Becoming a father is a life-changing moment for anyone but for Matt Coyne it has been a uniquely transformative experience. The Sheffielder was a struggling freelance graphic designer when his son Charlie was born in 2015 - now he is a best-selling comic author with a worldwide online following and a regular guest on television and radio shows; all thanks to a heartfelt Facebook post he made when Charlie was three months old.
Coyne’s hilarious, sweary and self-effacing post ran through all the unexpected things he had learnt from his first few months of parenthood - from the “conspiracy of silence about how horrendous labour is... like being in ‘Nam” to his newfound belief that all babies “look like Ross Kemp”.
Meeting The Yorkshire Post in the cafe of The Hepworth gallery in Wakefield accompanied by a now three-year-old (and very well-behaved) Charlie, Coyne explains how his 1,000-word message that was intended as an amusing update for family and friends to let them know how they were getting on ended up being seen by 15 million people after being shared by the likes of Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher. It also led directly to a book deal and him setting up the Man Vs Baby Facebook page, which now has almost 236,000 followers.
“It was the longest thing I had written in about 20 years at that point,” he says of his original post. “After about 24 hours, there was about 20 likes on it. I thought I’ve nailed that because no one ever listens to a word I say, so 20 likes is quite a big deal. But I started getting messages from people I didn’t know to say can you make this post public so I can share it more widely? I did and by the end of the week, it had got about 30,000 likes on it. It got bigger and bigger and bigger. By the last count it had been seen by 15 million people.
“It was in the moment. I was writing about it as it was happening so people could easily think back to when they had kids and think, ‘I can remember that’, or people who were about to have kids could think ‘Oh my God, is that what it is like?’
“People say it was brutally honest but I think of it more as a love letter. It was about how much life changes and how phenomenally happy I was that Charlie was in our lives even though all this stuff was incredibly difficult and much harder than I thought it would be. It just seemed to resonate.”
Coyne was soon inundated with requests to appear on television shows across the world. “It was a very, very weird week. Charlie was only three months old at the time, I was already absolutely dead on my feet and I’m trying to cope with the weirdness of being a dad. So to throw the weirdness of being on Australian TV at three in the morning, it felt like I was drunk all the time.”
The 43-year-old, who now lives on the outskirts of Barnsley, appeared on ITV show This Morning and says that after that, “things sort of snowballed” as literary agents got in touch to see whether he would write a book.
After choosing one and finding a publisher, Coyne says his agent advised him to set up an official Facebook page - which he ended up calling Man vs Baby.
“He said ‘if the longest things you’ve written in 20 years is a Facebook post and you’ve now got to write 80,000 words, you might want to practice’,” Coyne explains. “Doing that made it a bit less daunting.
“I thought the Facebook page would be huge on Day One. It wasn’t. It was like starting from scratch. I just assumed everyone who had liked the first post would all turn up. But the first post had something like 15 likes.
“I had really crashed back down to earth. But then I wrote another post about taking Charlie on holiday when he was about six months old and that one blew up again. That is what really kicked off Man vs Baby and since then it has just grown and grown.”
Securing the book deal also allowed Coyne to give up graphic design and balance writing in the evenings with being a stay-at-home dad during the day when his partner Lyns went back to her job as an academic director at an adult education college.
He says his new existence in the past three years has been completely different to life before Charlie.
“It is really difficult to disentangle whether my life has changed that much now because I’m a dad or because of the career that has come about from it. What I was doing before was a freelance graphic designer but I wasn’t very good at it. The business was struggling and at the point at which I was thinking whether to continue with this or go off and get a job doing something else or go back to doing some of the terrible jobs I have done in the past, like packing toilet rolls or being a security guard at a dog track.”
His first book, Dummy, was published in 2017 and became a best-seller. He has now just finished a follow-up - Man Vs. Toddler - about how parenting gets even more challenging and chaotic once walking, talking and potty-training arrive.
“I honestly can’t remember writing Dummy. It was just such a fog, it is like someone else wrote the book. Basically, what I did was wrote at night, did that for six to seven months. I really felt pretty exhausted. We could do that because I had Charlie in the day. That nearly killed me writing that book, not that this one has been any easier.”
He says one of the most terrifying experiences in the process was recording the audiobook versions himself, given it is a rarity to hear them done by someone with a regional accent. “When I walked out the studio, I thought it was awful when I listened back and heard my Yorkshire tones. But people have absolutely loved it. I thought Americans wouldn’t understand what I was saying but because of Game of Thrones they do - they all say I sound like Jon Snow.”
He says his family have been hugely supportive of his unexpected change in career and sudden public profile. “Lyns is absolutely baffled by it. I like to think I’m quite funny but my shtick gets a bit old after 20 years! But she was very, very encouraging. I have always had ambitions to write, ambitions I had never really pursued. When the opportunity came along, she was like you have got to grab it, you are miserable doing what you are doing.
“My mum is absolutely made up, I think she is the only reason it was a bestseller. She is always texting me to say ‘I’ve bought another one’ for some mate of hers who I don’t know if they are interested.
“One of the great things about Man vs Baby is it is a record for us. But it is not as straight-forward about putting your life out there on social media, you have to have a certain amount of caution about that.
“It can’t be just about me and Charlie, it has to be about all babies and all children.
“Charlie knows he is on the cover of the book. But he is only three so he is more aware of dinosaurs, crayoning on the walls and trashing the house, things like that.”
He says being a stay-at-home dad has also brought him new perspectives on the challenges parents - and particularly mothers - face.
“It is way, way harder than I imagined it would be. One thing that infuriates me is when people talk about stay-at-home mums as those it is not a real job. I don’t care what job you do, if you want to swap for a day we will see who is tearing their hair out. In those first two or three months, I was still going into work and going in was a break. I used to go in early and pull into a Morrison’s car park and have a nap before work. I did it so often a security guard brought me a cup of coffee and a sausage sandwich out because he thought I was living in my car.
“Something needs to change, there are massive advantages to being a dad who is 50/50, who is involved as much as they can be, to get rid of that old idea of dads just being the guy who is in the antenatal classes holding a coat. Things have moved on quite a lot but we are way off where we need to be so mums feel it is ok to go back to work, to get out and have a night out. As a stay at home dad I don’t receive any of those judgements but I see them and notice them wherever I go. You can’t not. If I can do anything about that, I feel I should.”
But despite his social conscience, Coyne says he has a simple aim with his books and Facebook posts - to make people smile.
“First and foremost, I hope they just cheer people up really. If I can get something that bangs the drum a little bit for dads and mums, that’s great. But to be honest they need to be funny, that’s kind of the gateway to people reading them in the first place.
“I never feel any pressure from it, I probably would have done if I was younger, now I’m just not bothered. If it stops tomorrow, I will go and do something else. With social media, you have to be a bit pragmatic and realise it could disappear tomorrow just as quickly as it came. You are always a change on Facebook’s algorithm from having no followers. You have to treat it as what it is.
“I do think that is really important to be able to cheer people up when they are having a bad day and that is the main feedback I get. There is a real snobbery about comedic books but giving someone a five minute laugh on a bad day where they are tearing their hair out can’t be undervalued. That is a big, big thing and I’m really proud when it happens. Whether it is someone dealing with post-natal depression or a miscarriage, if I can cheer them up in a small way, that is the most important thing.
“If I can make people think twice about things like breastfeeding or stay at home dads and mums, then that is a real bonus.”
He says he hopes the Man vs Baby Facebook community, which has followers from as far afield as Kazakhstan and Korea, shows the positive side of social media in an increasingly-angry age.
“If future generations go through our social media to see what life was like, they’ll see Brexit and people tearing each other apart and those people who you went to school with sharing Britain First posts. They’ll think what a bunch. But if they see Man vs Baby, they will see people at their best.
“It is at its best when it is a conversation and I love it when I post something and everybody talks to each other and shares their own funny stories. There is no better feeling than to set off those conversations.
“Parenting is a shared experience globally, it is a brilliant leveller. Babies and toddlers seem to be pretty much the same the world over. The idea of this global community is just a brilliant thing and I never expected it.”
New book ‘will be the last’
Man vs. Toddler will be Coyne’s last book about Charlie but he intends to continue the Facebook page and is working on a television script based on his two books.
“It will be the last book just because we have a reached a point where it his story rather than ours.
“I will continue with Man vs Baby, I will always call it Man vs Baby because he will always be our baby but I don’t think I will write another. Never say never, people keep telling me wait until he is a teenager, they’ll be about four books in it! If we ever do reach that point, it will be a joint venture where he will write one page, I will write one page, more like a conversation.”
Man Vs. Toddler is out today published by Wildlife. It is available as a hardback (RRP £16.99), ebook and audiobook.