Music and mothering

Many musicians were shocked and disappointed to read the recent comments of the new Oslo Philharmonic conductor, Vasily Petrenko, about women conductors. When asked why he thought there were so few, Petrenko replied that men “often have less sexual energy and can focus more on the music. A sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else.”

The tedious assumption that men are unable to control their impulses is easily disproved, and as for “sweet girl”, well, I won’t even dignify that one with a response. What I disliked a great deal more, however, was his next comment about women musicians with children: “When women get a family,” Petrenko opines, “it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as the branch demands.”

Much has been written on the dilemmas of women in demanding careers who also want to be mothers. The tone of these articles never fails to annoy me, not because the dilemma isn’t real, but because they always treat the career-children conundrum as the mother’s problem, not the father’s. Indeed, the fathers are seldom mentioned; when it comes to the cost of childcare, this is always related to the mother’s income, even if she earns more than the father. It’s as if fathers didn’t even exist. This puzzling omission bears very little relation to the realities of modern marriages in my circles.

My feelings about this issue are, of course, related to my dual careers as cello professor and mother. “Opting out” may be fine for the wives of New York stockbrokers, but in my profession, once you’ve left, it would be immensely difficult, if not impossible, to come back. A musician cannot “opt,” because options are few. I expect if your profession was in high demand–plumber? electrician?–you might be able to take a few years away from it and fit back in, but even for always-necessary professions such as medicine, I’m sure skills would lapse and knowledge would get out of date pretty quickly. For an overcrowded, underpaid profession like music, forget it. If you stopped playing the cello for five years, say, I doubt you’d be able to get your chops back, much less your gigs. It’s all or nothing: be a cellist, or don’t be a cellist.

This brings me to a point about women musicians who want to have children. Surely, in the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t have to choose between a music career and a family. I didn’t have to choose between them. The idea of abandoning my beloved, hard-won career was unthinkable, but the idea of purposely not having a family was unacceptable. I love music, but I wanted something that was for me, not for Bach or for Beethoven or for my tenure file.

For previous generations of women musicians, this attitude was not feasible. I’ve met older women musicians who decided not to have children so they could dedicate their lives completely to music. Now, I haven’t conducted a survey, but I don’t recall ever hearing of an older male musician saying something similar. Once, about 10 years ago, I asked a distinguished musician and father of four about how he balanced his top-level performing career with his family life. “It’s very stressful,” he told me. “You can do it; you just have to organize yourself much better you used to.” This sounded encouraging, so I questioned him further. That was when he told me that his wife had been the primary child-carer for 25 years, to the total sacrifice of her own career, and that because of his touring schedule, he hadn’t been there for the births of two of their babies. This admission made me feel tremendously sorry for him, not to mention his wife. Imagine missing those first magical moments of a child’s life! And I also felt conflicted (sad? jealous? annoyed? pitying?) that men’s biology makes for a kind of professional flexibility that will always put them at an “advantage” over women, even if that advantage comes with some terrible sacrifices. Our biology may not be 100% of our destiny any more, but it still determines a great deal of how society functions.

So what’s changed? I like to think husbands have. I know a great many marriages still fall into the traditional, society-approved pattern of husband-breadwinner and wife-homemaker, but most marriages between musicians cannot work like this. Part of it is that the vast majority of musicians earn so little that having a dependent spouse isn’t an option. When two musicians marry, therefore, the relationship must by necessity be more egalitarian.

Nearly two years ago, my husband and I welcomed our little daughter to the world. When we first looked into her enchanting little face, we felt that we would do anything to protect her. Nothing else mattered. Our careers, therefore, simply had to be successful; there was no alternative. (Ironically, the comment about being better organized turned out to be true. There are now synced-up electronic calendars, filing cabinets, To Do lists, and folders full of advanced planning that did not exist in our pre-baby days.) Did my career take a hit after I became a mother? Yes, a little bit, but so did his. We can’t travel as much as we did before, and we have to get more than a little creative with our childcare arrangements if we both have an out-of-town concert or a late-night rehearsal. But egalitarianism in marriage affords us both the chance to have careers, and we wouldn’t have it differently. I think we’ve both continued to grow and improve as musicians, because we’ve been strict about building practice time and other forms of professional development into our schedules, and we’re both ambitious, determined people. Caffeine helps; so do babysitters and good daycare. We don’t regret what we’ve done.

This brings me back to Vasily Petrenko, a man only a few years older than me, and a married father of one. It may be presumptuous to suppose that his wife has given up her career to care for their child, and because I don’t know their situation, it hardly seems fair to criticize him for male privilege that he may or may not have. There’s been an outcry in Norway and all around the world over the sexism of his comments, but because he hastily retracted them and claims it was a misunderstanding,  I doubt he’ll have to resign. The whole episode made me think of a sign carried by an elderly protestor at a recent march for women’s rights: “I can’t believe we still have to fight for this s—.” 

I can’t either.


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