One night,when my son was about six months old, I had just finished nursing him andcouldn’t get back to sleep. As it happens, I had just been invited to give a recital at a major festival, and decided to look for some music for the programme. I went down a browsing wormhole, and around 3 AM I stumbled upon a little song by Polish-Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg called Rocking the child, on a poem by the iconic Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. It turned out to be part of a cycle of eleven songs, and each one sent shivers down my spine. Reminiscent of lullabies, most of the songs actually focus on the mother’s and caregiver’s emotional world. They offer an intimate, honest and poignant portrayal of motherhood and the unbreakable bond between mother and child.
I never doubted whether I wanted to become a mother. But as an ambitious young soprano, I sometimes worried what a child would do to my career and ambitions. I was afraid it would detract from my music-making, that my priorities would change and I would no longer be able to fulfil my dreams. I also feared that people would think I was less serious about my work than colleagues without children, and therefore would be less likely to hire me. Needless to say, my evolutionary drive eventually won over my worrying mind. A certain amount of time later, Ezra was born and my life turned upside down. Guess what: it did change me and my priorities, but the result was completely different than I expected.
At first, I was completely overwhelmed. When I was pregnant, the one thing everyone would say to me was: “Oh, a baby, how wonderful! Enjoy it!” Sure, I knew there would be some sleepless nights and it wouldn’t always be easy, but still, everyone seemed so adamant about enjoying this experience that I thought it must bepretty amazing. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that living on four hours of sleep while breastfeeding 12 times a day and trying to recover from a pretty harrowing delivery didn’t leave much room for enjoyment. Why didn’t they say “Good luck, you can do it!”? or “It’s hard, but you’ll survive!”? After ten weeks of being immersed in diapers, feedings, swaddles, pacifiers and feeling very accomplished when I managed to take a shower, it was time to go back on stage. As I rehearsed with my colleagues, put on my make-up and concert clothes, and went out in front of the audience to do what I do best, I felt a sigh of relief:
That summer was not only the birth of my physical baby, but also a creative one: Händel goes Tinder. Violinist Anastasia Kozlova and I had come up with the idea for this multimedia opera a few years earlier, and developed it together withwriter/director Michael Diederich. We had worked hard through many trials and tribulations to get funding, bookings, organize the tour and produce the show ourselves. And now it was finally time to get the show on the road: with a fantastic ensemble we were going to do over 30 performances across theatre and classical music festivals in the Netherlands.
Was I able to do the pre-performance routine of rest, quiet and a solid 9 hours of sleep I had previously thought essential to success? Of course not. One moment I would be singing virtuosic Händel arias about the adventurous love life of a young single woman, the next I was hiding behind a dusty curtain in the back of a tent, attached to a milk pump. But the funny thing was: I sang better than Iever had. My voice stayed fresh while performing two or three shows a night for six days straight, several weeks in a row. And, perhaps more importantly: I was enjoying every minute of it. I didn’t have the time or brain space to worry about being perfect or creating the perfect conditions for optimal performance. Instead, I felt a freedom that allowed things to go well without needing to micromanage them. As a result, it became so much easier to achieve that elusive sense of ‘flow’ in which performers and audience are truly in sync. And the audience loved it. Almost all the shows were completely sold out, and thousands ofpeople, many of whom had never seen an opera before, were touched by the centuries-old music of Händel.
Now, what is my point in telling this story? It’s not just that I sang well because I was too busy and tired to worry about things. The change that took place inside me by becoming a mother goes deeper than that. As musicians, our profession is our life. When we perform well, we feel good. When we perform badly, we feel terrible. We put everything into it that we have, and it becomes our identity. I always believed that in order to be a top performer, everything else in my life had to come in second place. But when your work becomes that important, where does that leave joy? The freedom to experiment at the risk of making mistakes? And isn’t that where the real magic happens?
In our society, there is a lot of talk about work-life balance. The narrative is: put your baby first and your career suffers, or put your career first and your baby suffers. And indeed, the day-to-day of combining parenthood and work can feel like a complicated juggling act. But what is so often overlooked is what parenthood can actually bring to our work. In the end, making music is about expressing human experiences and emotions in a way that goes beyond words. How better to express those experiences and emotions than by living through them?
Becoming a mother has taught me that I’m stronger than I thought. Compared to growing ahuman being in my body, giving birth and surviving the first year of motherhood, any professional challenge feels like a piece of cake. It has also taught me to trust my intuition, rather than worry about what other people might think. And every day, my son is teaching me to be more calm, more confident and more open to whatever life throws my way. And to laugh about it in the process.
As an ode to motherhood in all its facets, I am incredibly excited to soon present another creative baby of mine: the album This is not a lullaby. It wasrecorded with TRPTK in the Philharmonie Haarlem, together with the incredible TRPTK artists Maya Fridman and Artem Belogurov. It will be released on May 7, 2021, just a few days before Mother’s Day. Made possible by many generous contributors, and above all: my son Ezra.
Listen and order on bandcamp
Listen to the Podium Witteman Podcast where dad-to-be Floris Kortie and I talk about music and parenthood