With three small children and a husband in his medical residency, Emily is a busy mother. But she has also committed herself to graduate studies in choral conducting, fulfilling a deep passion for praising God through sacred music. Emily explains why music and motherhood are so important to her, and why she’s chosen to pursue her studies at this point in her life.
What were the influences that helped you decide to be a musician?
My mother was my earliest music teacher. She taught me music theory and how to play the piano from an early age. My parents supported my participation in voice and piano competitions, recitals, choir through both school and church, and serving in various music capacities at church.
These things all shaped my decision to become a music major when I went to college, but, as many college students do, I experienced a period of indecision about what I really wanted to commit my life to. There were many things I could pursue while still remaining musically active, after all. So, my decision to embrace music as my life calling, in addition to raising a family, was formulated in layers over time.
There was, however, one distinct moment when I fully embraced it and determined to never look back: One evening when I was home from college for Christmas break, and in the midst of great turmoil over whether to stick with music as the focus of my education, I was singing for my father in the living room. The particular piece I was singing was Charles Gounod’s well-known “O Divine Redeemer.” About halfway through the song, I was overcome with feelings of the Spirit and became very emotional. I was struck with the feeling that of course I had to commit myself to music—that it was my obvious path. My purpose was to glorify my Savior through music, and facilitate others’ ability to do so also.
You are currently a graduate student at the University of Iowa in choral conducting. Why have you pursued this course of study and what do you hope to accomplish with your degree?
I received my bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy from Brigham Young University in 2000. After that I took some time off before pursuing graduate education, but remained professionally active as a concert soloist, teacher of a large voice studio, and church musician (both as an organist and soloist). These efforts saw us through five grueling years of my husband’s medical school and medical internship, as well as the birth of three children. I loved my work (and chose it in large part) because of its family friendliness: I set my own hours and taught from home, and my church and concert work primarily only involved me on weekends when my husband could usually be home.
Nearly ten years have gone by since receiving my bachelor’s degree, and I am now halfway through my graduate studies in choral conducting. I only take two classes at a time, since I still have such young children at home, but my classes are in the morning when two of the three are in school, and the youngest stays with another LDS mom for a couple hours. It is my firm rule that I study outside of class only during nap time and after they’ve gone to bed. It’s pretty intense, but it’s working out so far. It’s a miracle, really.
When we first moved to Iowa City for my husband’s residency, I knew I was going to go back to school, but I didn’t have a clear idea of how this would be possible. Even a week before my first semester started, I still didn’t know who was going to watch my son while I was in class. As I remained faithful and prayerful, all these things worked out, though, even in the last hour. Another young mother who was actually looking to pick up a bit of babysitting approached me, and our schedules fit perfectly. Also, incredibly, her house just happened to be right on the corner bus stop of the exact route I needed to get to class. This proved to be a critical factor in my morning routine, as I had to get four people (myself and all three of my children) to four different places, all within thirty minutes. Also, unbeknownst to us at the time, the location of the house we bought worked perfectly for me to make all those connections. Lastly, I could not have done this without financial assistance, and an amazingly generous and angelic husband and wife—the husband I’ve never even met, and the wife only once face-to-face—became aware of my story and freely offered a substantial amount of financial help. These are the details that we do not see or have any control over, but the Lord does, and He works all things together for our good.
It has always been my sincere desire to help people feel closer to their Maker, and I have always been drawn to sacred music. I never whole-heartedly embraced the vocal literature I was required to learn and study in my undergraduate training, actually, because it was much more focused on secular vocal genres (mainly opera and art song) than anything of a sacred nature. Though both the music and poetry were beautiful, the messages of these pieces often didn’t speak to me and were far removed from the innermost feelings of my heart. Still, I completed my vocal studies, and I’m glad that I did, because I did have some fun operatic experiences, and it allowed me to become a respected and sought-after voice teacher in my community, as well as gain work as a concert soloist, all of which supported my family when we had no other sources of income.
For graduate studies, I turned my attention to conducting because there is a far greater emphasis on sacred music than there is in vocal performance programs, and, having directed many different choirs, I feel a tremendous sense of joy and satisfaction in helping others experience this music. It is very important to me that high-quality and spiritually potent music be experienced by all—not just those who can afford to attend concerts or are fortunate enough to gain training in elite music schools. There is something profoundly fulfilling to me about helping someone experience music that they might not ever experience otherwise, and then, most especially, for them to be transformed by it.
You have three small children and a husband who is in his medical residency. Why do you feel it’s important to pursue your master’s degree now when your home life could be all consuming? What motivates you to pursue this degree in the face of such responsibilities?
I knew that if I waited, it was only going to get harder, not easier. As my children grew up and became more involved in school and extra-curricular activities, and as more children came along, life would get more busy and more complicated—not less so. So I felt an urgency to get it done sooner rather than later, even if it would mean having to chip away at it slowly. Further, as I feel powerfully drawn to this work and feel a strong sense of mission, all of which is deeply rooted in my spirituality, I cannot imagine living with these feelings and not responding to them. Many times I calculated out the years it would be before our “projected youngest” was up and grown, and it was years. Decades, even. I knew it was not meant for me to hide my God-given interests under a bushel. Not with the Spirit working on me as hard as it was. And so it was my understanding with God that if I always put my family first, no matter what, He would make a way. And He has.
As mother to three young children, are you in a different stage of life than most of your classmates?
Yes, and there was a time I felt a bit removed from them, but our friendships have improved as I’ve gotten to know them better. Only three of the other students in my program have any children or are even married. And though I am married, in many ways I must operate as though I am not, due to the rigors of my husband’s medical residency (he frequently works 80-98-hour work weeks, at all hours of the day and night). All three of my children are very young and dependent, and one of them is autistic. None of my family or closest friends are nearby.
Managing a household of five people, three of them age six and under, one of them demanding great amounts of time and attention due to his special needs, a medical resident husband—yes, of course this is a very heavy load. Also, because of my children, I do not have much study time at my disposal during the day, which means many late nights. There are nights when I don’t go to bed at all. Finally, my husband and I both have demanding callings at church. So is this a heavier load than the average student? Yes, I suppose I would say so. But I don’t feel myself a martyr because of it, neither do I feel resentful or sorry. I chose my path. What keeps me going are the many affirmations that have come through prayer, priesthood blessings, and feelings of the Spirit, the obvious ways the Lord has magnified me and consecrated my efforts, the support and generosity of others stepping in when they had no idea how much I needed their help, keeping a clear vision of the end result, the ability to juggle these things and still unequivocally put my family first, and, of course, knowing that this phase is temporary!
Do your colleagues at school know you’re Mormon?
I am quite certain that my academic colleagues all know I am Mormon (this is not something I ever hide), and I am very grateful to be able to say they have never treated me with anything other than respect and graciousness. I’m sure the way I live my faith is something they observe, but I don’t believe it dictates their behavior towards me—at least not in a negative way.
As far as how other Mormon women respond to my professional pursuits, that is a mixed bag. The overwhelming majority, especially those who know my heart, and my devotion to my family, are nothing but supportive. Of course, there are those who find it difficult to view anyone pursuing a course different than their own without some feeling of comparison, and thus judgment and criticism.
Why do you think it is so easy to fall into judgment and comparison?
Aiming to be an upstanding, righteous Mormon woman is a noble goal. What is problematic is when cultural extensions of the “definition” creep in and come to be regarded as “doctrine” (especially when the definition is cultural and didn’t come from Him in the first place). Then follows the presumption that our personal “doctrines” must be adhered to by all if they would also be considered upstanding, righteous Mormon women. And so we go, holding up our checklists, and comparing them to the checklists of others. Not all women will identify with my experience, but when I was younger and not as certain of my path, this ideology was very real, and so deeply ingrained that to become anything contrary to the prescription would have been (so it seemed to me) a devastating and profound failure—one with eternal consequences.
There is not one cookie-cutter mold we must all fit. The truth is that our Father in Heaven knows each of us intimately and individually. We have different needs. We have different challenges. We have different gifts. Each soul is precious, and each soul has its own course of development, perfectly designed and suited by Him who knows us best. The Lord wants our hearts—earnest, sincere, contrite—so that He may lead us back to His bosom. He is less interested in how well we satisfy man-made checklists and measure up to man-made titles.
The idea that there was one set mold was deeply troubling to me. It is not in looking to our neighbors or marking checklists, but in entering into our closets, bowing on our knees before our Father, and in the boundless and unconditional love of our Savior, that we must seek and will find affirmation. When we lose ourselves and reach out to serve others, we discover that comparison between one’s life course versus another’s life course is completely irrelevant. And when comparison becomes irrelevant, feelings of judgment, competition, inadequacy, and fear fade. We need not take cues from friends, neighbors, or social customs in order to measure our (or anyone else’s) worthiness or righteousness.
What sources do you turn to in figuring out the kind of woman you want to be?
Historically, I have felt a real void in this regard. It was my tendency to view the vast and never-ending supply of writings by and about ecclesiastically prominent men, both ancient and modern, and come away focused on the comparatively profound deficit when it came to like representation of women. It seemed that what little I could find, I really had to dig for, and scrape together from here and there, and then I would still be left with more questions than answers. Who were all these prophetesses obscurely referenced in the scriptures, and where are their writings, or accounts of their noble deeds? Of course I realized that one must consider the gender customs of this (and all) ages, and the fact that most women and men were not even literate, and therefore could not have kept records, and so forth. Nevertheless, there was this void, and I found it deeply discouraging.
Though this comparative void still exists, I have had several experiences through which the Lord has showed me Himself what kind of woman He wants me to be. One experience had to do with my perception of myself as a mother specifically.
When we moved to Wisconsin for my husband’s medical schooling, we were hit with about every possible major life change imaginable: a move from where both our families lived to halfway across the country where we had no family or any friends at all, a brand new (and our first) baby, the simultaneous drop of two full-time incomes to zero income, my husband returning to full-time schooling, me going from full-time work to constantly being at home, and then feeling trapped there, because we had also dropped from two vehicles to one, which my husband then took to school, etc. Besides all these major life-changes hitting at once, my precious new baby also happened to be extremely colicky; thus it is sufficient to say my induction into the world of motherhood was not the rosy picture I’d always envisioned. Adding to this was the postponement of my educational goals and dreams, which I desired greatly, while I watched my husband go off to school each day to learn all kinds of fascinating things, throwing his heart and soul into a field he loved, and got to choose, whereas mothering seemed to be my predetermined and singular path, regardless of my talents or interests.
This was a very hard time for me. I felt a great sense of pain and failure at not feeling the peace, joy, and contentment that I’d always been taught I would I feel in this new role—a role I’d always thought I would embrace. Finally it had arrived, and not only did I not enjoy being a mother—I hated it. Of course I loved my child, but the passing hours felt so menial and mundane. They inspired no sense of accomplishment, no intellectual stimulation, no intrigue. Where was all the profound joy I was supposed to be feeling that I’d heard about all my life? And what were my gifts and talents, my ambitions and goals—the righteous desires of my heart—given to me for, if I was now to shut them off (as the culture seemed to indicate was the “right” thing to do)? Lastly, if I was forsaking these things for a higher calling, why didn’t the intrinsic joys of the higher calling not only replace but transcend the joy I’d felt before? If I was faithfully and dutifully doing what I was supposed to be doing, why wasn’t I happy?
We happened to be visiting my parents right at the height of my bitterness. I remember pulling my dad aside and sobbing to him as I related my misery. His answer to me was that I must pray—pray for peace, pray for help, pray for understanding—that I would be able to discover the divinity of motherhood, and find peace and joy in this calling. Though I knew he was right, feelings of bitterness and cynicism persisted. That night, emotionally drained, I crawled into bed and mustered enough energy to mumble only half-heartedly into my pillow, “Please help me. I really, really need help.” Then, emotionally exhausted, I fell asleep.
Two days later, we were back home in Wisconsin, and we were getting ready to turn in for the night. As my husband began to pray, I suddenly felt an impression begin to enter my mind, which then spread to my heart and subsequently consumed my whole being. It was clearly coming from a source outside of myself, a power greater and higher than I was. It was quiet and still, and yet it consumed my whole soul. It felt as though time had stopped and my consciousness hovered in a state of suspension between two different realms. I don’t remember hearing the rest of my husband’s prayer, though it was still going on. I could fill volumes detailing the piercing and powerful message that was conveyed, and yet it came to me fully in only a matter of seconds, and it came in perfect stillness and gentleness, and was imparted tenderly, lovingly, and totally void of any judgment. To describe all that I received and felt is beyond the scope of discussion here, but the crux of the message was this: You are the closest thing to the Savior your child will ever know in this life.
After this moment passed, I sat on the edge of the bed for a long time. The anger and bitterness that had raged in my heart was quiet. I had heard all my life that “motherhood is next to godhood” and “motherhood is divine” and so forth, but I had never felt the depth or literal nature of this truth. It had always seemed to me just something nice to say—cliché expressions at best. Now, for the first time ever in my life, I sat and thought, motherhood is divine. Motherhood is the noblest thing a woman can consecrate her life to.
A mother is Christ’s sacred stand-in. She is a type and shadow. As I cling to Jesus to save my soul, so does a child cling to its mother for all sense of salvation that it knows. Jesus, Mother—these are the names that are called out when we need protection, guidance, wisdom, love, comfort, sustenance, rescue. Whether we know God or not, whether we have loving relationships with our biological mothers or not, we all crave the nurture of some higher power, of some loving guardian. Since that life-changing experience, I have discovered this metaphor to have boundless applications. To me, the fact that women have generally been regarded as lowly and lesser throughout the ages is just another symbolism between women and Christ. People mock and spit in the face of motherhood—the most exquisite and godlike of all her capabilities, that of being able to beget, nurture, and guide life—the same way they mocked and spit in the face of Him who saved us. Just as there was “no form nor comeliness; ….no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2), there is nothing on the surface level that is overtly triumphant or exalting about motherhood; indeed, in the flow of day-to-day rhythms, it can seem rather common and mundane, like “a root out of a dry ground” (vs. 2). As “he is despised and rejected of men” (vs. 3), so is motherhood. As we “hid as it were our faces from him” and “esteemed him not” (vs. 3), so does society hide its face from mothers, so does it not esteem them. Just as “surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (vs. 4), so does a mother weep with her child that weeps. Just as “with his stripes we are healed” (vs. 5), so does any benefit to the child represent some sacrifice of the mother—time, money, education, employment, leisure, sleep, etc. Anything the child gains is something, in some form, that she cannot have for herself.
One brief verse of Isaiah that is very poignant to me is where the Lord plainly and succinctly states how He succors His children: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). To me, this verse perfectly encapsulates the metaphor between the mission of mothers and the mission of the Savior. It embodies the very heart of both motherhood and womanhood, and why we do what we do: it is to emulate Him who is the greatest nurturer of us all.
At A Glance
Location: Iowa City, IA
Marital status: Married 11 years
Children: Three sons, ages 6, 4, and 2
Occupation: Full-time mom and part-time student
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, University of Iowa
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Dearest Children,” “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” “How Great the Wisdom and the Love”
Current Church Calling: Ward Choir Director
On the Web: www.EmilySpencer.com
Interview produced by Neylan McBaine. Photos by Michael Kreiser Photography