Masters student and mother of two, Kate Sarkodee shares the joys and challenges of life on campus as an architecture student mum.
It’s the first week back of the university semester and there’s the new year buzz on campus. I packed my bag – and the nappy bag, too.
I’m an architecture student mum. This is my fifth year of my Masters of Architecture at Melbourne University and I’ve been pregnant or looking after small children since week six of my first semester in 2012. I remember one of my lecturers saying to a mum thinking of becoming a student – ‘You can do this course with small children. People do it. But it’s very difficult.’ Words of truth, my friend. With the end of my Masters degree in sight, my husband and I made the call that I would crack on with the study this year and take our 12-week-old daughter, our No. 2 child, with me on campus.
There aren’t many architecture student mums – we are a rare breed and perhaps even an endangered species. I’ve met just a handful of student mums in my time and only once glimpsed another young mum breastfeeding in the atrium at the Melbourne School of Design. Any discussion on the inclusion of women in the architectural profession must acknowledge that issues of participation, development and opportunity for women starts at the university.
It’s been a wild ride. It’s darn hard to study architecture with babies. I find it tough walking onto campus with a pram – the stares, the looks of worry from other students when the baby squawks, navigating the library shelves with a pram, finding a place to breastfeed. Last year, in the early weeks of pregnancy, I was building shade structures in remote communities in the Northern Territory for design studio, dashing behind sheds to throw up and then heading back out to pick up an angle grinder in desert heat. I realised I had hit a limit when I was clambering over scaffolding when 20 weeks pregnant, assembling and painting a traditional Chinese pergola. At 36 weeks pregnant, I watched the sun come up, having worked through the night to finish a final studio presentation. There are the long days caring for small children and, when they are finally asleep, pulling out the laptop and butter paper for a few hours of design or research. The pay is terrible – in fact it’s non-existent. Students aren’t entitled to government-funded maternity leave. $6000 a year for two days a week of childcare for one child when you’re not earning is tough. And let’s not even talk about the HELP debt accruing. Simply put – there is no short-term financial incentive for women to further their education in any profession.
But being an architecture student mum is also fabulous. I truly enjoy turning my mind to the breadth of learning architecture has to offer. I think it is a good thing for my daughters to see me studying. I hope it is a helpful thing for other students to see that being a parent and a student is possible, and that having children is a positive life decision.
What makes it possible for mums to study architecture? The occasional online subject and recorded lectures have been an absolute game changer for me. Supportive lecturers have been critical. There was the lecturer who offered to record her lectures for me so I could keep breastfeeding my first child when she was seven months old. The lecturers who have said to me when horribly ill with morning sickness, ‘I know you are working your hardest and I understand what you are going through’. The studio leader who said, ‘How great we have a mum in the class! Tell us about your experience of being in a mum’s group and how we should approach the plan of maternal child health services and childcare centres.’ (Wow!) Students have surprised me with their sweetness and willingness to hold babies and help me through the demands of studying.
How can we make it easier? Architectural education is hard won. It requires long hours to think, create, learn and collaborate. I don’t think we can or should change that. It is in those long hours that the flashes of exciting discovery are found. But there are things that can make it more possible for mums to finish their degrees. There are structural and policy issues – like the cost of architectural education (up to $90,000 even for local students – yep, that’s what I said) and the 50 student families on the waitlist for the university childcare centres. Then there are the small things. The Melbourne School of Design offers a beautiful new building, but I can’t find a rug anywhere in five floors of polished concrete on which I can lay a baby down on. The parent’s room consists of a 3 square-metre room akin to a toilet cubicle. Would a carpeted family room on campus be too much to ask for?
We need mums studying architecture. They have a different experience of the built environment that enriches class discussions and design collaborations. They keep it real in the classroom, reminding others that good architecture benefits people of all ages.
If you see a mum with a pram on campus this semester, offer to hold the door open for her – she’ll really appreciate it.
Kate Sarkodee wended her way to architecture via a degree in literature and languages followed by a number of years in the aged care sector focused on design for dementia. She is currently completing a Masters of Architecture at the Melbourne School of Design. Kate is interested in community-centric architecture and expressions of Australian identity.