Where We Go From Here

The pandemic has disrupted the way we work forever. One mom asks what happens when things go back to “normal”.
Mika Larrison, Champalimaud Design

I love my career. I’m an architect by training and work at a small interior architecture firm in New York City. Through 8 years of graduate school, two Masters Degrees, working the back breaking hours of a junior architect, and building my way up to a successful career in hospitality and restaurant design, I truly love what I do. I get excited about the challenge of meshing the practicalities of operations with the desires to create a unique and beautiful space. And even more importantly, I love being a career mom and providing an example of a strong, driven, and successful woman, to my two boys.

I’ve worked in an office full time my entire professional life. When my first son was 3 months old, I dropped him off at day care and jumped right back into to my 40 hours plus work week. Three years ago, we left city living for the suburbs, and I gladly commuted 1hr 20 min. each way to my office and picked up the loose ends at night after the kids were in bed, to stay on top of the rigorous demands of my job. I didn’t know anything else beyond that world and honestly, I had no reason to want to.

When the pandemic started, like most other career parents, I was completely panicked about how I was going to be able to productively work from home. My job requires a tremendous amount of hands on, collaborative work (both with my team members and physical materials) and without in person work sessions, or access to our extensive office library, and I genuinely did not know how to efficiently transition over to an entirely new style of work. I was on the managing team one of the largest projects in the company, and with the architecture and construction world so heavily hit by worldwide shutdowns, the successful completion of our pending deadlines was nothing short of essential for the firm. All of this pressure was neatly combined with the most immediate challenges of replanting myself in a home office (i.e. my bedroom), my husband also transitioning to WFH in the same bedroom, a 4 and 2 year old who were “zoom schooling” and an au pair who suddenly couldn’t have the American experience she had dreamed of, all living in a nicely compact house. Needless to say, the stress and breakdowns were frequent in the early days. 

But like everyone else, I buttoned down and made it work. I quickly became an expert at zoom calls and Microsoft Teams meetings, had material samples shipped to my house and built my own home library, and in general, found that the more efficiently I worked, the more I was able to embrace the little moments with the kids throughout my day. Of course, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. There were the frequent conference calls taken in the car after preschool drop off, the interruptions at 12pm when the kids would come barging in from school, and then at 2pm when my little one would go down for his nap, and then again at 4pm when he woke up. There were the countless late nights of working, after the kids went to bed, to make up for the times I simply couldn’t be as productive as I would have liked. But it was all worth it.

Pre pandemic I’d see my kids, on weekdays, for an hour or two in the morning, and if I was lucky, another hour and a half after I got home before bedtime. That’s it. Working from home, I was, for the first time, a part of their daily lives. We are beyond fortunate to have a wonderful au pair, who tends to the childcare essentials while we are working and makes balancing full time WFH infinitely easier. And as I started to fall into a new routine, I also started having the opportunity to see the kids throughout the day, hear about a playdate, or what they did at school that morning. These little moments not only brought me joy, but they also energized me.

I love being an architect, the challenges and awe of watching an idea materialize into an actual, inhabitable space. And I love, beyond measure, being a career mom… but now, after 10 months of working from home, and seeing what I was missing, I am racked with tremendous internal conflict. The past year has given me a glimpse into the day to day lives of my kids that I never had before. Being able to give them hugs throughout the day, eat lunch together, take a quick break for a midafternoon walk, and yes, even help with occasional full-blown melt down, went from feeling like a luxury to a necessity. One night, about two months ago, I found myself turning to me husband and asking him the question: “What if I don’t want to go back to the way it was before?”

“What if I don’t want to go back to the way it was before?”

COVID has presented endless challenges to our daily lives, but I never anticipated the way it would make me grapple with the harsh reality of being a commuting career mom and how much I’m missing of my kids’ lives. So now, after nearly a year of re-envisioning and re-inventing how I work, I’m in the midst of an entirely new crisis. With my office undoubtedly planning to return to business as usual as soon as safely possible, I find myself clinging to the last vestiges of the life I so feared at the start of the pandemic.  Have I perfected balancing work from home life? Not at all. Am I more focused and productive in my office without the rest of my life going on around me? Certainly. Do I yearn to not spend 80% of my day in my bedroom and on Zoom meetings? That’s a resounding yes. But am I ready to give it up again? Absolutely not. 

So I’m left with the question, where do I go from here? Not working is 100% out of the question, but I can say with the same certainty that working from home full time, post pandemic, is equally a no go.

I’m sure I can eventually negotiate some sort of in between with my office, and while that will ultimately resolve the practical component of not being gone as much, I’m still left with the deep seeded feeling of missing out. I don’t expect that this feeling will go away any time soon. If anything, it’s likely to continue to ebb and flow throughout the rest of my kids’ school days. But right now, it’s at an all-time apex. When I feel myself hitting a breaking point, I do my best to take stock in the simple basics: I am both a mom and a professional.  And I love being both. I try to remember that this is yet another readjustment of work/life balance. The prospect is daunting as ever, and yet at the same time, I head into this one with more confidence than I did last March. If I can successfully navigate a full 180-degree work shift amid a global pandemic, I can surely handle this. Right?

A few days ago I got a text from my older son’s teacher. In it was a photo of him and two friends, standing next to an impressively tall and elaborate block tower. The look of excitement and pride on their faces absolutely burst through the screen. His teacher said she wanted to share the photo because they had worked really hard as a team, come up with an idea, and even when the tower fell repeatedly, they picked the pieces back up and started again. And when the tower was finally finished, they begged her to take a photo to send to their moms.

When he got home from school that day, my son immediately ran to me to ask if I’d seen the photo of his tower, “Mommy we were architects just like you!”

If that’s not reason enough to keep doing what I’m doing, I don’t know what is.

Mika is an architectural designer at Champalimaud Design in New York City, with over 10 years of experience in hospitality and restaurant design.  Mika graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a Bachelor of Fine Art in Industrial Design, a Master of Architecture from University of Michigan and a Master of Arts in Architectural History from The Bartlett, University College London. She is a mom to two boys, Davis (5) and Eiden (2) and lives in Westchester.

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