Monday, April 28, 2008

That ol' chestnut - motherhood

This evening I had a surprise phone call from a good friend who recently took on a very full-time job in a town far away. We spent a little time catching up, as you do, talked about our children and other bits and pieces and she said, "So, are you teaching at the moment?" I patiently explained that no, I am on maternity leave because Lillian is only 6 months old and I don't plan to go back to work outside the home until Feb 09 at the earliest. The tone of the conversation suddenly changed, and it has thrown me somewhat out of kilter this evening. Suddenly I felt like I had disappointed her, and I had nothing of interest to talk about.

I found myself trying to justify my non-teaching life by explaining that I have a commission that I'm working on. But an hour or so earlier I happily talked to my husband that even though our children have been sick for the past five days, of course I enjoy caring for them even though it's hard exhausting work. That's my "job" and my first priority at the moment. Who else is going to do it, and why should they?

I certainly don't intend to criticise working mothers because I am one even though I work at home and in the evenings. I think it was the sudden assumption that, because I'm at home with my children, doing the kinder drop-offs and pick-ups, taking care of my baby and not going out of the house to work, I'm not really doing anything productive or meaningful.

I believe that despite what the government wants (more women in the work force), there is a cultural swing towards women staying at home and caring for their families while their children are very young (under 2 or 3). Whether that means they restructure their lives so, like I do, they juggle work and children without losing their career, or whether they even put their paid work on pause while their children are young. I do believe it is happening a lot more than is being talked about in the media. Perhaps it's all part of the generational change. The median age for a woman having her first child has risen, and many women have already reached significant career and financial goals prior to starting their family.

Of course there are also many women who would go insane if they had to stay home full time with children! If you absolutely love your job and the people you work with, you're lucky - whether or not you have children. In recent years I haven't been as fortunate, so I'd rather stay home and work on what I want to, rather than beat my head against a brick wall at a place where I'm not appreciated or taken advantage of, in the best sense...

Recently I read an interview with the composer Liza Lim, who said that she did no composition at all during the first year of her son's babyhood. I completely understand how she felt:
There was the period beforehand – gestation – where I really felt my creative power go somewhere else. The tide really went out a long way, and I wrote a couple of crappy pieces where I just couldn’t get it together. I was just in La-la land. I had my child, and I didn’t do anything for the first year of his babyhood – I didn’t even try to. Then there was that whole thing of trying to rediscover my creativity on the other side, which I think lots of women have. ‘Am I the same person in some way, on the other side of having had a child?’

Composition is such a mentally draining activity, that by the time you get through the day's work caring for small children, if you have any brain cells left to write music it's probably happening in your sleep. But I digress.

If this subject interests you, go and read this book, which I found a revelation when I read it a couple of years ago. Not everyone will agree, and that's fine. But do we need a Queensland or overseas holiday every year? Do we need those giant 4WD tractors mowing everyone down in the city streets? A giant-screen plasma TV? A new wardrobe every season?

Whatever. We are lucky that we really can choose what we want to do. The main thing, for me, is that our children are happy and healthy.


Jean said...

Dear Maria,

You most probably do not remember me. I began the master’s program in composition at USC when you started your DMA. I am not quite sure how I stumbled across your blog, but I did one night when I could not get back to sleep after being up with a sick child and I felt compelled to respond to this entry.
After USC, I finished my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, began teaching, kept composing, etc. I always thought I would continue to work full time and not let children “get in the way” of my career. Now, I have two beautiful daughters (aged 7 and 2) and my husband and I are in the process of adopting a son. When we adopted my second daughter from China, I decided to stay home for a year to help both girls adjust, and have continued to stay home for now. Slowly I realized what is really important in life. I have run into the situation you described with your friend many times. I am tired of feeling like I have “failed” because I am not “working.” We are all working mothers. I work very, very hard all day taking care of my children. I compose in the evenings or early mornings when I manage to have a few good brain cells left. I am tired of apologizing for putting my family first. I do not know what the next few years hold as far as a work/life balance, but I will make sure my family comes first. Composing is a very large part of who I am, yet in the end, if I write fewer pieces but have a strong relationship with my children and my husband… For me, there really is no choice to be made.

Enjoy your family!

Best regards,
Jean Milew

Maria said...

Hi Jean,
Of course I remember you. Glad to hear you are doing well and have a family, how wonderful that you could adopt children who needed loving parents! I completely agree with what you said. Thanks for replying!

Matthew said...

I suspect (but do not know from personal experience) that we may also realise that composition is not the be-all and end-all of our existence once more important things come around, i.e. children!
Maybe it's also just a part of us all changing as we get older, reassessing our lives.

Maria said...

This is very true Matthew. The catch for women though is that once you take time off to have your children, often the work doesn't come back and you find you've been either forgotten or written-off (excuse the pun, lol). It's a conundrum.