The Tale of Pandora Sykes - The Grace Tales

The Tale of Pandora Sykes

When the inimitable Pandora Sykes had her daughter Zadie, her world changed, but not in ways she expected. While the common narrative around new motherhood is one of trials and tribulations, Pandora was happily ensconced in a bubble of love, and while she doesn’t recommend everyone follow her 5 week maternity leave example, she acknowledges that she was able to return to work for a myriad of reasons that worked for her and her family...

How did and does she do it? A question that often gets thrown around to mothers who seemingly “have and do it all”, quite simply, Pandora doesn’t. While her colourful and varied CV boasts writing, podcasting, styling, presenting and more, her reality is one of strict priorities. In order to capture the zeitgeist she so expertly discusses on The High Low with co-host Dolly Alderton, she chooses reading – books, websites, interviews – over social engagements, exercise and social media scrolling, and acknowledges that her voracious appetite for content can disarm many people, particularly mothers. “Someone reading a lot can make other people feel bad – which is never my intention – and what I always remind is, I sacrifice other ares: I don’t go to the gym, and I only properly cook once a week. So I save over an hour a day, from that! It’s also important to remember that reading is fundamental to my work: I often interview authors, we talk about books a ton on the podcast, and my writing – whether non-fiction or journalism – is imbued with the writing of others. So I make time for it because it feeds into my work as much as it does my own brain.”

There’s a reason Pandora has captured the hearts and Instagram scrolls of seemingly everyone you know, and that is because she’s a journalist first and foremost who happens to also have an infectious love of style – a reluctant influencer, if you will. While she’s updating you on the latest current affairs, she’s also reminding you that Mango does a great snakeskin print this season, and it’s this fusion of substance and style that makes her the ultimate go-to when it comes to both inspiration and knowledge. 

This interview originally ran in GRACE magazine, where we were thrilled to showcase Pandora at home in London with baby Zadie where we caught up on all things motherhood, media and style. 

Photography by Julie Adams.

As clichéd as it may be, many women experience a dramatic shift in the way they view the world after becoming a mother (or even after falling pregnant). How has motherhood changed – or how is motherhood continuing to change – the way you approach life?

It is a cliche – but cliches are cliches, for a reason! I didn’t realise how much motherhood would change not just my life, but my own self, at a completely fundamental level – that was less of a resistance, although there was an element of that, and more total ignorance. It colours absolutely everything – from logistics to love.

You have spoken about the fact that being Zadie’s mother was a role that felt quite natural to you. Why do you think we have a level of shame in our culture around saying that we enjoy motherhood, or that it comes easily to us? Do you think there may be nobility or martyrdom in struggle?

I hadn’t actually thought about it like that before, but yes – you’re right. Everyone kept saying to be “don’t worry, it gets better” and I thought, “I’ve literally never complained about her.” The accepted narrative around new motherhood is that it’s a total nightmare and you just have to “get through it”. But – and this is not true of other areas in my life at that time – Zadie was never my nightmare. What was my nightmare, in truth, was the fact that societally we pretend to to be sensitive to new motherhood but don’t actually follow that through behaviourally, in the way that we accommodate them or, just as importantly, accommodate fathers in the workplace. The lack of accommodations made for fathers, directly impacts the mother – who has to pick up the shortfall.

Talk to us about the issue in celebrating when women “get their body back” after birth, particularly your own experience of this.

I think the ‘baby weight’ rhetoric is a damaging one. I was reading a parenting book not long ago and it said, near the 6 month post-partum mark, “you’re probably on track to getting your old body back, and being a yummy mummy by now!” Like, WTF? It’s 2019! I definitely realised how much you are yourself, like a book, judged by its cover, post-Zadie. I had terrible insomnia and anxiety so I lost my baby weight pretty early on, as I lost my appetite. People would say, “so you’re doing great” which is quite an odd thing to say to someone, on the basis that they look the same as you remember them looking, or because you have, let’s be honest, a really smiley baby. I think you just have to ask how someone is. Just ask. Don’t presume how they are, via their love handles, or butt-size. One of my best friends, who is definitely an everyday hero of mine, chastised how brother in law when he congratulated her on her flat tummy, post-baby. “There’s a woman at work that still looks pregnant” he said, by way of comparison. “Don’t congratulate me on having a flat tummy” she said. “Congratulate me on growing and ejecting an entire baby. Congratulate your colleague for doing that, and returning to work.”

On the How to Fail podcast, you spoke about the insomnia you recently experienced and the emotions that accompanied a challenging time, despite everything outwardly being (or appearing to be) “really very good”. This is something we struggle with so much – particularly as mothers. That it feels almost unfair to whinge or complain, when we know how lucky we are. What has helped you get through this time and these conflicting feelings?

That podcast was the first time I had talked about a lot of things that I didn’t think I was interested in sharing – and actually, it felt quite cathartic. I think I feel particularly piquantly that I have to be careful how I express struggles about motherhood, because I have seen first hand how hard it has been for my sister, who had her fertility taken away from her by chemotherapy for breast cancer, to navigate the idea that she will not get to be a mother. I’m also personally not one for doing a big moan on social media. I don’t care if it’s more ‘real’ – to me, it makes no sense to go rant to a load of people I don’t know, versus picking up the phone to a best friend who knows me. Those people aren’t invested in the real ‘you’. I am not saying they don’t care, and don’t support you just by following you – which they do – but it would always be an anathema to me, to ask the internet, for help. I do not trust the internet. And I just don’t think people need to see that from me, when they log on in the morning. They have their own shit to deal with.

Late last year you wrote a brilliant ode to your nanny, Mimi, on Instagram, and described how having reliable childcare enables you to work 4 days a week on your varied freelance projects, podcast and writing. A lot of women have guilt around childcare, despite our need to return to work for both our financial stability and our sanity (not to mention career ambitions and interests). Did you face any of these feelings of guilt, and what would you say to any other women in similar situations?

It was definitely a navigation – I had no idea how much childcare would cost – but I came to terms with it, because I am the primary earner and also, having my busiest year yet. The year I became a mother was also probably my most fruitful, professionally. I did not, and have not, worked one iota less since having Zadie. What has changed, is that I say yes to barely any work events and I am very careful about social obligations. That said, I am tremendously lucky that working hard means that I can afford a nanny, rather than having to take her to daycare, as it affords me extra hours in the day to work.

You have publicly spoken about taking a short maternity leave and how you felt in those early days and weeks following birth. What are your views on parental leave and how our governments or employers should be supporting new parents?

I think it’s tremendously hard to operate via a “one size fits all.” I went back to work at 5 weeks, which I wouldn’t recommend. But then I think a year can be an awfully long time to take out of the workplace, for some women, and they really struggle to re-adjust. What’s the optimum? I have no idea. It depends how your baby sleeps; and how long you want to breast-feed for, as that’s the real tie. What I wish, is that we would stop seeing it as the mother who has a baby. Two parents make a baby. Which means that you should allow men flexibility too, so that women aren’t always the ones making the compromise.

What is your relationship like with your phone on days when you don’t have to be online or on social media for work. Do you put any digital detoxes in place or monitor your screen time each week?

I turn my phone off all the time. I had to get a landline installed for this very reason! So my family can still contact me. It’s Monday today and I had my phone off from Friday afternoon until Sunday lunchtime. I love an airplane! It helps me focus and is good for my anxiety. I typically only check Instagram once a day, or every other day, which also helps.

You’ve been asked this a lot, but as a voracious and dedicated reader, and a mother to a one-year-old baby, how do you find the time to read so much - books, articles, news? Are there some weeks where you simply can’t and don’t?

I think the reason why I am asked this a lot, is because reading comes with moral attachments. Someone reading a lot can make other people feel bad – which is never my intention – and what I always remind is, I sacrifice other ares: I don’t go to the gym, and I only properly cook once a week. So I save over an hour a day, from that! It’s also important to remember that reading is fundamental to my work: I often interview authors, we talk about books a ton on the podcast, and my writing – whether non-fiction or journalism – is imbued with the writing of others. So I make time for it because it feeds into my work as much as it does my own brain. It is, as Zadie Smith says, a sanctioned addiction. But an addiction nonetheless.

Life balancing children and work is often about prioritising. Is there something that you’ve actively chosen to not focus on, or focus on less now, because of lack of time and inclination?

Oh I totally prioritise. I  am incredibly selective and try and be thoughtful about everything I do: why am I doing it, is it important to me, will it make me feel good, will it help my work, etc etc.

You’ve described your personal style as “eclectic but specific”, and you try to incorporate vintage pieces in your looks every day. Can you tell us how you approach getting dressed each morning? Do you plan your outfits in advance or have a shopping strategy each season?

I don’t plan in advance, no. If I’m working at home, as I am probably 3 days a week, it’s very casual. If I had to look smart every day, I’d definitely struggle! What I wear depends on how tired, or how bloated I am, or what I have on that day.

Your media career has followed the path of magazines, newspapers, websites, social media, a podcast and books. How do you think traditional mediums such as print can hold up against the fast and furious world of digital, audio and video right now?

I’d really like to hope that they can all work in tandem. I enjoy all of them in their collectiveness. But I am keenly aware that most people my age don’t read newspapers or magazines. I think they are missing out, as I try and remind them via my recommendations on The High Low!

How would you describe the evolution of your career – how you began and where you are now?

With my career, I wouldn’t call myself strategic, necessarily – as I actually really don’t like taking risks – but I’m always preparing for the next thing. For instance, I had a blog from day dot, because I wanted to always have something ‘extra’ to give me the discipline of writing every day, when I didn’t get to do that, as an intern, and also in the hope it would get me a better job. It did – it got me the gig as Fashion Features Editor and columnist at The Sunday Times Style, at the relatively young age of 27. I then started a podcast, with Dolly Alderton, while at The Sunday Times, because I was feeling frustrated at existing predominantly in a fashion space. That was the beta version of what is now The High Low, a culture podcast which has helped position me as a journalist who covers fashion, rather than a fashion journalist, and has opened doors for me like, being a speaker (I chair or speak on a panel probably every week, at the moment) or a commentator on radio. My next project will hopefully further cement me as the kind of writer and thinker that I would like to be. 

Publishing is in a state of transformation which affects everyone from journalists to photographers – what are your thoughts on the current state of media and where do you think it will be in 10 years?

I think there will be fewer magazines and the ones that exist will be more like coffee table books. We see that happening already: there are more arty bi-annuals than ever before and yet consumer titles are folding almost monthly. I don’t think newspapers will ever be defunct, although I do think that we will see some conflation: for EG I think The Times and Sunday Times will become one, at some point, and The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, and so on and so forth. They’re very much run as church and state now and I don’t think that will last forever. I think digital will have much better journalism, too. In the UK, digital is very much still second fiddle to its print arm. But I think we will see less clickbait going up on websites, and more longform journalism – on the decent websites, at least. Oh and everything will be behind paywalls. Except I think podcasts will stay free…..

So much emphasis is placed on the number of followers a person has on social media, but it’s always the following list that provides a lot of intrigue for us. Can you tell us who and what some of your favourite accounts to follow on Instagram are and why?

I love @houseandgarden for its inspiring interiors, @tanksgoodnews for the feel-goods, @parisreview for great pieces of writing, @animalsdoingthings because it’s animals doing things and what could be better than that!?

What would you say to your younger self?

Things take the time they take.