Remember when it seemed Kate Middleton was destined for more of a background player role—overshadowed by Meghan Markle's natural charisma, enviable wardrobe and impossibly bouncy blowout?
Yeah, she doesn't either.
But in the immediate aftermath of their November 2017 engagement announcement, it sure felt as though the former actress, 38, and Prince Harry, 35, were destined to be the stars of the ongoing show that is the royal family. Eagerly stepping into their future as ambassadors for Queen Elizabeth II, they attended some 20-plus events in four months, Meghan charming the pants off nearly everyone (save for those who would never be happy to see an American woman of color on Harry's arm), with her friendly handshakes and endearing, if entirely unnecessary, introductions.
Kate, meanwhile, pregnant with now-22-month-old Prince Louis, was slowly cutting back on commitments in anticipation of a six-month maternity leave, her longest yet.
What a difference a few years, two babies and an avalanche of nasty press can make. Because as Meghan settles into her new, quieter life on Vancouver Island, Kate is stepping out in a big way, adding revealing interviews to an already full public schedule.
A rare glimpse into her personal life (in contrast, the last time she delved quite this deep was during her 2010 post-engagement interview with Prince William), a source says Kate's decision to open up about mom guilt, her labor experience and why she's happiest when she and her kids are "all filthy dirty" on the Happy Mum, Happy Baby podcast last month was part of her efforts to help other new parents.
"She is exposing herself," a palace source told People. "This is not a vanity exercise. This is her talking about her work and what she has learned as a mother because of her work."
It's a shift that likely would have happened regardless of Meghan and Harry's decisions—Kate is staring down her future as a queen, after all. But the timing is certainly fortuitous for the Queen, who is delighted to watch the 38-year-old former accessories buyer turn into the future monarch she wasn't always certain she could be.
"The Queen is a fan," a source told Vanity Fair of the Duchess of Cambridge, currently wrapping up a three-day trip to Ireland with William, 37. "Kate is unflappable. Her mantra is very like the Queen's keep calm and carry on approach in life, and she has the added benefit of making the Royal Family seem almost normal and in touch."
And to think there was some trepidation about her taking the gig.
Because long before royal watchers were speculating about the Queen's frosty relationship with Meghan, courtiers were gossiping on just how much she disapproved of her other grandson's bride.
The chatter, royal reporter Phil Dampier told UK paper The Express, was that the Queen felt William's then-girlfriend wasn't accomplishing enough following their 2005 graduation from the University of St. Andrews. "There was a phase where she appeared to be doing very little really," Dampier told the newspaper, adding, "The Queen once remarked Kate doesn't do very much."
Really, it was William that was reticent to have her dive into the family business before they had properly sorted their future, so Kate quietly involved herself in some charity work and took a job with British fashion retailer Jigsaw. Able to study The Firm from the outside as William's girlfriend, she had what amounted to an eight-year internship in royal life. Yet, nonetheless, she still felt anxious when it was time to make the transition to full-time.
"It's obviously nerve-wracking, because I don't know what I'm sort of...I don't know the ropes," she admitted in their 2010 engagement interview with ITV News' Tom Bradby. "William is obviously used to it, but no I'm willing to learn quickly and work hard."
And while she'd likely still cop to being a slow mover at walkabouts—"Everyone teases me in the family that I spend far too long chatting," she said in a 2016 interview—she's proven to be an unbelievably quick study.
"She's taken on just a few patronages, things where she's really made a difference," Vanity Fair's royal correspondent Katie Nicholl noted to the mag in late 2018. "Early intervention with young children in primary schools, putting mental health on the map with Heads Together, was her idea. She's been very instrumental."
Agreed ABC News royal commentator Omid Scobie, "She found her role as a working member of the royal family through bringing up her own children and realizing what's important to her."
Her latest project has been nearly a decade in the making, Kate taking all of the research she's uncovered through meetings with childhood development experts, practitioners and service providers and her own hands-on experience with Prince George, 6, Princess Charlotte, 4, and little Louis and translating it into her groundbreaking "5 Big Questions on the Under Fives" survey.
Meant to guide her efforts to help kids, their parents and caregivers, she's determined to notch as many responses as possible, which means getting the word out by any means necessary.
Even if that means discussing the sorts of details some royals (ahem) prefer to keep private.
Throughout her chat with Happy Mum, Happy Baby host Giovanna Fletcher, herself a mom of three, the duchess was candid about her hypnobirthing experience ("I'm not going to say that William was standing there sort of, chanting sweet nothings at me. He definitely wasn't!"), having to step outside the Lindo Wing of St. Mary's Hospital mere hours after having George in 2013 ("Slightly terrifying, I'm not going to lie,") and the type of environment she strives to provide for her three tiny heirs.
"Someone did ask me the other day, what would you want your children to remember about their childhood?" she shared. "And I thought that was a really good question, because actually if you really think about that, is it that I'm sitting down trying to do their maths and spelling homework over the weekend? Or is it the fact that we've gone out and lit a bonfire and sat around trying to cook sausages that hasn't worked because it's too wet? That's what I want them to remember."
But as much as she's striving to create this idyllic version of childhood, she was realistic about the struggles. Because it turns out even duchesses aren't immune from the dreaded mom guilt.
"Yes, absolutely—and anyone who doesn't as a mother is actually lying!" she said when asked if she's experienced that familiar pang. "Yep—all the time. You know, even this morning, coming to the nursery visit here, George and Charlotte were like, 'Mummy, how could you possibly not be dropping us off at school this morning?'"
A stunned Fletcher told People, "I had never heard her speak so openly in this way before." But it's all part of Kate's mission to help other parents, a role she's deftly carved out for herself in the near decade she's spent as part of the monarchy.
"She has become credible in the early years space," the palace source told People.
And now confident that she's put in the work—the director of strategy at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children spoke to the mag about how Kate would settle in for the whole of their hours-long meetings—she feels comfortable in offering her take.
"She is now more open with what she wants to say," a family friend told People of Kate, whose February chat marked just her second major interview as a duchess, "and, funnily enough, she is more relaxed as well."
It's a shift that hasn't gone unnoticed with royal courtiers remarking how ready she is to serve as William's queen consort. "She is an adoring mother, and she is contributing publicly in the way we would want her to," a royal household source told People. "You see it more and more. The young student has turned into our future Queen."