How artists can benefit from having children – Emily Doolittle

I found that having children had quite a profound effect on the opera I was writing, says composer Emily Doolittle
Creating great art can be a time-consuming process (Picture: Jon Savage)Creating great art can be a time-consuming process (Picture: Jon Savage)
Creating great art can be a time-consuming process (Picture: Jon Savage)

I had already been a composer for 22 years when I had my first child at the age of 40. I was sure I wanted to become a mother, but apprehensive about how parenthood might affect my music. I knew I would have less time, less sleep, and less money, but I also worried that having children might lessen my commitment to composing.

Would the day-to-day urgencies of life with young children distract me from the abstraction of composing? The popular image of the artist as a wild, unreliable creature who needs freedom to thrive is greatly exaggerated – but not entirely unfounded.

Hide Ad

My oldest is now seven, and I’m happy to say that I’m as dedicated to composing as ever, though the challenges of combining creativity and parenting have been different than expected. I had thought the greatest difficulty would be finding someone to watch the kids while I composed: I hadn’t realised that the limitation would actually be that I don’t want to spend too long away from my family!

Read More
Top composer calls for music tuition to be given protected status in Scotland's ...

I’m very fortunate that my position as a research fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland gives me plenty of hours to compose, but struggle with how my time is always interruptable, as when a kid is sent home from school with the flu. My husband and I divide childcare equally, but even half of the kid-related interruptions are a lot. I used to compose according to the needs of my music: it can days to get into the right headspace to conceptualise an entire piece, and once there I’d work for weeks or months without stop to finish it.

Now I try, though don’t always succeed, to fit composing into the working week. I still struggle with making the abrupt switch between creating a piece and trying to be present for my family.

But even more surprising to me than the challenges have been the benefits. I started my opera, Jan Tait and the Bear, just before getting pregnant with my first child, and completed it shortly after my second was born, when I only had short bursts of time available for composing.

Though Jan Tait is almost an hour long, it consists of multiple shorter songs, which turned out to be perfect for working on in this fragmentary way. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to write an opera if I had tried to tackle it all at once, but working bit by bit, without long hours to worry about the where I was heading, the piece almost wrote itself.

Hide Ad

I had initially intended Jan Tait for adult audiences, but after having kids I realised I wanted it to be something children could enjoy too. This added layers of meaning to the story and music, provided inspiration for the staging, and brought my music to new audiences.

The biggest surprise is that having less time for composing has given me more time for the projects that are most important to me, as I’ve had to learn to say no to everything else. Having children gave me courage to quit a very teaching-focused job, leave the US, move to Glasgow where my creative heart lies, and devote myself to the musical projects that excite me most. I certainly don’t have the balance between creativity and parenting all figured out: things are constantly changing, and sometimes I feel like I’m failing at both.

Hide Ad

But I do want to reassure artists considering parenthood that it is possible to find points of equilibrium, and that the difficulties of combining parenthood and art-making can be balanced by the opportunities for creative growth.

Emily Doolittle is a Canadian-born, Glasgow-based composer, zoomusicologist, and Research Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. You can find out more about her work at

If you are interested in exploring the balance between parenthood and creative life, please join Emily Doolittle for the Tea and Just Talk discussion at 10am on 13 August at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as part of their Summer Events Programme. More information can be found here

Related topics: