“I don’t have time for self-improvement, I’m focusing on self-preservation instead. But this has been organic for me - turning 40 felt like a pivotal moment. I remember once asking my mum when she felt her most beautiful and she said at 40, because it was the time when both her head and her body were in the best place. I think that of myself now. I am confident about who I am on the inside and have accepted – and appreciate – who I am on the outside. I know I am enough. That feels liberating and I think it’s the greatest act of self-love you can give yourself.” Red Magazine editor Sarah Tomczak on how her definition of self-care is now all about quietening the mind, being happy and feeling confident from within…
The UK-based editor juggles a demanding career with raising two daughters but is realistic about how this plays out day-to-day, often forgoing personal commitments such as exercise or catching up with friends to prioritise her work and family. “Showing your kids what it looks like to love your job, work hard, build a career and find a sense of purpose is just a great as waiting outside the school gates.” While her husband Jaron, a freelance photographer, helps out with the bulk of childcare to accommodate her busy career, Tomczak credits being super organised with helping things run smoothly in their household – even if that means little or no downtime after a long day in the office and diving into the bed and bath routine at home. If you’re a longtime fan of glossy magazines, appreciate a more modern (and realistic!) look into work/life balance and will forever champion a good dress and heels no matter how messy motherhood gets, then you’re going to love our tale with the ever-inspiring Sarah Tomczak… Images: Jaron James | Go to www.redonline.co.uk
You have two girls - Coco and Sylvie - and a successful role at Red magazine as Executive Editor. How do you juggle both roles?
I’d be lying if I said I do either brilliantly, but I think my attitude to both my job and motherhood is to throw my heart and soul into them – and then cut myself some slack when everything isn’t perfect! With the magazine, it’s my dream job and something that gives me a great sense of purpose and satisfaction, but I am also able to step back and retain my perspective. My work dominates my life from 9-6, but the moment I step through our front door, it falls away and being a mum consumes me instead. In many ways editing a magazine is the easier task because people are happy to collaborate with you and are paid to do what you say – my kids are far harder to manage!!! Also, I think I have even higher expectations with myself as a mother than an editor – I only get one go at this job. With both come huge challenges, but I try to navigate them by compartmentalising them and not being too hard on myself when things don’t go exactly to plan. I am also lucky to have a brilliant husband who is a freelance photographer. His work is more flexible, which allows him to take on the bulk of the childcare during the week.
What was your experience like on maternity leave and did you always know you’d return to your career in the same capacity?
I was madly in love with my babies – but not maternity leave. I have always been a do-er so found it hard to spend endless days at home with a newborn. Coco especially was a terrible sleeper, so much of my maternity leave was an exhausted fog. I had her in May so by the time I was properly up and about the summer had passed – I just have memories of long grey Autumn days and pushing a buggy around for hours, just so she’d sleep. Despite this, I adored being a mum and it has always felt instinctive to me. Even when I was patting and shushing Coco like a delirious zombie at three in the morning, my hand wedged through the bars of her cot, I couldn’t have loved her more! But I always knew I’d return to work – financially it was essential, but also for me as a person. I went back after ten months to a four-day week, which felt like a good balance. By the time Sylvie came along, the British government introduced shared paternity leave. We decided that I would return to work after seven months and my husband Jaron would take over the daily childcare.
How did you and your husband Jaron come up with your childcare plan - did you always know he was happy to be at stay-at-home-dad or did the arrangement come with a lot of different options and considerations?
When we initially embarked on the shared childcare, it was going to be a short-term arrangement. I was the one to suggest we take advantage of the shared paternity leave and Jaron admits he couldn’t find a good enough reason not to! It was really important for me that he experienced the challenges of being with the kids, but also the great joys of it. I think the girls and I are so close because of that time we spent together when they were very little, and I wanted him to have that too. Towards the end of his paternity leave, his work situation changed giving him the opportunity to become freelance, which he’d wanted to do for a while. In truth though, these last two years have been more about childcare than photography for him. I think he’s been very gracious about that – him becoming the lead parent has given my career a chance to flourish, which can’t always have been easy. Usually, it’s the woman who puts her working life on hold to raise a small family, but it has been the other way around for us. It’s interesting because we have both experienced the full-time childcare and the full-time job, so I think this makes us more empathetic to one another. Jaron is amazing at what he does – he’s such a hands-on dad, he’s a member of the PTA and fills the girls’ days with adventures and a lot of fun. He’s also incredible at keeping the house running smoothly (I am useless at this and very messy). The downside to all this is that while I have less maternal guilt towards my children, I feel guilty that I generally get to have a more glamorous, exciting life than he does, and that my career comes first, whereas his has to fit in around it. In the evenings and at weekends, I try to give him some time to himself to destress – which can mean that I don’t then create any downtime for myself.
The term work/life balance is often elusive for a lot of working parents - how do you keep on top of everything without feeling overwhelmed?
I think I do feel overwhelmed! But I am very lucky because the sense of satisfaction I get from both areas of my life overrides the panic. That said, I do have a few things that help me navigate the juggle. Firstly, we try to be super organised – Jaron and I have shared calendars on our phone and a family wall planner at home. We are pretty diligent at keeping them all up to date, so we know everyone’s commitments and spend a Sunday night planning for the week ahead. I also have an hour commute from my home to my office and back, which is a really good time to not only keep on top of my personal and family admin but to transition from ‘work’ to ‘home’. I try to be quite strict about bringing work home in the evenings and almost never answer work emails at the weekend because I want to be fully immersed in my family. I also have little things I do to help me feel connected to the girls, even when I’m not there. I make Coco’s packed lunch every day (I’m a sucker for shaped cookie cutters and tiny animal food picks to make it all look more appealing!) and I write her a little love note every single day and stash in there too – I like the idea that I’m with her for a moment in the middle of her day. Randi Zuckerberg (sister of the Facebook founder Mark) wrote a really interesting piece for Red magazine saying that you can have it all, just not all at the same time. I definitely find that to be true. My priorities are my family and my job, which I can just about master on a daily basis – but this does mean that time for myself (like exercising) and my female friendships are the things that right now, and more likely to end up on the back burner.
What advice would you give to other mums returning to work after having children?
Accept that it’s going to be tough. You have to dig deep when all you want to do after a full-on day at work, is sit on a sofa with a glass of wine, but actually you have two hours of bath and bed to get through first. Also, set your personal parameters early and stick to them – don’t let yourself answer the odd work email at the weekend, or agree to work late too often, because people will come to expect it. Figure out your non-negotiables – the events in your child’s life you cannot miss and the ones that are not so essential (routine doctor’s appointment: yes, school play: no). And don’t beat yourself up about any of it – not about wanting to go back to work (it doesn’t mean you love your child any less), not about buying the brownies for the summer fair rather than making them (who has time?), not about not being there every single moment of every day (just the ones that matter most). Showing your kids what it looks like to love your job, work hard, build a career and find a sense of purpose is just a great as waiting outside the school gates.
How did you find the jump going from one to two kids?
I don’t think anything can compare to the first moment you embark on motherhood – when your world turns upside down and you realise your life – and your heart – will never be your own again. Having a second child definitely increases the workload but I found it had more of an emotional impact than a physical one. I loved Coco so entirely that I had to mentally create space for Sylvie, which didn’t come instantly. I have friends who say their second child was born and they immediately loved them as wholeheartedly as their first, but I felt that I’d had three years to discover and become devoted to the little person that was Coco. Sylvie was more of a slow burner for me. In a way she was a much easier baby, so she didn’t test me so much, but then equally didn’t fight her way into my psyche so insistently. Now she’s still more placid and harmonious, but I adore her because of that. She’s sweet and funny and thoughtful and just delicious. Coco is infuriating and charming – she’s a beautiful, soulful, maddening 16 year old in a six year old’s body. God help us! I love having two girls though, seeing their friendship together and feeling our family grow its roots. They have completed us.
Do you have any tried and tested mum-hacks that you can share that make getting out the door each day a little easier?
I wish I had something revelatory to share here! I think like most women, I plan what I’ll wear the night before and often lay the kids’ clothes out too. We make the girls breakfast at home but I usually eat myself when I get to the office to save time. Despite this, we are almost always late to leave. Most mornings you’ll see Coco flying to school on her scooter and me madly dashing alongside her!
What is your definition of self-love and how do you make time for it?
I think self-love has two equally important components – the doing and the being. The doing is, of course, making time for yourself – to read or practise yoga or go for a walk or take a long bath, none of which I ever seem to make time for. My husband is much better at this self-love, which for him is usually in the form of exercise, but I tend to put my own personal desires to the bottom of the priority list – I’d always rather be home to put the kids to bed than stay in the city to take a yoga class (despite Jaron encouraging me to do so). While I don’t always create space to do things, I try to create space for myself in my head. This can be as simple as embarking on my 15-minute walk to the train station without listening to a podcast, or sitting on the train and staring out of the window for half an hour. My brain is always so busy I try to give my mind moments to clear. Then there’s the being, which to me is more about compassion and self-acceptance. I’m much better at that. In a way, to counteract the pressure I have in my life right now, I have had to find a way to be okay with who I am. I don’t have time for self-improvement, I’m focusing on self-preservation instead. But this has been organic for me – turning 40 felt like a pivotal moment. I remember once asking my mum when she felt her most beautiful and she said at 40, because it was the time when both her head and her body were in the best place. I think that of myself now. I am confident about who I am on the inside and have accepted – and appreciate – who I am on the outside. I know I am enough. That feels liberating and I think it’s the greatest act of self-love you can give yourself.
Red magazine is still standing when a lot of other well-known titles have sadly closed. How do you think magazines can stay relevant in a time where digital content is leading the way?
Because ultimately, we all want to consume good content in any form, and while there is definitely place for scrolling through lots of information in an instant on your phone, there’s also still a place for that tactile experience of holding something glossy, with pages you can turn, and reading a long, thoughtful, lyrical piece, illustrated with beautiful images too. In the world of publishing, we talk about ‘lean forward’ and ‘lean back’ experiences. When you consume content on your iPad or phone, you generally learn forward – you’re engaged and proactive, you want information in a speedy manner. Magazines are more of a lean-back moment. You might be in the bath, or in bed or on a sun lounger. You are relaxed and ready to be guided – the content is all there for you. In our ever more crazy-paced society, I think we truly need to carve out those lean back moments. They are in themselves, an act of self-love. But it’s our challenge, as magazine editors, to bring you content you can’t consume everywhere else – be that incredible long-form features, or beautiful shoots.
Has motherhood affected your love of magazines or the type of content you are drawn to?
Like most women, I probably have less time to read magazines (and books for that matter!), which means I’m more discerning about what I will pick up. I have always been interested in people and relationships, but since becoming a mother, my heart is always tugged by any story that delves into the bond between parent and child. I love gorgeous, lyrical writing and am very lucky to have a brilliant features editor at Red who regular shares links to pieces I must read or loans me new books. I’m obsessed with Cheryl Strayed (Tiny Beautiful Things is filled with universal truths on life and relationships), I love anything by Curtis Sittenfeld, I just finished Bill Cunningham’s autobiography, Fashion Climbing, which I adored. I am a loyal listener to The High Low, a weekly pop culture and news podcast hosted by journalists Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes and I’m a daily Instagram scroller, where I’m hooked on stylish mums with a brood of well-dressed kids, like Courtney Adamo and Vanessa Breuer.
Let’s talk clothes! Has your style changed since having kids?
In a way, having kids hasn’t had as big an impact on my style as my job has. When I first started out in journalism in London in my early 20s, everyone dressed far more casually, so I wore jeans and t-shirts too. Then at 24, I moved to New York to work in magazines there – my colleagues were far dressier and that felt more natural fit for me. I’ve always been a sucker for a dress and a pair of heels. I love feeling a bit special every day. Of course, I spent most of my maternity leaves back in jeans and t-shirts, because I had tiny babies and no reason to dress up – comfort was key. Yet I found that a bit dispiriting and actually made a decision that once I was back at work, I would always make an effort, and wear what made me happiest. Lots of people look at gorgeous clothes and say – I love it, but I wouldn’t have the occasion to wear it. And I think – I’m the editor of a glossy women’s magazine, working in the heart of London, everyday should be an occasion to wear it! Now I live in dresses (my favourites are Isabel Marant Etoile, Doen, Sea NY, Sezane, Caramel London and Ganni), with sandals in the summer and boots in the winter.
What were the last few items you bought for yourself and your girls (and from where) ?
For the Autumn, I have just bought a couple of blouses from Claudie Pierlot (one is blush broderie anglaise, the other, blue paisley) and two pairs of high-waisted cords in cream and burgundy (yes, a departure from my dresses!), I’ve just ordered a beautiful dress from Doen’s new collection and I plan to buy a pair of Sezane ankle boots when their pop-up opens in West London next month too. I’ve also got my eye on a checked coat from LK Bennett, which I think will instantly update everything in my wardrobe. As we’re near the end of summer here, the girls have spent the past few months living in dresses by Bonton, Olivier Baby and Child, Outside the Lines, Bonpoint and Faune and Nights By Wilder (the last two are sleepwear brands but their nighties are too good to save for bed!), along with their Saltwater sandals. While we were in France I visited Monoprix to stock up on bits for the new season (they do lovely kids wear at great prices), I also love Little Circle for their beautiful edit of brands and Caramel London is always dreamy (I buy bits in the sale and stash them away).
What is your approach to health and wellbeing - do you regularly exercise, meditate..?
In a dream world, I’d run, swim and do yoga regularly, but actually, I almost never do any of these! I run occasionally, but more often I do the Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred DVD, which takes just 20 minutes and I usually fit in at 10pm after dinner and the kids are in bed. I also do push-ups and sun salutations every night before I go to bed – after sitting in a desk most of the day, stretching feels like the most beneficial thing I can do. I’d like to meditate, but my brain is so busy, I haven’t mastered it yet.
How do you handle the more stressful parts of parenting?
I try to maintain a balance. In our household Jaron is probably stricter than me and has a shorter fuse. I don’t want to come home and yell at the girls, as I haven’t seen them all day, but also, I‘m generally more laidback, so just don’t feel the need to lose my temper. That said, it does mean that when I do get cross it has more impact. I hate taking out any stress I feel on Coco and Sylvie, so I try really hard to stay calm and diffuse a situation. I find that taking a few breaths and speaking slowly and gently helps, even in the most stressful moments. I read that lowering your voice, rather than raising it, makes your kids stop to listen, so has more impact than shouting. That said, Jaron and my differing parenting styles do cause tension between us too – he doesn’t always want to be the bad guy and I’m probably too soft with the kids. We’re always working to get it right, even if we haven’t quite yet.
Screen time and sugar - a necessary evil when it comes to parenting or do you avoid at all costs?
We don’t avoid either! We let the girls have screen time once a day, but try to balance that with lots of other creative play. Coco loves to draw particularly, and they will happily build Lego or do puzzles or play games together. Occasionally when we go out or if we are travelling, we’ll let them have some screen time, but we only have one iPad, which can cause fights! Also, we really want the girls to be socially confident, so would much rather they are included in a conversation in a restaurant, than are squirreled away in a corner, glued to a screen. We allow them sugar in moderation too. We aren’t super strict about treats, but talk a lot about great healthy food that makes your body and brain stronger. The girls know the healthy stuff has to outweigh the bad stuff so they regularly tally up how much they’ve had of each in a day to figure out if they’ll be having fruit or ice cream for pudding!
How do you make time for your marriage - do you have regular date nights?
I wish we had more regular date nights! Our family doesn’t really live nearby, and we don’t use babysitters very often, so we rarely have nights without the kids. That said, we try to get away for a weekend together a couple of times a year. We went to both Reykjavik and Ibiza for weekends earlier this year and it was amazing how restorative 48 hours away from the kids was for our marriage!
What is your favourite thing to do together as a family?
I love travelling together. My job allows us to visit lots of different places and have some amazing experiences together. I try to convey to Coco and Sylvie how lucky they are to have these opportunities – and I never stop feeling grateful for it all. From visiting Christmas markets in Gothenburg, to running through sand dunes in Montauk to paddle boarding in Greece to horse riding in France – I hope these adventures will become their cherished childhood memories.
Finish this sentence - Motherhood is...
Exhausting, exhilarating, all-consuming and life-changing. The hardest, best, most significant thing that I will ever do.