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14 December 2009

Emerging from the fog – composing and motherhood

Christine McCombe Image: Christine McCombe  
© Bridget Elliot

I can remember a conversation with one of my composition teachers in Edinburgh several years ago where I brought up the subject of wanting to have children, and the conflict I perceived between wanting to maintain a career as a composer and bringing up children. His response (more eloquently expressed) was that he didn't know any women composers whose music had suffered as a result of having children. I have held on to this thought over the last couple of years, during which time I have had two children and my career as a composer has been on hold.

I wanted to write something of my experiences of motherhood and the urge to create, and the sometimes troubling relationship between these two central aspects of my life. Having children has been a choice, not one that everyone is fortunate enough to make, and certainly not one that I have ever had second thoughts about. My children are a source of inexpressible joy and happiness and may well be my most successful creations to date. That having been said, the reality is that being a parent is extremely challenging, exhausting, time-consuming and energy-depleting and, certainly in the early years of parenting, it is difficult to find the necessary time and space to maintain an independent creative life.

Having spoken to many mothers on this subject, I think the early stages of parenting (i.e. looking after babies) can be characterised as a fog of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, and I certainly had very little inclination or expectation to write music during this phase. It is the time when one starts to emerge from this fog that thoughts of creating start to creep back into view. It was around this time that I started to reflect on the situation in which I found myself; at home with two small children, with most of my mental faculties back intact, with ideas about pieces of music that I wanted to write, but no time or quiet space in which to write them. I thought about the particular quality of isolation faced by parents caring for small children at home, where seemingly days can go by without much in the way of stimulating adult conversation - conversation with one's partner usually being severely limited by the demands of small children. In my experience, this isolation is also connected with a dip in self-confidence and a diminished belief in one's ability to function at the same professional level as one did pre-motherhood.

While I was pondering all these things I was delighted to discover that someone had written a book that dealt with many of these issues - Rachel Power's timely book The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (2008). This book looks at how various Australian artists, writers, musicians, composers (including AMC-represented composer Elena Kats-Chernin), who happen to be women and mothers, have negotiated this tricky path.

In her blog, Rachel mentions that several of the women she approached to be in the book declined because they did not want it to be widely known they were women, let alone mothers. In many ways I was not at all surprised by this response, and even in writing about my personal experiences here I feel quite vulnerable to criticism. Surely I should just be getting on with the business of writing music or mothering or both and not drawing attention to myself. Given that the field of music composition is still quite unbalanced in terms of the representation of women, I perhaps feel this more keenly than if I was a writer or painter. However, I think there are enough composers who happen to be women, who happen to have children, to make this subject relevant for discussion.

I have focussed joyfully (most of the time) on parenting for the last several years and I am now keen to re-engage with my own creative practice as a composer. For me, part of that process is about reconnecting with ideas and work and people and to that end I've set up a blogspot as one way of articulating my ideas and experiences, and hopefully establishing some new connections and networks that will feed into the creative process. And more importantly, I have started writing music again, in small achievable chunks of time. At the moment, I am exploring the concept of ma (a Japanese word for the space between things) in my work, particularly as it relates to silence and the act of listening. I feel that my approach to writing has changed - partly because time is limited but also because my reasons for writing music have subtly changed, and because motherhood, like any significant like event, has changed me.

Further links

Christine McCombe - AMC profile
Rachel Power: The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (www.rdog.com.au/main.php?id=dividedheart)
The Rachel Papers - Rachel Power's blog (http://rachel-power.blogspot.com/)
Spaces Between - Christine McCombe's blog (http://christine-mccombe.blogspot.com/)

Christine McCombe is a composer, sound artist, occasional photographer and video maker and a mother of two. Her music has been performed, recorded and broadcast internationally, including performances by the Vienna Piano Trio in Vienna, The Dunedin Consort in Scotland and the Australia Ensemble in Sydney. The recording of her work for the Australia Ensemble, Night Alchemy, was selected for the Australian submission for the 2002 International Rostrum of Composers. Recent works include The Fastness of Forgetting, a video chamber ensemble work premiered by Topology and a vocal setting of texts by Ern Malley, Sonnets, to be published by the Lyrebird Press in 2010.


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fullness follows fallow

Hi Christine, thanks for writing this.  I well remember the foggy days (I didn't feel like writing anything really when Raph was small) but better still, I remember emerging from the fog about 2 years later (regular daycare is a godsend) and finding such a renewal of creative energy.  The fallow years felt well worth it & I have no regrets at all because I didn't miss a moment of my child's babyhood - they are little for such a short time after all.  I wouldn't be afraid of another period of not writing because I also know the opposite - a new kind of pregnancy - a fullness of purpose and the feeling of being so centred within and aligned in one's creative power that everything flows as if the music is writing itself. Then there's that other trick you mention - finding ways of composing in any available chunk of time - that is true virtuosity! Working every day is good - essential really. when you become a mum you couldn't care less what anyone thinks of you which is just the right place to be in as an artist.  good luck with the composing, take care and bon courage!

Liza Lim


So true

Hi Liza, Thanks for your comments. I laughed at your comment about not caring what other people think about you when you become a mum.  Partly because I'd just gone out in public wearing tracksuit pants, but mainly because I think it is so true and so liberating.  I am much less concerned with what people think about me and that has in itself freed me up both creatively and personally. There is something about coming through all that being a mother entails that really does give you a greater sense of confidence and self assurance - and you are right - this is a very good place to be.


Must be a common theme

Hi Christine

Long time no see! Interesting to read your thoughts, even though I'm a dad not a mum, which doesn't seem to be thought of the same way. I particularly agree with the feeling of coming out the other side, which applies to any major event in a person's life. After something that splits your life into a "before" and "after", like a major car crash, a medical scare or becoming a parent, artistic blokes are also concious of dropping the worries about how others will judge them as well.

It certainly makes for a very free sense of creation when you're composing. It must be that some of us are entering our "mature" phase now...   :)

Andrew Batterham