Musical Mommas and Pappas: What's your Secret?

December 15, 2008 8:16 AM

For any MeFi musicians out there who are or have also been parents of young children, how do/did you balance being parents with continuing to make music?

My son Ander is a little over two years old, and he's the love of my life. But he's at an age which demands a lot of attention, so his mom and I have to stay pretty actively engaged with him most of the day while he's awake. Lately, he's had a lot of issues with sleeping--both getting to sleep and staying asleep. (When he was a baby he slept like a bag of rocks, but not now, since he started seeing monsters everywhere.)

Because he loves music so much already (and it's crazy how much he does!), if he happens to wake up just enough to hear me playing guitar in the other room while he's napping, forget about him staying asleep. The same holds true in the evening. Even worse, whether it's day or night, he really won't ever let me play guitar when he's around: He wants to play it himself, so from the first string I pluck, he invariably comes running, snatches the pick away from me and starts strumming for me (which is actually pretty cute the way he does it, and I don't want to discourage his interest in guitar, so I usually fret the chords to a song he knows, like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," and we sing it together a couple of times--but he never lets me play guitar to myself in peace, and just sticking him in another room while I play isn't an option).

Anyway, I haven't had an opportunity to play my guitar for any sustained length of time in months, and all my recording activity has come to a stand-still (I can mix with headphones when he's sleeping, but that's it). During the week, Ander's in day care most of the day, but then, I work full time and really want to spend as much time as possible with him during my time away from work. Has anyone here gone through this kind of thing and found ways to make the balancing act more manageable? I'm willing to make lots of compromises where the music is concerned if it means being a better parent, but I'm not willing to give up making music completely. Any thoughts/suggestions?
posted by saulgoodman (17 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Even worse, whether it's day or night, he really won't ever let me play guitar when he's around: He wants to play it himself, so from the first string I pluck, he invariably comes running, snatches the pick away from me and starts strumming for me.

This seems to me like a great teachable moment about Impulse Control and Listening. Let him strum for a little, and then sit him down a few feet away and tell him that now he has some Listening Time. You play him a song he really loves, but stop if he comes over to you and tell him, "Ah, ah, ah! Listening Time means Daddy plays and Ander listens!" Then after a minute or two tell him that Listening Time is over and he can play now. Gradually increase the length of Listening Time and start slipping in songs you want to play. You could also try getting him his own little guitar/uke to play (real or toy) so you can play "together" some times.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:09 AM on December 15, 2008

He's got an inexpensive little uke to play with already (but he seems to consider it a poor substitute for daddy's guitar and loses interest in it pretty quickly). Good advice, but so far, I've had trouble making the approach you suggested work out. He understands listening already, in some situations: He loves to listen to our stuff on the stereo, for example. And he took part in a music-play program sponsored by the local university until he was a year-and-a-half or so old; in that setting, he would sit calmly and listen while the group leaders sang and played guitars (or if he didn't sit, he might get up and dance or wander around a little). But it's different when he's home with us. Of course, we keep trying, though.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:21 AM on December 15, 2008

Look, I have no kids, so you could say I have no business coming here to say anything, but I kinda felt it was important to say something that came to my mind when I read this:

...he invariably comes running, snatches the pick away from me and starts strumming for me (which is actually pretty cute the way he does it, and I don't want to discourage his interest in guitar, so I usually fret the chords to a song he knows, like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," and we sing it together a couple of times...

If my dad had done anything remotely similar to that, my entire life would have been different. I don't know how it is that you are going to manage to balance parenting and making music, but that, the little thing you mentioned in that paragraph, keep that up.

Best of luck finding the formula.
posted by micayetoca at 12:40 PM on December 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

No suggestions, just wanted to say I feel your pain, same thing here
posted by poppo at 4:59 PM on December 15, 2008

I always thought it was a bit of discipline on both my part and my son's. He knows I've always played in a few bands and have forever, so it's sort of been the norm. I never excluded him from what I was doing but only now at 10 1/2 is he really making a lot of effort on his own to play. Since age 3 he's always had a guitar and various instruments but this year he asked me for a "real bass" so I bought him a respectable rig. His playing is very impressive and he writes as well, which in my opinion is the coolest thing ever.

I think if you have a passion for the arts in any way, your kids will recognize that and hopefully develop it as well. There was a long period of time where I shelved everything in favor of changing diapers and doing all the "new daddy" things but being a dad doesn't mean you have to give up your creative pursuits.

My dad was far from a musician but we always had a folk guitar in the house and on special nights he'd croon some Hank Sr. or Johnny Cash to us. Although he never really supported my diving headfirst into music the way I did, he respects it now. I hope to pass that along to my son as well. It's like riding a bike anyway, you never actually forget how so don't sweat it too much.
posted by jtoth at 5:51 PM on December 15, 2008

Let me also add that it is really important as a parent to make time and space for the things you like to do. Maybe that means finding some rehearsal space or a friend's house you can go to from time to time to practice (after bedtime is an especially nice time to do this kind of thing, because then you don't feel like you are missing out on kid time). It really depends on the dynamics of your individual life how to best work it, but I would really recommend finding a way to keep doing the things that you love and the things that make you you.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:43 PM on December 15, 2008

My daughter is 8 now, and I really feel like I should have some specific and helpful advice for you, saulgoodman But goddamit, I don't. I went through much of the same frustration you're going through now, during my girl's toddler/preschool years. And now that she's eight, well, it's a little better, but, guess what? I still need more time that I don't have. That's just the way it is, I'm afraid. I guess if I have any advice for you, it's to try to come to grips with the hard fact that, as a parent who wants to be there for and be engaged with your child, there's just going be less time for music in your life than there used to be. No getting around it, really: only 24 hours in a day.

BUT... don't despair. Get as much done as you can, try to be as efficient as you can possibly be in the limited time that you have, and keep in mind that it'll get better. Like, when he's off to college. ;-)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:59 AM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

flapjax--Thanks for being honest about this. As long as it gets a little easier once he's out of the toddler stage, I'm hopeful it'll be possible to strike some kind of reasonable balance, so it's reassuring you've found it a little easier over time. Honestly, it was a lot easier when he was a young baby--there seemed to be plenty of opportunities to play and record then, as long as I wasn't playing drums in the living room or something completely over the top, because he could sleep through almost anything in those days. Every age is probably different. Is it true most kids tend to become more independent around/after age 3 or so?

Let me also add that it is really important as a parent to make time and space for the things you like to do.

Good advice. And FWIW, I do still try keep at least a little time for myself. At night, I spend time working on different projects I'm interested in. And at least every few months or so, some local co-conspirators and I like to devote a whole day to getting together with a bunch of instruments and gear over at somebody's house to drink beer or whiskey and to make a lot of unholy racket with no real point at all except to let loose for a while, and that's always great. But for more than half my life, making music has been at the center of things, so it's a strange transition.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:23 AM on December 16, 2008

My son is 1 and 1/2, and I definitely hear what you are saying. The kinds of music-making that can involve him are mostly a capella. I think my guitar chops have gotten worse, but my voice has loosened up a bit as a result of making up songs for him. His most common reactions to music are to clap, shake a little shaker that he has, or do this little shake-his-booty dance that is really hilarious. So if there's a way to foster participation on his part that doesn't always involve taking over your picking, that might be less frustrating for you.

I just chalk it up to the lamentable fact that I had wide expanses of free-time before where now I have to just eek out an hour here or there for any creative endeavours.
posted by umbú at 12:57 PM on December 16, 2008

Hey man, these things ebb and flow. Take advantage of this time to share with him. I know he's little-BUT he's learning in a really big way. It's probably unmeasurable at that age, but you will see the influence years on.

My boys are 10 and 11 now and they're not letting up on me at all. My personal time hovers around zero these days; and I'm saving up to get them a decent set of drums-which I'll be teaching them to play.

The ebb and flow? He won't be tagging along for very long, so make your mark while you can. Before long he'll be wearing eye shadow and listening to future funk or something, but your time spent with him will always be a huge part of his schema.

Your personal time will come and go too, but knowing that, it's easier to give, give and give your time.

Good show man! You sound like a great Dad.
posted by snsranch at 6:33 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Going along with what Ranchero just said.

It was a touching post you put up there, Mr Goodman.
Like a replay of my paternal experiences. my kid has just turned 12 now, and is still the love of my life. At two or so he was just like your Ander. loved music and rushed over to me when I picked up the guitar. Insisted on playing himself. Cute of course but yhe frustration built up. I could never play more than a couple of chords - then he was there.

Now I don't in any way advocate any methods. This is more a cry of sympathy.

Kids have to learn impulse control - its all part of the process of becoming a boring adult.
I had bought a little keyboard for him when he was 2½ and he tinkled around on that for a day or two. We even jammed together for a while. But next day he announced firmly - Take the keyboard back - Sasha wants drums.
So it seemed I was playing less and less. My fingerpicking regressed.
We listened to music a lot - he liked Tom Lehrer and brass band music - but I seldom played
What happened in my case was that on one occasion, I'm not sure how old my Sasha was then, older than two anyway, he did his thing of immediately playing when I'd picked up my Gibson. And I lost patience - raised my voice and said Why can I never play my guitar myself. Everytime I pick it up your there and stopping me.
This was adressed as much to my wife as to Sasha. And I hung my guitar up on the wall. I felt a bit ahamed later - I remember.
But I think that in reflection it probably "worked" to a certain extent. After that we could get our stuff together. Either I could play or he could - or we passed the guitar back and forth.

So I would say that there is a period when the kids take over.When the prams (baby carriages?) gather in the hallway the guitars gather dust on the walls.
It does get better though. I promise. And the fun you can have together is a kind of musical reward too

I got him a ukelele when he was, I think, six and now he's just bougt himself an electric guitar (I never had one of those!) and learning slowly chords and strums. But its not so often - he's on the computer a lot of the time. (Fruity Loops and WoW) Then I get to play his guitar.
So hang in there, Mr Goodman. Its only for a few years.
You do sound like a good Dad
posted by jan murray at 4:41 PM on December 17, 2008

I didn't realize there are so many relatively new parents on MuFi. I think that's really great.
posted by Corduroy at 1:50 AM on December 18, 2008

Thanks for all the insights and encouragement. I guess it's just a matter of finding the right balance of self-discipline, parenting technique, time and patience--as with most things in life, no easy solutions, just taking things as they come. I can live with that.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:44 AM on December 18, 2008

Thanks everyone for this thread.
posted by umbú at 11:43 AM on December 18, 2008

I feel your pain on this. I'm a late-night musician by habit and necessity, and when my twins arrived my musical life took a huge hit; I didn't record anything for over a year, and even now (they're three years old) I rarely have time to do anything musically other than sing them to sleep -- by which time I'm exhausted.

So my wife and I just had a long talk about this, and we're going to do some things about it, now that they're old enough to want to play together and apart without our direct involvement once and a while:

1. Build a pre-fab studio in the backyard, just a 10x10 room so that I have somewhere to keep my gear set up (it's been disconnected for three years, I just record into my laptop's mic when I can) and record late at night without waking the kids up;

2. My wife's stated her commitment to keep an eye on the kids more often -- historically we do 50/50 split on such things -- so that I can practice, record and play out.

Ultimately, though, I don't know if it's going to work; time will tell. Like any time-consuming, need-a-quiet-place hobby or habit, recording music and raising kids simply don't mix (even if you write and record children's songs like I do!)

However, if you just want to play music, kids are a boon, because you can sing to then and around them, and then one day they start making up long, complicated songs with choruses (like my son just started doing) or singing your own words back to you, modified to incorporate new rhyming words, or the word 'poop' (as my daughter just started doing), or one of them pulls you aside and, very seriously and quietly, sings an entire song to you and damn near hits every note (as my daughter did to me about a week ago) -- and it's fucking great.

So recording music? Check in with me in six months and I'll let you know if our plan works, then you can follow my lead if it does. Meanwhile, playing music? Do it in front of the kids as often as you can, and pretty soon you'll have an impromptu band.

even if they do say "daddy, stop singing!" once and a while.
posted by davejay at 11:58 PM on December 18, 2008

My son's just like yours and I don't have a good answer for you -- except that the next couple of years might be a good time to experiment with things you can do on your laptop through headphones -- record as much guitar and vocals as you can in a couple of hours on a weekend day when your wife is watching him, and then spend your time after he goes to bed with your headphones on, cutting it up, putting loops over it, messing around... working this way might be a serious compromise for you but then again it can be kind of liberating to work under weird constraints!
posted by escabeche at 1:12 PM on December 22, 2008

My secret was to give up completely on stringed instruments/daytime practice and work on electronic music and studiocraft after the my daughter was asleep.

She's five now, and still wants to help me make music whenever I bust out an instrument, and that's fine, since that's daddy-daughter time and is hopefully fostering a love of music. But the business of making music for myself begins after her bedtime.

I've kept myself from going nuts in the meantime by building my recording space and getting some of the tools I need to make the music I want to make; a mixer here, a MIDI bus there, reading the manuals, and listening to what other artists are doing with a producer's ear.

I've also done what davejay did: ask the wife for some help. Sometimes she can spare time to watch our daughter while I jam with friends, sometimes she can't, but asking never hurts.
posted by lekvar at 4:58 PM on January 13, 2009

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