Shush, mommy is working.

by Gloria

The Children of Clara and Robert Schumann in: Correspondenz Sonderheft II, Aachen 2013; and Thomas Synofzik‚ Clara Schumann und ihre Kinder, in: Clara Schumann. Ein Künstlerinnenleben, Leipzig 2019, p. 52–57

This week was Spring Break. Theoretically, my schedule was not as busy, which means that I should have had more time to spend with my kids. But as it always happens, all kinds of emergencies crept up on me, and I ended up spending the majority of the week working.

On Friday, I found myself lying in bed late at night, feeling depressed. I imagined how one day, all grown up; my children would reflect on their childhoods and realize that their lives have been ruined because their mother was unavailable to them growing up. They would blame me for not being involved in their lives, not volunteering enough at school, not helping with their homework, and not making peanut butter sandwiches like the parents of “normal kids.”

The truth is that I could have put away the work and focused on doing leisurely activities with the kids just as I planned, but my mind was so preoccupied that I would not have been able to focus on them anyway. So, I imagine that the decision to let them play with each other and with friends and be independent was the best I could do under the circumstances. I did manage to get to the kitchen twice and make lasagna and cake! The rest of the cooking was done by my husband and the Thai restaurant Valla.

On Saturday morning at breakfast, I told them how terrible I feel about not taking them to the MET as I had planned. They sat quietly for a minute, then looked at me and said: “Mom, it is fine. We don’t like going to museums.”

A few years ago, I saw an article being shared on Facebook by colleagues who were parents of only children.

The title was ‘The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Having Just One Kid”.

The title immediately infuriated me because it made me realize that I had accidentally missed out on yet another “secret” to female success. I suppose the “secret” of having just one kid was a step up from the “secret” I heard growing up — that women who want to be successful in their careers should not be mothers at all.

The article is a pretty good read despite its title. It debunks the idea of what a “good mom” should be and defends women’s right not to turn away from their cravings for creativity and career, to serve their children. It allows women not to feel guilty about devoting themselves to work.

And yet, we all feel that sense of guilt at one point or another.

Joan Didion’s daughter Quintana once pinned a list on their garage door summarizing her mom’s “sayings” — “Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working.” How many of us find ourselves interacting with our children via these very same sayings daily? Especially now, during the pandemic, when everyone is constantly jumping from one Zoom meeting to another and in desperate need of a quiet space to focus. My list of sayings also includes “Take a shower, walk the dog, take the garbage out, do the laundry, empty the dishwasher.” I hear myself yell out all of these commands several times a day, often without hearing any response in return.

My kids changed a lot this past year. Almost overnight, their bodies, voices, and attitudes became more grown-up. They no longer need my husband or me. This is not to say that the love between us has vanished. They are just busy exploring their independence and unique set of skills and interests. Every time I look at my daughter, she seems taller and more womanly. She is also incredible in math … or so I am told.

Growing up, people often told me that girls develop faster than boys in their early years. However, boys eventually catch up and often surpass us by the time they are done with University. I remember thinking that this was incredibly unfair and couldn’t help, but fight this inequality throughout my life.

I repeatedly witnessed the girls in my class succeed in their school work, while many of the boys struggled. Not all, but many of them did. We wrote better, solved math problems, followed directions, got better grades, and were generally more disciplined.

Years later, when looking at various early education models, I understood that the system during communism was flawed and geared towards submission and compliance. It was therefore not favorable to energetic children, who needed to move or express themselves physically. Young boys were often more active and needed to spend their energy doing physical activities. By being constrained behind desks and constantly asked to sit still, memorize facts, and recite various slogans by memory, they could not develop naturally, focus, and learn. I often saw in my early days how the teachers favored the girls and punished the boys, publically, in front of everyone. Of course, we were all treated with cruelty by the system. We were not praised for our achievements because we could not be proud or full of ourselves. But still, we saw those who were high achievers, and frequently, in the early days, it was mostly girls.

Maybe this explains why society saw boys as being “behind” when young.

By the time we reached high school in the late 80s, communism was about to collapse, and we all refused to comply with the rigid system. But at that time, I did begin to see high achievements by the boys around me. I guess they had “caught up” with me, and it was time for me to think about ways to bring myself to a higher level to keep up with the secret race.

Motherhood, family, cooking, and cleaning had no place in this race.

As a teenager, I spoke to a girlfriend of mine who was a high achiever, perhaps even more ambitious than I was. She told me that she planned to work as a man for as long as possible, but eventually, she would prefer to take a step back and become a full-time mother. I looked her up recently and saw that she did fulfill her plan. She had a brilliant career in her 20s and 30s, then left everything behind, moved to many countries and continents, married a couple of times, and had a bunch of affairs with women and with men. Eventually, she had a child and settled in what seems like idyllic family life, running a restaurant on a beach with her professional chef-husband.

Being a full-time mom and a housewife has always been a secret dream of mine. Keeping house, cooking, taking care of the children, ironing, taking baths, and prepping myself to serve my husband dinner when he returns from work seemed like an ideal way to live after years of struggling in the competitive and fast-paced life of a professional musician.

My husband decided to give me this dream life since I wanted it so much.

Our kids were young, we were living in a foreign country, and for the first time in my life, I lived entirely dependent on my husband and in charge of the family. We had a lovely apartment with three bedrooms, a balcony, a modern, fully equipped kitchen, a washer and a dryer, and everything else a homemaker may desire. Every morning I would make breakfast, send my man to work, dress the children, take them to kindergarten, then enjoy a day of chores, walks, reading, and preparing for the family gathering around the table in the evening.

Strangely, after just a few months, I found myself sitting in one of the bedrooms with a massive glass of scotch in my hand, talking on the phone. I was unshowered, disheveled, fat, wearing an apron, and having an out-of-body experience. I could see myself in that room; it was precisely noon. The kitchen was a mess of dirty dishes and a half-eaten breakfast. The floor was dirty; cockroaches were running around. I had forgotten a pile of wet laundry in the washing machine in the bathroom, and I could smell it as it molded. The trash cans in all the rooms were overflowing with dirty diapers. The kindergarten director was calling me because my daughter had not stopped crying since I dropped her off, had soiled herself, refused to eat the school food, and I had failed to send a change of clothes or a lunch box with her.

So much for that experiment.

When it comes to feminism, I am late to the party. It took me years to realize that I am and have always been a feminist. Some of us are born this way, and no matter what, we will always, consciously or subconsciously, strive to be on equal foot with men.

Growing up; I associated women’s liberation with communists. Like everything they touched, they corrupted the movement by making it into nothing more than a superficial slogan. True, women were encouraged to get a University education and to pursue professional careers. They were put on propaganda posters, wearing uniforms, driving tanks, trucks, reaping machines, smiling under hard hats, and holding various vials while doing scientific experiments. Women were working, and since everyone received more or less the same income, there was no pay discrimination in the workplace.

But at the same time, I saw my mother and my grandmother do laundry, cook, clean, do childcare, and serve their husbands after work and on holidays. My mother did not have the luxuries of my Western housewife life. She did the laundry, including cloth diapers, by hand. On Saturdays, she would close herself in a dark bathroom in the morning with a pile of my dad’s dirty shirts, my brother’s diapers, and all the rest, washing by hand, with bleach, until every single stain is gone. She would emerge from there, late in the afternoon, hang everything to air-dry on the balcony, and then sit, exhausted and wide-eyed on the couch, her hands red and swollen, with scaly dried out patches, which no cream could cover. I watched her do this work, and every time I spilled something on my perfectly laundered white t-shirt, I knew that I was causing her more scrubbing, more hours in that retched bathroom.

Of course, the women of her generation and my grandmother’s generation were different than I am. They took pride in being superheroes at work and in their homes. They took pride in serving the perfect dinner every day, taking care of every detail, and providing the comforts and beauties of their family lives.

It was me who was not interested in that life. I wanted more freedom, more independence, less laundry.

When I was taking my oral exams for the Doctoral Degree at Juilliard, the question of women composers came up. I was young and stupid. I wanted to be original. I started with:

“I am not a feminist.”

“It is okay if you are,” said Professor Pia Gilbert, looking at me with squinted eyes.

“No, thanks,” I said. “I have no interest in women composers merely because they are female. They should be seen as composers and judged on their merit as such. Their gender is irrelevant.”

I can still picture myself back then, young and confident, sitting in that airless Juilliard exam room and throwing Clara Schumann under the bus.

“The only reason we even mention her today is because she was married to a genius. Her musical opinions were disgraceful, her compositions — mediocre at best. It isn’t very comfortable for me to hear her works programmed together with Robert and Brahms. How could anyone with musical talent and intuition write to Brahms that his third violin sonata was too long? How could she complain that Liszt’s b minor sonata lacked depth? How could anyone commit Robert to a mental institution which during that era meant certain death?” and on and on I went.

It took me years to understand how wrong I was.

Not only was Clara an incredibly talented composer, but also she was able to care for not one, not two, but numerous children while supporting her family by giving concerts all over western Europe. And her decision about Robert … only someone who has had to deal with the mental illness of a loved one knows how challenging that decision must have been, how heartbreaking, how utterly terrifying and devastating for her, for Brahms, for their children, for the whole world of music. Robert, whom she went to court to marry against her father’s wishes. Robert became a musician instead of a lawyer because he met and worshiped her. Robert, who depended on her interpretations to “sell” his music.

Pia did not interfere in my rambling speech. She did not ask me a follow-up question or to give specific examples of Clara’s music because she did not want to put me on the spot and fail me. I remember her face, her impeccable outfit, coiffure, and old world elegance as she was looking down at me with i puzzlement. Today, I wish that she had failed me, and made me take that exam again because I deserved it. But more than anything, I wish that I knew then what I know now. I could have been there for my Clara, my Fanny, my Amy, and all of those incredible women of the 19th Century. They are and always have been my heroes.

Gloria and Isabel are the writing pseudonyms of Bulgarian pianist, teacher and concert presenter Lora Tchekoratova, based in New York City.

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