Katharine Parton on music and motherhood
Historically, when women have had a career in music they leave the professional sphere
when they marry and then fade further into the background when they begin to have
children. This withdrawal of mothers from public life is largely due to societal attitudes
towards women’s role within the domestic. In a small way though, when you’ve got a
choice between keeping a baby asleep and practicing for a concert any parent will agree -
sleep is always the priority. This begs the question - does it always have to be the mother’s
priority? As they withdraw from professional life, women’s music inevitably becomes a
domestic activity. Mothers are restricted to influencing the careers of their offspring -
supervising daily practice, for example - in ways which must surely rival the famous dads
who have been enabled to have a lot more on their professional plates. It’s the dads who
get the credit as offspring who become musicians are referred to as the son, or sometimes
daughter, of a famous dad, rather than the child of a highly skilled mum. Even when that
mum does continue to work in music (looking at you, Herr & Frau Bach). This is not simply a historical issue - the exclusion of mothers continues today. The recent furore over Julie Fuchs being fired from Hamburg State Opera for being … gasp (!) … four months
pregnant is a prime example of attitudes towards mothers in performance.
For me, knowing that other women have managed to combine the challenges of
motherhood and professional success is helpful (and would have helped even more as a
young performer) ,and so here I am juggling a fussing baby in one arm and writing a blog
post with my thumb in a note-taking app. One favourite example is the comfort I get from
reading about Clara Schumann balancing the writing of a new sonata with Christmas
shopping, concerts, and entertaining visiting musicians at dinners. Next Christmas,
perhaps I too might be described as a “musical genius” (as per the Manchester Guardian’s
review) without eschewing the seasonal trimmings. Although to be fair, today I have
Amazon and Ocado so really have no excuse.
I don’t want to swing too far the other way and label any other potentially eligible person as
a ‘mother’ - which is why I’m steering clear here of popular formats like “Ten Great
Conductors Who Are Mothers” or “Ten Exciting Composers Who Breastfeed”. We know
that being a father adds to a man’s income and prestige, but being known to be a mother
has the opposite effect. Although that does not explain why one never reads in programme
notes - “This dad-of-18 wrote a smashing cantata performed today by another dad and a
bunch of young men and boys who might be dads one day”.
So how can we see more mothers combine musical success with motherhood and (if they
want to) be open about their status as mothers? I have a few suggestions…
What individuals working in music can do:
1. Be open about being a mother. As the first mother to be a Director of Music in Oxbridge,
I did encounter the occasional appalling attitude regarding my ability to fulfil my role whilst
being a mother. Initially, this made me feel I needed to hide my status as a parent. Or it did
until one utterly inspiring musician I had invited to the college asked me if I could
accommodate her son as she was still breastfeeding. In a flash, I vowed to emulate her openness and began to (try) to be more of a role model for the young people I worked with
- both future mothers and future fathers.
2. Be an obvious dad. One of the great privileges I had in Cambridge, despite being the
only mother in any Director of Music meeting, was working with a network of devoted and
inspiring fathers who held many of the DoM positions in other colleges. To me they marked
the way - they were already doing parenting and DoM-ing! I wasn’t the only one to rush to
an Organ Scholarship meeting straight from A&E (ok, I was the only one, but their
empathy was real). I certainly wasn’t the only one sending emails at 3am because that’s
when everyone else in the house wanted to be awake. Having children had also brought
some of the inequities in music to the attention of these great dads, and they fought
hardest and loudest for gender and educational equality, bringing genuinely creative
solutions to hundreds of years of disparity. Even though all of these fathers would be the
first to praise their partners, being an obvious dad really does help the mothers in the
room. Our parenting experiences may not be the same but even the most minor
acknowledgement that we aren’t in this alone helps. Because knowing that quite a few of
us are watching the clock thinking “Either finish this meeting now so I can help with
bedtime or keep me here until it is all over” can make the difference between feeling like I
need to build my own staircase to climb up and realising that actually quite a few of your
steps will do me just fine.
3. Reach out to other musician parents for support and let yourself get it wrong sometimes.
We all do. Even the simple act of asking another musician parent how their kids are doing
can sometimes get you started on a great chat about sleeping, school choices, and the
joys (and otherwise) of helping a small child practice Twinkle Twinkle when actually you
have a pile of scores to prepare for a rehearsal starting in 50 minutes.
What organisations can do:
1. Be openly welcoming. I gave a talk last year at a Gender in Music conference at
Monash University where there were breastfeeding and changing facilities actively
promoted. Mothers were repeatedly and explicitly welcomed. Neither I, nor a number of
other women who attended, would have been able to participate without this provision of
simple facilities and the organisers setting a welcoming tone for the event. Consider who
you are excluding and why, when you don’t provide facilities or you ban children at
residencies, conferences, festivals, workshops and concerts.
2. Consider caring responsibilities in scheduling. The organisation SWAP’ra has
successfully campaigned for a major change to the scheduling culture in UK opera. Opera
Holland Park, English Touring Opera and Scottish Opera are among the first to release
rehearsal schedules in advance so that parents who are working in their productions can
organise childcare around their work. Incredibly, in 2019 this is still an innovation and not
standard across arts organisations.
3. Allow for flexibility. I worked for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra while pregnant
recently and they were amazingly supportive of my need for flexible travel arrangements.
But I have encountered quite the opposite many times from large institutions who simply
refuse to consider the needs of parents and then purport to be puzzled by why they’ve
ended up with all male applicants or participants (again).
What audiences can do:
1. Go to concerts that include and promote women (the more women there are the more
mothers there can be!).
2. Take your children to music events. Help normalise parenting in music with children
attending services, concerts and festivals.
3. Ask groups why they don’t programme women. Promoters do care what the paying
public thinks; so ask about women, ask about all types of diversity, ask why an all-male all-
white programme is being promoted in 2019!