Tift Merritt on Being a Mother on the Road

The singer-songwriter grapples with her two most important roles.

Motherhood is unequivocally the best thing that has ever happened to me. I thought I had a calling already, but now, in my dream life, I am a slightly younger woman homesteading a big brood of children. In reality, I’m forty-two and sitting in a hotel room a long way from home covered in baby socks, Cheerios and rattles.

As a working musician, I hesitated to become a mother for a very long time. Balancing work and motherhood feels like a compromise and a mad dash from morning to bedtime for women of all vocations, but the road has some particular challenges. It’s populated mostly by men whose children remain at home. Dirty rock clubs are difficult enough solo. Nursing a child in a dressing room covered in penis drawings beside a sad vegetable tray seems cruel. Hours of van travel, junk food at best, a series of motel rooms dressed in a sick color of tan — just thinking about how to be the mother I want to be and pull off rock & roll life has woken me up in the middle of the night for many years.

When I was pregnant, my anxiety came to a loud mental crescendo. How could I go on the road? How could I make money? Would my career wither away? I had dedicated my life to music thus far. Who would I be in the face of the changes to come? Would I be happy? Would I be resentful? I sat awake at night thinking about the money I’d lost on the road and making records, and about the price of health care as an independent artist. I was perfectly willing to work in the trenches to keep my career going, but I was not willing to drag my child down with me. I would not inflict my dreams onto my child. Ever. Even now, I hold this to be true. I secretly dreamed my career would turn some kind of corner, that life would begin to make sense and create a space for my family to unfold. But that didn’t happen. And suddenly, it was simply now or never.

What I wished for was a mother/musician 1-800 line with Abigail Washburn, Kim Gordon, Laura Veirs and Amanda Shires.

When I was sitting up at night, what I wished for was a mother/musician 1-800 line with Abigail Washburn, Kim Gordon, Laura Veirs and Amanda Shires answering the phones, doling out the information that I needed to know. How could I coordinate childcare, find playgrounds, make venues aware that my life as a musician is a family life? Was it even possible? I’m writing this story now, in part for myself, to say that it is more than possible. It’s actually wonderful. I thought I would feel like a horrible mother. What I actually feel is really proud. Maybe things will change as she gets older, but for now, Jean and I are having a great time.

I decided it would all be OK in the basement of a club in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It was Saturday, a sold-out Hiss Golden Messenger gig. That night, stale beer marked the air. The last of the burgers and fries hardened in plastic baskets (there is usually a musician menu at clubs that does not include anything resembling a superfood). A photographer had set up shop in the dressing room, which was about eight feet by ten feet, and displaced Hiss and me to the busy cellar hallway. Since I was opening the show and also sitting in with Hiss, I had two sound checks and then two sets, which meant a very limited time to feed my child and get her settled for the next three hours. She was six months old. I wondered how I would warn Judy, my good friend who had agreed to watch her, that Jean hated being away from me, wouldn’t take a bottle and got really mad at whoever wanted to change her diaper.

In a hallway chair, in the view of band mates and bartenders, I nursed my baby.

I had traveled on my own that day with my daughter in a sling, a diaper backpack, favorite toys and a stroller, so it has already been a long day for the baby. In the few minutes before the show, I had not eaten and at the very last second I would shake my hair and put on lipstick and hope for the best. There was nowhere quiet, private or clean in sight. In a hallway chair, in the view of band mates and bartenders, I nursed my baby. I have, for many years, feared this very scene. I worried she would cry the whole set or worse, something would go wrong while I was on stage for which I’d never forgive myself. I mumbled something to MC Taylor (from HGM) about how maybe this is all crazy. Tears were in my eyes.

“No, he says, “It’s like 1972. You are doing this. You’ve got this.”

He held Jean for me while I pulled myself together. MC is a good father and a great friend; I was so grateful for his hand on my shoulder. I put Jean in her stroller and surrendered her to Judy. I walked on stage opening a beer. It was the first two hours I’d had to myself in a long time. It felt like heaven. Between songs, I prayed Jean was sleeping; during songs I tried to sing with my whole heart, to be someone she would be proud of.

After the show, I ran to Judy’s house with a beautiful buzz from two beers to find that Jean had cried at length upon my departure. But Judy, her kids, their two cats, dog and pet mouse had put on a parade for her. All of the living room furniture was upended out to make way for pushing her stroller around and around. They had played guitar for her, sang to her. The parade had finally fallen asleep in a pile of pillows and blankets on the floor with Jean in Judy’s arms. On finding the scene, I lay on the sofa with Judy, too tired to move again, and decided to forego our hotel. During the night, when Jean woke up to nurse, she pulled herself up on my shoulders to look down from the sofa on her sleeping parade companions. She was thrilled to find them still there. I had never seen her smile so big.

I will be OK no matter whether I’m singing or not, because what I am now is her mother, first.

When we get home, yes, we will be clean again, we will be more organized, we will be safe in the little nursery. But maybe part of my job as a mother is to show her how to love the great big messy world. I showed her sunlight for the very first time, and colors. First leaves, and a lemon. On a first trip to California, we watched Patti Smith play from side stage. A first swing on a playground in New York City, a first sandlot baseball game in Marfa, Texas. Yesterday was a first boat in Amsterdam. But the real first is Jean. She comes first. I will be OK no matter whether I’m singing or not, because what I am now is her mother, first.

So this is not the story of whining about life on the road as a musician but rather what I have learned from my daughter on the road. Right now, on a train to London, she is thrilled by the lights of Brussels, a dog in adjacent seat eighty-two and a sweatshirt tie. We will spend the next half hour taking turns talking into a paper cup. Jean loves indiscriminately and completely. We find good and joy together every day in almost anything. The words we tell each other matter. Who we are and how we live matters — if only, and most importantly, to each other. We begin there, over and over.

In fact, life back at home might be harder than life out here. I wonder what I look like to my twenty-two-year-old babysitter back home as I rush to make sense of laundry and tornado through emails without time to shower or comb my hair. I run in a hundred directions while talking on the phone, then I land in a rehearsal. I stop to breastfeed, a moment of tenderness. I’m like every mother: a woman struggling to keep dreams afloat, building a life without a safety net, on a path that isn’t always tidy and doesn’t always make sense. But I press on. What I will show my daughter by example, I hope, is the great privilege of doing the hard work of making your own way. No matter where you are. Maybe one day Jean will be proud of me.

(Photo credit: Alexandra Valenti)

Tift Merritt is a North Carolina native and Grammy-nominated musician who wanted to write short stories until her father taught her guitar chords and Percy Sledge songs. Stitch of the World, her most recent collection, is her sixth studio album. Merritt also has recorded with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and sings in Andrew Bird’s old-time band. You can follow her on Twitter here.

(Photo credit: Taylor Pemberton)