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The dissonance of music and motherhood

clarinetShortly after blogging about Rachel Power’s important book The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood, I came across a personal essay by Diana Cassar-Uhl that poignantly illustrates the pain of a “divided heart” that so many artist mothers experience. When you’re devoting time to your children, you’re alienated from your creative work. When you’re devoting time to your art, you’re alienated from your children. When your art is your profession and you’ve spent a lifetime becoming an artist, this dichotomy can be intense — as Diana expresses so beautifully in her essay, which appears below.

This essay originally appeared in ICView, the magazine of Ithaca College, and won second place in the magazine’s 2009 arts and literary contest. Reprinted with permission. (Many thanks to the author and ICView.)

Conflict of Interest
By Diana Cassar-Uhl

I’m contemplating ending my career as a clarinetist. It’s a choice I never expected to face. I thought I’d stay at my job until retirement. Music chose me. I know I could never have pursued anything else without feeling paralyzing regret.

I’m not sure how I got here. One might assume that giving birth to my first child was the turning point that ripped me from my commitment to music, but I experienced a career-defining performance when Anna was not yet eight months old.

About two years ago, at what might have been my last solo recital, another musician was amazed that I, a mother of two young children, could give a recital. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t balancing my career with motherhood the way it seemed I was, that I was losing my mind and felt completely out of control.

My recital program spoke of my past, my present, and my future as a musician and as a human. I had no idea just how connected to that music I would feel until I was giving the performance. It was the first time in years that I wasn’t just playing the notes. I had a lot of things to say — about who I was, what I am going through, and what I desire.

I finished my recital with Appalachian Spring, and it was the stuff dreams are made of. My heart was on my sleeve during those 25 minutes of my life. There were exquisitely musical moments, and the big, sweeping statement of “Simple Gifts” told everyone what I really want — to be simple and free!

I sobbed, right there on the stage. I was filled with joy and sadness and direction and confusion all at once. I crave the simplicity of motherhood, without the shackles of all this “otherhood” . . . the tangible pain that has crept into my musical experience; the despair I feel to my core because I can’t ignore the dichotomy: there are instances of humanity and beauty in my job, but they are overshadowed by cynicism.

This is why I struggle with the difficulties of balancing my hard-sought career with my even harder-sought family. I can’t pretend to feel proud that I’m leaving my children. This negative force brings me frustration and illness. My children are infected with my anger.

I don’t know whether I’ll stay or go. Music has forever claimed a part of who I am. I don’t know whether I’ll find a way to satisfy that need, or if that part of me will go unanswered.


It’s hard to come up with words to ease Diana’s heartache, isn’t it? I think it takes another professional musician to speak with authority to Diana’s experience. About two years ago, I interviewed classical guitarist Berit Strong for the book I’m writing about artist mothers. Because Berit’s words might be of some comfort to Diana — and the rest of us, of course — here is an excerpt from that interview.

Berit Strong: Music and motherhood

Berit Strong, an award-winning classical guitarist, lives in Acton, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children, 10 and 12 years old. She has performed in hundreds of concerts around the world. She also teaches students at all levels, privately and at area organizations.

When her children were first born, Berit took a break from performing. But a few years later, when her children were 1 and 3, Berit received an invitation to play a concerto with a large orchestra. The piece was one of the hardest in the guitar repertoire, and one that Berit had dreamed of playing since she was a teenager — Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Although it would take a year of preparation, she couldn’t say no.

With an infant and a toddler at home, Berit cobbled together practice time through part-time preschool, a few hours of day care, her husband, and capitalizing on any opportunity to pick up her guitar. Sometimes she’d take an evening “nap” and then get to up practice from midnight to 2:00 a.m., or wake up at 5:00 to get some time in before the children work up. “I needed time to memorize really hard music. I couldn’t get that time free of interruption otherwise. And sometimes I’d let them watch an hour of TV in the morning. I tried to be really strategic and practice during every moment of that time. When you want to keep your fingers in shape, just as a baseline, you need to practice your scales for 45 minutes a day. I think with writers, they say your daily output just to stay ‘in shape’ should be 1,000 words a day. It’s the same with any discipline.”

To find enough time in the day to practice scales, learn the new music, get it down perfectly, and memorize it, Berit made conscious concessions. “I got in the habit of doing the house and the dishes at 3:00 in the afternoon. I had this rule that I wouldn’t do any dishes until then. I had to make the most of my biorhythms. Once the kids were occupied, I would practice. I think that made me a better mom than being a goody-goody and doing the dishes in the morning.”

The intensity of Berit’s life during that period made her laugh at the idea of having it all. “When people used to ask me how I balanced my life, I would say ‘You must be kidding!’ There is no such thing as balance. The ancient Chinese didn’t believe in balance; you have to be really intense about your life. Certainly when I was preparing for that concert, balance was a ridiculous concept. I didn’t see anybody, I didn’t socialize. I was getting ready for a concerto. I was happy to sacrifice anything else. No time for jogging, I didn’t promote my career, this was the chance of a lifetime. I once lived in Italy for two years. They think that Americans are laughable in the concept of balance. You can’t have both — it’s really hard to have everything the way you want it.”

Despite the sacrifices, Berit made it work, and focused on the positives. “I didn’t feel guilty because I had really good daycare and my husband was really great. Well, maybe I had a little bit of guilt, but not much because I knew I was a better mom. I was watching them carefully, though, because they were so young, and if you have a workaholic mom, who knows what will happen. It was a finite amount of time, but it was really hard. My husband was really supportive, even though he’s not a musician. He has no vision of what I have to do and how much work I have to do. And there were times when the kids just wanted Mommy. I think there were a couple of instances when the kids were screaming and I had to practice. It was expensive, too. They paid me, but I had to get extra time at daycare. But it was worth it. It was an investment in my career.”

And then, after a year of work and stress, it was all over in a few hours. “When the concert was over, my life really did go back to normal, and I am more of a stay-at-home mom. Being a musician, you get depressed and sad when the concert is over — something you worked so hard for is over in 35 minutes. It was a great moment, but it was over. When you go to a museum, pieces hang there for years. But with a concert, that’s it.”

Today, Berit is still performing, but hasn’t advanced in her career as much as she might have. This was another conscious choice, and an adaption. “I haven’t gotten my first commercial recording out yet. I might be kind of burned out. It’s a wavy thing. It’s hard to keep going sometimes. How can I be a happy person and perform? Classical guitar is so detail oriented — I’d rather play something easier.”

So Berit has found a new outlets. “I keep dreaming of finding more time to be creative. I’m performing more on the viola de gamba now. I met this instrument in college — my husband got me one three years ago. It’s an early music instrument of the 1400s, sort of an early cello, but it has frets and six strings. It’s easier, in a way. I can sit down and sight read and have a blast — it’s really hard to do that on the guitar. I play in two early music groups. We have metal bass strings and gut strings, really gorgeous. When you’re in the guitar world for so many years, it’s nice to have to an instrument that I can sustain — a bow — there’s something about the sound that gives me strength, especially in dealing with my parents. It makes me feel very good. It’s important to have an instrument that you like. My dream is to be better at the gamba.”

For schedule, Berit can usually push for a finite period. “I can go really hard for two or three months. If I worked really hard, had a few concerts, I’ll take two or three weeks off because it’s better for my ear.”

Despite peer pressure, Berit is satisfied with the choices she’s made — for now. “I don’t think that fame is really important. Before children, I was performing in Europe and everywhere, but in terms of quality of life it’s pretty cool to hang out with your kids and watch them grow. I could have chosen to be all over the place, performing and recording constantly. I didn’t want to push myself like that. My colleagues are doing it, but I’d rather do a good job as a mom. I love traveling and meeting people, being taken to places that no tourists have ever gone to. I do want to go back to that, one day.”

For women in similar situations, who can’t travel and focus on a performance career in the way that they’d like, Berit recommends teaching. “I’ve been teaching for 18-20 years, and I think teaching is great. It’s a baseline for your creative identity. You don’t want to lose that completely. I make money, it keeps me in the music world, and I’m telling the students what I need to hear myself.”


Voices from the chorus? If you were Diana, might you feel buoyed by Berit’s story — or deflated?

Afterthought: I believe that my son, who is a freshman at Ithaca College School of Music — Diana’s alma mater — will probably never experience the division that Diana faces. One day he may have a child, but I don’t think he’ll ever consider hanging up his guitar, no matter how much he falls in love with his offspring. Somehow it’s just different for dads. Even artist fathers who are committed caregivers and are deeply involved in their children’s lives don’t seem to grapple with the “choice” that mothers must face. Men are for the most part “allowed” to follow their creative genius wherever it takes them without being accused of abandoning their children. They also don’t seem to feel that leaving their children behind “by choice” is frequently synonymous with having their hearts ripped out. And of course, they don’t seem to carry the blame when there are no clean socks and the fridge is empty.

Why is that?

[photo courtesy aussiegall under a Creative Commons license]

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great article, Miranda. Berit is one cool woman.

    In answer to your last question, I don’t know about the socks part (I am quite capable of walking away from socks), but I can’t help but think that being the one with the womb makes us obliged to our children in a way that’s different from how (most) fathers are. Perhaps that’s why the battle is so strong…it’s nature vs. nature, because the creative urge is just as much a natural, visceral response as the mothering urge. You don’t have to choose between other such urges. We manage to eat, sleep, and also be mothers. But tat the same time, if you had to choose between sleep and motherhood, you know which one you would pick.

    October 22, 2009
  2. To really do this justice I would have to write a blog post of my own but I’ll try to keep it short:

    This really resonates with me because I’m a musician myself. To answer your last question first, my husband is a musician too, abd we both struggle the same way, both doing housework, caring for our son, teaching, and trying to squeeze our own music and practice in where we can.

    The problem with being a musician for me is that it has this aspect of being an athlete, you have to keep in shape. You also need room for thought, some space in your own mind just like every creative person.

    While I’m grateful for the teaching that let’s me stay in contact with my art it also takes away time and energy that I would need for my own playing. Playing with the students in class doesn’t help me get technically better myself.

    For now, my husband is the one who doesn’t have a social life but a CD in the making, and I have basically given up writing songs because I’m so tired and my life is so full that I just don’t want to push myself any further.

    I will go back to it I hope but right now I don’t see how. I admire Berit but I don’t see myself having a life like that.

    On the other hand, giving up music is not an option. The music chooses you, not the other way around, I find if I don’t do anything I get really depressed. So I’ll find a way, I just don’t know how yet.

    October 22, 2009
  3. berit’s
    ‘Well, maybe I had a little bit of guilt, but not much because I knew I was a better mom. I was watching them carefully, though, because they were so young, and if you have a workaholic mom, who knows what will happen. It was a finite amount of time, but it was really hard’

    really spoke to me where i am right at this very second with my manuscript. also about how you work so hard for it and then it’s a deflating feeling when it’s over. the elation of finishing is overshadowed by the the sadness that it’s done. but every creative endeavor is a finite experience. i think i’ve done a lot in recent years, maybe the past six in viewing my life more creatively than necessarily finishing any particular project. i know i won’t always be writing this book, but i want to do it well. i want to finish it, i want to see it in print. i do generally more focus on the kids in the day to day, and recently (six months), as you know have been readjusting that focus to the completion manuscript.

    at the end of last week, i made a promise to myself that this week i would focus on nothing but getting this edit phase done. i would write that hole in the middle of the novel. to in effect, finish. that has not happened. not even close because for whatever reason, life dumped a load of crap from sick kids and self to dryer breaking, iep mtg(s), etc onto my lap instead.

    i spent last night around midnight(way past my bedtime), upset and obsessing that ‘my week’ did not happen as planned. i need to make the focus and utilize my resources (mil/grandma in the home) to the best of my ability and leave the freaking house. today that is happening at the laundromat. do i feel guilty? yes – and no. do i feel resentful? even moreso. where do i fit in the priority list?

    if i am ever going to make writing some form of viable income, if i am ever going to legitimize what i do, the recognition from those in my life to that purpose has to be there, too. when i say, ‘hey everyone, here are some ideas to set up time and space for me next week to take care of this, then they need to step up beyond saying ok and forgetting about it. how do i make this happen without turning into a bratty banshee?

    seriously, i’m asking for some advice to keep from sounding how i felt last night: how to make those around me see what i am trying to accomplish as a something serious rather than feel like they are just humoring me?

    October 22, 2009
  4. Susanne, I think I can understand what you’re saying about the teaching. It has a benefit, but on the other hand, it holds you back.

    Sometimes it seems like all of these choices come down to a complicated cost-benefit analysis, because there is no win-win solution, doesn’t it?

    October 22, 2009
    • One thing to keep in mind on the positive side is that even “real artists” who supposedly have nothing else to focus on but their art have a lot of things getting in the way. No one spends quiet days only working on his/her music or writing morning til evening.

      And likewise the mothers who “only” do the parenting don’t have the feeling it’s enough or they’re good enough.

      In this society we can’t expect to feel good about ourselves regardless of what we do. Both parenting and making art wants more and more and more. Working on it 24/7 wouldn’t feel enough either.

      October 23, 2009
  5. Cathy, to your last point, I think the only way you can make those around you take your work seriously is to take it seriously yourself. If you treat your work like a non-negotiable job, rather than seeking everyone’s “permission” to go off and take an hour for yourself, somehow it becomes more legitimate.

    Here’s a lateral example. I used to feel badly about going out for a run when our weekends are already overflowing with obligations and activities. It seemed so self-indulgent. But then I registered for a half marathon and I HAD to train. I had to get those miles in. I had a deadline and a training schedule. So even when it wasn’t convenient, I was like “Well, I have to get my 6 miles in, so I’m outta here.” Without the legitimacy of that race, I never would have been able to rationalize the time commitment.

    I think it could be the same way with writing. Establish the deadline. Post it on the fridge along with the schedule of smaller deadlines that you need to hit in order to stay on track. Take it seriously, and your family will take it seriously too. It might take them a little while to see that you really mean it, but they’ll get it eventually.

    The external urgency is why entering contests is often a valuable spur. You have a deadline, you have to finish a piece. You do what you have to do. You don’t have to apologize for making that work a priority.

    Sure, there will be times when your plans are foiled by sick children and acts of God. That’s a fact of motherhood that we’re all intimately familiar with. But if you were working on a “real” deadline and you lost your intended morning writing window, you’d stay up at night until you got it done. Again, you do what you have to do. Some people can’t stand that kind of pressure, and other people thrive on it. I do think, generally speaking, that most people agree that deadlines are necessary evil.

    Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if your family doesn’t “get” or even support what you’re doing. You can still make it a priority, even if you have to be ruthless on occasion. Just wait until you publish your book. Then they’ll get it 🙂

    October 22, 2009
  6. thanks, miranda. that helps. i’ve been trying to convey that, but when i’m here trying to work on it, there is still the default mom duty, even with my mil sitting here, too. let’s just saY, MY RADAR IS ON, AND GRANDMA RADAR IS NOT QUITE AS KEEN BEFORE C’S EATING POISONOUS HOUSE PLANTS 2 ROOMS AWAY, SHALL WE SAY….and c’s radar is set to me for neediness.

    oops, cap lock typo, but i could yell that, too. lol!

    however, when i do get to the laundromat today, there we go. i’ll have about an hour plus for just that. i will try to take my hour of brain dead quiet tonight for it, too. although, today is jam packed, so more realistically, i can see ploughing through on it tomorrow am with c in front of pbs in the morning and then friday night and saturday day and night if i just escape. funny thing about having one working vehicle: if i zip out with no one in tow, then i’m guaranteed they won’t come looking for me. ;P

    thanks for advice and vent space earlier!

    October 22, 2009
  7. Diana #

    Hello to all! This discussion is so very exciting to me, and I am thankful to Miranda for bringing me to the table!

    When I wrote this essay in 2007, I had a lot more in it – more about the repertoire I had performed on that recital, about the aspects of my job in music that detract from the ability to commit to the music itself, and about questions I have (we all have) about what, exactly I’m demonstrating to my children (my daughters, especially) about how to live life. The contest that I submitted the essay to, however, had a 450-word limit, so I had to leave a lot on the cutting room floor.

    The hardest part of the last 7 years for me has been the notion that I “made a choice” and that I am trying to “have it all.” Seeing this blog group, the commentary so far on my essay, and reading Miranda’s interview with Berit has affirmed me so much!

    This IS hard … yes, I am blessed in many wonderfully rich ways, but the bottom line reality for me is that I don’t ever feel like I am doing anything well. I feel like half a mother, certainly not what my children deserve; and I feel like I can never measure up in my ultra-competitive work environment. A few of my current section-mates never knew me as a musician before I became a mother, so all they’ve seen is the backstage breastfeeding during intermission, the angst over how to avoid a long separation at bedtime, the au pairs and extra baggage that accompany me and my children on trips, and my frustration when I’ve juggled and arranged things to work out and, like a house of cards, they collapse.

    I am also acutely aware of the difference in the life of a man/father in an artistic field. My own husband is a trumpet player and an AMAZING father (incredibly involved with our three children) and he does a lot around the house, thereby making him look like a “dream husband.” Yet, a mother doing the same things is just “doing what’s expected of her.” Why, Cathy, is it only acceptable if you squeeze in your writing time while you are ar the laundromat? Why, Miranda, is your athletic endeavor something you have to “take” instead of something that is offered to you? As mothers, yes, we have a biological imperative to focus very deeply on our children, but there is little support for the mother who has a need to support her family financially through a career that requires elite preparation and singular focus.

    I have found great kinship in the writings of this blog group and I am so happy to “meet” you all. While I am definitely not happy to hear that others experience similar conflicts, it has been a real affirmation to me that I’m not crazy, or weak, or otherwise faulty for the feelings I’ve felt through this journey.

    October 22, 2009
  8. Kristine #

    Many times, feeling exhausted from putting in too many hours, I’ve wondered if my life would be “easier” if I abandoned my writing so I could focus all of my attention on being just a mom. While my life may be a little easier, and maybe I’d gain a few more hours of sleep, my life wouldn’t be *better* and that’s what’s most important for me.

    I try to remember that quality is more important than quantity, although some days– when I’m feeling impatient about not having finished my book yet and feel overwhelmed by the work involved in getting there–I struggle with that concept.

    I may not bang out my novel in a year, but I’m feeding my soul with the few pages I’m able to produce a night. As a result, the quality of my life is better.

    My writing is more than a hobby and more than just a calling. I treat it as a job, and my entire family knows it. Deadlines are good motivational tools, but they don’t keep me motivated enough as far as my writing goes. The drive within myself is what gets my butt in the chair working.

    Cathy: I know you’ll find a rhythm that works for you. Push yourself to achieve your goal yet also give yourself room to relax when life gets in the way and your best intentions and plans get thrown out the window. You are so close. Make a commitment to finish your book and try to take one step (even if it’s a small one) EVERY day to get there, making allowances for unexpected events that may throw you off. Good luck! 🙂

    October 22, 2009
  9. Kristine #

    Diana, it’s great to “meet” you, too! Welcome to the group.

    October 22, 2009
  10. Brittany Vandeputte #

    As someone who has *abandoned* my writing for the time being, I am truly surprised by someone like Kristine, who struggles to find time to write and yet isn’t made miserable by it.

    I’ve whined my sob story on here a number of times, but I’ll repeat myself one last time for Diana’s benefit. I’m a stay-at-home mom of two boys (3 and 16 months), my husband works 12 hour days on a good day, and my closest family members are 1.5 hours away. The grandparents live clear across the country, so I’m totally on my own here.

    What is expected of me as a mother is entirely incompatible right now with the creative life I want to pursue, and I’ve had to set aside my writerly aspirations just so I can dog paddle through my days , my head only just above water. Sadly, writing no longer feeds my soul. It consumes me, turning me into an angry, screaming harpy, because the more I write, the more I want to write, and the more conscious I am of what Diane said–that “As mothers, yes, we have a biological imperative to focus very deeply on our children, but there is little support for the mother who has a need to support her family financially through a career that requires elite preparation and singular focus,” and apparently I’m the only one who gives a shit about it.

    I love my husband and children dearly, but in the priorities of the day, western civilization will end as we know it if I’m not available to heat up a can of Chef Boyardee, fill a sippy, and clean up after everybody afterwards. No one EVER says to me, “Damn Brittany, what a mess you’ve made of chapter 4. When you get a chance can you go straighten that out.” But God forbid nobody has clean socks or replenished groceries. I have to get on that immediately…

    And I am bottling, bottling, bottling–surpressing all that simmering anger–knowing that even if I erupt and spew my anger forth for all to see, it still won’t make the slightest bit of difference to anyone else if I’m writing or not. It’s better to distance myself from it. Write stupid little blogs about toddler vomit and dog diarrhea, and expose my sad little maternal woes for all the Schadenfruedian world to see. Every time I read a post about another mother in a similar position who is happily struggling along, I grow just a tinier bit angrier and more resentful, and then distance myself a little more from writing so I can cope with a life without it.

    October 23, 2009
  11. thank you brittany! amen! right now, my car full of wet laundry is still sitting from YESTERDAY because i couldn’t get to the laundromat while managing to runaround til 9PM (when i finally ate the dinner i made 3 hours earlier) for EVERYONE ELSE. my mil assured me she would be home from her morning routine over 30mins ago so i could get to the laudromat sans baby c, and dry the clothes and edit and write. still a no show. there comes a point, no matter what i do to prioritize, ‘make it a job’ make the family/ at home day care aware, consult ahead of time, if she doesn;’t show up, i still have no other option but to be the failsafe person regardless of promises set.

    how many hours does it take for 8 loads of clothes to turn to mouldy mush and have to be washed again? and that’s not even getting my manuscript into the picture. the paranoid part of me thinks she is sabotaging my chances of success as a novelist and a mother. admittedly this week is an extreme case, but it does stand to reason that last week, we conferred and she insisted she would do certain things to make it possible for me to finish – ie watch c while i go someplace else, take her out to lunch with her one day so i can work on writing at home, etc. what happened instead? the opposite. she was here more and louder when i could have been writing and scheduled her ‘lunch with c for the one day/time i had something important scheduled out of the house. and did not notify me until she ran in the door saying, ok time to take c to lunch!’ and ran back out with her, making me run late to my iep mtg for s.

    October 23, 2009
  12. Diana #

    Brittany — I feel your pain. I really do. I think I have the opposite curse, though. I am in my job, which is making music. There is prescribed time each day for it, whether I want to rehearse/perform or not … but I never feel like I am doing my craft justice. Never. I’m just getting by, which is, in itself, torture. A different kind of torture than yours, but I see no escape from it.

    I hope to get some time early next week to blog a bit. I spent a lot of today thinking of you all, especially you, Brittany … but never sat down at a computer. Now it is nearly 1 a.m. and I have to go to bed!!

    October 23, 2009

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