3 Mother Architects Winning at Both Parenting and Planning

“You need to be as creative about being a mother as you are about being an architect,” says Marilyn Jordan Taylor.

Jack Balderrama Morley Jack Balderrama Morley

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Being a mother in architecture isn’t easy. Although architecture history is full of fathers who have balanced family and work (and in some cases, multiple families and work), there are fewer examples of mothers who have been able — or been given equal opportunity — to do it all.

Polls and surveys show that although women enter the profession in roughly equal numbers to men, women tend to leave the field in greater numbers as they age. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the most important is that it is hard to be a mother and be an architect. Women are often still expected to or choose to shoulder a greater part of the parenting responsibility, and architecture, like many professions, makes it very hard to raise a child and advance in your career at the same time.

This Mother’s Day, we talked to three mothers in architecture who make it work. Amy Mielke and Caitlin Taylor are both raising their first child, collaborating on their Holcim Award-winning research and design collaborative Water Pore Partnership and are taking two very different paths through their profession.

Mielke is working at a midsize architecture firm in New York City where she lives with her husband and her one-year-old, while Taylor is working on her own projects while teaching at Yale and Columbia and working on the farm she shares with her husband in Connecticut. Marilyn Jordan Taylor (no relation) is the former dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, was the first female chairman of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and raised two children throughout her career.

We talked with them about the challenges they faced, what they found most rewarding and what they would tell other mothers and anyone considering having a child while being an architect.

Left: Marilyn Jordan Taylor via University of Pennsylvania; right: JFK Airport Terminal 4 by SOM via SOM

“I don’t think you start out thinking motherhood and architecture go together.” Marilyn Jordan Taylor acknowledged that when she started her career, being a woman, much less being a mother, made her a rarity. “Was it crystal clear when I went to school and went to practice that architecture is a man’s game? Yes.” That didn’t stop her. She would work her way up the organization, becoming partner and, ultimately, chairman. How, I asked her, did she make it that far while being a working mother?

She acknowledged that women were caught in a bind when trying to get ahead in the office. “The same male culture that is driving behavior in the organization writes the rule that says that you’re not supposed to talk about [how to advance your career]. It’s not ‘appropriate’ and considered less appropriate for women than men to inquire about their future.” But the self-described optimist saw a bright side for female architects:

“The great thing about architecture, and I really recommend this to women that I talk to, is that — especially in the early stages — the best thing you can possibly do is focus on the project and the outcome of the project. You have the success of that project and the relationships that you built around it, and no one can remove that from you unless you let them.

“What I discovered is that when you can not only deliver good work that performs well, is recognized and makes progress for societal goals — whether that’s beauty, greater inclusion or greater affordability — you have that sense of accomplishment, but you also have the new set of relationships. They can count on you, and you can count on them, and I don’t think anyone can rise without that — but particularly women.”

Amy Mielke’s office is a far cry from the one that Marilyn Taylor walked into on her first day. She works with many women and mothers and says that has made balancing her personal and professional life much easier.

“It’s really nice to have people that understand your schedule constraints, and they don’t push back on it. They’re not looking sideways; they’re not looking to put other people in your position. They work to help you be your best.

“My team has two partners who are both parents. They were both really excited when I told them when I was pregnant.”

But, she said, things came up that she never expected — like finding time to pump breast milk at the office. “You get caught in a meeting, or meetings go long, and you have to exit out of impromptu occasions. You try to schedule meetings around your pumping schedule. If you don’t do that, you’re never going to find time. To pump, you have to make an effort; you have to put it as a calendar item. I had a recurring, twice-a-day, half-hour meeting.” Still, she added, it wasn’t her co-workers that minded; it was herself. “Nobody gave me grief about it. I was the only one annoyed.”

Caitlin Taylor added that it wasn’t just being physically separated from your work that was stressful, but also having to toggle between mother and professional modes. “You go through phases with your kid where you have no control. You’re on this journey with them, but they are leading it 100 percent, which is very hard for me and other architects who are used to having a very organized mind and a very organized life. You have to release some of that.”

Caitlin Taylor with her son; image courtesy Caitlin Taylor

All three architects agreed that it was hard to find work-life balance, and Marilyn Jordan Taylor proposed that parents had to approach it in a different way. “Work-life balance is really important, but it never occurs at any one moment, and it often doesn’t occur for an extended period of time. You have to think of balance as a longer-term achievement and not something you can ever measure instantaneously.”

Plenty of articles have popped up online suggesting that the key for women to manage the work place is to find a good mentor who you can rely on for advice and to be your champion. In a profession with few women, and even fewer mothers, at the top, I was curious how these women found role models, but our conversations turned away from traditional ideas of mentorship and toward a notion of extended support networks that help out in informal ways.

“I would love it if someone could tell me what to do!” Caitlin Taylor laughed when we talked about mentors. “I would be really excited if someone came to me and said, ‘I know exactly what you should do.’ Most people just say, ‘Wow it’s crazy.’”

Amy Mielke agreed that it wasn’t as straightforward as finding someone you could mine for wisdom. “We have a project manager and project designer who are both women,” Mielke said. “One is a mother who acts as a mentor for me quite a bit, but we don’t sit there and talk about our families that much. We’re in there to do the work. We pitch in and help out when the other person can’t be there.”

When I suggested that other mothers and women might be more empathetic to the demands on a young mother, Mielke hesitated.

“It feels more matter of fact,” she said. “There’s no drama around it.”

All three women agreed that having a supportive partner was critical to their success.

Left: Poreform, an urban surface by Water Pore Partnership; right: Amy Mielke, image courtesy of Amy Mielke

Marilyn Jordan Taylor was again optimistic that there was more informal support available to young women today. “There are just closer networks of mentoring, connection and friendship that are generously and not manipulatively used.” She added that she was very encouraged by the progress and ambition of younger generations. “If young women today do what their heart says and do it with intelligence, collaboration and empathy, I will be cheering on.”

This isn’t to say that it’s easy for women to balance motherhood and architecture. With so few women at the top of the profession, it clearly isn’t just an issue of finding supportive networks. All three women mentioned the importance of more progressive family leave policy and the ability to have some flexible hours. But Marilyn Jordan Taylor, the most experienced of the three, surprised me when she seemed to suggest that motherhood and career weren’t two poles to be balanced, but that success in one spurred success in the other. Finding her professional footing, she said, gave her the perspective she needed to realize how important it was for her to become a mother:

“I think that gaining increments of confidence in yourself allows you to open yourself up to a clearer understanding of the other elements of your life, how your life will be balanced, how it will have longevity.”

Being a successful mother in architecture, she suggested, wasn’t about being a perfect mom while making partner. It was about finding the right balance for yourself.

Amy Mielke agreed that architecture moms shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. “I think it’s winging it every day,” she said. “Give yourself a break. You don’t have to do everything perfectly, and you don’t need to feel stressed out about it.”

Marilyn Jordan Taylor put it this way:

“I think you need to be as creative about being a mother as you are about being an architect. Be creative about time. Amend your schedule when you have to put family first and then make up for it. Be sure that you generally advocate and help out others, and that has to happen at a state and national scale.

“But you don’t have to be a perfect parent. In the beginning, I thought that if I ever made a mistake, being the woman, I would be bounced out of the room, and that wasn’t true. Being able to laugh at my mistakes, being able to admit them in work, turned out to be a [positive] attribute, and that’s even more true with your children.”

Marilyn Jordan Taylor closed our conversation with this advice for all the architecture moms out there this Mother’s Day: “Just value the time you have and don’t worry about making it perfect. Just spend time together, keep your ears open, and you will have a better relationship with your kids, which is one of the most important things you can achieve in life.”

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