“Even before the pandemic, raising kids in NYC was equal parts wonderful and terrifying", Esther Adams Achara tells us...
It’s a description that probably rings true for raising children no matter where they are in the world, but talking to fashion writer Esther, you get the sense that she’s acutely aware of the responsibility of parenting to empower.
When we ask her what her hopes are for her children’s futures, the picture she paints is vivid and unshakeably positive. “I hope they have presidents they can look up to; bosses who are kind, secure, and who double as mentors; with all my heart I hope it’s a place where they aren’t judged by their skin color or hair texture. I hope they have equal pay to their male peers. I hope they have female bosses and become female bosses. I hope society comes out the other side of this global health crisis with different ideals.” It’s a beautiful vision – though she’s not blinded by optimism. “If their generation is still working towards making all those things a reality”, she clarifies, “I hope, as their parents, we can go some way in helping them develop the type of self-belief and fortitude that will empower them to navigate and thrive in a less than perfect world.”
From their townhouse in Brooklyn, Esther’s girls are certainly learning about that less-than-perfect world. “We hear sirens every 15 minutes”, she tells us, “heading to the hospital down the street that is constantly in the news for its heroic but overwhelmed response to Covid-19. Being so close to the epicenter can be scary, but we are working hard at taking a positive approach. They are getting more time with us, we have more time to listen to their thoughts and dreams.” There are practical lessons, too – using a newly acquired sewing machine, Esther is using her children’s old clothing to make washable face masks for family and neighbours. “I want them to look back and feel they did something”, she says of setting the example for her kids.
That thoughtfulness and philosophical consideration isn’t just reserved for her family life. In the fashion world, renowned for its frivolousness and often problematic practices, Esther is equally conscious. “If I said we’d given up fast fashion entirely, I’d be lying. That’s an expensive endeavor, and honestly, quite a privileged step to be able to commit to. Not everyone can afford to do that.” But, she’s taking meaningful steps.
Our conversation with Esther took us right back to her childhood in the sleepy West Midlands, UK, her early days at American Vogue, and her transition into motherhood. We spoke about ambition, the jump from one to two which “might as well have been ten”, and why she feels less guilt than ever these days. “I’ve always apologized if I’ve responded unfairly to my girls”, she says. “They know I’m not perfect and the flip side of that is, I hope they don’t expect perfectionism of themselves, either.” From a self-described ‘recovering perfectionist’, that’s big.
Tell us how you’re adjusting to our new world/how your family is adjusting?
Like most New Yorkers, we’re at home, self-isolating, and it’s not without its challenges. Attempting to juggle my own writing, with homeschooling two kids in different grades, isn’t easy. My husband is working harder than ever because his industry has been hit hard. And alongside all of this, we’re just trying to keep the kids upbeat and positive despite them not being able to see their wider family, friends, or teachers. Last night, my eldest daughter burst into tears, looked at my husband, my youngest daughter and myself, and asked: “Why am I still only allowed to see you three? It was only supposed to be two weeks!” It was funny, but also heartbreaking. It’s hard for them to understand how long this is taking, even though they can understand the abstract bigger picture. Kids are so resilient, though, she was asleep ten minutes later, or, if it had been during the day, she’d have been back to playing within the same amount of time. Children are so good about being emotionally open and honest, and then moving on. I’ve noticed that, for the most part, if I’m on edge or anxious, then I see that reflected in them. But if I stay calm around them, then that energy also transmits. I’m no yogi, so that can be a challenge during a lockdown.
We moved from a relatively small two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan to a townhouse with a garden in Brooklyn last summer. We were nervous about making a big lifestyle change across boroughs, but now, during this pandemic, we affectionately call this home our Noah’s Ark. It’s more than a house with our things inside: it’s become a refuge. And to have outdoor space for the kids is a huge gift. Plus we are meeting our neighbors, who usually aren’t all out in their gardens at the same time, but now have nowhere else to go. So it’s actually brought us closer to our immediate community, while our families and old friendships are, sadly, out of reach.
On spring break, I grabbed some much needed time to myself to process, meditate and pray. I’ve also got back into doing Yoga With Adrienne on YouTube. Many of her workouts only last 15-20 minutes, which is much more manageable than the usual 1.5 hour yoga class, that restless souls like myself can feel overwhelmed by.
Beyond that, we are focusing on donating to organizations both locally and abroad who need it and, on a personal level, are working hard at being thankful. Sometimes that is very easy, for obvious reasons. Other times, when we’re tired, or frustration sets in, it takes discipline. That doesn’t mean we are walking around in a blissful state of peace; more that we are choosing, despite how we feel, perhaps even after a frustrated outburst, to take a minute and count our blessings. We’re forgiving each other more quickly. I don’t think anyone wants to come out of this the same as they went in. There were a lot of things wrong with our life before this; work took precedence, we certainly didn’t have meals together as a family, which we are able to do now – we’d been talking about readdressing the balance, but hadn’t got around to it. I think we all feel the need to make some changes that put the important things first.
What do you want to see more of on social media and also in the news right now?
I think the news is doing a really good job of giving us the facts. Our New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has made that his M.O. So we are hearing a lot of honesty about where we are and what we need to do to get to the other side of this as safely as possible. At times, the reporting gets too much, and even as a former news junkie, I had to stop watching it to help curb anxiety until this week. During that time I found some incredible Instagram feeds that were putting good news out there: @goodnews_movement and @tanksgoodnews, for example. Hearing positive stories really helps balance the emotional scales. It’s good to be able to celebrate, as well as grieve. I love hearing the stories of doctors from Georgia selflessly flying in to NY to help fight this thing. Or of the 104-year-old Spanish flu survivor recovering from Covid-19 in Italy. This pandemic has made it clear that we are part of a global community; our choices affect other people. And it’s a chance for us to be the helpers. I’ve ordered a handheld sewing machine from amazon so the kids and I can at least attempt to make washable cotton masks for our friends and neighbors. We’ll likely use their old clothing to do it with. No gesture is too small during a pandemic. I want them to look back and feel they did something. They are learning how to respond to a crisis from us right now and I want them to face these things with hope rather than despair. Hope helps you keep going. Humor, too. But hope settles deep in your soul and changes your outlook. It’s not lost on me the significance of this time falling during Passover and Lent.
All industries are suffering. In your opinion, what will media look like this time next year?
The media is already changing. Digital media consumption is exploding – particularly social media and the news. Given that people can’t have face to face conversations, those are the ways we can share information and update each other.
What I really love seeing, is how the tone of the media has shifted to celebrate everyday heroes who are putting their own wellbeing on the line to help others. Whether healthcare practitioners, sanitation workers, or grocery store workers, they are finally being featured on the news, social media and even on glossy magazine websites; they are being acknowledged as the heroes they are. Let’s face it, the latest actress, no matter how talented, is somewhat irrelevant to the 6.6 million people who have just lost their jobs and healthcare in the past month. That actress isn’t going to help them feed their families or renew their life-saving prescription before the week is out.
Ultimately, when we come out the other side of this, I hope we’ll see a softer, more compassionate and inclusive tone in our media. One that encompasses a wider audience. It’s largely immigrants who are keeping society alive in the hospitals right now, and at substantial risk to their own health and families. This pandemic is not the great leveler; it is not hitting us all equally. Lower-income families are being hit the hardest and suffering more severely. But we can all do our part, no matter how small. And we can all vow to not forget the inequalities when it’s finally over. That would probably be one of the most just things that we, who have so much more than so many, can promise to do.
Can you tell us a little bit about your own childhood?
I grew up in, what I used to consider, a very dull town in the West Midlands, UK. In retrospect, I think of it as a place filled with a strong, loving community; the type I hope my kids feel they had when they look back. It’s interesting, my most cherished childhood memories are so simple: my mother reading the Secret Garden out loud to my sister and I on a beach holiday in Cornwall, my dad making up stories at bedtime, and weekends spent swimming at the beach in the rain during stays at my grandparents’ house in Wales. The water was murky, but the waves were huge!
What did you dream about as a little girl?
Getting out of the small town I grew up in. After our first trip to London, I’d beg my parents to let us move. I just couldn’t understand, knowing it was out there, why anyone would choose to live where we did, instead.
Talk us through your career to date and some of your greatest highlights...
I started out the way most people used to: by interning at a number of newspapers and magazines. My first job was assistant to the editor-in-chief, Alexandra Shulman, at British Vogue, following a three-week internship. I wasn’t a naturally organized person, so it was a huge learning curve, but it set me up. I was so desperate to be doing the creative stuff, but it was essential in forming a foundation and understanding the mechanics of how a magazine was run. During that time, I wrote news stories for Vogue and also freelanced for other publications, so I quietly built a portfolio of work outside of the office. Two and a half years later I was offered a job in the fashion department of American Vogue. I called in clothes for fashion shoots until, eight months later, I landed my dream job as fashion writer on the editorial side. I was suddenly writing show reviews, news roundups and a monthly column called Steal Of The Month, which involved interviewing celebrities on their style and movie projects.
Are you ambitious? And have you approached your career strategically, or do you go with the flow?
Yes, I am ambitious. You have to have a certain drive to work in a competitive, creative field. You have to have a resilience to keep going in the face of rejection. Like most industries, jobs on magazines and websites don’t tend to fall in your lap. Plus, when you’re starting out, the pay isn’t usually enough of a motivation, so there has to be something else compelling you to keep moving forward. But I’ve never been singleminded about it; I’ve always valued a life outside of work; I think that comes from growing up in Britain, since they have more work/life balance there… or at least they did before I left a decade ago. I’ve never had a strategy or an end goal. I simply worked hard, pushed doors and went through whichever ones opened. So, in that sense, yes, I just go with the flow, but I make sure I work hard in that flow.
Do you put pressure on yourself? What stresses you out?
I’m not a Type A person. I’ve very aware of that, living in a city full of Type A people. But I am something of a Type B+ recovering perfectionist. So, if you’d asked me that question ten years ago, I’d have answered yes, I 100% put pressure on myself. But these days, I’m consciously trying not to. Particularly right now, in the middle of navigating the Coronavirus. Those things that used to stress me out, seem so irrelevant. The idea of failure used to stress me out a little, but success, for me now, has different parameters. Yes, I still work hard and want to succeed in the work arena, but I also want to succeed as a parent and help my kids navigate issues that they come up against. I love how Michelle Obama put it: that you can have it all, just not at the same time. That’s a good word for my B+ perfectionist self to ruminate on.
“ It’s largely immigrants who are keeping society alive in the hospitals right now, and at substantial risk to their own health and families. This pandemic is not the great leveler; it is not hitting us all equally ”
How did you find the difference between your first and your second child? (Or the transition from one to two children?)
I found one child pretty easy. Having two that were close in age, by comparison, might as well have been ten. I can’t imagine what three or more feels like. Honestly, though, I think New York is the biggest kid of all and that factors into the parenting game. I’m sure that the environment you’re in, your work situation, how much family you have around you, all of those factors determine how easy or how hard you find one kid or four kids. When I had one child, I still worked full time, I flew to the shows in Europe and had family who’d meet me in London or Paris and take care of my daughter while I got on with flitting from show to show and writing 24/7; it was exhilarating, compartmentalized and I loved it. When my second came along the balance tipped somewhat; I didn’t feel I could do that with two. The broken nights doubled, all that sickness in the early years doubled, we didn’t have any family nearby that could do the overnight shifts or step in for an extra hour or two when work called for it this side of the Atlantic, so I took the hard decision to freelance, which turned out to be a huge blessing, but also involved a lot more juggling. So, yes, two kids changed everything. That said, it’s not a bad thing by any means, I can’t imagine having gone another route and I certainly can’t imagine not having both my kids. Most importantly, I can’t imagine the two of them not having each other.
I’ve read that you actively gave up on fast fashion for your children. What led you to this decision?
We haven’t entirely given it up, but I’ve made moves to buy less and more thoughtfully. I try to sew up ripped jeans, if they can be salvaged for example, and I love sustainable kids designers like Mini Rodini and Nununu. When I buy those pieces, I do it a few sizes too big so they last longer. Oversize clothing is big in our house. If I said we’d given up fast fashion entirely, I’d be lying. That’s an expensive endeavor, and honestly, quite a privileged step to be able to commit to. Not everyone can afford to do that. That’s why I applaud where fast fashion has tried to change course and make moves towards sustainability as more of an affordable, democratic undertaking – having the option to buy organic cotton basics at either H&M or Zara is achievable for many families, whereas stockpiling Stella McCartney Kids jeans each month, probably isn’t. My kids also wear a lot of hand-me-downs from friends who have older kids, and we are intentional about passing on all of our daughters’ stuff to friends with younger kids, too. That’s actually formed the majority of their closets over the years.
What about for yourself? What are some of your favourite labels?
I recently bought a pre-worn Sandy Liang brocade-edged fleece on eBay. I live in it. It’s so versatile and warm. Some days it’s a light jacket, others a sweater under an oversized coat. My Proenza Schouler PS 11 bag is another favorite: I got that on the Real Real about a year ago and use it every day. It’s rammed full of way too much stuff, but it can handle it – it’s the perfect hardworking mom bag in that sense. I don’t buy a lot of new things these days; I rotate well-made and well-loved items I’ve garnered over the years, but when I am in the market for something new, I try to hit up resale sites first. Aside from that, I pretty much live in jeans. I’m not loyal to any one brand: Khaite, Mother, Levi’s, Zara…if the shape is right and they’re comfortable, I’ll wear them. I don’t have to dress up each day as a freelancer so I’ll just opt for something comfortable, but I’m not someone who will just start working in their pajamas. I have to get in the headspace for it and go to my laptop fully showered and dressed.
What are some of your most adored beauty products?
I love 3Lab’s exfoliating face wash and am a total addict for their BB cream – it gives a light, silky coverage but also doubles as a daily sunscreen. Davines Love Shampoo and Conditioner both smell incredible and, somehow, effectively manage to keep my frizz-prone hair under control, whether I wear it straight or curly.
What was the last great book you read?
I’m making a conscious effort to better understand the African American experience here in the US. It’s so important in moving forward to be informed about the past and, as a mother of biracial kids, it’s a huge priority for me. All that is to say, I’m currently reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. It’s not an easy read by any means, but it’s one of those books that should be on everyone’s list.
What lies ahead for you and for your family?
Getting through this pandemic with our health and sanity intact. Then, making the changes we all talk about changing during our shelter in place. Beyond that, my husband and I recently became American citizens, so we’ll able to vote over here for the first time this year. Obviously, the dates have moved and it’s up in the air whether we’ll all safely be able to turn up in person this time around. But, all being well, I’m so excited to take my kids to the polling station and get that “I Voted!” sticker. Before the schools shut and life changed dramatically, I’d talk about it with the kids every time we’d pass our local school and polling station. I forgot to tell them they actually had to be 18 to do it themselves before hyping them up on the whole thing. Anyway, I love showing my girls how they can make empowering differences in an age appropriate way, at a time like this.