Being a Mom and a Woman in Construction seems like a dichotomy on the surface. The first role aligns with the natural order and the latter is a title that breaks barriers and challenges society’s perception of a woman’s limits. For many women, these two roles have become a badge of honor, both holding a sense of pride. It’s a complicated balancing act and it comes with a ton of barriers that any woman carrying the responsibilities of these two roles knows very well. Tonia Rivers, founded Mothers In Construction, best described in her words as an “ organization that elevates the voice of mothers in our industry so that we can finally detail what we need to remain active players in this industry.” Her passion for this cause is sparking tremendous conversations, especially through her phenomenal podcast where she encourages open and honest conversations while building community and support. She is a breath of fresh air and her mission is a commodity worth sharing so when she agreed to take time out of her busy schedule for a Q&A, I was excited for the opportunity. Check out our interview below and make sure to continue following Tonia and Mothers In Construction!
AC: As a fellow Mother working in construction, I have been a fan of yours from the moment I heard about your mission to help Moms navigate the construction industry. It's desperately needed and I'm so excited to dive into this interview to get more people aware of your work. So, to begin, how would you like to introduce yourself and the many titles that you have held throughout your career to where you are today?
TR: Thank you, Angela! So I am Tonia Rivers. I actually started my career in 2005 as an estimator for a large-scale general contractor in the DC area. I was initially disappointed with the company’s decision to place me in the office but it was one of the best opportunities. Starting in estimating gave me an appreciation for the front end of a project and also helped me develop the mindset of partnership and establishing relationships with subcontractors. I estimated a project, which I thought was really cool and meaningful. It was a 450,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art psychiatric facility with historic elements. The company was eventually awarded that project and I asked our operations manager if I could be on the team to build the project. He said yes and the rest was history. That was a great project. I started off as an Office Engineer and left that project as an Assistant Project Manager. For the next 10 years, I worked on many projects across several market sectors and worked my way up to Senior Project Manager. Don’t ask me how I found the time, but I also got married and birthed three children lol. In 2020, to support my husband who is on active duty Army, I moved with my family to North Carolina and worked as a Project Officer managing MILCON projects for a major DOD agency. My assigned footprint was the entire Midwest region of the United States. In 2022 I decided to venture out to explore entrepreneurship by starting a construction consulting firm and also turning Mothers In Construction into a registered 501(c)(3) organization.
AC: I know you are an O.G. when it comes to badass women in construction but for those that don't know, how many years have you been working in construction and how long had you been in the industry before you became a mom?
TR: Can’t believe I’ve made it to O.G. status!!! I’ve been in the field for over 17 years. I became a mom 7 years into my career.
AC: Did you have a defining moment in your career or an "aha" moment where it was clear women lacked the support they needed? What made you decide to dedicate yourself to the cause?
TR: Well, I had two moments. The first was experiencing the premature rupture of my water membrane 7 months into my first pregnancy while walking at my job site, which happened to be two hours from my home. I was rushed to the hospital which was a few minutes from the job site. The doctors put me on bedrest for 2 weeks to give my son a better chance at survival. After his birth, he had to stay in the NICU for a month. It was surreal. That entire month was like having an out-of-body experience. I was still two hours from home and five minutes from the job site. The only thing I could think about was my baby fighting for his life. I blamed myself for choosing work over my child. No one forced me. I was just dedicated to my project, my team, and my craft. At that moment, I experienced the mental and physical tug of war most mothers in construction face. We have to make tough decisions of career vs family. After the birth of my last child, I had a hard time transitioning back to work. I was working on an intense, demanding, and high-stress project. Don’t get me wrong it was an awesome project, but this pregnancy hit differently. It took my mind and my body a very long time to recover from the pregnancy. I thought I was ok, but I was not. I cut my maternity leave short to return to work and it was a mistake. I also could not keep up with the demands of the project and I felt like a failure. It was a really dark time for me although the reality was, my team and I made miracles happen to get the building to C of O and completed an extensive amount of work in a short amount of time. After getting the project to that milestone, I put in my two weeks to quit my job and take on another position that I believed would be less demanding. In my mind, construction was not for moms. In response, the company I was working for at the time worked with me to provide a more flexible work schedule and reduced my workload. At that moment the light bulb went off. It isn’t that construction is not for moms, moms just need grace and flexibility during certain life transitions.
The best thing to do is to support mothers by providing grace and advocating for resources to supply necessities needed by moms such as having adequate onsite lactation facilities /areas
AC: The name "Mothers in Construction" is a rallying cry for any woman navigating their career while balancing a family but how would you describe MIC to people unfamiliar with the title?
TR: MIC provides the mic to mothers in construction. Our organization elevates the voice of mothers in our industry so that we can finally detail what we need to remain active players in this industry. Starting the podcast was a way to empower women to speak their truths and let the world know women are valuable, irreplaceable contributors to this industry who need to be supported through every aspect of their lives.
AC: What's the best thing for our allies to do if they'd like to advocate as well?
TR: The best thing to do is to support mothers by providing grace and advocating for resources to supply necessities needed by moms such as having adequate onsite lactation facilities /areas
AC: You launched a spectacular podcast with a library of 50 interviews! First, congratulations on the sheer volume of quality conversations that you have held. Second, you do an amazing job of really opening up the conversations to everyone. What made you decide to be so inclusive with your approach to the conversation and what have been some of the most eye-opening points of view that have been shared on your podcast?
TR: Well, it was important for me to tell the story of moms from different lenses…how our spouses see us, our children, our allies, and ourselves. Hearing the stories of others through their viewpoint provides a very interesting and needed perspective. I’ll share two eye-opening points of view. The first was with my children. Sure they see me in action and hear my discussions about MIC but it was a proud moment for me to realize they really SEE ME. In episode 16, my babies, then 3,6, and 9, provided their thoughts on mothers in construction and provided encouragement to our plight. That meant everything to me! It was so surreal. They spoke from the heart and it showed me that my work means something. They will continue to be allies because even at young ages, they recognize the value and strength of mothers in our field. The next eye-opener was Episode 43 with Lashanna Ingraham. She told the story of being fired for being pregnant. This impacts women in the trades. I’ve always been on the management side. I could not tell this story. It was important to hear her truth and also hear how she took that negative experience and rocked it by starting her own business. She took back the control and is now killing it! How empowering is that! My heart is racing just thinking about it. Mothers need to hear that. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s not impossible. Don’t quit, pivot !
AC: Congratulations on recently filing Mothers in Construction as a 501(3)(c) nonprofit! How would you describe your mission today and how would you describe where you see it in the years ahead?
TR: Our mission is to improve workplace conditions for mothers in our field and also empower them to advocate for their needs. In the years ahead I’d love to see an established community of moms in our industry supporting one another. Gone are the days of hiding our pregnancies in oversized safety vests. I want all mothers to be able to enjoy and be happy about their pregnancies rather than worrying about project schedules and job security. With the establishment of policies and procedures, this can happen. MIC will push these conversations and actions.
AC: If you had to name the top 5 issues facing a mom working in construction, what would they be?
TR: Job security, lack of streamlined maternity leave transitions (post and rebirth), Poorly fitting safety gear, lack of adequate lactation facilities, lack of knowledge of rights within the workplace9
AC: I love your motto "Make it happen!" It seems straightforward enough but it packs a punch or maybe more of a reminder and much-needed nudge that women need sometimes. Why does this phrase resonate with you as a mom and a woman in construction?
TR: Because it’s what we do! We aren’t left with choices. Mommy always has to figure it out. We’ve had to figure out how to give life and maintain our careers, heal those booboos, nourish those minds, and keep enough energy to stay charged to keep going each day. It’s a lot, but we do it! We make it happen
...Be encouraged. Motherhood is tough, but also a very rewarding experience. No one should be discouraged from experiencing this joy.
AC: MIC has a big mission and is tackling a huge problem and the resources needed are endless. What are some of the resources you hope to provide as you continue to grow the MIC community and how has your consulting work helped shape your approach when tackling these needs?
TR: There are a lot of great resources out there. I’d like for MIC to serve as a connector for all of the needs of mothers. Whether it’s for career development training or mental wellness support. I also would like to bring awareness to the rights within the workplace . Mothers need to understand what employers can and cannot do legally. Employers need awareness as well so they can better prepare for their workers. My consulting business provides construction-based training to small, minority, disadvantaged, and women-owned businesses. It has allowed me to shape my approach by understanding their specific needs and being intentional about the experience.
AC: What would you say to a woman working in construction that would like to start a family but feels discouraged?
TR: I would say be encouraged. Motherhood is tough, but also a very rewarding experience. No one should be discouraged from experiencing this joy. Seek support from your community. Talk to someone who has been through it. If they got through it, you can as well!
AC: That is great advice! Is there anything else you would like to share that I may have missed?
TR: I’d like to stress the importance of reaching back to support one another. A phone call, a text, with words of encouragement can go a long way.