ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Monique Lugo-López is the President and Chief Operating Officer at Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón.
What I learned when I returned to an office job environment after 14 years of “freelancing” and being a full-time mom.
From the time I was 14 years old, I knew that I wanted to grow up to be an architect. My interest resulted from my desire to work in a career that allowed me to exercise my artistic abilities while exploring my interest in science. I pursued my dream of becoming an architect at the University of Michigan (GO BLUE!) and learned that architecture was more than just designing buildings.
It’s a vehicle that allows me to leave a mark and make a difference in the world. I obtained my master’s degree in 1996 and came back to Puerto Rico with the goal of being a traditional architect and seeking a job at a renowned local firm where I could contribute to the built environment of the Island.
By age 30, I was a licensed architect working in one of the largest architecture and engineering design firms in Puerto Rico. My job mattered. I was designing important projects that allowed to manufacture products that saved people’s lives while contributing to the development of the local economy. Professionally, I was growing and living my dream—but I was also married, had a 9-month-old baby, and was 4 months pregnant.
At that time, I made the correct but difficult decision. I quit my job to become a stay at home mom and began free-lancing. I made that decision because at that time I thought I had no choice. There were no flexible professional opportunities available at the company where I worked that could offer the freedom of being present with my babies, while advancing my career at the same time.
Getting a new job was out of the question, as no one would hire a pregnant new mom with 5 years’ experience. At the time, I was convinced I needed to make a choice between my career and motherhood. I chose being a mother and my career became my hobby.
This hobby came with all the responsibilities of a full-time job, very long nights and little professional advancement. It was a very difficult juggling act. It was physically and mentally exhausting. Everything: my children, my husband, my home, my family, and all of their needs, took priority over my “freelancing.” I was working very hard trying to accomplish it all. I was blessed to have a husband who was able to carry the economical weight of supporting the family on his own.
Consequently, the income I produced was not indispensable. It was unimportant to the family unit, but to me, as an individual, it was essential because it provided independence, security and self-worth. My freelancing was also very isolating. I often felt I was not intellectually challenged at pursuing my dream. There was no hustle in my career. I felt bored and professionally unfulfilled. The necessities and wishes of others always came first, and I was always defining myself by what people thought was best for me.
On the other hand, as a mother and wife, those 14 years staying at home were filled with joy, games, laughter, tears, satisfaction and a lot of work. I was blessed with being present at every moment and milestone of my children as they grew up. I was able to provide my family the gift and security of my undivided attention and presence, and wouldn’t change a minute of it. These are the experiences that have brought me to where I am today.
Three years ago, I was given the opportunity to join AD&V as a full-time architect. It was an opportunity I was not seeking, as I was content with what I was doing. I was keeping busy at trying to remain relevant in my profession. I carefully pondered the possibility; my children were already teenagers, and this opportunity aligned with the dream I had when I was naïve and idealized my career. Naturally, I said YES.
At the age of 45, going back to an office environment full-time was a real challenge. It was very hard to concentrate in an open office environment. I felt old. I was no longer in the “young crowd”. I lacked confidence. I feared failure and not “being good enough.” I was not caught up with the latest technology. Because I was accustomed to trying to do it all myself, collaboration did not come naturally.
All the challenges of my new job led me to fascinating discoveries about myself. I felt relieved to use my brain to pursue my passion. I rediscovered I had professional aspirations and goals. I am competitive and ambitious, and I began to feel it was ok to want more again.
I enjoy being challenged. I also realized that I was trying to do it all, and I wasn’t sharing parental responsibility equally with my spouse. Yes, I was older, but I could become a role model to other women architects, in a profession dominated by males where there are few women leaders.
I also learned that I did not have to conform to what was expected of me. I had choices and I would not allow others to talk me out of what I wanted. Most importantly, I learned that my personal aspirations mattered and that pursuing them gives my life meaning, and makes me, and those around me, happy.
Based on my unique experience, I wanted to share how I’m making it work today, and hopefully inspire others to let go of their fears and pursue their own passions:
1. I have embraced the new me. I try to let go of the guilt and will not apologize for being myself and the choices I have made.
2. Whatever I choose and decide, I give it my all, with passion. I am prepared to face and embrace all the consequences—good or bad.
3. I set my own goals. My goals are centered around my values and principles—what is important for me.
4. I schedule MYSELF first. I make it a priority to take care of myself- physically, mentally and spiritually. I have started going to the doctor regularly, improved my eating habits, exercise regularly, pray and meditate.
5. I have become a master delegator. My husband says I “outsource” everything. I use delivery services whenever possible and I’m not afraid to ask for help. It does take a village.
6. I decide what is important, I show up for it and make it a conscious choice to be present.
7. I accept that work-life is unbalanced. It is a juggling act. I have recognized that I need to settle for less than perfect and be flexible to adjust to changing priorities.
8. I share my domestic responsibilities with my spouse and children.
9. My children and spouse are extremely proud of my achievements. They understand and are grateful for the sacrifices we have all made as a family.
10. I try to say “No” without guilt by constantly reminding myself that— “Every time I say yes, I am saying no to something else.”
11. I try to make the best use of my time by focusing on only one thing at a time.
12. I keep trying to hush the inner voice constantly telling me that others come first.
13. I praise myself and do not bury my accomplishments.
14. I Persist. I am Proactive. I choose to be Positive. I recognize I have it all and I can make it.
15. Most importantly, I try my best to communicate effectively (there’s still a lot of room for improvement) so everyone at home and at work knows what they can expect from me.
I felt I needed to relate my experiences with all working moms and readers out there because even though the experiences and motivations of each individual are diverse, we all face moments in life where we struggle and oscillate between what we want, what we should do, and what is expected of us. Don’t be afraid of wanting to achieve your dreams and remember that when there’s a will, there’s a way!