Motherhood in Music in 10 steps: The Invisible Work of Mother Musicians

“There was something so valuable about what happened when one became a mother. For me, it was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me. Liberating because the demands that children make are not the demands of a normal ‘other.’ The children’s demands on me were things that nobody ever asked me to do. To be a good manager. To have a sense of humor. To deliver something that somebody could use. And they were not interested in all the things that other people were interested in, like what I was wearing or if I were sensual. The person that was in me that I liked best was the one my children seemed to want.” – From Toni Morrison’s and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart by Andrea O’Reilly 

What I write here highlights some of the personal struggles I have encountered working as a musician and mother in New York City. The iconography and reality of the music business do not consider, include or accommodate mothers. As an artist who chose to become a mother, I have experienced many contradictory emotions and have rarely found literature or support from others that could guide me during my most difficult moments as a parent. The invisibility of motherhood in music makes the daily routine of child-rearing a mysterious and daunting task that one only gets to understand as one lives it. Exposing some of the challenges mother artists face may be the first step to address our needs and hopefully receive more support. Having recently received an email congratulating me on a one-month-long artistic residency at a prestigious location, in which families are not allowed, I could not help thinking “How can I leave my young child for a month?” Why aren’t institutions thinking about this? The idea that an artist can just pack up and leave everything behind is beautiful, but it is also exclusive. In the popular imagination, there is a romanticized view of artists as geniuses entirely devoted to their art, and the most mundane tasks, such as caring for someone, changing a diaper, doing laundry, or preparing dinner are not included in the picture. My child is part of my life and creative practice, teaching me daily on kindness, generosity, patience, and growth. Why don’t others acknowledge this in my professional life?

Photo by Carolina SaezPhoto by Carolina Saez

1. How and when can I get pregnant?

The inequality of wages and opportunities for female musicians has always been present in my mind, from music school to the moment I became a professional musician. This made the decision of becoming a mother a difficult choice to make. I wanted to be a mother, but I feared I would not achieve my ambitions if I stopped making music to have a child. By the time my professional career started, at the age of 27, most of my male peers were already touring extensively while I struggled to get a gig in New York City. The lack of role models of female musicians embracing motherhood while staying on the scene being revered by their peers was blatant. The stereotype of the male musician who continues to ascend in his career, even during parenthood, opposes the experience of the reality of the working mother musician. Mothers often seem to disappear from the musical arena, in order to embrace childcare.

2. Fear and nausea

Fear invaded my mind when I found out I was pregnant. The realization that my body was not my own anymore became very clear almost immediately. I wondered if I would still be independent? All I could think about was how my musical life and my career, for which I have sacrificed so much, would be affected. Would I have time to practice? Could I continue to tour? Would people still call me for gigs? How would I make money?

With all of these worries swirling in my head, I did manage to stay musically active during my pregnancy, right until the last month, but it was not always easy. During the first 5 months, nausea accompanied me from the moment I woke up in the morning. In a professional environment, I had to pretend nothing was happening. Any odor or scent would make me want to vomit. I could barely eat and all I wanted to do was sleep. Yet, the buzz and activity of New York City kept waking me up, making me move forward.

3. Health care and lack of support

As an immigrant and freelance musician in the US, I had no guidance in navigating health matters in this country, and therefore, I didn’t have health insurance. I applied for Medicaid, and being eligible to have it, gave me access to free health care during my pregnancy. Accessing health in a foreign language is always challenging, regardless of how fluent you are. How do you understand the hospital rules, what the nurses say, what the doctor asks?

My regular doctor appointments were a sequence of measurements: weight, blood pressure, heartbeat, blood sugar, measurements of the belly. I was rarely asked about my emotional well-being. I was made to believe I had to endure pregnancy by pretending my life was still the same, without room for complaints or anyone to listen to my struggles. I could not afford a doula, and I imagined how much easier everything could have been with an expert accompanying me at every moment, giving me the advice doctors weren’t willing to give.

I immersed myself in books and articles to prepare as much as I could for the uncertainty of giving birth, trusting my body, intuition and the hospital personnel. I will never forget the fear that fell on me when I entered the hospital while in labor. At 6 am, I was put in a room for triage, scared and alone while everyone acted like it was business as usual.

4. The ever-present patriarchal mindset

I was educated to admire male musicians, who were sensitive and brilliant, geniuses dedicated to their art. I wanted to have what my heroes had: gigs, tours, and recognition for my music. Children rarely appeared or mattered in this picture.

Once pregnant, I felt like what was happening to my body had to be a secret in my professional life until I no longer could keep it. I didn’t want to post any pictures of myself pregnant, fearing other musicians would not hire me anymore. And when it was obvious, I was frustrated to hear comments like “When the baby is out you won’t be available anymore.” Nonetheless, my mind stayed focused on being productive in my career until the last moment of pregnancy. Before giving birth, I accepted a gig on the other side of the globe at 6 weeks after my baby was born. At the time, I couldn’t imagine not doing it because of the reputation of the engagement and the generous concert fee. The money that was offered would allow me to live comfortably for 3 months and enjoy my baby. I did not predict how heartbreaking the separation would be. I sobbed at the airport when it was time for me to travel, and it is now hard for me to believe I left my baby behind to travel all around the world for a 4-day gig. Still breastfeeding, I had to pump milk before leaving NYC to freeze, and during my entire trip, pumping every 3-4 hours, to help my body continue to produce milk. In between, I would rehearse and perform.

5. Representation and Identity

It is so rare to see real images of pregnant musicians, performing, rehearsing, or teaching. Even rarer seeing mothers (and fathers) at work with their children. The pressure on female musicians to look young, slim and beautiful prevails all the time. When our bodies start to change, we’re confronted with shame for not matching that ideal look of a women musician. The new weight, the slowing down of everything, the clothes that don’t fit anymore, the huge bras to accommodate lactating breasts. My body, while breathing a new life, was a different one.

No one prepared me for the first days after my baby was born. After 9 months of preparation, hormones flew chaotically over my body, in a sudden and drastic change. My belly looked like an empty balloon and I didn’t know how to hold my baby. A week later, I had a total meltdown. I couldn’t breastfeed, blaming myself for this failure. The pile of laundry only got bigger and I found myself drowning in domestic chores. My body ached, and at night I could barely sleep 3 hours in a row. A lactation consultant’s visit was a miraculous sight, reassuring me I was doing everything right, but the feeling of failure and not knowing who I was anymore was there for the long haul. The first months of a child are the first months of a new mother. This identity shift is profound and sudden.

Image by Rita MagdalaImage by Rita Magdala

6. Childcare and Isolation

In a 2019 speech, Marilyn Waring, a public-policy scholar and longtime advocate of revising economic measures of “productivity,” noted the absurdity of defining activities like caring for elderly relatives or newborns, shopping and cooking, as having no value, or as leisure. “You cannot make good policy if the single largest sector of your nation’s economy is not visible,” she said. “You can’t presume to know where the needs are.” – Jordan Kisner, The New York Times

New York is an expensive city and childcare is no exception. Daycare can sometimes be more expensive than college. What are the options for mother musicians when childcare costs around $1500-$2000 a month? Without another option, my husband and I embraced parenthood and our son stayed at home with us for the first 3 years of his life. I don’t regret this choice, as raising my child is one of the most rewarding and beautiful experiences I ever had. However, I do wish I had had more support. After 2 years, I was depleted and exhausted. I resented hearing how my friends in Portugal were able to leave their babies with their grandparents, or how they had affordable child care options. I desperately needed help with domestic chores or to watch my baby for 2-3 hours so I could do some creative work. Finding the time or room to practice was a constant juggle between childcare, fatigue and the pressure of having to be productive. I brought my son with me most of the time, to rehearsals, to my gigs and tours. My son learned how to be in a music venue or rehearsal studio, and for that, I feel proud of him and myself, for raising a new listener. My peers have been mostly supportive and many times loving and caring in these situations, perhaps not realizing that for me most times, bringing my son was a combination of juggling music gear with toys and snacks, managing rehearsal time with nap times, focusing on the music while making sure there were no disruptions.

Now and then I felt a profound feeling of isolation. Nap times coincided with session times. Concert times coincided with the bedtime routine. Without family around me or even a community to support me, there were many lonely months in which my sense of self felt lost. A night out, other than to perform, was almost unfeasible as I could not spend $100 for a babysitter just to have fun (and usually fun means spending more money). I am forever grateful for having friends who offered to watch my baby because the concept of leaving a newborn with a complete stranger was and still is unfamiliar. To contribute to the isolation, most of the music clubs, venues and concert halls don’t allow children. I once had a musician telling me that I couldn’t bring my baby to a concert because “this scene is not for babies”. I absorbed that quietly, feeling embarrassed for even asking. Most artistic residencies for musicians refuse families and children, with only 10% of artistic residencies in the US being family-friendly. Most grants for musicians do not consider or offer childcare support. I have never seen a children’s room in a performing space. Very few music festivals, studios, or educational institutions have childcare facilities. In general, it is the mother musician who is expected to be flexible and accommodating and not the institutions.

7. The impossible standard

We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create our sexuality, which we have never known. – Silvia Federici

Being a mother revealed another aspect I could not imagine in the arts and music world, one that I have envisioned as a place of creative and open minds. As a female musician, I have consistently felt that the tolerance level for making mistakes was low: a missed entrance, a badly written score, a bad solo or not knowing something could immediately cast me as a bad musician or an outsider, causing much misery, associated with fear of judgment, bad jokes (jokes about singers are many), or career ruin. However, the standards are incredibly high for mothers who still want to be active in the music scene. I can not use my child as an excuse. Father musicians are great dads for taking care of their kids. Mother musicians are just doing what is expected from them. Each time I perform or attend a gig, I am asked about who’s watching my child. I seriously doubt father musicians are asked that same question.

8. The Pandemic

Mother: unpaid female caregiver responsible for virtual schooling, cleaning, nursing, nannying, cooking, tech support. Likely to leave the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. – Marshall Plan for Moms

As we approached the one-year marker of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was offered a shiatsu massage by a friend who lives nearby. As I was lying down to receive my first massage in more than A YEAR, I realized I couldn’t even remember how long I had not been able to relax or let go. As the massage went on, my body embraced stillness and I was able to feel my emotions deeper. I noticed each muscle tension and associated it with different months of the pandemic. At the end of the massage, I recognized I had been holding up space for everything else but me. My son is the obvious priority since he has been at home since March 2020. How to care for his emotional and physical well-being, when seeing other children becomes a complex task? Because he is doing remote learning, my freedom mostly starts when he is asleep. At that time I am exhausted. With the whole family at home, how can I find a moment of solitude to create, compose or practice? Time management is a negotiation and I feel like the mother musician ceases to exist, except for tasks that require little time or focus. How tense and frustrated are mother artists at this time? Who is supporting them? How will the pandemic affect their professional lives? Who will have access to work opportunities when live concerts are a possibility again? More than 2 million women have left the labor force in the last year. Millions more have been forced to cut back our hours or work around the clock to keep their jobs and be full-time caregivers. The impact on women of color is especially devastating. When 30 years of progress can be erased overnight, the underlying system is broken.

9. A new standard of care (Parents Artist Advocacy League)

The Parents Artists Advocacy League has created a great document that I am quoting here. I believe we can look at it as a reference to help create a new standard of childcare in the music field. First and foremost, it is crucial for music institutions to recognize that:

  • We can not have gender parity or gender inclusion without formal caregiver support.
  • The majority of individuals who reduce work to increase time caregiving are mainly birthing people and women.
  • Refusing to provide financial support for childcare prevents birthing people and women – particularly BIPOC birthing people and women, from access to employment and upward mobility in our field.
  • Transgender artists, nonbinary artists, and cis women artists, particularly in the Black, Indigenous, and POC community, make less on the dollar to men and have fewer employment opportunities. They are expected to put labor into finding childcare/caregiver resources in order to work at all.
  • The majority of caregiving responsibilities falls on birthing people and women and removes them from the workplace and work opportunities, including auditions, interviews, and career development

10. Supporting Invisible work

But to not see women’s work in the home is to be blind to the work and struggles of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population that is wageless. – Silvia Federici

The general tendency of making motherhood culturally irrelevant reveals how mothers intentionally and unintentionally get written out of music history and professional opportunities. Female musicians, already burdened by payment and opportunities inequality, often have to choose between raising a family or their careers. The anti-mother bias is so deeply rooted that once mothers, musicians have to either pretend their children don’t exist or just disappear into the void because there is no support for them. Institutions and the community in the music field can think broadly and aim to provide support for motherhood and caregiving.

What kind of support do mother musicians need? What can institutions do to amplify mother musicians’ work?

  • Healthcare support and guidance through pregnancy
  • Paid maternity leave grants, baby supplies fund, childcare support fund
  • Accommodate artist residences to support family caregiver needs.
  • Make the workspace/rehearsal space accessible for caregivers and their child(ren)/dependents as needed.
  • Educational institutions (universities, summer camps, workshops) can support their faculty by having a childcare facility, a creche, where teachers can drop their kids before going to teach.
  • Music festivals, music conferences should include childcare facilities and staff for artists who travel with their children.
  • Inclusive concert halls and music venues (playroom, children’s room, childcare options)

The challenge remains: how to create a forward-thinking and progressive community, in which mothers are also represented and included? The work mothers and caregiver musicians cannot be perpetually undervalued or rendered invisible. Continuing to ignore the struggles mothers/caregivers face is unjust, unsustainable and will perpetually leave out many in our field. Google it and you will find almost nothing on motherhood in jazz, improvised or creative music, except for the Mother’s Day celebration. This absence of articles, analysis, research and critical approach, reveals the crucial work that must be done urgently. We can not have gender parity or gender inclusion until this is recognized and prioritized. Talking and writing about it is the first step, and I hope future generations will recognize that success can have many shapes and directions, with motherhood included in the picture.

Article originally published here. 

by Sara Serpa
A ler | 1 August 2023 | Invisible Work, Mother Musicians, Motherhood, music