Whenever people ask me if I’d like to have kids someday, my answer is the same:
“I’ve always liked the idea of having a family,” I’ll say. “I’m just frantically trying to get my career together before motherhood blows it up.”
The subject of motherhood and a musical career is a conflicted part of my personal history. This is in large part because I know that for my beloved mom, it became very difficult to have both a singing career and a family. My parents were both singers — you can imagine how flush with cash they must have been! — and my father’s career flourished much longer than my mother’s. (Gender wasn’t the only factor, of course. Fatherhood made things quite difficult for him, too. For starters, the piano and the television were in the same room for awhile.) Mom had three children before she was thirty, and the priority quickly became feeding, clothing, educating, and loving those three little ones. And that meant more real estate selling, less singing. She was the most amazing mother that anyone could have asked for. But I know there must have been times she missed performing.
Fast forward twentysomething years and, because of all my parents’ sacrifices, I have two degrees in performance and the chance to build a really exciting career in Chicago. I’m married to a wonderful man who is a feminist and supports my career as if it were his own — and who I know will be an equal partner with me if and when we have a child.
But I’m still terrified.
What am I scared of? I’m scared that my husband will get a job that takes us away from the network I’ve built over the part four years, leaving me underemployed and caring for a newborn in an unfamiliar place. I’m scared that because my work is “so flexible” and rarely comes with a benefits package, it might be the work that becomes financially unnecessary and thus, hard to justify once kids are in the picture. I’m afraid I’ll be too exhausted from nurturing a human being to nurture my dreams.
And it’s not just myself I’m scared for. When you’re in a string quartet with three other women approaching (or passing) thirty, you can bet that motherhood will strike your career even if it doesn’t strike your life. This year, the quartet has dealt with immigration lawyers, performance injury, and the death of my mother. But I have a feeling motherhood could top all of these as a rehearsal killer.
The quartet has joked about saving money by hiring a babysitter to come to our rehearsal location and care for all of our kids in the same place. Somehow I don’t imagine this is an eventuality that an all-male quartet is planning for. This is because motherhood is something we’ve been bracing for — and our mentors have been bracing us for — since we were teenagers. My first violin teacher, who I loved, told me that being a musician would make it hard to have a family. I was fourteen. When my master’s degree teacher essentially had the same conversation with me a decade later, it was like coming full circle. These are conversations that I don’t think are happening in the lives of male performers. Because historically, parenthood hasn’t strangled men’s careers.
There is hope. Hope in this Chiara Quartet post about touring with babies. Hope in this interview with Sarah Kirkland Snider. This weekend alone, I met two new colleagues, composer Mara Gibson and soprano Juliet Petrus, who are building flourishing careers with young children. I know that it can work out, and that there’s no such thing as really having it all. We all make choices. My own mother would tell me to stop fretting so much. And Sheryl Sandberg would say sure, it’s unjust — now get cracking.
But I think it’s important to be aware that for some musicians, there’s a harder landscape to navigate out there — one that includes the choices of our mothers and our grandmothers and the unmistakable, constant ticking of a clock.