Portrait of the Artist as a Mother

I.

It was right after a glorious six-week European tour, in the middle of talks with a new management team about a big release for her newly finished album On My Own, that singer-songwriter Lera Lynn first felt it. Something in her body was off. She was getting nauseous on the road — and, as this was someone used to long trips to gigs, it couldn’t be car sickness. She stopped to pick up a pregnancy test at her local Kroger in Nashville. The next morning she was staring at two bright red lines. 

Lynn was stunned: Doctors had just told her that she had the hormones of a post-menopausal woman, even though she was only 34; they’d sat her down to tell her she would likely never have kids. She’d cried. She’d mourned her body. She’d processed the information and found support in her partner, who promised they’d get more dogs. Then she threw herself back into her career, which had always been her focus anyway. And now here she was, at a pivotal moment in her artistic journey, pregnant with a miracle baby — shocked but quietly elated.

But then came the dread. 

“The first thing that came to mind is like, Oh, no. How is this all gonna work out?” recalls Lynn. “A big part of it was fear that people in the industry wouldn’t be interested in working with me anymore, wouldn’t consider me a viable artist. I was really nervous about telling my new management that I was pregnant — or telling anyone that was going to be working with us on the record.” 

Lynn’s son, Leo, is now a year old. She recently brought him to a gig in Athens, Georgia — on a five-hour drive that took nine hours because of “stopping to feed him and then, you know, he’s having another meltdown, and you know how it goes.” Leo has been refusing a bottle, which means she needs to breastfeed him every time he’s hungry. “That’s something I hadn’t really planned for,” Lynn says. “And now he’s crawling and soon he’ll be walking so the idea of strapping him into a car seat for six hours when we drive from city to city seems just about impossible.” 

She’s hoping to wean him from breastfeeding before she tours in October, but in the meantime, she sets up soundchecks and showtimes around the baby’s nursing and bedtime schedules. Yet the worries abound: “How do you store the milk when you’re in a car for six hours then going straight to a venue? Are they going to have a refrigerator for you to use, or do you just have to keep stopping and getting ice at the gas station? Where do you wash the bottles when you’re driving, driving, driving and then on stage and then collapsing? Is the baby going to wake up tonight when we come into the hotel room? Who’s going to put the baby down? No one else has ever put the baby down!”

II.

The music industry is not set up for motherhood. 

Across occupations, a general “motherhood penalty” — a social phenomenon describing how mothers are perceived to be less committed or competent than working fathers, leading to disadvantages in pay and advancement — is widely documented. Across the board, researchers have found, women seem to be hit with a 4 percent pay cut per child while men receive a 6 percent bump. A 2019 study found that 21 percent of working moms are nervous to tell their bosses they are pregnant. Per a rather blunt summary of the gendered penalty from the New York Times: “One of the worst career moves a woman can make is to have children.”

While it’s difficult to calculate the financial losses for female artists who have kids, the music business’s fast-fluctuating and project-driven nature means that the motherhood penalty can be especially swift and severe.

“Everyone works so hard and it’s so rare to have the kind of momentum and income that you need to equal the amount of effort that goes into making a career in music viable, so for me to introduce another complication — ” says Lynn, pausing to take a breath, “I had a lot of guilt around it and I still do.”

Whether female artists bring children on the road, ask friends or family watch kids at home, pause their careers, or choose not to have children for the sake of their careers, the decisions in every circumstance are difficult and require endless resilience. This is partly due to the nature of the work, living and dying by erratic tour schedules and unstructured work hours — but it doesn’t help that the vast majority of contemporary record executives, tour managers, or other decision-makers of artist careers are male. Artists from varying backgrounds, success, genre and recognizability agree that there is little support in the industry for female musicians who become mothers.

When Danish musician Oh Land got pregnant five years ago with her first son, Svend, she, like Lynn, worried how it would change her image within the industry. The “youth-focused” music industry can feel totally at odds with parenthood or the idea of mothers, she says: “So I was definitely scared that people will be like, ‘Oh, now she’s done.’” Oh Land toured up until week 38 of her pregnancy. “My pregnancy was very, very easy the first time,” says Oh Land, whose son would kick her belly when she got off stage because he was so accustomed to the noise and movement. “And I think because the pregnancy was so easy it kind of gave me a little bit of a false impression of what it is to be a parent.”

After having their child, she and her then-husband, artist Eske Kath, moved from Brooklyn back home to Copenhagen, largely because Denmark offers tremendously more institutional support to parents. “I don’t need to talk too much about the American healthcare system and all that,” says Oh Land. “Also, being an independent musician where you don’t have a nine to five job, you have to make your own existence every day… It was very hard in the beginning and very overwhelming because I wasn’t prepared on how full-on it was to become a parent for the first time. It takes over your world like it’s a tsunami.” Oh Land is currently a judge on the Danish X Factor and her most recent album, Family Tree, chronicles her family journey.

In the music world, where careers wildly fluctuate from album to album and creativity doesn’t function on a clear path of promotion or economic expectation, the pay differences between men and women can swing dramatically wider than in other realms — sometimes taking mothers straight down to $0. It’s hard to apply a statistical model of what a musician’s career is supposed to look like: Effort does not always equal success; talent is not always recognized; viability is elusive. And yet artists who become mothers suffer a particularly uphill battle because they need to keep fighting for their time in the sun the whole time. 

“It’s so hard to say no to gigs. It just really is,” says Suz Slezak, who tours year round with her two children, Calliope, 7, and Moses, 4, alongside her husband and bandmate, David Wax, in their band, David Wax Museum. “Just the momentum and not wanting to give up on a chance to grow. We don’t have other sources of income. It’s our financial lifeline.”

Slezak had to go off of her bipolar medication during both pregnancies, and she was on tour all the while. “Pregnancy on the road is so, so intense,” says Slezak. “The nausea was really extreme for me. When the band guys are maybe having a smoke at a reststop get back in the car and the van smells like cigarettes and somebody’s breath, and being in different hotel rooms and people’s homes and the venues that smell like beer — that sort of intensity of the smells and nausea that happened was super challenging. But I think there was also a part of me that felt this kind of like, I can do this and I’m going to prove that I can do this. Even though I look back at that now and I don’t know what I was actually trying to prove.”

She was back on the road just six weeks after the birth of her daughter and two months after the birth of her son. She once had to coordinate with 10 different adults to help care for her kids while her band performed four shows in three states in three days. Other times when they’ve brought a road nanny along, they’ve had to squeeze in driving their nanny and older child back to the hotel for bedtime after soundcheck and then nursing the younger child in the green room before a performance. “We were touring with nine people in a van — five band members, two kids, the road nanny and a tour manager. And it was so cramped and crazy looking back,” says Slezak.

“Me and my friends always said, if you want to be a parent in a band, be a man,” says musician Nicole Atkins, who is currently touring to promote her 2020 album, Italian Ice. “It’s easy to be a parent in a band when you’re a man. It is.” 

Atkins, who is often on separate tours away from her husband, tour manager Ryan McHugh, has decided motherhood is off the table for now due to the forced trade-offs. “I remember saying a few years ago, I think we should have a baby,” says Atkins. “But how do we do that because he’s on his tour, and I’m on mine? One of us would have to raise the kid alone. Part of me is totally fine with that and then, you know, sometimes, there’s just a part of me that gets a little bit sad about it.”

And the particular economics of today’s music industry, with streaming paying out very little to non-superstars, mean touring is where the money lies. “The only way that you really sell records is by touring. [And] I got into music because I like performing it live, so that’s why I do it,” says Atkins, who is currently booked up with shows through the holiday. “I need that connection with people.” 

Oh Land

III.

How does one decide between an album and a baby? Because, ultimately, for many female artists not at the Beyoncé level, it is a hard and fast, zero-sum decision.

Carly Humphries, former lead singer of the British rock band Battle Lines, has 5-month-old twin boys, Asher and Finn. She realized she needed a break from music after moving to New York to get married to her Brooklyn-based wife. The first difficult decision was to leave her overseas band due to the logistical problems of shuttling back and forth — but what she didn’t anticipate was that the fertility treatments would also force her to quit her new New York-based band, Villainelle, when the physical and emotional toll became too much. “Being two females, we always knew that it would be a journey in this sense,” says Humphries, who after two failed intrauterine inseminations — procedures that involve placing the sperm inside the uterus — moved on to the more demanding in vitro fertilization (a.k.a. IVF). “That’s the one where you are pumped full of all those hormones and it really does send you on this emotional roller coaster.” She eventually underwent a total of three egg retrievals and seven embryo transfers to conceive her two fraternal twin boys  — one son that is genetically her wife’s and one son that is genetically hers — with the help of a sperm donor.

But it was physically grueling. “It got to a point I think maybe like a year into IVF, we played our first and only show and I had to stop just because it was too much,” says Humphries. 

Her whole career, she’s been thinking about a brash comment made by an industry executive when she was getting signed in her 20s: “[He asked] do I plan on having kids soon and how serious was my relationship?” says Humphries. “I laughed it off because it was so far from my thoughts at that time, but — if I’d have answered yes, would we have been signed?”

And this one-or-the-other is a tale as old as the industry itself. When Tanya Trotter, one half of the band War and Treaty, got pregnant with her first son at 19, her solo career had just started to take off with  her R&B album, Natural Thing, with Polydor Records. “I remember an executive saying something like, ‘Oh, she’s pregnant so now things are gonna slow down,’” she recalls. “I’m sure behind closed doors, they were trying to find someone younger, thinner, who wasn’t pregnant, who didn’t have a voice, who wasn’t opinionated, you know, all the things that they felt would be better.”

Worried about losing out, she continued touring throughout pregnancy and brought her newborn on the road six weeks after delivering him. But once he hit school age, she made the hard choice to leave her child with friends and family and hit the road alone. “You do feel a sense of guilt,” she says. “His father would fly him in to see me and things like that, but it was a long stretch of time, sometimes three months, sometimes six months. It was very, very, very, very emotional for me.”

Her son, Antonio, is now 25 and harbors no bad feelings about his childhood, but Trotter has regretted the decision ever since. “I felt like I had to make sure I was successful [so that] I’m not wasting my time out there away from my son,” she says. “I fell into a depression because I tried so hard to make it.” 

She promised herself she would do things differently with her second son Legend, who is now 10. One of the big changes: She could tour as a family with her husband and War and Treaty bandmate Michael Trotter. “We were homeless and we had a bunch of things going on. But my mindset was, I don’t care what we have to go through, I’m not leaving this one home with anyone. This baby will be with us and we will travel with him and we will figure it out. And we did,” says Trotter, whose band has had a string of recent success and is now touring with John Legend. “I would not tour and leave [my son] home if Michael was not in the band with me. It wouldn’t even be an option. If he had to stay home, there probably wouldn’t be a War and Treaty.” 

Road nannies aren’t cheap. According to Shenandoah Davis, CEO of Adventure Nannies, a nanny agency with experience providing services to bands, most nannies are paid around $30 an hour or $300 to $500 a day on a tour, and families are expected to pay for per-diem meals and lodging on top of that. This is a hefty pill to swallow for young bands — which often barely scrape together that same amount per gig. Bands like David Wax Museum lean on their community and fanbase to help find nannies. “We’re not able to pay much and we are clear about that upfront,” says Slezak. “There are so many people who are between things in their life and who are happy to kind of help out in this way — although I think they quickly realize it’s less exotic than they might be imagining.” Lynn points out that there’s no government maternity support for musicians: “I pay for the childcare. I pay for the extra hotel rooms for the nanny, or my mom, whoever’s helping with the baby.”

At the highest level, superstars may request massive caravans and demand full-on nurseries in their tour riders. But most can not afford such luxuries — or take a multi-year break from their careers after having a kid, like Adele did. Beyoncé was once rumored to request rose-scented candles in a nursery for her daughter during her 2013 Super Bowl performance.

On the flip side of this is Stevie Nicks opening up to The Guardian that, in her band’s early days, “if I had not had that abortion, I’m pretty sure there would have been no Fleetwood Mac.”

Tanya Trotter

Early-stage musician mothers travel in vans and are grateful if there’s a crib at the hotel. “You’re lucky sometimes to have a mirror to put on makeup, because venues are still really geared towards men, so to expect them to also be ready to accommodate a breastfeeding mother? I can’t imagine that,” says Lynn.

“When you become a mother, you also become tour manager for your baby,” says Oh Land. “I had to learn to think in different ways. Suddenly, it’s not about getting the top floor hotel room, it’s about getting the hotel room with the stroller access. And maybe you don’t want the late gig, you want the early gig so that you can still tuck your baby in at night. You just have to be great at planning because kids and babies love routines. And I’ve actually become pretty badass at it.”

Trotter has her tour manager make sure there’s a swimming pool everywhere they go, or a museum close by. She also considers the temperament of band members she hires. “The personalities in your band needs to be one that’s conducive to an environment for a child, because they’re not in school, they’re not around other young people all the time,” says Trotter. “It changes the music you listen to, it changes everything.”

A shortlist of physical challenges: fitting in pelvic floor therapy or other postpartum care appointments, working on repairing abdominal separation known as diastasis recti that can affect more than half of women, managing pumping schedules for breastfeeding mothers and taking time to simply heal after a birth. “I think it affects female musicians very differently, because you can’t just tour when your child is five weeks old,” says Oh Land, who also has 1-year-old son, Ernst, with musician Adi Zukanović. “You have to heal afterwards. It’s a pretty crazy experience. I know male musicians who have had a baby and gone on the road a week after and then just come home once in a while. But for me, I have never stayed away from my child more than six nights.”

Artists with kids have to be painfully selective with taking far-flung jobs. “If I get offered a gig in China, and it’s really hard to get there, and the pay is low or something like that, it’s just not worth it,” says Oh Land. “A lot of things I have turned down that when before I had kids I would have just done it and be like, ‘okay, I’ll be jet lagged — and my back will break!’”

Says Lynn: “These days we definitely weigh the cost benefits in a much more severe way. I used to be much more willing to do certain things that were good for exposure, but now it’s just like, no. You got to pay decently and it’s got to be really worth dragging the whole family.”

IV.

And yet.

While parenthood as an artist is a logistically challenging, emotionally strenuous and economically unfavorable uphill battle, it can also be one of the most profoundly meaningful aspects of life, musician mothers say — as transcendent as creating art. 

“I chose art because when I am making it is when I feel the most at ease; it’s when I feel like I am aligned with the universe,” says Lynn. “[Parenting] is hard but there’s no deeper love. Your heart has never felt so full and drained at the same time. It’s quite a dichotomy isn’t it?”

Trotter has recalibrated what a successful life looks like, no longer basing it simply on chart rankings. “I am making it,” says Trotter. “I’m with my family every day.”

For Slezak, one of the perks of having a family band is being able to tour together with the kids. Having kids was something that was always super important to me and I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate kids into whatever job I ended up doing,” says Slezak. “When David and I were getting together, part of our commitment to each other was based on this dream of being able to tour and bring kids along.” She has tried to arrange album releases around the kid’s births, and says she never would have chosen music had she not been able to simultaneously be a mother. 

“I wouldn’t have wanted to be in a band if it meant not having kids so the two are so linked. I know it sounds funny, but I feel like the choice to take music seriously and take this band seriously was in part informed by the fact that I felt like it was a career that I could be with my kids during the day and work nights,” says Slezak, who just wrapped her first solo album, which includes a song called Take Me, an anthem about childbirth. “I feel really proud of the flexibility that our family has to sleep on different floors every night and not be stuck in traditional boxes that I feel like a lot of families feel stuck in.”

Humphries, despite taking a break from the rock world, has no regrets about being able to fully focus on her children for the time being. “I feel like I’ve only just started to come out of this fog, like being able to form sentences. It’s just such a special time,” she says.

Another benefit is also unique upbringing it can offer to children: “I had a lot of guilt in the beginning whenever I had to bring my kids to venues where there’s a lot of loud music and you can’t always control a bedtime,” recalls Oh Land. “I just really had to turn that around in my head and understand that I’m also giving them a huge gift — they get to be in this creative environment.” While having kids has certainly limited her personal writing and thinking time, she says, it’s also created new depth for her art.  “What part of being a human being and having more stories to write is not appealing to hear about? The whole experience of becoming a parent, you get so many new perspectives on things, you get so many new concerns and worries, so many new joys, love in a whole new way that you haven’t experienced before,” says Oh Land. “There’s just so much more to write about.”

But the artists can’t help but ask if there should be a better way. At the end of the day, a huge chasm separates the epic pregnancy celebrations of established superstars — Katy Perry in her own music video, Cardi B at the BET awards, Beyoncé at the VMAs — from the struggles of up-and-comers who don’t know if their bank accounts, labels, or fledgling fanbases will accept their choice to have a kid. “I felt like my career was my baby,” says Lynn, thinking back to her initial panic in confronting the positive pregnancy tests. “And having a baby would force me to choose or betray my career.”

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