The woman behind the Mother Pukka blog, Anna Whitehouse has become one of social media’s most relatable and recognisable stars. She’s used her platform to powerful effect by launching the Flex Appeal campaign for flexible working, and together with her husband, has written her second bestselling book ‘Where’s My Happy Ending?’ She talks to Jessica Jonzen about domestic life and finding happiness in the ordinary
MATT FARQUHARSON & ANNA WHITEHOUSE, AKA PAPA PUKKA & MOTHER PUKKA
It’s an age-old trope that house moves and renovations always seem to happen when you’re about to have a baby. For Anna Whitehouse, she went through it twice with her Victorian terraced home in East London. “We bought the house in 2014 when I was pregnant with Mae, and it needed a total overhaul,” says Anna. “It was the only place we could find in our price range near the school that we wanted; not very sexy! But I loved the garden and that was a big sell. It’s like a little wilderness.”
At the time, Anna and her husband Matt Farquharson had just returned to the UK after living in Dubai and Holland where they had worked as journalists and copywriters. “We gave our builders a deadline of 10 weeks and we lived there through it. I think the presence of a heavily pregnant lady helped speed up the process significantly!” says Anna.
Gluttons for punishment, the couple added on a kitchen extension to the rear of the house in 2017 when they were expecting their second daughter, Evie. “We didn’t have a back on our house; people talk about nesting, I was like ‘I’d just like some bricks and mortar!’”
We gave our builders a deadline of 10 weeks and we lived there through it. I think the presence of a heavily pregnant lady helped speed up the process significantly!”
Anna and Matt are a couple who make things happen, embracing the chaos along the way. Together, they have launched the Flex Appeal campaign to make flexible working accessible to all employees, and an appealing benefit for employers. The campaign has been debated in Parliament, with Helen Whately – Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, and Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism – introducing a Flexible Working Bill last July requiring employers to offer flexible working in employment contracts.
They have also recently won significant funding from construction giant Sir Robert McAlpine to run their so-called Flexmakers project, which aims to find 10 to 20 of the best flexible employers in the UK. Add to this their two podcasts and two Sunday Times bestselling books, plus Anna’s radio show on Heart FM, and Matt’s journalism career and your head starts spinning.
“I think we’re probably the worst poster man and woman for flexible working,” Anna admits. “The problem is it’s not about even having the conversation around whether flexible working should be implemented, that’s been proven to be effective, it works, it’s good for business. The issue is how to help people switch off once you have flexible working.
ANNA AND MATT WITH THEIR ELDEST DAUGHTER, MAE. IMAGE: EMILY GRAY PHOTOGRAPHY
“I think in terms of balance, Matt and I are on the other end of the spectrum in that we’re over-productive, we don’t switch off and I think that’s the bigger issue, that’s where the conversation needs to go – stop talking about flexible working, it works, everybody knows that now, it’s good for business. The issue is how to we help people switch off and not burn out, because you tend to become overly productive.”
Anna and Matt’s home has been the backdrop to an extraordinary period in their lives together. It has seen them go from a couple to a family of four with the arrival of their longed-for daughters after the heartbreak of repeated miscarriages. It’s been a place of sanctuary where they figured out how to be parents, and where they adjusted to the demands that children and work would place upon them.
It was also the place where Anna launched Mother Pukka, the blog which would make her one of the UK’s most popular and relatable faces on social media, and launch the next stage of her career as an activist, broadcaster and author. Not bad for a blog she has said she originally launched “as somewhere to laugh a bit, to offer light relief from the parental storm.”
I think we’re probably the worst poster man and woman for flexible working ”
Launched in early 2015 with the tagline ‘for people who happen to be parents’, Mother Pukka quickly took off and provided entertainment and a feeling of solidarity for frazzled parents everywhere. Anna’s light-hearted look at parenthood took a different turn in August 2015 when she blogged about the fact that she had been fined by Mae’s nursery the night before because she had been 13 minutes late to pick her up because of a delay on the tube. In her post she suggested: “all I can ask for is a system that offers some leeway, some flexibility… Or at the very least challenge businesses to channel Dolly Parton’s ‘Working 9-5’ mantra – when did it slip to 6pm? – and not leave mothers edging out of the office, feeling like pariahs.”
The blog post went viral. Anna put in a flexible working request to start and end her day 15 minutes earlier and was turned down in case it “opened the floodgates.” Anna quit, with nothing to go to, and turned her attention to launching the Flex Appeal campaign.
The success both of the blog and of the campaign have meant that Anna and Matt have to adjust to a role reversal at home. “Matt does a bit more of the childcare, I do a little bit more of the day to day work. That’s one of the issues we’ve had – it’s switching roles to me being the main breadwinner and Matt being the primary carer,” says Anna. “That’s where we sit at the moment but we try to keep it as equal as we can but I don’t think anyone’s got that equal split.”
ANNA IN HER GARDEN WITH YOUNGEST DAUGHTER, EVIE
How does she keep all of these plates spinning? “Well I don’t think I do, and I think that’s a very important thing to say: I don’t have it all. I have definitely had moments of breaking and I have become better at knowing that I need to repair before it becomes more prominent. Success to me is recognising when to step back and that I’m not invincible in any way, shape or form. I’m not going to be putting out an image that you can have it all because no, I absolutely can’t,” says Anna. “Only recently, my daughter said to me ‘sometimes I don’t think you like me very much when you’re on your phone.’ That’s not me balancing things – that’s me feeling torn in many directions.”
In Anna and Matt’s latest book Where’s My Happy Ending? they investigate what happens in long term relationships, and whether the proverbial ‘happily ever after’ actually exists. One of the many issues they explore is how important a wider community is to the success of a relationship. “A big point we make in the book is that nowadays we’re relying so much on our other half for everything, when actually in the past there would be a community you’d rely on for support. Your partner would be an important part of that but we’re so insular now, in our own little world and in our own four walls and that’s something that we feel really strongly about breaking through.”
I’m not going to be putting out an image that you can have it all because no, I absolutely can’t ”
For the first few years that Anna and Matt lived in their home, they had an elderly neighbour, Derek, who they became close to and who had a special relationship with their eldest daughter, Mae. “His relationship with our daughter was so wonderful, and so I think community is huge. We definitely break out of our little bubble locally and it makes a big difference to our relationship.”
So while their domestic life, just like most of ours, might involve sniping about loading the dishwasher or asking for a cup of tea and not drinking it (“if we ever break up, that will be a huge factor”) Anna and Matt’s home is also their place of sanctuary, much like their marriage.
“It’s not about the perfection, it’s not about the loving photos on Instagram, it’s the little daily gripes and frustrations that are yours and yours only – they can actually be transformed into something a lot bigger and more loving,” says Anna. “That’s something we learned from one of the people we interviewed for the book who is terminally ill. I think that was the big revelation for us, that we shouldn’t rely on each other for everything, and it really is in the daily ‘grey to grey’ where you can find the happiness.”
If you enjoyed this, we think you’ll like reading our interview with Elle Wright on the healing power of her home