Kitty Whately - Then and Now
Kitty describes the differences between becoming a mother very early on in her career, and then again, ten years on.
No time like the present
I have been a mother since before my professional career began. I was pregnant with my first child during my last year of undergraduate studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, so in that respect I have never known any other way of having a career as an opera singer. They say there is no perfect time for a singer to have a baby, but in many ways starting before I had any career to interrupt was quite a good thing I think. It didn’t matter that I disappeared for 18 months and did nothing in that time, because there was nobody to forget about me anyway. My daughter had me entirely to herself for 18 months, and then, thanks to an enormous amount of help from my own parents, I was able to build a career from scratch alongside motherhood. That is not to say that it has been easy. I experienced some discrimination even from pregnancy, told in an audition that I was mad to think I could do a job like this with a baby. Even as a chorister, schedules were delivered and sometimes changed at short notice, working hours were antisocial and very variable, so professional childcare was very difficult to organise. By then I was a single mother. Sleep deprivation, and the inevitable contamination from endless toddler viruses often affected my job. As my career developed, I started to be offered contracts abroad; but this seemed to coincide with my daughter starting school, and therefore being far less mobile than she had been as a baby- so working away became even more complex logistically, financially, and emotionally. With so much more work abroad available than here in the UK, it has been hard to say to agents that I can take on limited away jobs. The fear of being dropped is very distressing.
Those first 18 months at home, however, had made me more determined than ever before to succeed and to continue. Not prepared to be a full time, stay at home mother, I’ve never been so driven and organised, which has stayed with me since, at least where work and practice is concerned. With so little time to work on my technique and music learning, I became hyper efficient with any child-free time I had, and used every second of it for work, often working late into the night when my daughter was asleep.
The second time around, things were so very different. Fast forward ten years: my career was established, and I was very busy. I had jobs in the diary, which had to be cancelled, and the fear of stepping off the treadmill, of disappearing from the mind of ’The Industry’, was terrifying. I made no pregnancy announcement on social media, and agonised over telling my reasonably new agent that I would have to take time out to have a baby. I dreaded the idea of casting directors and opera companies thinking of me as ‘out of action’ long after I was ready to get going again. So for that reason, I was back to work within eight weeks of my second baby’s birth, and have never really stopped since. Before she was three months old she had been to Beijing and Vienna. I’ll never forget breast feeding at the Great Wall of China! Her first year was a total whirlwind of sleep deprivation, public breast pumping, and and desperation to show that I was still absolutely fine to work and not to be forgotten about. In many ways, I enjoyed it more than those early months with my first baby, when I had felt so lost and lacking in identity. I had felt that in having a baby I had shot myself in the foot in terms of any hope of having a career, and I found the daily domestic drudgery difficult to bear, despite the absolute joy and love I felt for my daughter. This time round, I have been so busy, I’ve barely had time to think about it; but in hindsight, I have enjoyed being able to continue to work, even if it has been manic for everyone involved. It has been good for my mental state, and I have enjoyed my time at home all the more, for not being here every second of every day.
The key to being able to manage both parenthood and career, is support. Without both practical and emotional support it is almost impossible. A partner and/or family who are able to share the responsibilities and logistics of childcare, and who understand what you do and respect your choice to pursue your career alongside being a parent; these are fundamental. Having said that, I know a few incredible parents who have none of the above and have continued to manage admirably, so again, nothing is impossible! I also know how difficult it has been for those few, and take my hat off to them for managing it. I know I couldn’t have had a quarter of the experiences I have had without the understanding and equality that I get from my husband, who is also a singer, and without the endless support of our families. Thanks to them, I don’t think my children have suffered too badly from my being so busy. They are both very used to being with other people, and seem confident in that respect.
I think one big change for me this time round, having been through a lot of it with my eldest daughter, is that I feel a lot more relaxed about leaving them for a few nights. I feel less guilt ridden, and more confident in the knowledge that they are always with loving and caring responsible adults, and when I am with them I give them everything. That is not to say that it is easy to leave them, or that I feel no guilt. Being 10 years older, and a little less ferociously ambitious, I love to be at home and to be with them, so it is painful to have to be away, and I have to think carefully about what I can and can’t take on. With every job opportunity comes the old struggle, can I manage it with the children, can I justify this? Or can I afford to turn this down, and miss out on an opportunity that could lead to bigger things and more work in the future? The logistics of organising a toddler and an 11-year-old alongside working are mind-boggling, not to mention financially crippling. I often feel that what I do is just an expensive hobby, as so very little of what I earn ends up in my bank account.
But I love my job, and I believe that my being happy will ultimately make my children happy, and being a strong female role model will be a good thing for my two daughters to have in their lives. Having both my family and my job is an incredible privilege for me. The rehearsal room is a haven, away from the craziness and noise at home; just as home is a haven away from the pressure and stress of work. The artistic satisfaction I get from a great performance is equal to the joy of seeing my kids learn and develop. Colleagues don’t need their noses/bottoms wiped, and speak adult; but my kids aren’t judging me in any way, and love me unconditionally and uncomplicatedly. I don’t take for granted how lucky I am to have both, and I passionately believe that nobody should be held back from one because of the other, which is why I wanted to be a founder member of SWAP’ra.
There are things about the industry that I would like to change or improve for parents, and I don’t think they are impossible, so I am excited to see what the future holds for opera families. I would like to break down the myth that a singer’s ability to do her job is comprised by becoming a mother. I know too many women who have been advised not to have babies if they want to have a career, or even dropped by agents or shamelessly not given a job because she might be too tired with a baby. It’s complex logistically, and knackering, sure; but it is up to us to judge whether or not a contract is feasible. If in doubt; it is!! We can do it! It’s incredible how little sleep your body (and voice) can survive on, new parents soon discover that! Working along side parenting is a feat of sheer multitasking wonder- I challenge you to find opera singers more organised than those with kids! If anything, becoming a parent brings us depths of emotional richness that we had never accessed before, and makes us incredibly driven and determined. That’s certainly been my experience anyway. Not to say that artists who don’t have children are any less able to deliver as much emotion or commitment of course. Just to say that we, as parents, have so much to bring to our work; as much as those who are entirely married to their jobs and don’t have families, just in different ways.
The ideas we have for SWAP’ra are in no way intended to demand special treatment as parents, or to point fingers at opera companies for not doing enough to support parents. In a time when the companies are under pressure from the arts council to demonstrate their diversity and accessibility, we feel qualified to act as a consultative organisation, to advise them as to how they could revise working practices in order to make the industry more accessible to those with families and dependents. Small changes would make a huge difference to parents, and indeed to a great many others.
To any friends who ask me, when is a good time to have a baby as a singer, my answer is that you just muddle along and make it work somehow whatever the timing. I’d probably agree that there is no perfect time for any parent, whatever they do for living. But the rewards make the logistical stress so worth it, and with the right support, it is entirely possible.