Minding the Silver Linings
Doula+Architect Kim Holden’s perspectives on designing life & space
by Laura Minca, 18th March 2021
Kim Holden, Founder and former Managing Principal at SHoP Architects, has always been deeply connected to the issues women face balancing motherhood and profession. Now, as a full-time doula, she listens, supports and advocates even more intently, empowering women to acknowledge their priorities and take control of designing their environment – from the birthing room to life in- and outside the workplace.
Although very familiar with Kim’s internationally acclaimed architectural work, I had the pleasure of meeting her personally for the first time online. Much more up-close than a regular phone call, it was calming to see and feel her smile, and enthusiasm as we talked, despite the physical distance between us.
Right now, pandemic-driven hospital policies, social distancing regulations and stay-at-home rules mean ‘virtual’ is how Kim is delivering support to most becoming and new mothers. They are leaving large gaps in care structures, leading to a heightening of the normal stressors that come along with bringing a new baby into the world. Through her practice Doula x Design, Kim is honoured to share in creating a positive, empowering experience and provide comfort and guidance shaped by a strong message that goes beyond the birthing room. Our conversation, touching on her past, present and where the two combine, reveals the very essence of Kim’s intuitive, personal approach. Stressing the importance of support systems, accepting help, and staying fluid to life’s changes and transitions, she teaches us how to take ownership of needs and stay focused on the ‘silver linings’ during challenging times.
On role models and support systems
LM: When did you recognise the value of support systems and role models in your life and career?
Were there women who inspired you along the way?
KH: It's so important to have mentors. I grew up in a family of mostly women: I have three sisters who also have only girls, my mother has sisters and growing up, this was all very normal to me. My family was my network. In architecture, I had studio instructors such as Laurie Hawkinson, Victoria Meyers and Sulan Kolatan and looking back, I wish I had taken more initiative in engaging them in a mentor role.
When we founded the firm, and as it started growing, I realized how much I loved mentoring and simply being there for all the young women experiencing challenges at different stages of their lives. If during the first years I knew everybody's name and family situation, there was a point in time when the firm grew to such extent that I was no longer able to keep track of their personal context. In time, as SHoP's demographic started changing and women in our staff were having babies, I got to experience some of their struggles firsthand. This made me realize I wanted, even more, to be there for them.
I can't stress enough how important it is to seek out mentors intentionally, people you admire, whether within or outside the field of architecture. Just take the initiative, approach them and say, 'I really admire what you do, could we have a cup of coffee? I'd love to ask you some questions'. In my case, as I grew professionally and personally, I realized how important building these relationships was, not so much with mentors but with colleagues who were experiencing the same challenges. Having conversations with people who undergo the same life changes as you, who you can relate to and commiserate with, is so, so important.
I can't stress enough how important it is to seek out mentors
intentionally, people you admire, whether within or outside the
field of architecture.
LM: To encourage retention after childbirth, can architectural practices do more to encourage
conversation and be more sensitive to individual staff needs? With company culture as a top priority, what was the approach at SHoP?
As SHoP's staff numbers jumped to 100-120 people and ultimately over 225, it was challenging not to become more 'corporate' because as we grew, we had to put systems and operations in place that came across at times as slightly de-humanizing. We had to re-learn how to become more cognizant of the staff's needs, and we encouraged people to come and raise the issues that concerned them. Many of the policies were driven by mothers themselves saying 'This is what I propose...' or 'I would like to work four days a week or one day from home' or ‘I’d like to help design an private area for breastfeeding moms to pump’. It was key to understand that one size does not fit all, that everybody has different life situations.
My advice to birthing people confronting these challenges is to take charge, explain what you are comfortable doing and approach the employer with a plan or proposal that explains how it could benefit the firm in the long run. For employers, it's essential to keep the lines of communication open and really listen to their employees. Ultimately, it all comes down to the question - would you really want to lose this awesome employee because they want to work two days at home?
I also think that one of the silver linings of COVID-19 is that there will be a big shift in terms of how people work that will be embraced by employers. Whether you’re a mother or father, why should you have to hide that your kid has a recital and you need to leave? That's just life. Supporting working parents will make society better and, ultimately, make your company better.
LM: Could you give me more insight into how you empowered women to navigate the pressures of work‐life balance during your time at SHoP? And how did you experience this stage after the birth of your two daughters?
One of the reasons I aspired to have my own business was because I wanted to have a better work-life balance. I was not expecting the firm to grow as much as it did, and I did not expect to have my whole life change and be consumed by my work. And while it is true I had more support and flexibility than most in terms of going back to work, it made me empathize and have a much clearer understanding of the challenges that women face.
I ultimately think that being true to yourself, being really
honest with yourself and recognizing what your priorities are
should always come first.
The fear of announcing a pregnancy, of getting fired, of not knowing whether you're still part of the project team when you come back - these are all valid concerns, and there is no roadmap on how to approach your employer about these topics which we all continue to tiptoe around. The load of the logistical challenges, the emotional labour sits most often with the mother, and so my role was to balance the needs of the firm with the needs of these families I felt so close to. I would try to alleviate these fears, but the truth is that there is a lot to be fearful of. Things must change. The pandemic is pushing these issues to the forefront.
I ultimately think that being true to yourself, being really honest with yourself and recognizing what your priorities are should always come first. If you want to go back to being full-time, then own it and set up a support network that will allow you to do that. Don't be a martyr or a hero - you really need to continue being you any way that you can. It's all about self-care and remembering who you are as a person. Most importantly, try not to feel guilty about whatever choices you make. I think the biggest mistake is trying to be someone you are not, hiding who you really are and what you want. Whether it's the workplace or childbirth, I think more change will happen, as more women demand it.
LM: Can you recall your feelings when deciding to leave SHoP? Did you miss anything in the immediate changes and how do you look back at this chapter in your life now?
It was exciting to contemplate leaving but also scary because SHoP was my first baby and my personal and professional lives were completely intertwined. The office was such a huge part of my identity so leaving was a bit strange and disorienting in the absence of a concrete future plan. On the plus side, I used that time to reconnect with family, friends, colleagues, people I hadn't seen in a long time. And they were all part of my journey to figure out what was going to happen next.
SHoP was such a collaborative environment so there were times I did miss the sense of community and camaraderie. But I was ready for a break and most importantly, I was ready for the next thing, whatever that would be.
I don't regret anything. What we created at SHoP was awesome and not in a million years would I have thought we could make all of that happen. I had so many enriching, challenging experiences, worked with incredible people, partners and staff, many of whom I continue to be in touch with. I have actually had five doula clients who are or were part of the SHoP family and that's been the ultimate cross-over.
LM: How did your mission change, recalibrate, as you decided to step away from designing space
to...holding space for others?
When I left SHoP I didn't know what I was going to do next. I assumed it would be in design and I kept saying to myself, 'I'm going to know when I know what it is I want to do next'. And I had a checklist. Becoming a doula checked all the boxes. It checked helping to empower women and girls, making a difference, being my own boss, and I also saw birth work as a platform for greater advocacy and an opportunity to ultimately bring together birth and design.
Both architecture and being a doula are about designing and holding space. In my role as a doula, I look at design at the scale of the human body, keeping in mind the basic principle that we are anatomically designed to give birth. The medicalization of both has stripped this superpower away from many birthing people.
I also study the design of the birth environment. I look at the scale and components of the individual labour/delivery room, labour/delivery floor, birth centre room, or home and the impact that feeling safe, informed and supported has on one’s birth experience. It is all about empowering birthing people – the physical and emotional environment is a good place to start.
I think an architectural education can prepare you for anything
that you decide to do next.
I do think the critical component is creating awareness and helping women know they have choices. So many birthing people don't think they have a choice or a voice. Your birth experience, whether positive or negative, is going to stay with you forever, so why not do whatever you can to make it a positive one. A positive birth is a birth in which you feel heard, respected and have dignity, no matter what course it takes.
LM: Are there times you wish you had become a doula right from the start?
I don't regret becoming an architect. An architectural education can prepare you for anything that you decide to do next. I use a lot of those skills now in practice but also in the way I structured my training, business, mission and how I interact with my clients and care providers. It's in my wheelhouse to start a business so I knew I was going to do it 100% - be professional, have invoices, track my time, all of these things (laughs). And also problem-solving, working with parameters and constraints, reading a room and navigating space - they're all part of my approach. I'm really proud of SHoP, of what we created and what they continue to do. Looking around the skyline and seeing the SHoP buildings makes me feel so honoured and grateful I was a part of that.
LM: Having made a change yourself, please could you give me your thoughts on the following
statement? A career switch should come as a result of soul searching, deep introspection and not as a result of work‐life balance pressures.
I think it's optimistic, a little idealistic but not always realistic. Often the most extreme challenges in life give way to the gift of perspective which can lead to a most impactful and profound change and often, one that you could not have anticipated.
While for some people, a career switch does come from soul searching, it sometimes takes a jarring circumstance to make a switch and then gain momentum on another track. Often that circumstance can be the work-life balance struggle.
I believe that talking about this is incredibly helpful but what I also think is that this conversation, while it mostly affects women and mothers, will truly create movement when the men and the partners in our lives realize that they need to be a part of the solution too. There are many stories currently circulating about women “leaving the workforce” during the pandemic - women are not leaving the workforce; they are being forced out of the workforce. Having people talking about this is such a critical step and while at times it may seem like an uncomfortable topic, I think we are ultimately going to be in a better place if we address it.
Birth support & the pandemic
LM: How do you believe your advocacy for safe, calm, inclusive environments has been challenged and how can it still be kept in focus within the current context of the pandemic?
The transition to virtual support, which I have been offering since March 2020, was uncharted territory and challenging for my clients as well as for me. In the beginning, there was a lot of anxiety as my pregnant mothers didn't know whether they would be separated from their partners at triage or allowed with them in the birth room. And some did have to give birth alone.
Eventually, things calmed down, and I modified the types of virtual services I was providing, focusing on prenatal education, knowledge and resources, to meet the needs of my clients. I did everything I could to prepare them for any possible labour situation or birth but also for anticipating any hospital policy scenario. There has been a lot more postpartum work and lactation consulting, mainly because people are isolated without access to their friends and family members who would normally provide support.
However, what ended up happening is that the partners were a lot more engaged in prenatal education, understanding the stages of labour and in practising certain comfort and labour progression techniques to support their partner. I continued to be available to my clients day and night, however, and whenever it felt right for them. During actual labour, every client’s needs are different - some desire continuous virtual support, or just help in early labour and knowing when to leave for the hospital, sometimes I’m providing support to lone mothers via phone during the birth, while others say 'we've got this, we're good'.
Seeking care is essential, whether through your doula or partner
‐ just don't isolate yourself.
I’ve really missed being there in person, connecting with my clients, being there physically for them and helping them through their labour and in the couple of magical hours immediately following birth. Most of all, I miss holding a newborn in my arms! But there has been something truly great and effective about virtual support that I believe will continue to a certain degree as we transition back to normal forms of interaction. Virtual prenatals for example. For some people a virtual doula is a better fit or if they don’t want someone else in their birth space.
LM: With all the uncertainty and changes surrounding the hospital experience, has there been a rise in home‐births?
Yes. Women began questioning whether it was really necessary to go to the hospital to have a baby in the middle of the pandemic and began exploring what other options were available. Birthing people are the opposite of sick! Generally speaking, people began questioning the medicalization of birth and I think that is a good thing.
LM: With levels of anxiety and loneliness on the rise, how can becoming and new mothers be helped to navigate these times of deep vulnerability?
I think that trying to find your community during your pregnancy is extremely important because it's going to be hard after the baby comes. That could mean joining an online childbirth education or breastfeeding class, meeting people from your neighbourhood, connecting your local parenting neighbourhood forum. Or hire a doula who can introduce you to other clients who are expecting around the same time. Most importantly, acknowledge that this is an issue and you may feel lonely. So reach out, seek resources...ask!
I've always found it to be fascinating how in pregnancy, in the weeks leading up to the birth, women are scheduled for a weekly appointment with their care provider and after the baby comes this support falls away. Seeking care is essential, whether through your doula or partner - just don't isolate yourself. Do Zoom calls, do FaceTime, really take care of yourself. It goes back to creating a calm, safe, relaxing environment and self-care and while it may sound corny, it's so important.
Use this time to determine what your needs are and acknowledge that what you find comfortable might look very different to the next person. Being honest with yourself is key; this is why I try to guide people to utilize their five senses to discover what relaxes them through sound, scent, touch and visuals. Your partner knows you best and can help with all of it.
I think that really understanding your rights as a woman and birthing person, understanding what informed consent is, understanding that you always have a right to ask questions, to take charge in order to have a more positive birthing experience is key.
LM: Do you have any words of advice/ a direct message to future and new mothers experiencing birth and the pandemic at the same time?
I think that really understanding your rights as a woman and birthing person, understanding what informed consent is, understanding that you always have a right to ask questions, to take charge in order to have a more positive birth experience is key.
The tools are at your disposal and it's knowing where to find them. Inform yourself about what your options are and feel comfortable about your choices moving forward - and know why you made them.
Find your people, your community – they’re out there - and although it may be harder to connect with them now, during the pandemic, keep in mind the silver linings. You might find support in places you never thought of before, whether it's Arizona or the Netherlands.
Following our talk, Kim was kind enough to share a selection of enlightening resource
recommendations for future and new mothers. Have a look and get inspired!
Informative birth documentaries:
Current favourite books on pregnancy and childbirth
Why Did No One Tell Me This: The Doula’s Guide for Expectant Parents
*great “insider’s guide”, really cuts to the chase and the graphics are fun.
Your Birth Plan: A Guide to Navigating All Your Choices in Childbirth
*a little more detailed and includes some birth stories.
The author is an experienced doula colleague based in Brooklyn, NY.
Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong and What You Really Need to Know
*very data driven and gives lots of information on why things are the way they are so that you can make intelligent and informed decisions for yourself.
Fantastic web resources on childbirth and childbearing rights (USA):