"Having It All": Hilary Apfelstadt on Music and Motherhood

The most-requested topics people ask me to speak about often fall under the category of work/life balance. Throughout my career, gender has seemingly been more important to others than to me. Maybe naively, I pursued a career in music and academia, while expecting to raise a family and find ways to “have it all.” I did not make allowances for myself as a mother who worked; forty years ago, no one else did either!


When the children were small, my university students wanted to know how to balance raising them with working fulltime; younger academics wanted to know how to climb the tenure ladder with children in the picture. As I moved through the ranks, post-tenure, and the children got older, the questions continued. My graduate students wondered if and how they could be successful as conductors and music educators and have relationships and raise families, so they sought advice. As a senior faculty member, I moved into a mentorship role where mentees sought far more than musical guidance; indeed, they asked probing questions about finding their way in the profession, navigating academia, working with community ensemble boards, getting involved in professional organizations, making an impact as musicians while still having a personal life. Often, they would suggest that they were modeling after me.

There was no magic path, I told them, but hard work, perseverance and good fortune had been my companions. At the end of my doctoral degree, I was sharing with my mother worries about working fulltime with two young children: should I step out for a time and then come back? Or should I take the opportunity being offered to accept a full-time job with a newborn and a one year old? My mother said, “You did not earn a PhD to stay at home.” Coming from a woman who gave up a potential career to be a minister’s wife, that was strong advice. I felt a sense of relief to be honest; she was giving me permission to do both. From then on, I knew there would be no changing my mind – it was going to be a complex life, but it was a very rich one.

As Ruth Watson Henderson shared stories of her life as a mother and musician, raising four children and serving as professional pianist and composer, she inspired me. To complicate things further, she was married to a minister whose congregations expected her to take a visible role in the church, and she was often traveling for work or performing in the evenings or on weekends. Far from playing the role of the “minister’s wife,” attending events with her husband and being present in the church much of the time, she was an independent woman with an identity of her own. Her children knew her as a musician as well as their mother, and as adults, express their great pride in her. In her own right, she was a trail blazer.