Supportive partner, parents and employer were integral to Alanna King’s successful return to work after maternity leave.

Photo: National Portrait Gallery

I had been with Philip Leeson Architects for four years when my first child was born. Our director clearly valued my contribution, and when it came to maternity leave and returning to work consistently said, “you come back whenever you want, however you want”. He had three grown children, but the practice didn’t have a policy on or recent experience with maternity leave. In the office I had worked in previously I had seen a number of women head off on maternity leave, never to return. I was determined that this would not be my fate.

Once my son arrived, the realities of mothering and a baby became clearer. This included breastfeeding at three-hour intervals day and night, and a baby that slept well in my arms but never wanted to be put down. The practice was great while I was on leave, inviting us to attend openings, events, office meetings and morning teas, as well as the odd site meeting. Continuing to be connected in this way was important, and allowed opportunities for informal conversations about life, progress and the realities of a return to work. At about the six-month mark, one of the childcare centres we had our name down for offered us some days. At six months a baby can almost sit up without toppling over, and might be beginning to try food. It didn’t feel right to be leaving our baby with others at this age, and we visited the centre but turned down the days offered.

Shortly after that my parents offered to look after my son one day a week. Their house is close to the office, and this involved my commuting back and forth during the day to breastfeed. Alternatives to this might have been expressing and stockpiling milk, but the only private space at the office was the toilets, and I couldn’t come at this. For the first month I was in the office one day a week, rushing back and forth, but I had a couple of distinct tasks and this was achievable. In my second month, my husband began working a four-day week so that I could step up to two days a week. This involved his bringing our son to me for feeds during the day. In the third month – by this time our son was beginning to consume more food – my husband and I each worked three days a week, looking after our son two days a week, and my parents continued to look after our son one day a week.

It wasn’t until I was in the office three days a week that I was able to pick up and run with project work, corresponding with clients, consultants and builders. At 12 months, we all felt better prepared for childcare and accepted two days, allowing my husband and I to return to the office four days a week each. I feel extremely fortunate to have such a strong and supportive network of partner, employer and parents. It simply wouldn’t have been possible to return to work so soon without all of this support. I was also fortunate at the office to be able to determine and manage my own deadlines, and gradually ramp up my contribution. This wasn’t always smooth or easy, but I was upfront with clients and found them to be very accepting and understanding – it turns out parenting and managing return to work is pretty universal.

Alanna King is a heritage consultant and registered architect at Canberra-based practice Philip Leeson Architects. Her most recent experience has seen a focus on embassies in Yarralumla, Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres in Braddon, and contract administration of numerous residential projects.

A version of this article was first published by the ACT Gender Equity Taskforce in their getDEEP (Diverse Equitable Employment and Practice) booklet. getDEEP is intended as an introduction to some of the resources, research and expertise available on issues of equitable practice, including Parlour and the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice. The booklet is available for download here. A version of the interview has been republished here with permission.

The eighth Parlour Guide to Equitable Practice covers Career Breaks. The guide assists employees and practices to collaboratively plan for and manage career breaks, particularly parental leave, and to support a successful return to work life, particularly for women.