When Insomnia Speaks: Transitioning from Motherhood, Scorn and Advocacy
by Alicia Liebel-Berg, Associate AIA
It is Midnight. The blue hue glows from the baby monitor as I watch my son sleep. Exhaustion pounds on my forehead. Stress invades my thoughts. My alarm is set for 4:30 a.m., I need to sleep. I wish I could sleep. What happened to me this year is difficult and needs to be shared with other emerging professional women who are considering having children. The problem is; how will it really be shared? Who will read it? Perhaps that is what privilege really is, the freedom to share the truth without fear of judgment and consequences.
Some would say that the ability to birth a child is a privilege; others would say it is a burden. Why? Arguments could be made that mothers are distracted and lack the ability to have the scheduling flexibility that the architecture profession demands. Extend that from the transitional gate of woman in practice to a mother and the battle to prove equivalence in billable hour production. Anxiety rises to dread and suddenly a mother discovers that her confidence has been shattered. She struggles to ascertain if she is held as a valuable asset or the woman who is just going to quit her job anyway. Unexpectedly she finds herself questioning her resolve to be the parent and career woman. She starts to have doubts and wonders, “Is this constant mental anguish of trying to keep up with appearances and professional abilities worth the time away from her child?” Is that paycheck big enough to compensate for this new bias? How did she go from never having a sleepless night to having weeks on end consumed by slow moving hours clogged with confusing thoughts?
Can bias be proved against someone who simply took the ten weeks of time she was offered and came back to find that perceptions of her abilities as a professional had changed - even if they were in the most subtle yet gut alarming ways? What is a mother to do? How does one begin to defend and argue assertively against that? There isn't a handbook on the gender bias of fighting for a privilege that may have never existed. What is this privilege that never existed? It is the ability to return to your workplace, as a new mother, without the derogatory perceptions that you have become a delicate emotional mess and a liability.
As the architecture profession scratches their heads trying to find the elusive answer of, "Why are women leaving the profession?” someone needs to own the result. It is because you pushed them out the door due to your lack of understanding. This mother, no doubt, knew that there had been a paradigm shift in everything she once knew to be comfortable and routine. This woman once felt that she had a position of achieved distinction, but now she can't shake the feeling that she has been unexpectedly and unconsciously demoted. When she raised the dialogue to her senior management to process the conundrum at hand, the powers with privilege misinterpreted it for weakness instead of a chance to collaborate on an evolution of assigned roles and responsibilities.
Predictably the new mother will move onward, despite it all, she has to. She doesn't have the privilege or have the tools to combat the corral that society has placed her in. If you want a career and a family, this is your new reality. You wanted it all, new mother, now deal with it...
Several weeks ago I wrote this ode to the new mother by the light of the baby monitor. The next day, while hot on my soap box, my husband said to me, “You have been scorned and you are making people pay." I did not appreciate or understand his subtle nudge then. I do now.
Professional practice is defined by transformative moments. These are little blips in the career seismic chart which resulted in a shift in perception. The frustrations described above conceded the conclusion that Advocacy is birthed from scorn
Career experiences crusted with turmoil yields privilege. When we are given the seeds of privilege we are tasked, in turn, to sow them and cultivate them. It is our responsibility to survey the path ahead. Scorn is the road we navigate; perseverance is the new surface we lay so that those who come after us know the way. I must never forget the mothers who came before me and continued to practice through every moment that lacked understanding, empathy or decency.
With reflection, I have support as a mother in the socially acceptable ways, but not in the ways that are obvious or tangible. My current firm advanced and supported my abilities as a woman, but produced a stressful environment as a mother. I was ignoring the warning signs until the big confrontation occurred. I failed to accept and clarify to my senior staff that my capabilities had changed but my professional desires had not. I was oblivious to the impact that my parenthood was having on my job performance.
Much of the impetus that created the conflict of perception occurred because I was in a work environment that was not conducive to the new life I had. My work hours shifted and my daily drive went from a 40 minute cruise to a nearly 90 minute gridlock. The commute was harboring unnecessary stress as two hours of my day were consumed in transit. The firm's business model is formulated on extreme deadlines. As such, I no longer have the ability to support that model. My capacities changed and now I no longer fit into their fast-paced, rapid deadline, work production culture. There's nothing personal about that, just a simple fact.
Ultimately I have learned that when difficulty arrives, (and it will, it always does) it is important to feel the consequence of scorn - but then, put down the pitch fork and open up a dialogue. Nothing is as powerful as telling your story to help the next new mother avoid a similar anxious state. I am getting real and summoning the courage to make my next big career change. It is difficult to lay aside seniority and familiarity in order to adapt to an evolving lifestyle and career.
I am going back on the job hunt. Predictably this new mother is moving onward, despite it all, I have to. I have the privilege and the skills to polish my portfolio and lay aside what is professionally familiar. I desire a career and a family, this is my new reality. I wanted it all; I am a new mother, now I am dealing with it, on my own terms.
EQxD Get Real: Bias & Privilege Blog Series
If you liked reading this feature, you may want to explore these other posts.
- EQxD Get Real Series: Bias & Privilege by Rosa Sheng, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Being the Only One in the Room, by Mark Gardner, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Be Willing to Listen | Recognize our Privilege and Bias, by Katherine Williams, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: The Weight by Marilyn Moedinger, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Architecture - Open to All by Jared W. Smith, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Bias & Privilege, should it define or limit your dreams? by LaShae Ferguson, Assoc. AIA
- EQxD Get Real: Check your bias blind spot by Sharon R. George, AIA
- EQxD Get Real: When Insomnia Speaks, by Alicia Liebel-Berg, Assoc. AIA
- EQxD Get Real: The Mom Bias vs. The Mom Privilege by Meghana Joshi, Assoc. AIA