How Motherhood Made Jackie McLean a Musician

The artist talks writing her first song a month after having her first child.

I’ve wanted to be a musician my whole life, but it wasn’t until I became a mother that I really started working at it. I wanted it so badly that, for years, I drove in silence because it pained me to hear other people singing on the radio. I wanted it so badly that I felt a constant nagging in the back of my mind any time I tried to relax. The nagging voice said, “do it,” and my answer was always, “someday.” 

I’m familiar with feeling like it’s too late and I’m too old. I felt that way even as a little kid wanting to start something new and worrying that it wasn’t possible. I worried that I was already too far behind. That others were further ahead. That I’d embarrass myself. That people would laugh. 

It’s a self-conscious feeling; it’s not really about other people. Because the truth is that, mostly, other people don’t care what you do. Maybe it was a form of self-sabotage because I felt like I wasn’t good enough. But music was different. I knew I was good enough. I knew it was something I could do. So what held me back? Maybe it was that didn’t know where to start. Maybe it was that I didn’t know how to play an instrument, or that I had never written a song. 

The nagging, itchy feeling was with me through high school, where I sang in talent shows and performed in plays. It was with me through college, where I tried to broaden my identity and focused on other things. And it rose to a fever pitch after I got married and had my first child. 

I was 23 when I got married, 24 when I had my first child. I gave birth to her, unmedicated, at a freestanding birth center. That day, I learned that I could do anything. I also learned to let go of inhibition. Any self-conscious feeling just about disappeared almost instantly, and the belief that I couldn’t do something difficult was disproven pretty quickly, too. 

My partner and I were living in a tiny house in Connecticut where he taught high school English. Once our daughter was born, I stayed home with her every day. I didn’t spend even an hour away from her until she was one year old. In those early days I fed her, rocked her, took walks with her wrapped tightly to my chest, studied her face, and watched her grow. I had all the time in the world to think about the past. The present. The future. 

When our baby was a few months old, I wrote my first song. I had been watching YouTube videos and learning to play the old keyboard that sat on our living room floor, taken from my childhood room. When the song was done, it felt like a missing piece had fallen into place. It felt like a key was sliding into a lock. I felt years of longing slide off of me, replaced by hunger. 

Once I knew that I could write a song, I wrote obsessively. I wrote with my baby in my arms. I wrote while she played at my feet, while she was sleeping, while she watched me, standing in her portable crib. I wrote, sitting on a keyboard bench in front of the window. 

The two identities of mother and artist have been intertwined for me since the beginning. My journey to myself began with my daughter. The magic of her birth set off a chain reaction of life- changing revelations and metamorphoses. A re-birth. Becoming her mother began everything. 

My first daughter is now five and a half. What can I say about her? She’s pure magic. She has strawberry blonde hair, loves to sing, and loves animals and her family. She loves nature and the environment. She loves Roald Dahl and candy canes. She loves sparkly shoes and building things. She loves making potions. She loves to bake and learn and play. She is wise beyond her years and knows the answers to everything. I trust her judgment. I love her with all my heart. 

I have a second daughter, too. She was born in Vermont, near the upstate New York town that we now live in to be closer to my partner’s family. She is two. She’s fearless, hilarious, daring, playful, loving, kind, gentle, and sweet. She loves her sister and her family. She loves music and bananas and dancing and her stuffed bunny rabbit. She laughs at the dog and pretends to sneeze. She makes little jokes. She is full of magic. I love her with all my heart. 

I’m settling into my identity as an artist and into my identity as a mother. I’m learning how to integrate the two. Both are part of my life, like the sunrise and trees, and both hold magic. It takes practice to learn how to navigate them together. I’m learning. It’s a full life I treasure. 

People who know me as an artist are surprised to find out I have children. People who know me as a mother are surprised to find out I’m a working artist. I see the two parts as halves of a whole. My art takes me inside of myself. My children take me out. There’s a balance there. 

If I could sum it up, I’d say that becoming a mother gave me the confidence and reality-check to really pursue my dreams. To really live my life instead of witnessing it. To take an active role in creating the future I wanted. To work hard for something. To try. To do. I am more fulfilled as a human when I bring energy and intention to my art. It fills up my soul. Creating is my passion and purpose in life. It makes me a happier person. A better person. They say that a mother is there to teach her children. But mothers know the truth. We know that our children teach us. 

(Photo Credit: Aaron Bock)

Jackie McLean, frontwoman of Roan Yellowthorn, the musical project supported by partner and multi-instrumentalist Shawn Strack, delivers confessional indie rock with a singer/songwriter heart. The duo’s forthcoming new album, Another Life, is due out May 14 via Blue Élan Records. McLean wrote much of the set as a reflection on a childhood marked by frequent mental and emotional abuse that continued into young adulthood, oftentimes causing her to question her own reality and sense of self-worth, and the idea of alternate or parallel lives serves as a throughline. She channels her healing process and the rebuilding of her individual identity through laid-back ’80s era synths and airy, often bright, dream-pop sounds helmed with the help of producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr, Kurt Vile, Waxahatchee).