Batons, bottles and booties

Think living on the road for most of the year, learning scores on long-haul flights, and managing rehearsal politics in multiple languages is a challenge? Try doing it on 3 hours sleep, high on birth hormones and wearing a breast pump, and it will seem like a holiday. Welcome to parenthood on the podium.

March 8, 2024
Holly Mathieson

Photo of feet sticking out of hotel bed
Photo: Pixabay Stock Image

It’s 11.10pm and I’ve just opened a score to start studying. Within 20 minutes, I’ll be asleep on the couch. The first rehearsal is two (2) days away. I’m too exhausted to panic. Welcome to life as a conductor with a baby.

I can sense many a baton-wielding reader of the more earnest variety breaking out in a cold sweat just reading that first paragraph, and rightly so. If I wasn’t dehydrated, jetlagged and googling “is playdough on the food pyramid?” while I write this, I would be too.

I can’t blame it all on the sprog, though. She’s actually an incredibly easy little pixie, and has adapted to life on the road incredibly well.

Photo of toddler looking out of an airport window at the planes and vehicles on the runway. She hs blonde hair, and is wearing a lavendar onesie and white trousers with penguins on them..
Matilda at Heathrow Airport, October 2023.

Much of it is infinitely more tolerable with her company, if I’m honest. And I’d be lying if I claimed I was the type to write up a full analysis of each score a year in advance, pre-parenthood.

Yet, somehow, all three of us are still alive, the world is still turning (though our flight is often going against the planet’s rotation) and I’ve not yet walked onstage with a trail of regurgitated milk down my back.

We’re also not alone in managing to balance early parenthood with conducting. On a tea break during one of my final gigs before the birth, a colleague came up in delighted amazement, and said that day marked not only the first time she’d ever seen a pregnant conductor on the podium, but in fact the second. She’d had a rehearsal with another conductor that morning, who was at roughly the same point in her second pregnancy.

In my own circle of friends and colleagues, I know of about a dozen people who’ve recently returned to touring after giving birth, or are in the final months of a pregnancy. And I can count just as many non-childbearing conductors in my immediate circles, who are finding ways to support their post-natal partner, keep working, and keep the family together as much as possible. It’s an especially tricky juggle when both parents are touring musicians.

Photograph of the author, with husband Jon Hargreaves and baby Matilda hugging and smiling towards the camera. They are in the conductor's dressing room, backstage at the Farquhar Auditorium, Victoria, BC.
Jon, Matilda and I backstage at the Farquhar Auditorium, Victoria, BC, after a concert with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, January 2023.

Like most parents, I’ve found myself googling compulsively at 3am, with every question from “how do you get snot out of a newborn” to “What is the optimal temperature for a baby’s bedroom” (The correct answer to the latter in Scotland, where we are based, is “It’s going to be freezing no matter what you do, so just hope your kid grows fur”).

I’m also inundated with guilt-inducing videos on instagram, telling me how I’m supposed to be parenting - no co-sleeping, consistent nap times, a cupboard full of craft activities involving coloured pompoms and ice-cream sticks, and a seemingly endless array of recipes involving nothing but peanut butter, oats and mashed banana. Precisely none of which is possible at 9pm in a Heathrow Airport hotel room, when you have an intercontinental flight at 7am the next morning.

Baby Matilda in her Doona carseat, on the London Underground, surrounded by suitcases.
Matilda looking thoroughly unimpressed, mid-journey. London Tube, 2023

A WhatsApp chat with a handful of new parents from within the Taki Alsop Fellowship has been my saving grace on many occasions: a confessional of tips, shortcuts and loving support from all over the world, in multiple time zones.  I’ve been immensely lucky to have that lifeline at the end of my index finger, but I’m aware that many don’t. So, I thought I might commit to blog a few of our family’s learnings, failings, and barely-coping strategies after nearly 2 years of cleaning breast pumps in airplane toilets and changing nappies on piano lids. I hope it will be useful to someone, somewhere, at 4am, the morning before a first rehearsal.


It’s all in the timing

A year planner.
Photo: Courtesy of Nothing Ahead, Pexels.

You will probably have already worked out that there are very few spaces in your schedule in the next two years to lie on your back and push out a human, let alone making sure you’re on the same continent as your partner 9 months prior (not to mention the same bedroom). But thinking pragmatically about the variables helped us. It made sense to aim for the summer break between seasons at my MD post. I optimistically pulled out of an opera that summer, and we narrowed it down even further by taking into account final flying weeks for pregnancy. As I’m in my 40s, and would therefore be considered high risk, it was a little earlier in the pregnancy than usual. That meant aiming for delivery in the middle of summer, so that I could be flight free for a couple of months beforehand, and still get some precious months of parental leave before returning to work for the new season in October. Of course, best laid plans, and all that…

A village in every port

Any reservations I might have had about the response from musicians and audiences to seeing my bump walk on stage before me were completely unfounded. My colleagues at both regular and guest gigs were respectful, caring and, often, openly delighted for us. Management teams went the extra mile to make sure I was comfortable and had somewhere to rest in breaks, and plenty of fluids and food. My dear colleagues at Symphony Nova Scotia knew I wouldn’t see my own family before the birth (and, in fact, I’ve still not seen 90% of them), so organised a baby shower, gifting us hand-sewn clothing, quilts and toys, a travel cot, books and a pram for us to use when we were in Canada. We even received gifts and well wishes from audience members. Their kindness was overwhelming. (Oh, Canada....)

Holly Mathieson conducting Symphony Nova Scotia in the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, Halifax, NS. the picture is taken from the audience's perspective, and the orchestra, dressed all in black, are backlit by flourishes of  white and blue on a white backdrop.
Holly Mathieson and Symphony Nova Scotia. Photo: Courtesy Symphony Nova Scotia.

Your sound makes me want to barf

Morning sickness on the podium was awful. There’s no sugar-coating it. I had an extensive range of excuses for going green, constantly running to the loo and not drinking wine at events in the first trimester. The absolute lowlight was a cold December week in Prague at the height of the Czech Republic’s covid wave, in an airless rehearsal room with zero health and safety practices in place, walking the gauntlet past the smokers at the entrance and spending every moment outside rehearsal throwing up. I took a covid test every day, terrified I’d get stranded in Europe for Christmas on my own, feeling like luke-warm, curdled milk. It is a miracle the front desk strings didn’t get plastered in puke. Plain crackers, water and vegan lasagne for dinner every night got me through.

What do women wear to conduct?

Photo of the author in a dressing room, taking a selfie dressed in a long black jumpsuit.
THE jumpsuit (no longer in stock, I'm afraid).

As a 155cm short, curvaceous woman with  no interest in doing Karajan cosplay, finding something appropriate to wear on stage is a challenge at the best of times. When I added an ALMIGHTY 8-month bump to that equation, the task became nigh on impossible. I ended up wearing the most spectacular black jumpsuit from ASOS. I looked like a depressive 70s disco clown smuggling a roast turkey down her front. It was perfect. It was cheap. I could throw it in the dryer, and it didn’t need ironing. Of greater concern was the constantly changing bra size, and incessant need to pee.


Keep it light

I am, by nature, obsessive about efficiency. A less flattering slant would be that I am, by nature, lazy. Either way, I knew that I did not want to hire a charter plane to carry Matilda’s gadgets and toys around the world.

Happy baby Matilda sitting on a luggage trolley of suitcases in an airport baggage claim area.
Matilda looking very happy to have landed, some time in early 2023. Airport unknown...

So, from day one, we set out to make every aspect of her daily life lightweight and portable. Whether that influenced her character, or her character made that strategy possible, we’ll never know. But she has never had a pacifier/dummy, has zero interest in taking specific toys to bed every single night (though has become temporarily fixated on various weird and wonderful things at bed time, including game dice, chicken drumsticks, and bars of soap), and got through the first 14 months with only two bottles, which we just sterilised in hotel microwaves, rather than carrying an unwieldy sterilising machine with us. We store a selection of toys and books in Canada, rather than carrying everything back and forth on each trip, keep an eye out for accommodation that comes with a cot and highchair, and hire anything we need for short visits in new cities through BabyQuip.

The one exception to this rule is the Doona convertible carseat and stroller.

The author and baby Matilda in her Doona Carseat, both looking towards the camera.
Safe and snug in the Doona

It is a really safe and secure carseat, can be taken on planes in the cabin (it sits securely on the seat) or put in cargo at the gate, and has dinky little pop-out wheels for easy journeys on foot. Matilda is still in hers (just) at 20 months. It was worth its weight in gold, and we would have struggled without it!

Da Capo

There should be absolutely no rules or expectations around when either of you go back to work, post-partum, other than your own financial situation or desire. I went back when Matilda was 3 months old - we did 6 weeks in Canada and 6 weeks in Denmark in that first patch, and then I had 6 weeks off at home, before heading off again. In hindsight, it was too early, for her and for me. But we all coped, as one does, even if I was not performing anywhere near my peak condition.

Lack of sleep is only part of the equation. You will likely be riding high on a cocktail of hormones for many months, and your body may take a long time to recover from birth or caesarean section. Don't underestimate the hours you'll be putting into breastfeeding, expressing milk or preparing formula, especially in the early months. And then there's the laundry. Endless fucking laundry. On its own, that is a full-time job. I pumped until 5 months, but by then I was so exhausted, I had no choice but to gradually transition to formula. I felt like a failure at the time, but it gave me so much more time to actually play and cuddle with Matilda, and my energy levels recovered almost overnight.

We have been able to travel together as a family for all but one of my work trips since Matilda was born, but I know some people take grandparents or nannies with them, leave their baby at home with family while they work, or manage with some balance of all of the above. I'm also aware that deals can be struck with agents, if planned well enough in advance - one week of touring will be followed by one week off at home, or work will be restricted to domestic touring only for a year or so, while your family finds its feet.

The author with toddler Matilda sleeping in her arms on an airplane seat.
The final leg. Matilda finally succumbs to sleep on a flight back to Glasgow, November 2023.

The only advice I can give (other than trust your gut and trust your baby) is that their need for you might fluctuate at different stages of development, and they will also get used to pretty much anything, if you establish it early enough. In Matilda's case, at 6 months she became far more clingy and parent-specific. Having been a great, independent sleeper from the day she was born, all of a sudden she needed sustained cuddles and attention at bedtime, and woke frequently through the night. Shortly after, the same needs around eating and dressing started presenting themselves. It had to be mum, or she would get distraught. It is only now, at 20 months old, that it's starting to settle down again, and I can share more of the parenting workload with Jon.

Other areas, however, have been much easier for her. We started taking her to rehearsals and concerts from 6 weeks old - armed with baby ear defenders in the early months to protect her hearing and help her to sleep. Within a few months she knew the drill, and clapped enthusiastically at the end of each piece. In terms of concerts, she can manage about 45 minutes before she gets restless to the point of distraction.

The author and baby Matilda editing a recording with Recording Engineer, Rod Sneddon. Halifax, NS, Spring, 2023.
Matilda helping recording engineer Rod Sneddon and I edit a Symphony Nova Scotia recording for broadcast and commercial release. Spring, 2023.

I've also been ruthless about taking her to meetings, whenever I can, and owe many debts of gratitude to colleagues who have accepted her presence on my knee. The success of that, however, has been largely down to her character. She's a chill wee thing, who loves listening, enjoys the company of adults, and can entertain herself very happily. I'm aware it would be a big ask for children with different temperaments.

Theme and variations

So much of early parenthood is a relentless cycle of house-bound rituals, punctuated by trips to favourite parks, playgrounds or indoor activites. For all of the effort involved, it must be said travel can give you and your bub a much-needed change of scenery and access to different activities. If the gig is somewhere you travel frequently, it's quite nice to have a few favourite places and activities that even the youngest member of the family can remember between times, and look forward to.

Tempo changes

Baby Matilda lying on the bed wearing her Baby Banz ear defenders.
A very small Matilda ready to experience some very big sounds. Autumn 2022.

The only area of her life which really has been adversely affected by all the travel and time-zone juggling is sleep. By just six months of age, she had lived in four time zones, slept in about half a dozen different cots, and adapted to our erratic work schedules. The only constant for her through it all has been the presence of Jon and I. It means she is quite needy at bedtime, and we’ve needed to reset patterns several times over. On the other hand, she will sleep in pretty much any bed or cot, as long as she knows we’re near.  Also, the change in time zone can sometimes be a good opportunity to reset pre-sleep behaviours. Who knew jetlag had a silver-lining…?

To help ease the transitions, we stay overnight at an airport hotel if there is a long-haul flight of more than 5 or 6 hours in the itinerary. It not only gives her a chance to stretch her legs, have a more thorough wash between nappy changes and get a proper sleep, it also gives us a chance to organise meals for the next flight, including buying fresh food, refrigerated milk and doing any cleaning or sterilising that's needed. It’s also ESSENTIAL for our mental health. A baby who is just learning to walk and desperate to practice on a ten-hour flight is HELL.

Cabin pressure

Most people know the best antidote for sore ears at take off and landing is giving your little one something to drink or suck. When they are a bottle-feeder, that can take some careful timing and organisation, all of which can be derailed if you find yourself stuck on the tarmac with a lengthy delay. We’ve endured a couple of long flights which had last-minute hold-ups once we were all on board, meaning the crucial bottle was finished before the pilot pulled the landing gear up, resulting in hysterical sobbing on a full stomach, and a spectacular full-bellied barf all over me.

Matilda finds landing far less painful for her ears, and often sleeps through it, but we always try to have something on hand just in case. Early on, the small pre-mixed formula bottles were brilliant, especially when I was expressing milk, but had no way of washing the pumps well on board. Airport security staff will let you take any amount of liquid through for babies - they just have to scan it separately. Hot tip - keep the sick bags handy, and pack a change of clothes for yourself in hand luggage :)


Baby Matilda and the author's husband Jon in an airplane seat, looking out the window. Matilda is standing on his knee, with her hands pressed to the window.
Matilda and Jon enjoy the view from 35,000 feet.

We’re now past the bottles stage, she’s graduated from the cot to a bed, and many aspects of travel are easier. She loves looking out the window for takeoff and landing, enjoys trying the airline food, and is old enough to leave in front of an in-flight cartoon for 10 minutes while we eat our meals, or grab a disco nap.  What is a little more difficult now is life on land. In the countries we split our time between, nurseries have huge waiting lists, and don’t want to take a child on for short durations. We don’t have extended family nearby in either country, either. So our options are to hire private carers for one-on-one care at exorbitant rates, or take turns covering it ourselves, which comes with its own costs - physical, professional and emotional. We struggle through with this, but it is definitely not ideal.


Carry your baby’s health information (vaccination records, weight charts etc), and any medication they need, when you travel

Let your health provider know If you’ll be overseas at a crucial point for vaccinations. Depending where you are travelling, you might be able to get the same cluster of shots done overseas. If not, it’s good for them to know in advance, so that they can adjust your vaccination schedule

Accept that the food situation on planes will not be ideal (unless you’re breastfeeding), and do what you can. Pre-mixed formula bottles or milk from the tea trolley won’t do your tiny travel buddy any damage longterm, as long as they don’t have any other mitigating health issues. And if it means you can all travel with less stress and fewer tears, it is worth it!

Pick your battles. Being a working parent is about choosing your failures wisely. Eco-friendly reusable nappies sound fantastic. They're simply not an option for us, even during long periods in one place. I've made my peace with it, and balance it out by ordering bamboo, biodegradable nappies in bulk to be delivered to our accommodation

Look out for the first night in the new timezone - if you’re flying west, and stretching them to a longer wake-period and an extra meal or two before bed, it can really upset them. In Matilda’s case, her mood is fine, but her tummy pays the price.

Forgive yourself. Forgive your co-parent (if they're active in your child's life). Forgive your kid. You're all going to test each other to your limits (as all parents and children do), and it will be even harder if you're in a slow-moving airline security queue, running out the door to a pressured rehearsal, or separated by oceans and connected only by zoom.


Doona - as above. GOLD.

Product image: Doona convertible carseat and stroller

Baby Banz Ear defenders - these are rad, and work like a treat. From sleeping through rehearsals to dealing with city noise and mass transit, these were lifesavers on several occasions.

Product image: baby Banz earmuffs

Cooler ice sticks - light and easy to pack, great for keeping milk/formula cool for longer on the plane, and they double as AWESOME soothers for teething.

Product image: Kikkerland reusable ice sticks

YETI cooler bags - A recommendation from a colleague, (and many people online), for those of you expressing extra breastmilk and storing it in the freezer for later months: these are great (albeit expensive) bags for transporting frozen breastmilk on international flights. One reddit user managed to get 80 six-ounce bags into the Yeti Two 40, and 45 six-ounce bags into the Yeti Two 20, for a total of 750 ounces of frozen milk. They are compact enough to fit inside a suitcase. Just remember to leave space in the bag for ice, and label them well, in case sniffer dogs or customs officers get curious!

Product image: Yeti soft cooler bag