Making it Work: Architecture

In the first of a new series looking at different ways of balancing family and careers, we talk to Amber Gantly, an architect with two children.

I decided to become an architect when I was about fourteen. A friend’s parents were both architects, and they’d designed and built their own house. The mum worked from home, and she felt that it was a good profession for a woman – although there weren’t many women architects at the time.

When I first qualified, I was pretty ambitious. I hoped to have my own practice one day. I worked in Paris, and then in London, in a large design practice. I’d also always wanted a family. Full-time for an architect can be up to 60 hours a week, and there’s often travelling. Even so, I thought I could have it all. I think I was a little naive.

After I had my son, Connor, I took nine months maternity leave, and then went back to work four days a week, spread over five days. At the time, I worked for a woman director. She didn’t have children, but she championed part-time working. It was a pretty new concept in the practice.

Adam, my husband, would drop Connor off at nursery, and I would pick him up and take him home on the bus. The bus ride was sometimes hard, but it meant that Connor and I got 45 minutes of really special time together – sometimes it’s hard to give your child 100% of yourself, there’s always some distraction. We were lucky that at this stage Adam’s work had a subsidised nursery, which meant that we could just about make it work financially.

There were other challenges, though. Working long hours and travelling for work became difficult, and cost money in extra childcare. When Connor was ill we would have to decide who would stay at home with him. Whose work was more important that day? Then we would get ill. The sleepless nights, the tiredness, juggling the pickups and drop offs depending on who had to work late to meet deadlines – it was all a challenge.

Pregnancy with Connor had been difficult, but with my daughter, Bobbie, it was utterly exhausting. By then, statutory maternity leave was a year, and I took this. I went back three days a week, as agreed with my director. It was a boom time, and this really helped my position. I found that certain directors were more accommodating than others, though.

With two children, childcare became more difficult. One child was at nursery near work and the other at the local school. It meant picking up Bobbie from the nursery, taking the bus home, and getting back for 6.30pm in time for Connor’s childminder. Getting out of the office to do this could be a nightmare.

As the children got older, things got easier. There was more sleep, and generally less illness. Ever since Connor started at school, we’ve shared a childminder with a friend across the road – some days she picks up all the children, and some days only two, depending on who’s working. It’s worked well, financially and socially.

There were inevitable questions at work about when was I planning to come back full-time. I worked in a big company which did large jobs, and running one part-time is a big responsibility. They found smaller jobs for me, but the problem with part-time working is that things carry on in your absence and you’re always running after them. One director in particular was out most of the working day, and would hold impromptu meetings on his return, which ran late into the evening. It was often impossible to organise childcare at such short notice.

I did try working full-time for a while. As a family we all got fraught, and I found that I was throwing money at things, to try and buy time. My time in the evening with the children was too short, and Adam and I barely saw each other.

At one point I also did a job share. I think two people working a three day week and overlapping on one day does work, but you need to be sharing the job with someone you trust. It takes goodwill on all sides, communication is key, and it can be tricky if one of you is ill.

Working part-time has meant that my career hasn’t progressed in the way that it did before. Having children leaves you with little time and energy to do the extra things at work which help to further your career, and I think your employer thinks twice about offering you training, because it would mean that you were in the office even less. Sometimes I’ve felt that I’m being compared with someone who does 40% more hours than me. You can’t do the same amount of work, or learn as much, in half the time – it’s as simple as that. And at the end of the working day there’s a choice: you can go to the pub with your colleagues and talk shop, or you can go home to your family. On the other hand, having children has given me some useful insights when designing schools, hospitals and homes – a fact which is often acknowledged by clients.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to join a locally-based architecture practice, doing smaller, more manageable jobs. We’re encouraged to leave at 6pm if possible, and I can walk to work, which saves an hour a day of commuting time.

When I had small children I was very busy and tired, so I took each day as it came. It was hard to stand back and think about my career in the long term, it was more of a holding operation for the future. Now that Connor is eleven and Bobbie is eight, I’m thinking more about what I want to do with the next twenty years or so. I don’t see myself working longer hours for a while yet, though. Equally, I’ve never lost sight of why I went into architecture and I’ve never regretted it.

If I’d gone back to work full-time I would have missed out on a very precious part of the children’s childhood, and the reality is that they’re only small for a short amount of time, and you can never get that back. As children get older they still need you, just in a different way. Being at home when the children come back from school, for some of the days in the week, is still important to me – it’s often at this point that my children mention their concerns of the day. ✿

Amber’s tips for making it work:
• Have a plan, be organised, but also be prepared to improvise.
• Understand that you can’t have it all, but make choices that work for you, your children and your partner.
• You need to enjoy the work, and it needs to pay more than the childcare and hassle.
• Support from your partner, family and friends is crucial – Adam helps out, and does early starts two days a week from home, which means that he can take the children to school on days that I work. My mum has helped with childcare, too.
• Find a supportive employer. Flexibility is important – both from colleagues, and, when possible, also from clients.

✽ Has your career changed since you had children? To share your work story, contact us: