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There has been much discussion raised about "Why are women leaving Architecture? and more broadly, Why is the profession losing key talent?"  Both women and men practitioners are disillusioned by the myth of work/life balance: Women are grappling with "have it all" expectations of juggling family time with the demands of full-time work.  Men are struggling to support their families solely on an architect's salary and fall back on asking spouses to maintain their jobs. The lack of affordable childcare and high cost of living only magnifies the challenges.  How did we end up in this modern family dilemma? What can we do to improve the situation?

A (future) Archimom's Everyday Moments of Truth: Alicia Liebel Berg

In the months, weeks and days leading up to my first born I have found myself in a confusing course in my career. I am about to become a mother and I lack any perception of how that will alter the day-to-day schedule that I call habitual. What has my pregnancy taught me? The prospect of becoming a mother has given the notion of 'change' an entirely new definition to ponder.

Before I became pregnant I had a conversation with my boss about the company's policy on maternity leave. I was surprised to learn that since I work in a firm with less than 50 employees, the FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) policies enjoyed by others in the architectural profession were neither applicable nor enforceable in my current work setting. I was told that I was to have six weeks and that all of my vacation time would have to be expunged in the process. I suddenly found myself with a minimal amount of leave and absolutely no time remaining for the obvious sick days that would occur since my new little bundle of joy would be in a germ-infested day care center, a necessary evil. My boss simply explained that he had too many former female employees who went out on maternity leave only to return on their first day back and immediately resign. He had been burned one too many times and I was left to fend for myself in the rubble.

I first attempted to lament to my mother about my scenario and shockingly found out that she was a human phenomenon. Over the course of 9 years she had six children; all by cesarean, fed by breast milk and wrapped in cloth diapers. The duration of her maternity leave? One week of time off before returning to her typical working routine. Unable to unhinge my jaw off of the floor, she simply explained that it had to be done and so she did it. Some of my siblings were even born at a time when she would have a 90 mile round trip commute and work as an ER Nurse or in the Kidney Dialysis unit. Needless to say I received no sympathy, but instead gained an extreme amount of empathy and awe as to how she ever made it work.

One afternoon my project manager made note that the firm principal was expressing concern about my ambiguous return after giving birth. I took that cue as a sign to be more proactive. I was at my seven month mark and figured that it was time to start talking about transition planning. A new employee was about to be brought on to assume my work load and I was starting to find myself fearful of being phased out of my current responsibilities. Almost ten months had passed since my first conversation with my boss and my firm now had a director of business operations, a woman who had 1 year old twins. I went in and had my conversation about how much time I would be taking, expressed my concerns about transition and asked what their plans were for reacclimatizing me to my daily routine. After this conversation, the business director called me back into her office and said that she had re-negotiated my leave to be eight weeks, with all of my vacation days intact. I never knew I needed such an advocate.  And there is not enough gratitude can be expressed for her knowing that more needed to be done. Having a new mother in this kind of leadership role is a rare gift I am sure.

Throughout the last eight months I have encountered resistance from other female architects who have labeled the attempt of work-life-baby balance as 'career suicide'. In their view, if you are unable to put in the necessary hours of intense work as the colleagues around you then you are, in extension relinquishing your consideration for career advancement. Sadly this view stems from the fact that they are from a large firm in the metropolitan area who are known for putting in extra hours over the standard full-time of forty. Fortunately my current firm does not have this type of culture, but I am still trepidatious of maintaining the dependability that my project manager and co-workers have come to observe as status quo. How will I manage having to be in and out of the office for doctor visits, illness and all of my current advocacy work while maintaining fast-paced deadlines? 

Conversely I also heard the best advice that I have received as a female architect, to date. This no nonsense attitude came out of the AIA Minnesota Gold Medal Winner, a woman architect, who boldly announced that women have already figured out how to have babies. In her mind, far too many women in the architecture profession use their children as an excuse or a crutch instead of taking ownership of the successful career that they are fully capable of having. She, like my mother, did what needed to be done and spent no time complaining about it. They charged forward with necessity and attitude as their motivation. 

As my due date approaches I mentally struggle with my reservations and fears. I find myself knowing yet doubting that I have the ambition to excel in the architecture profession. I have to remind myself that I will propel myself through any adaptation that will occur with the life changing moment of having my first child. Despite everything I know that deep down I will find a way to finish my path to licensure and in extension continue to demonstrate my abilities as a valuable asset to my firm.

Change is about to come and what a ride it will be.

Alicia Liebel Berg, Wilkus Architects @AliciaLiebel

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