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As I take maternity leave, my thoughts turn to the work/life tug-of-war

Yes, I’m lucky and blessed, but it’s also hard to take a break from the AJ. Christine Murray

How apropos. As the AJ announces the first half of the Small Projects shortlist and the winners of the AJ Women in Architecture awards, I’m preparing to deliver my own small project, an emerging woman in architecture, due any day now.

Maternity leave is a strange thing. I can’t wait to fall in love with this freshly baked little person, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to the sleepless nights, the dawn feeds, nappy changes and what can feel like the erasure of the self in the quest to fulfil a newborn’s needs.

Yes, I’m lucky and blessed, but it’s also hard to take a break from the AJ.

This will be my second child - I was promoted to editor from deputy editor while on maternity leave with my first, a boy who is now four years old.

Coming back from maternity leave last time, I was struck by how easy work felt - with its routines, its clear pecking order, its illusion of control, its tangible rewards and successes - compared with the unknowns and worries of child-rearing.

I often read that mothers prefer to take on childcare, but in the early weeks, I can’t see that there’s much choice. Breast feeding in the boardroom is not the norm. And as long as maternity leave is structured as an all-or-nothing affair (something Nick Clegg has proposed to change), a mother’s options are limited in the early months. To continue to earn a salary, you either put your child into care or stay home.

And that’s if you’re lucky: for self-employed mothers, like so many architects, there’s no choice, simply juggling and making do.

As for the balance of family life when back at work, I’m lucky that EMAP is an enlightened company, run by a chief executive, Natasha Christie-Miller, who believes in flexible working for parents. This has made working a pleasure for me - because I’ve been judged on the quality of the work that I do and given the freedom to make decisions about how I get it done. It can make for midnight emails and a work/life blur, but I don’t mind, because I can choose where to make compromises.

It strikes me that the freedom to choose how we work lies at the heart of the challenges facing women architects - and men, too.

In our Women in Architecture survey, we found a near-equal proportion of new mothers and fathers quit their job after having children to start up their own practice in a bid for more flexibility.

Like most parents, I do my best, choosing between greater goods and lesser evils where I can. Looking back, as Patty Hopkins said in her speech at the Women in Architecture luncheon, perhaps I’ll also feel: ‘guilty whatever I was doing. If I was occupied with parents or children or even husband, I felt I should have been working, and vice versa’.

Hopkins’ solution is ‘to be confident, to accept that one can’t do everything.’ But she also points to a way forward for the profession that exploits the varied role of practice: ‘The role of an architect is so diverse. It can mean so many different things - working on projects with vast differences of scale, working in a big team or by yourself on small jobs, specialisation - a useful route if working part-time … Perhaps the answer is in this diversity. There are roles for all.’

If architecture is now officially a team effort, rather than the lone master builder, then the door is open for the creation of a profession that allows for diverse roles and a diverse workforce, too.

Thank goodness, the AJ is a team effort too, which is why I can relax while on maternity leave for the coming year, leaving the helm in the capable hands of acting editor Rory Olcayto - familiar to you already from his five-and-a-half years on the AJ team.

As for me, in the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter, where you will find me @tcmurray.


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