots. I had no idea where I was and I dropped my phone down the loo so I couldn’t call anyone. He was fine, nothing happened, but I remember it as a pretty hairy moment.’

Like many models, Ellie also hated the constant negative feedback. ‘I’ve always been such a praise monkey. I did very well at school, because I liked getting good marks.’ It was the promise of being admired that drew her to stand-up. ‘All comics are needy – they have this constant desire for approval; they want to be liked, adored! I thought it would be a hobby. There was no ambition for it to be my job, but one thing led to another.’

Ellie Taylor
Ellie with co-star Jason Sudeikis in TV series Ted Lasso. Image: Courtesy of Apple

One of the biggest moments in Ellie’s career came in a sketch she did for The Mash Report, where she played an immaculate newsreader announcing that ‘Women everywhere have told everyone to ‘“Just f*** off.”’ She continued: ‘Tired of being judged for choosing to have children, or not have children. To have children and go back to work, to have children and not go back to work. For being too thin, too fat, too pushy, too unambitious, too hot, not hot enough. Or even for just daring to be alive… Women have stressed that everyone can go f*** themselves.’ To date the clip has had more than 128 million views worldwide. ‘It just resonated and every so often someone famous reposts it and it all kicks off again,’ Ellie says. ‘Jennifer Aniston did a few months ago and before that Madonna tweeted it. That was when I’d just had the baby and was riddled with mastitis and thinking, “This is the end of the world”, then there was a picture of me on Madonna’s Twitter page. It was surreal.’

Around that time, Ellie’s name was also displayed on a billboard in New York’s Times Square to plug a Netflix special. ‘I was at the lowest I’d ever been – and my name was literally in lights in Times Square.’

Ellie went back to work when her daughter was three months old and refuses to feel bad about being a working mum. ‘I hate the phrase “mum guilt” – you don’t have “dad guilt”. It’s just another thing we beat ourselves up with.’ She enjoyed family togetherness during the pandemic, but also admits, ‘The day the nurseries reopened was the best of my life.’

Since starting her comedy career, Ellie has seen female comedians gain a higher profile: though the pressures on them are still very different to those placed on male comedians. ‘Funny women are judged much more harshly. If you come on stage and the audience doesn’t like you it’s because women aren’t funny, whereas if a male comes out and bombs it’s just on him,’ she says.

She’s unsure if she’ll have another child. ‘I don’t know if I’ll end up being a mum of two or maybe stay a mum of one and owner of great t**s,’ she jokes. She doesn’t buy into the talk about children ‘completing’ you. ‘Not having a child is a totally understandable and, in many ways, sensible decision,’ she says. That’s not to say Ellie regrets her choice, and she isn’t worried that her daughter, now a tantrumming toddler, might in future feel hurt by her book’s revelations. ‘She’ll know she grew up loved in a house where laughter always came first,’ she says.

My Child and Other Mistakes: How to Ruin your Life in the Best Possible Way will be published on 22 July by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44 until 2 August, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.