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When Diana Met...

When Diana Met… takes listeners inside Princess Diana’s most notable meetings with public figures, politicians, dignitaries, and celebrities to reveal often-overlooked truths and misunderstandings about her life as Princess of Wales. Host Aminatou Sow examines those iconic and memorable connections and what they teach us about power, gender, and control.

Diana, Princess of Wales

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William and Harry
When Diana Met...
Nov 17, 2021

Some of the most iconic images of Princess Diana are as mother to Princes William and Harry. But how many mothers are put on display outside the hospital just after giving birth? 

And what were the expectations for Diana as mother to the heir to the throne, and how do those align with our larger perceptions of motherhood in society? Host Aminatou Sow talks to journalist Candice Brathwaite and playwright Bonnie Greer about Diana’s legacy as a “mum.”

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Episode Transcript
Aminatou Sow
Before we begin, I just want to let you know that this episode features brief conversations about self-harm and depression. Take care while listening.
Aminatou Sow
On June 21st, 1982, Princess Diana delivered her son, William William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor at St Mary's Hospital in London. Imagine you're 20 years old, just shy of your 21st birthday. You're in a brand new marriage. A lot of that marriage hinges on you having kids. A first born boy, at least. And you knock it out of the park. On the first round, you've given birth to a boy after 16 hours of labor. The next day, you are set to be discharged from the hospital. It's expected that you make an appearance. Overnight, people have been waiting for a glimpse of you and your new baby. All you got to do is wave. You put on your best house dress some sensible flat shoes, do your hair because that's your job after all. You walk outside and the street is full of people clapping for you, yelling and clamoring to see the baby. We're talking throngs of people here. Why are we clapping for this at all? This scene is not great. It's pretty terrible, actually. I'm obviously talking about the day Diana and Charles presented their new baby to the whole United Kingdom and really the entire world.
Looking back on those images now, because I was too young, I don't even- was I even born? But looking back on these images now, I feel deeply saddened for her having had children myself. That is the last thing you want to do. No matter your position, you don't want to be paraded. She's probably got ten sanitary towels down below. Like, it's not a look. It's not a moment. And it's such a public moment when all you perhaps want to do is, like, sniff your baby's head and live off those endorphins. You have to share your child with the world.
Aminatou Sow
Candice Brathwaite is a TV presenter and author. She writes a lot about motherhood and the perceptions of black mothers in the UK.
I think when she met her own son, she was really met with the fact that this boy does not belong to her. He belongs to the state. He belongs to the people. Almost like a surrogate mom type vibe. Oh, that's not. That's not your son. You just delivered the son of the nation. Thanks, babe. We'll be having the baby. Here's two paracetamol. See your way out. I think that moment must have hit home. You've literally carried this child. You know his personality better than anyone at this moment. You know, when he wakes, when he sleeps, what he doesn't like to ingest all of that. And now you are dismissed.
Aminatou Sow
Diana opted for a natural childbirth method. Up to that point. Royal women, including Queen Elizabeth, were generally fully sedated when they gave birth. It was supposed to be a sleep and forget about it as your baby was pulled out by forceps. Diana bucks that trend in more ways than one. Her husband, Charles, was at her side while she gave birth standing up. And more importantly, William was born in a private wing of a public hospital. The fact that the future king of England wasn't born behind castle walls was a pretty big deal.
Bonnie Greer
And she came out of a public hospital like any woman in this country who would have a baby. You come out of the door with your partner, your friends, your husband. And that's what she did.
Aminatou Sow
Bonnie Greer is an American playwright, broadcaster and novelist who moved to London in the eighties. She comments regularly on the royal family, and in our interview she pointed out to me that even these archaic seeming traditions are really important signals. And I say this because it was really hard for me to look at those pictures of Diana and Charles presenting their baby to the world and see anything modern or progressive really happening. Every part of it looked perfect. They did not look like sleepless, haggard parents.
Bonnie Greer
They were completely groomed, completely. We used to say in Chicago, you know, died, fried, and laid to the side. I mean, you you didn't walk out. It's as good as a good old blues ghetto expression. I mean, you didn't come out except absolutely pristine. You certainly didn't come out showing that you've been pregnant. You certainly didn't come out, you know, with any of that. And Diana did.
Aminatou Sow
The scene of them leaving the hospital, the now iconic photo call. It was the first time a royal had stepped into the public eye so soon after having a baby. Little did Diana know she would start a new tradition that her own sons and their wives would have to navigate for themselves. I have to confess that this moment in general is one that has made me really uncomfortable. It very much reminds me of Lion King for white people, which is not great. But also, I have a lot of sympathy for a new mother who has to perform in front of cameras. Why did she invite us in at this moment or did we invite ourselves? What did our perceptions of Diana's mothering reveal about the cultural values of the time and what effect that these expectations have on her? I'm your host, Aminatou Sow, welcome to Episode Two: When Diana Met William and Harry.
Bonnie Greer
I call them the last great silent movie actors, because most people will never meet them. Most people will never hear them. And so what the culture does is project a lot of its own stuff on the family. So the things that the culture is going through can be projected onto the family and worked through the family.
Aminatou Sow
Bonny's unique vantage point on the royal family is helpful. As a non-British person, I had always imagined Diana Spencer as a gal around town, living in London, sharing a flat with her three friends because she can't really afford a different kind of life. One of us, so to speak. But actually she had always been royal adjacent. Her father was an Earl. She was dubbed a Lady with a capital L at just 13.
Bonnie Greer
Well, I think what a lot of Americans don't realize is that Diana was a Spencer and they're a very old family. They're actually older than this present royal family, which came over from Germany. These people dispensers have been a part of England for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. And in fact, her father had some duties with the royal family. And Diana was born on the royal estate at Sandringham. The queen is her brother's godmother. So that's the links that this family have. And so for her to marry into it, probably on some level as far as the royal family was concerned, made an awful lot of sense.
Aminatou Sow
So if you think about it, Diana actually fits the mold of the kind of person Prince Charles could and should marry. And very soon after the wedding, she gets pregnant and all of a sudden she does not fit the mold of the typical expecting royal mother.
Bonnie Greer
There was a photo of her on the beach when she was pregnant and she was wearing a bikini and no one ever seen a woman's belly in a bikini before. And that was quite revolutionary for people. Then, of course, William's christening, we see him in her lap and she has her little fingers in his mouth and he's sucking on her finger, which is what babies do anyway. They suckle. But for her to do that in public in those days was amazing. And so we got to see her with this little boy, her baby, very early on. And she showed us him as a baby, Diana mothered in public. Now, you know, younger people may think, well, I mean. Yeah, what she would, when she- no, you never saw the queen mothering in public. In fact, there's a a little film of her coming back from some trip abroad and Charles, who looks all of six, walks up to her and shakes her hand. Now, I don't even know how you train a six year old to do that. But anyway, they trained him. And, you know, I mean, that's just incredible.
Aminatou Sow
It's so stilted, you know, no hugs, just handshaking between a queen and her young son. In contrast to this, Diana was so affectionate in public.
Bonnie Greer
But she mothered in public. She hugged those boys in public. She had them between her legs. You mean they would sit on a bottom step and she'd have her her knees around. Well, that's what a mother does. But the royal family doesn't do that in public. But she did it in public. You know, she would come off of something and the boys would run toward her and hug her and scream. Well, you think, well, that's what people do, isn't it? So Diana broke all those rules. And I think, thinking about it now, she made people care about her and people to relate to her, even though she's very far from most of our lives.
Aminatou Sow
It's striking that there are so many videos and photos of Diana and her boys. I think in particular of an image of her wearing her Hardrock bomber jacket and actual mom jeans, going down a waterslide at an amusement park and how much fun she and her boys seem to be having.
Aminatou Sow
And it reminds me of moments that I have had like that with my own mom. And it's also just very odd and interesting and deeply personal that we are able to see such intimate moments of someone else's family life.
Princess Diana
What's this?
Prince William
My jacket.
Princess Diana
Oh. Oh. Whoosh! Yay.
Aminatou Sow
Another very tender moment is this video of this four year old blond boy playing in the backyard. He runs past a small plastic playhouse and he's up on top of a swing set. His younger brother and his mom are nearby. She's close enough in case he falls, but she's not hovering. I've watched countless videos like this of Princess Diana with William and Harry, and it always seems to me that she is trying to give them a taste of normalcy. But she's also taking this moment to be herself, to be a kid with them, to love them in her own way.
Bonnie Greer
She didn't have to play that, but she played it. And she showed us that, you know, she loved these boys. She loved these little guys. And they were allowed to be little boys and they were allowed to be teenage boys and they were allowed to grow up in front of us. And that's her doing. I mean, certainly isn't Charles's, because that's not how he was brought up. And I guess in a way, you have to ask yourself "why?" You see that to me. And saying as a playwright, that to me would be the question that I would ask if I was writing a play about her. Why? Why was it necessary for her to show us all the things she showed us? What was she saying? And it is more than I'm expressing myself, there was something much deeper than that. And that growing up, an aristocrat, she would have known the rules, absolutely. So what was she saying?
Aminatou Sow
It is now clear in hindsight that Diana mothered without all of the support that she needed. And that took a toll on her mind and body. It was not apparent to the public at first, but later she was very transparent about her struggles.
Bonnie Greer
First of all, she did have these health problems. She was bulimic. And that's also a mental health problem. And she didn't have any help. And one of the reasons she didn't is because that's not what they did. You know, if you had a problem like that, you just dealt with it. And they all had problems, just like all of us humans do. But you didn't show it. You just keep calm and carry on. And Diana didn't do any of that. I mean, she talks about throwing herself down the stairs when she was carrying William. And you think, whoa. I mean, I don't even know what to say. I mean, somebody actually throws one of those down the stairs when they carrying a child.
Aminatou Sow
Bonnie is talking about a story from Andrew Morton's book "Diana: Her True Story" in the book. He quotes Diana saying, "When I was four months pregnant with William, I threw myself down stairs trying to get my husband's attention for him to listen to me."
Bonnie Greer
And that's how ill she was. And I'm sure a lot of women who did have that even pregnancy depression, must have been able to relate to what she said. And it was important that she said it because it allowed women to have some sort of agency to feel, "I'm not bizarre. I'm not strange. Diana, like felt this. And so I don't feel bizarre."
Aminatou Sow
Princess Diana's experience highlighted so many issues and emotions that new mothers used to hide out of shame and fear. But she didn't have the privilege of privacy. What ordinary British moms were dealing with, she was experiencing at a heightened level because of the media scrutiny surrounding her.
Bonnie Greer
You know, I'm glad you brought that up about the way women are treated in public, because I tweeted something the other day because of what's going on in Texas and I said, you know, colonialization, the template is woman's body. I mean, we are colonized and everything else, colonization itself emanates from the colonization of women's bodies. And in fact, countries that are not white are seen as feminine in that sense. So what we saw was a woman who had eating disorders, a woman who was pregnant, a woman who went to the gym every day to tone herself. A woman who started wearing the clothes that she wanted to wear. We saw a woman harassed who was going down the street and couldn't even walk down the street without somebody popping up, taking a picture and telling her, I have to have this shot, Diana, because paying for the mortgage. And in a strange way, this may sound very odd. I think a lot of women of color, especially black women, relate to Diana because she was treated like, I'm going to use a kinder word, outsider, she's just outside of all this. And she was she was- it was open season on her. She tried to play it, you know. Okay, I'll give you the pictures. I'll do this, and then maybe you leave me alone. But she just fed the beast, and the beast got her.
Aminatou Sow
In the end there. Bonnie was obviously talking about the paparazzi and how they hunted Diana, how they made money off of her, her body, her image. But you could almost say something similar was happening at home. The royal family needed her body in a different way: to birth an heir. She had one job to do. Becoming a mother truly was a duty for her. But it also ended up being one of the great joys of her life. More on that after the break.
Well, I'm not a royalist. I'm more of a Dianaist. Like, I stand hard for like the Diana fashion coming back from her strokes of what was seemingly goodness and her desire to respect all people. And I'm just old enough to remember her presence. And I just think a lot of the shade towards the royal family now is those clear, archaic, sexist ideals where it's just like, can we just make a change? Because it kind of felt like she had William and then was left to the wolves.
Aminatou Sow
This is Candice Brathwaite again. Candace is love of Diana is both her own, and it's inherited a common theme on this podcast. You'll see what I mean in this story of how Candice learned of Diana's death.
I was staying at my dad's house and I slept in the spare room, and I used to really struggle sleeping alone. And I had the TV on. I could only sleep with the TV on. And so I'm eight years old watching this news come in. Princess Diana has been hit by a car accident. I'm literally watching this cycle and then she dies. And then I run to my dad's room and I'm like, dad, dad's Princess Diana's dead. And he thought, oh, go back to sleep. You're dreaming. Then he wakes up in the morning, and I just remember my dad, like, solemnly, walking around the house in his dressing gown all day. This is way before social media. So he's running down to get the newspapers to, like, get their heads around what's happened. For some reason, because my dad was Jamaican, Jamaicans took this hit like Diana was their daughter. Every-
Aminatou Sow
I mean, she spiritually she was their daughter. This is true.
Every Jamaican household was bereft and in mourning.
Aminatou Sow
Candace connects the love of Diana and the black diaspora to moments when the world saw the princess emotionally and physically connecting with black children.
That moment of like her putting the young black girl, the amputee on her leg and like walking through the landmines, I remember that being a very topical moment, like, oh, my God. See, like, she doesn't shun us. She's willing to, you know, actually get down and dirty and really see what it's like living the lives that so many of the people I grew up with left. They left somewhere to come here and make, quote, unquote, a better life. I know. That's what struck a chord with black people I know, anyway.
Aminatou Sow
Yeah, I- It's so interesting hearing you say that, like, how there was an emotional connection, but we also have these moments of seeing her have an actual physical connection. With blackness in a way that, you know, I think even Queen Elizabeth has had, but did not resonate in the same way. You know, you've written and spoken at length about this kind of duty that's reflected in black motherhood. It's something that it absolutely needs to be done, and it's oppressive in a lot of ways as well. And I'm wondering if you can expand a little bit on that thought.
I grew up around black women who were mothers who clearly didn't want to be mothers and felt like they'd park their dreams in order to just live out this this duty, this inheritance, this idea that your woman is not complete until you have children, whether you want them or not. And then I'm going to these dinner parties in the late eighties, early nineties, where there's like mums and aunties in the kitchen just cussing their whole lives. They're like, Oh no, that's something you do. Even if you know you're going to become a mother and be a single mother who struggles or is unhappy, or you have to suffer a man who doesn't want to play his role in this child's life, in the black community, where I'm from, it's just a given that a woman is going to want to have children and it sucks.
Aminatou Sow
What is the connective tissue, I guess between that and the way that Diana is sympathetic to black women like. Do you think there's anything there?
Definitely. I really want to pick my words because I know how Black Twitter can be. But I'm like in, in her space, take all of those privileges away. Within her space, she's the minority. Within her space. She's the one with the voice that isn't valued. And I can totally see how she would connect with people who feel that in a global sense, in a way that perhaps other people wouldn't understand. I completely get that. It's okay. Yes. She's not black and she's certainly not poor and she's not marginalized just by the way we see the body she inhabits, but behind closed doors, she is the other to them.
Aminatou Sow
Diana had to embody the perfect princess in public, perfect wife, perfect mom, white motherhood on steroids. And Candice knows a lot about this. Her career is basically a response to white mothering being portrayed as the, quote unquote, default.
I was able to build a brand off the back of something we call in the U.K. Mummy Blogging, where there's just like this pool of mothers who talk about their experiences. And I came into the pool as the only black face at the time. And like all those mums dressed the same, they hung out with the same people. They were all baking cookies. It was just a little too much. And what their version of motherhood did, which is of course the loudest, because there are more white people than black people in the UK, is it really diluted the power of the black mother's voice or how important, especially when it comes to things like I'm obsessed with data and currently now when I know the data similar in the US, black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts. Now, when parenting and motherhood is really sold and promoted under this veil of whiteness, that does trickle down to even our health care systems and how we're treated when giving birth. And I remember, of course, screaming in pain, giving birth and being hushed, not in a maternal way, but in a very much like you're making too much noise to then watch nurses go rub the back of a white woman. So it's like in some ways they still do. Just the way we live is in the framework of white supremacy. We are all governed by that. So motherhood doesn't miss that.
Aminatou Sow
Motherhood is presented to women as the most important job in the world. Essential to the very function of society itself. And yet we do not treat new mothers like heroes or reward them for the toll this job takes on their bodies. The cost of motherhood is high, and maternal sacrifice can be very isolating. For Diana, she found it doubly isolating. Being an outsider in the royal family. We now know she set aside a separate inheritance for Harry so he would be taken care of. Those funds enabled him and Meghan to leave their royal duties last year.
So isolating. And I think again, it goes back to this, oh, if you're going to become a mum, you're willing to risk it all. I think she knew how deeply her life was over and that really came to light in that now historical interview with Meghan and Harry and Oprah, where Harry admitted or alluded to the fact that, you know, I'm now living off Mum's inheritance.
Aminatou Sow
I'm now able to sustain myself or make these choices to protect my wife, the mum I now know, the mum I now love in a way that she perhaps couldn't protect herself, and she deeply understood how spare Harry would be. You were able to have foresight on the kind of life your child would inherit and perhaps not even desire. And you really you made calculated decisions to ensure that your child doesn't end up in the same cage you, you would have loved to have escaped, but you knew it was you late that for me, like when he said that, that really blew me away. She definitely took big risks. And not just in the things that we now know, say, like stashing away money so Harry can live his best life, but also in the small things like breaking the protocol, allowing them to like explore the amusement park, asking security to fall back so they can enjoy their lives as children. If this is how it's going to go down, I might not be able to break this iron, but I sure can bend it. And I just think, in my opinion as a mum, in terms of parenting, that for me is a job well done.
Aminatou Sow
From your perspective, do you think that we've learned anything from Princess Diana in terms of how we treat mothers in the public eye?
Absolutely not. I just feel like the UK have yet to learn their lessons about how sacred motherhood is and how women perhaps just need a break at that moment. The media are so quick with their oh, she hasn't lost the weight fast enough. Like they just make these headlines so big and embarrassing and I'm like, and you guys are paid to stalk these women in their most vulnerable time.
Aminatou Sow
You know, considering the conversation that Meghan Markle had with Oprah about self-harm specifically. I just wonder if you think that there is a way in which motherhood can be a healthy part of the monarchy, the way that it's set up. Is that possible at all?
Gosh, that is a heavy question. It can if you're not too high up. I think Zara Phillips has become a mother now.
Aminatou Sow
Zara Phillips is the queen's granddaughter.
And I feel like no one speaks about her motherhood or prized because she's just too far down the line, they're like, Oh, we really don't care about you.
Aminatou Sow
I refer to her as one of the equestrian cousins. It's like there is there is many of them, the horse cousins.
I like and I just don't see them being looked into that way. So I think you do get to have a more private, pristine version of motherhood. If you're not high up, if you are high up, it's just it's over for you. I just don't ever see that changing. It's the combination of having to toe the line and the- the fantasy that many of the British public have around this family. They just want to know more. It's never enough.
Aminatou Sow
We talked about white supremacy and its effects on black mothers. We talked about the, the fact that, like Diana is revered in black British communities, but also in black communities, I would say around the diaspora, you know. But the reality also is that, like, she's a privileged white woman and we're able to suspend that belief, though, when we think about her, I always joke that there is a tiny cohort of white women that black mothers will stand for no matter what. And she's part of that. But I do wonder how we still engage with that reality. Right. A huge part of the story about her is that she's an outsider to this family. And you're like, no, no. She also comes from land owners. That's how come she's allowed to marry the main landowners son. But I wonder if you think about that also as a woman who is black, who likes her, and if you like, think about it a little too long and you're like, she's part of the problem, too.
You know what? I just assess that it's going to be difficult because the reality is I have great white female friends who I trust and love and I'm like, If I can hold love and empathy for you, even knowing that your dad's dad's dad's dad did a madness, this woman whom I've never met- Again, I understand. I know this institution is trash and built off the backs of people like me being stolen from. But I also know that you did not ask for this position. So I am able to go as a woman separate to the job you have to do in the family you've been born into, mad respect. But I can also look over there and be like, Wow, wow. We are really building nations on the back of black and brown people who still don't have the stuff you stole from us. And so I feel like I'm still able to do that with Diana. You know, you didn't ask to be Diana Spencer. So all I can judge you on are the slices of humanity that I've seen from you that I think are genuine. I think that irrespective of you being Diana Spencer, the daughter of a land owner, I think that if you saw a starving black baby in need, you would scoop it up and get the job done. And that allows me to to separate the two.
Aminatou Sow
I appreciate the degree of compassion and nuance that you have for people who do not have that degree of compassion and nuance for us. And I you know, I'm like, it's all I want too. This was perfect. Thank you so much.
Aminatou Sow
I came into doing this episode with my own understanding of motherhood, and I felt that so many of the tropes that were foisted on Diana were obviously so archaic. I still don't quite understand why right after having a baby, she was paraded in front of the world. I remain uneasy about how motherhood as a status is so sanctified. But Candice and Bonnie complicated those feelings for me because Diana was someone who retained her personhood through being a mom, and she did this inside of a centuries old institution, an institution that did not really need her personhood but definitely needed her body. It's not lost on me that two black women connect the dots from British colonialism to this attempt to colonize a woman's body, to do a job for a nation. And yet, through this act of mothering, we saw Diana be her most playful, most unrestrained, most unshackled self. This connection to her sons is so clearly expressed in a speech Harry gave in 2007 on the 10th anniversary of his mother's death.
Prince Harry
She never once allowed her unfaltering love for us to go unspoken or undemonstrated. But behind the media glare, she was quite simply the best mother in the world.
Aminatou Sow
She didn't seem like she was a cog in the system when she was with her two sons. She was a person. She was their person. Diana had a tumultuous childhood and a complicated relationship with her family, so it's easy to understand why the public latched on so hard to these happy images of her and the boys. People could project their own family issues onto her and remain hopeful that time would heal wounds for them as well. And when we observe her as a mom, we saw a human who loved and was loved. We also observe her in moments where she is showing compassion for people who are not her flesh and blood. Mothering those people, the people who the monarchy and people in power have ignored and devalued for generations. She was seen as a mother and also an ally.
Aminatou Sow
Next time on When Diana Met, we will discuss her philanthropy around landmines, around AIDS and so much more.
Eric Marcus
Lady Di's impact on the AIDS crisis was to open a door that it was okay to hug someone who had AIDS. It was okay to hold their hand. You didn't have to abandon somebody. She had an enormous impact on changing minds and hearts.
Aminatou Sow
We dealt with some hard topics in this episode. If you or anyone you know is struggling with depression or thoughts of harming themselves, we have a link to resources in our show notes.
Aminatou Sow
When Diana Met is produced by CNN Audio and Pineapple Street Studios. It's hosted by me, Aminatou Sow.
Aminatou Sow
Our producers are Amry Knauf, Tamika Adams and Erin Kelley. Our associate producer is Marialexa Kavanagh and our editor is Darby Maloney, mixing original music by Hannis Brown. Our fact checker is Francis Carr.
Aminatou Sow
Additional support for the series comes from Ashley Lusk, Kira Boden-Gologorsky, Alexander McCall, Lisa Namerow, Robert Mathers and Molly Harrington.
Aminatou Sow
Executive producers for Pineapple Street Studios are Bari Finkel, Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. Megan Marcus is the executive producer for CNN Audio.