Standing in the Way of Control: Motherhood and Architectural Practice - By Caitlin MacLeod, Architectural Assistant

A group of women that are affected by the stress of working in the architectural professions are working mothers. Taking maternity leave, returning to work afterwards and in general, parenting whilst working comes with an additional set of difficulties that can easily cause stress or anxiety.
Caitlin MacLeod from Collective Architecture spent some time talking to a few colleagues to share their experience of motherhood within the architectural practice. They came up with a system that might help when women are returning from maternity leave - or anyone is returning to work after a long break.

"When I ask the three women who are sitting round the table with me whether they remember working with pregnant women or new mothers in practice prior to having their own children, the first anecdote is a bit of a shock to hear. ‘On my year out I worked with a pregnant woman,’ offers Fiona, an architect of twelve years with two children who now works here, at Collective, ‘she rang into the office one day and said “I’m in labour, so I don’t think I’ll make this morning’s meeting.”’ A pause, until her colleague Emma, who has recently returned from maternity leave and who has a one and a half year old son, asks, ‘Was she being funny?’ ‘No,’ replies Fiona, ‘she was deadly serious, poor girl…I just remember taking the call and going, “I think that’s ok?”’
The balancing of career and motherhood is easy for no one. To say nothing of the workplace itself, which may or may not support it’s working mothers, there is a pressure to succeed in both spheres which comes largely from within, so I am told. In architecture especially, mothers face a number of challenges particular to the profession; with projects that span large periods of time and a workload which is notoriously heavy and requires a certain degree of flexibility, dipping out for a year or so to take care of a baby can be difficult to come back from.
‘As architects we devote a considerable part of our lives studying and working towards our qualifications and ultimately careers,’ says Caroline, associate and mother of a two and a half year old, ’so taking a “break” can be a difficult and emotional decision.’ Any period of leave is significant in a profession where projects are continually evolving and office management systems are being updated and streamlined constantly, so the game of catch-up after this break can be similarly stressful to take on. Despite clarifying that their respective places of work were supportive of their return, all three women felt this pressure to get back to normal as soon as possible. Caroline says it ’took a year - even more - to get back to where I was,’ and Fiona adds that she ‘felt very, very isolated; there was an expectation that I would just hit the ground running.’ They all agree that, upon reflection, this pr#essure was largely self-inflicted, arising from the anxiety of asking for help and support from colleagues. ‘You’re constantly asking questions…I almost felt like I was starting work for the first time,’ says Emma, ‘ultimately, you’re quite low in confidence.’
What can be done to improve the situation? We discuss the potential merits of a ‘buddy system,’ which would allow returning mothers (indeed anyone returning to work, for any reason) to be kept informed by an assigned colleague on any developments in project and practice progress, office management systems and procedures, and generally ‘just where to find stuff.’ This would help mitigate persistent feelings of being ‘a step behind,’ which I am told are common for returning mums - ‘it’s amazing how much you forget in a year.’ The utilisation of KIT (keep in touch) and SPLIT (shared parental leave in touch) days ‘would make that whole transition of going away and coming back so much easier, for both the individual and the practice,’ says Caroline, stressing that this would minimise the catching up which is necessary after a long period away, and reduce the time the mother needs to get back to where she left off. There is a need to strengthen communication between mother and practice and for the latter to be more flexible in order to accommodate the needs and wishes of the former. ‘It’s ultimately about the individual and communication; just sitting down and having a conversation and understanding what they’re anxious about and what their aspirations are would help.’
In our brainstorming session, it’s this point that we return to over and over: every mother is an individual, and every mother has differing needs. With stronger channels of communication between firms and mothers on - and returning from - maternity leave, the wishes of the individual can be discussed, understood and accommodated for. In this way, architect-come-mothers can regain a sense of control over their professional positions, something which seemed to me to be, for various reasons, unanimously lacking from the stories of each of the three women’s time on leave."

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