Lisa M. Cohen, AIA, Has Curated the Perfect Work-Life Balance

March 5, 2019

Lisa M. Cohen, AIA, Has Curated the Perfect Work-Life Balance

In a profession that does not lend itself kindly to young families, I have made it a priority to have a comfortable work/life balance while successfully advancing my career. I am the sole proprietor of LMC Architecture, LLC, and I am a mom.

I received my BArch from Syracuse University in 2003, shortly after getting engaged. When I shared news of my engagement with my thesis advisor she responded, “Congratulations—don’t let it affect your work!” I was continually met with this same half-hearted respect for family life as I started my career.

Immediately following graduation, I worked for a firm of 250+ people in Central New York, specializing in K-12 design. I was a tiny peg in a much larger machine with no real inspiration or guidance. I spent my days drawing toilet details and building up my IDP credits hours in Construction Documentation, but not much else.

A year later I moved to Virginia with my husband, where I found a small, multi-disciplinary firm with a managing partner who was committed to my professional future. Even though he strived to help me complete the IDP requirements and offered me a hearty congratulations when I announced my pregnancy, he offered zero options for maternity leave. I ended up taking my exams while pregnant, and it was toward the end of my pregnancy when I took my ninth and final exam, physically unable to sit for more than 15 minutes at a time. I received my letter of licensure 6 weeks before my daughter was born. At that time, I was told my position would be held for the minimum 6 weeks required, at which point we all hoped I would return to work as normal. But life as a first-time mom is anything but normal. After three months of unpaid leave, I asked to return part-time and was met with insincere uncertainty. I was to “try it out” with the knowledge that my manager already looked poorly upon the prospect.

 

For family reasons, we moved a few months later, and I found myself back home in New Jersey looking for a job during a downturned economy. I was lucky enough to find two part-time positions that had me traveling in and out of offices in NYC and NJ most days of the week, all while juggling a 1-year-old. I met a brick wall. I had fallen out of love with architecture. Architecture was the thing that pulled me away from my family every morning and exhausted me so I was too tired to enjoy my time with them at night. Because I had worked part-time for almost 2 years, I was behind my peers professionally and felt that I was grasping at straws for advancement.

Now pregnant with my second child, I could no longer physically manage the hours commuting in and out of the city, to and from daycare and running to catch a train when I could not for the life of me see my feet. So I quit. I chose family over architecture.

I gave birth to my son, cherishing my time at home with him until my ever-supportive family urged me to follow my lifetime dream of opening my own firm. I started small, working for family or friends during naptimes or in the evenings. Work slowly grew and I extended my hours once my son started nursery school. And now I can happily say that I work full-time, with more clients than I could ever have dreamed of. More importantly, my passion for my work is back. I work longer and harder than I ever did as an employee, but my hours are flexible and built around my family. In the afternoons I am able to be home with my children, who are now in grade school, and though that often means I need to go back to work after their bedtime, I am so grateful for this time with them during their formative years.

This profession we chose is a difficult one. The schooling is brutal. Those first years out of school when many young professionals are looking for their life partner, we are tied to our desks detailing toilets and counting every credit hour so we can finally sit for our exams. If we succeed in fulfilling our required experience hours in a reasonable amount of time, then we are studying for and taking our licensure exams during our prime child-bearing years. As young, newly licensed professionals we need to prove ourselves and work our way up the executive ladder while our babies strive for our attention at home. Being a working mother is hard. Being a working architect-mom has its own inherent difficulties. There is a way, and I am happy to say that though I may have taken a somewhat circuitous route, I found it. I urge managing architects to think outside of the box when it comes to their young employees. Take advantage of smartphones, Wi-Fi and other advanced technologies to allow remote work options and alternative work hours. Encourage a healthy work/life balance.

Lisa M. Cohen, AIA 
Principal 
LMC Architecture, LLC 
21-03 Radburn Road 
Fair Lawn, NJ 07410 
(201) 492-3767

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