The Ms. Q&A: Writer Caitlin Moran On Mental Health, Instagram and Why Asking for Help is “Actually Quite Good”

The Ms. Q&A: Author Caitlin Moran On Mental Health, Instagram and Why Asking for Help is “Actually Quite Good”
“So much of writing—particularly if you’re writing about civil rights and progress and equality—is you’re wishing for so much of what you write,” Moran told Ms. (www.caitlinmoran.co.uk)

In 2020, Caitlin Moran had a big year: Navigating the release of a new movie and a new book amidst a global pandemic. In Moran’s latest book, More Than a Woman, the author uses her signature chatting-with-a-friend-over-tea style to draw the reader in and unpack topics like married sex, being a mom to teenage girls and the need for a women’s union.

Moran spoke with Ms. reporter Anne McCarthy from her home in England this autumn.


Anne McCarthy: You write about your children in More Than a Woman. What surprised you most about being a mother?

Caitlin Moran: I thought that I was a really, really great mother and generally, that I was liberal and progressive and that we had a close relationship, and it was all really good. And then, when my daughter got ill, I realized I had a fatal weakness, which was that I was scared of sadness, and I’d never had to deal with it before.

I realized that when I was growing up, no one was really allowed to be sad in our family. We just had to be jolly and crack on! So when she first got ill, when she was depressed and anxious, I would just try to “jolly” her out of it. Then when it turned into something more clinical and then an eating disorder, I then tried to reason her out of it. And then I tried to be angry about it. And then I tried to be sad about it myself.

Then, in the end, what I realized I needed to do was sit down and look her in the eye and say what I saw, which was: “You are sad and angry. I am not scared of your sadness and anger. I love you, whatever happens. And we’re going to sort this out together.”

More Than a Woman is part memoir, part manifesto. (Indiebound)

McCarthy: I think a lot of women fall into the pattern of the comparison game. What would you say to women about this unhealthy habit?

Moran: I was advised a couple years ago it was a good idea to join Instagram for promotional purposes. I’m mainly a Twitter person because that’s words and I’m good at words! Instagram is pictures, and I’m not good at pictures. And I noticed that like the big hoo-ha at the time was that young girls were basically posting pictures of themselves looking sexy. I had just read a big piece about it, how that would make them objectified, and that’s difficult, and could make their career difficult later. And there’s this weird phenomenon of very young girls over-sexualizing themselves on Instagram. And the conversation has moved on from there about that.

But what I noticed as a middle-aged woman joining Instagram is that the equivalent for middle-aged women of being sexy on Instagram is having a sexy life: a very beautiful house and a very beautiful garden and posting pictures of, like, your beautifully arranged cutlery drawer, or your very organized wardrobe, or the beautiful holiday that you went on that you booked two years ago.

And I know all the women posting these pictures of their beautiful, sexy lives, of their beautiful houses …. and their real lives aren’t like that at all. So you just gotta be aware of what the narrative is of what you’re supposed to be at every point in your life. But, you know, I’m very happy. I wasn’t a young, sexy teenage girl, and now I’m not a sexy, organized blissful lady. It’s all just balls. We’re all just sweaty mammals just trying to get to the end of the day without lying in bed haunted by the fact that we might’ve been a dick three hours ago when we said something by accident—that’s life, from beginning to end.


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McCarthy: You write about your marriage as being a safe haven for family members who may need support or help. Do you find it easy to ask for help?

Moran: No. I’m terrible at it. I can tell you every single time I’ve asked for help. I think the number one sin for women is martyrdom. And I had become very martyr-ish about my To Do list and was just stomping around the house going: “I’m the only one who knows when the dog needs his flea medicine. I’m the only one that’s noticed the window is broken. And it’s all in my head and it’s driving me crazy and the patriarchy is killing me—fuck you all!”

I realized that I needed to physically manifest my To Do list. So, I bought a huge whiteboard and put it up in the kitchen and wrote: “Here are all the things that are in mummy’s head.” And I wrote down 50 of the things that are on my To Do list. And at the bottom, I put: “Everybody choose three tasks, write your name next to it, and they need to be done by Friday.” And they did it. And just by putting down what my To Do list was and all the things that were driving me crazy, and getting everyone to join in, I saved myself from another 30 years of martyrdom. So both times I’ve asked for help it was good. And I’m now slowly learning asking for help is actually quite good.

McCarthy: It feels like catching up with a friend to read your work. How do you write in a way that’s so readable?

Moran: Yeah, I’m very “first draft-y.” When people ask me for advice about writing, what I often find is that they confuse thinking with writing, and that they only start thinking when they’re about to start writing. And they’re two really different things. You need to have done all the thinking before you sit down to write, and then you’re just transcribing what’s in your head.

So, a combination of do all your thinking beforehand, when you’re angrily loading the dishwasher, or taking the dog for a walk, that’s when you do your thinking. So when you finally get to sit down, like, it’ll take you 20 minutes to just write what you’ve been thinking in your head.

I also think I was very lucky not to be in the formal education system, so I never had to write essays. I never had to write to a formula. So when I write, it’s literally like I’m talking. I’ve never had to learn to write. So part of it was a happy accident. I also just write to a person; I’m always imagining my friends and going: How would I tell them this story?

McCarthy: Do you have a favorite essay in More Than a Woman?

Moran: If I could have anything printed up anywhere that the whole world could read [it would be] the chapter on how we need a women’s union. My greatest hope is I think that so much of writing—particularly if you’re writing about civil rights and progress and equality—is you’re wishing for so much of what you write. If you’re a person of color or if you’re a woman or if you’re differently abled [you may be] writing down your wishes for what the world will be like at some future point.

And the chapter about the women’s union is me wishing that someone, somewhere, who’s got time … goes, “Yes! I will help form this women’s union because we need to have a non-political bloc that represents women in every level of society, and advocates for us and oversees every piece of legislation, and demands equality as a full-time job.”

Women are too tired and busy. The whole point of [my book More than a Woman] is that women are too tired, too busy, generally, to campaign for equality. But we need it, and if we had equality, we would have the time, and we wouldn’t be so tired. So, it’s a catch-22 situation.

So we need to have paid, professional women who can campaign for equality for us, rather than it just being down to individual women doing it.

McCarthy: What was it like having the How to Build a Girl film have a non-theatrical release due to the pandemic?

Moran: It was a mixed grill. On the one hand, we’d planned an amazing premiere. We were going to premiere it at the Glastonbury Festival. It was going to be the first-ever film to premiere there. We would’ve had a red carpet there and it would’ve been amazing and such a great day.

But, on the other hand, I really love streaming. A huge chunk of my audience is either middle-aged women with children or teenage girls. If you’re a middle-aged woman with children, getting to the cinema is so costly and difficult, once you’ve got childcare and kind of scheduled time to go there, it’s virtually impossible. And if you’re a teenage girl and you’re watching a film about sex and masturbation and stuff, you might want to do that privately without your parents knowing about it. And without your friends, you might want to watch that alone in bed. On a personal who-will-get-to enjoy-this-more level, I was very happy that it streamed. So once the lack of a brilliant party at Glastonbury was metabolized into my disappointment system, I was very happy it was streamed.

McCarthy: What are some other ways the pandemic has directly affected you and how have you coped with the events of this year?

Moran: As a writer, my job is based at home anyways, so it didn’t really affect me [in that way]. I was very, very lucky. The main part that affected me was repeatedly having to explain to my children that I had not invented the coronavirus. I had not invented the rules that stopped them from going out and seeing their friends. I couldn’t cure the coronavirus. I did not want them to break the laws and that they would have to stay at home and it wasn’t my fault. Other than that, on a personal level, it was business as normal.

Having read a lot of history and a lot about what happens during pandemics and times of economic unrest and politics bending to the right, I’ve spent quite a lot of the pandemic alternately terrified for how much worse it is going to get and then wildly excited about being in a period of deconstruction at the moment of cultural and political destruction and having the coronavirus on top of that has just accelerated it massively.

I know how bad that it can get. But what happens after a period of destruction is that you have a period of construction. In my wild optimism, I’m really excited about the opportunity we will have to rebuild.

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About

Anne McCarthy is a writer and editor based in Manhattan. She’s a contributing writer to the BBC, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The Huffington Post, IndieWire, and more. She is a graduate of the Yale Writers Workshop and she has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London.