If you’re wondering where London-based Dipal Acharya’s work ethic comes from – she holds the highly coveted position of arts and entertainment director of ES magazine - you only need to look to her parents. “The most poignant memory I have is of my mother and father working three full-time jobs between them, while trying to raise two young children. Only now that I’m a parent do I fully recognise and appreciate the enormous influence that this type of upbringing had on shaping me as a person and my work ethic,” reflects the new mother to eight-month-old Mila...
Acharya is smart, insightful and engaging. Motherhood, she’s happy to admit, is something she learns more about each day. She’s open about her journey. The unspoken motherhood penalty we are all given after we have kids. The heartbreak of miscarriage (she had one at 10 weeks). The decisions women face around when to return to work, and more to the point, why we shouldn’t feel guilty about saying that we want to return to the workforce. “One of the most intrusive and punishing questions we can ask a woman who is about to or has just had a baby is, ‘are you going back to work?’ For some, there isn’t a choice for financial reasons,” she says. She’s frank about what social media can do to do a mother’s mind: “I was acutely aware, soon after going on maternity leave, how engaging with social media too much could have a detrimental effect on my mental health and wellbeing. It became the default way to spend my time during feeds especially,” she says.
We visited Acharya at home in London where we chatted about all of the above and so much more.
Photography: Helene Sandberg | Find out more about Archarya at dipalacharya.com
Tell us about your childhood – what are some vivid memories of growing up?
One thing that was a constant throughout my childhood was family. My parents were both born in east Africa and my father was brought up there in a large family of six siblings. When they were forced to leave in the seventies and move to the UK, having the entire family around them was hugely important. The result was that I grew up with this emotional scaffolding of aunties, uncles and grandparents (all living in three houses on the same road in North London). The most poignant memory I have is of my mother and father working three full-time jobs between them, while trying to raise two young children. Only now that I’m a parent do I fully recognise and appreciate the enormous influence that this type of upbringing had on shaping me as a person and my work ethic.
You’re a first generation British Indian woman working in journalism and, in your own, words, “there aren't that many of us”. Why is this the case?
I think there is a systemic problem in print journalism with diversity. Some publications and media companies are taking admirable steps towards diversity hires and bridging the ethnicity pay gap, but this still doesn’t go far enough. I know some people baulk at the idea of positive discrimination, but it still unnerves me when I look around a newsroom or at the masthead of a publication and there is a painfully obvious lack of diversity.
If you want to be truly reflective of the world we live in, start with your own team hires and taking an honest look at whether unconscious bias has played a part in appointments, job titles (how rare is it that you see a person of colour at a director level or above) and earning potential. All of these things play into a young journalist’s mind. If they don’t see people like themselves in jobs they aspire to, chances are they aren’t going to feel confident pursuing that path. And we’re doing the industry a disservice by shrinking that talent pool.
What does your role at ES Magazine entail?
As the arts and entertainment director, I’m responsible for commissioning cultural content for the magazine – from the cover story each week to trend-led features inside. This can be anything from profiles of rising talents in the art or literary world to your next cult TV show. I’ve also edited the ESCAPE pages of the magazine for over four years and have been using my passion for travel to work on @somewherefortheweekend, flagging inspiring destinations, hotels and experiences on Instagram, while I have been on maternity leave.
What makes a great cover?
Something that can provoke an emotional response from a reader. Our perception of what makes a celebrity has pivoted in the past ten years and it’s harder to vie for readers’ attention (especially today with digital content sometimes cannibalising print). I think that one of the more thrilling challenges as a content director is to keep finding ways to innovate and probe how far you can take concept covers. I’m proud to have worked on so many of ES’s art covers, for example, reinforcing our commitment to using the cover space as a way to create and offer collectible art.
What do you love most about being a journalist?
That it is essentially storytelling. I think one of the most exciting things about working on a weekly magazine is that you can be reactive to current affairs and capture changes in the zeitgeist each week. I also love the occupational venn diagram that comes with the job, in that it gives me the opportunity to work with talented art directors, stylists, photographers and creatives to really make a feature or cover story sing.
Talk us through the decision to have a baby – did you always want to be a mother?
I always wanted to have a family, but throughout my twenties, I became more aware of the challenges it would come with (the possibility of infertility because of our lifestyle and the motherhood penalty once I’d had a baby).
You’re open about having a miscarriage – what was this experience like? How would you describe it? And what helped you get through this time?
We had a missed miscarriage at 10 weeks, shortly after getting married. I think couples are constantly bombarded with the statistics – one in four pregnancies result in miscarriage and it is far more common than we know – and platitudes such as ‘well at least you know you can get pregnant’. The truth, though, was that I felt like I had failed and still had to keep a brave face on for people who didn’t know. Talking about miscarriage still feels like a huge taboo but if it really is as common as the statistics indicate, I know I would have felt much stronger knowing about other people’s experiences. If being open about my own experience normalises it for others, then I think that’s something of value.
How did it feel when you fell pregnant with Mila?
A relief and frightening at the same time.
You’ve said you don't feel guilty about saying that you do want to go back to work – why do you think many of us feel guilty admitting this?
One of the most intrusive and punishing questions we can ask a woman who is about to or has just had a baby is ‘are you going back to work?’ For some, there isn’t a choice for financial reasons. But if you take that out of the equation, I think there is also a lot of hidden judgement about choosing to go back to work, when you go back and your working arrangements (flexible hours, decreasing your number of days in the office, etc.). Of course, I also fully acknowledge the other side of this point – that mothers should have the right to choose not to go back to work or feel reluctant about returning. It’s a personal choice. For my own part, I know that I’ve spent the better part of the last ten years trying to get into a position in the industry where my work is being recognised and establishing myself in a job I absolutely love. Becoming a mother doesn’t change that but it has motivated me to work smarter in an environment that supports being a professional as well as a parent. I have also made peace with the recognition that although I continue to need the mental stimulation and enjoyment that comes from my job, my capacity as a mother should in no way be seen to be diminished by having such aspirations.
What’s been the most surprising part of motherhood for you?
I knew I was a passionate, ambitious journalist before I became pregnant. Rather than lessen that drive, however, Mila’s arrival has heightened it even further because I want to set a great example for her and create a home for her in which she feels safe and supported. I feel empowered for the first time in years to be the peak version of myself without having to apologise.
And what has been the hardest?
No longer being able to be as spontaneous as I once was. I absolutely loved going to the theatre or out for impromptu suppers with friends (spotting them out together, without me, on Instagram still sometimes feels like a kick in the stomach). I know it will come back in time and the alternative – being at home with Mila – is actually way better.
As a new mother, have you felt supported?
I’ve felt very lucky to have had a strong network of women around me. I knew how important my sister, mother and friends would be but I’ve also found an incredible group of local mothers who have really become an important part of maternity leave and Mila’s life, something which the old me would have scoffed at.
Have there been any moments you’ve felt isolated?
Of course, especially in the early days where my hormones were causing havoc and I couldn’t think straight (I didn’t know that the hormone surges you have when you stop breastfeeding can be as intense, if not more, than when your milk comes in). But the key was to get out of my head and feel confident enough to say to someone I trusted – normally my husband – that I was having a tough day, rather than trying to cope with it alone.
What are some tips you have for new mothers?
- What works for one baby might not work for the next. Be open to trying new things but just because someone’s little one slept through from 8 weeks using white noise and swaddling doesn’t mean that it will work for your baby and that’s okay.
- Ask for help when you need it. Things were reaching a pretty chronic point with sleep when my partner went back to work and I tried to keep everything spinning. It affected those early weeks with Mila which I regret but as soon as I identified the area in which I needed support, I did my research and found it.
- Get out of the house when you can. This was a big one for us – sometimes you need a sofa day when you stay in your pyjamas, feed the baby and indulge in a box set. But in general we tried to get out of the house at least once a day and tried to do something that pushed me out of my comfort zone a little. For me that could be trying to navigate the overground with a buggy or getting through that exercise class with my baby for the first time.
- Don’t ask any other new mother if their baby is sleeping through the night yet. Every baby gets to this stage in their own time and if they aren’t there, it will only make the sleep-deprived parent more anxious or resentful.
Has your sense of style changed at all – what brands/items are you gravitating towards?
My body shape has changed dramatically but most of my favourite brands have always been able to accommodate all body shapes and sizes. Topshop mom jeans are an everyday staple but I’ve also invested in some high quality white tees and cashmere jumpers (usually from Joseph) to make me feel presentable. Summer wedding season was another challenge but Ganni, Sacai and Sleeper always had lovely pieces which worked.
What’s your approach to social media – for many new mothers, it can make them feel depressed as they’re often at home with a baby. How does social media make you feel and how much time do you spend on it?
I was acutely aware, soon after going on maternity leave, how engaging with social media too much could be detrimental to my mental health and wellbeing. It became the default way to spend my time, during feeds especially. So I’ve muted all accounts that don’t enhance my day and try to spend only half an hour on it per day. We also keep the radio on constantly in the background at home (Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 is a daily fixture) and podcasts have been a godsend (currently catching up on all the episodes from The Sunday Salon by Alice-Azania Jarvis, which champions female authors both new and established).
Words to wisdom you live by?
Just get on with it. I feel like sometimes we can get so into our own heads when on maternity leave that it can damage your confidence and hold back your self-development. Since I’ve become a parent, I’m no longer going to accept that. I feel like it has given me a drive to achieve things that previously I was told were beyond my scope or reach. That’s the example I want to set for my daughter.
3 places in London you love going with Mila?
Bel and Nev’s, a local café that does an outstanding banana bread loaf. Scarlet and Violet, our favourite florists for a blousy bunch to brighten up our flat. Lutyens and Rubenstein, for when I want to pick up a lovely book to read to Mila at bedtime.