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Music, The Road & Motherhood

Music, The Road & Motherhood
November 29, 2007 | Author: Peggy Frew

peggeyfrewPeggy Frew plays bass and sings in Art of Fighting. her partner Mick Turner plays guitar in Dirty Three.

When I started playing music with friends in the late 90s, I never imagined we’d still be playing together nearly ten years later. And I certainly never imagined I’d have two children along the way and still be in the band. Mothers didn’t play in bands. Mothers belonged to a different world.

But kids do happen, even to those of us who thought we were firmly committed to a life of freedom and spontaneity. Behind the scenes of many a band there are young families. Many male musicians regularly leave partners and offspring behind to hit the road, and I know from talking to friends and contemporaries that this is not an easy thing to do. In most families it’s the mother who does the majority of the parenting – at least when the kids are very young. For mothers who also have a musical career, it is even more of a challenge to balance the demands of a job, for which freedom and spontaneity are fundamental criteria, with a decidedly un-free and un-spontaneous home life.

So now here I am, one day at home making play dough and changing nappies and the next flying off to play a show in a stone amphitheatre overlooking Paris. Breastfeeding backstage, installing booster seats in hired vans, having a three-year-old burst in the bathroom door shouting ‘You’re on the radio!’ – I forget sometimes what a bizarre combination it is of the exotic and the mundane.

I don’t think I would have been able to combine these two so vastly different lives if not for a couple of lucky strikes. The first being the existence of my partner, Mick, who regularly takes time from his own career to care for our children while I play my music, even though it’s not always the best decision financially. I feel extremely fortunate to have a partner who understands that there are things contributing to a family’s wellbeing – in this case my need for a creative life outside of childrearing – other than just money. Another stroke of fortune, in a quite ironic way, is the fact that my band doesn’t tour much any more. We seem to be enjoying a slow-build career that’s moved forward in small bursts. I don’t think I could do both family and music if we were a band that toured eleven months of the year. Or if I was a pop starlet who had label bosses demanding I not only come up with smash hits but be available to tour and promote the shit out of everything and on top of that be cute, sexy and decidedly un-mum-like and certainly not take time off to have babies. But that’s a topic for a different piece of writing. This one’s about my experience.

Things have changed since the early days of the band. But things have changed for all of us – with ‘real’ jobs and families (two of the other guys have kids as well) – none of us is as available as we once were. In the beginning there were many trips up and down the Hume and Pacific Highways, much post-show partying and many hung-over loadings of gear in and out of venues. There was a six-week tour of Europe, which was not all that different, except the beer was better and someone else often did the driving, usually on the other side of the road. (Later there would be more Europe, plus some Japan and Taiwan, but I would be a mother by then.)

Touring is an exhausting yet strangely addictive way of life. It allows you to visit places and meet people both fascinating and inspiring. But for me there are two things that, of all that my time in the band has offered me, I hold most dear: the feeling, which I find difficult to put into words, but that can be described as something similar to triumph, that comes when you and your band mates are all playing together and it just works; and the wonderfully close and deep relationship you share with those band mates. This affinity – more kinship than friendship – is special no doubt due to all the shared joy of playing music together over such a long period, but owes just as much I think to the many, many hours and days of shared, well, stuff – the meals, rooms, vans, discussions, arguments and rants, the running jokes, the boredom, listlessness and occasional bad behaviour. The just general togetherness, fun, tedious or annoying, that actually constitutes the most part of touring.

Touring hasn’t been the same since kids became part of the picture. Mick and I have dealt with childcare and touring in various ways. Depending on the length of the tour, the age of the kids, and what Mick himself is up to work-wise, we do one of three things: I take the kids with me, plus a babysitter; I go by myself and the kids stay home with Mick; or we all go together.

Taking the children on tour is hard work. There’s no getting around the tiredness factor. I don’t think I have ever once eaten dinner when I’ve had my children on the road with me. You’re always rushing – from the airport to the hotel, then to the venue to sound check, then back to put the kids to bed, then back to the show. Then you might relax a bit and have a few drinks and talk to your band mates but pretty soon it’s back again to the hotel because you feel guilty for keeping the babysitter up, or you feel sorry for your poor partner stuck there by himself. And then it’s up just way, way too early in the mornings, because the words ‘hung over’ are obviously not part of any three-year-old’s vocab.

I can’t say I’ve always completely loved the experience. But at the same time, playing the actual shows has continued to make me feel the way it always did, and that’s worth a lot of compromise. You also learn as you go, and you get better at things. When my second daughter was about three months old I for some insane reason thought I’d be okay to do a couple of interstate shows. Maybe I felt invincible due to hormones, I don’t know, but in the week of that tour I had three minor car accidents, got gastro and tonsillitis, and just about had a nervous breakdown. It took that experience for me to realise that I shouldn’t take on any driving responsibilities when I’ve got the kids with me on tour. I’m pretty sure it was just that one extra strain – driving to and from the airports, venues and hotels, trying to read maps with a crying baby in the back seat – that pushed me over the edge.

We did a similar tour late last year, and I took both kids and a babysitter (Mick was overseas on tour himself), and it worked fine. I didn’t drive anywhere, and when the girls woke me in the mornings I’d feed the baby and then wake up the babysitter and hand them over and go back to bed. You get better at trusting other people with your kids, and knowing your own limits. Taking one or both of the kids with me is tiring, and does mean missing out on a lot of the fun of the tour. But leaving them at home brings a different set of problems. I experienced this much more intensely when it was just my elder daughter Lila I was leaving, something I started to do when she was around one year old. It was so hard to leave her! Even though rationally I was happy for her to stay with Mick – in fact, thought it was a great opportunity for them to develop their relationship – and even though I knew she’d be ok, it always broke my heart to leave her and go somewhere far away for what often felt like a long time. I guess it’s an instinct to not want to be apart from your child – nature’s way of making sure we don’t leave them out for the wolves to snatch.

What actually happened was that she was fine, Mick was fine, and the occasional mild anxiety attack aside I had a lot of good times on the tours.
Being forced to really share parenting like that has also strengthened my conviction that my kids are lucky to experience an upbringing that involves a father who’s around, and (more importantly) involved at the actual coalface of childrearing more than most.
There is however a limit to how long I’m willing to be separated from the children, and I had to learn it the hard way. In 2006 the band went to Europe for three weeks. Lila was two years old. I had originally planned on bringing her along, but when we were planning the tour I had just become pregnant with Belle, our second daughter, and was so exhausted and unwell with morning sickness I just couldn’t imagine doing a pregnant tour with a jetlagged toddler. So Lila stayed behind with Mick. The first two weeks were okay. I called as often as I could. But by the third week Lila didn’t want to speak to me on the phone. It was as if she’d given up on me. I felt terrible. I cried a lot. The other guys in the band were either extremely tactful or didn’t notice, I’m still not sure which.

Of course it was fine in the end. But now I know I wouldn’t do a sans-kids tour any longer than two weeks. Mick and I have done a couple of trips on which we’ve both played music and taken the kids with us.The first time was a tour of Japan in 2005. Mick was on first, solo, and Art of Fighting was the headline act. It was a lot of fun. Lila took her first steps backstage at a venue in Kyoto. The actual logistics of the show nights were something of a challenge, me giving Lila dinner and putting her to bed while Mick played, and then Mick rushing back to the hotel and me rushing off to the venue for my own show. There was a lot of rushing. And there was none of the two of us – me and Mick – spending any time together enjoying the cities we were visiting. There was certainly no after-show partying. We didn’t know anyone who could babysit.

Earlier this year the band did another Japanese tour and also went to the UK to play All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. Mick was involved in ATP as well, so the whole family went, much more organised this time, got a babysitter, managed a bit of holidaying either side of the band work and had a really great time. A couple of months ago I left the kids with Mick and went to Paris for just three days to play that one show, and also had a lot of fun. And as I write this I’m just back from five days away doing interstate shows, again leaving the girls with Mick. My first tour in nearly five years on which I haven’t been pregnant or breastfeeding, and I had a very good time. I missed my girls, but they were at home with their dad, and I spoke to them every day.

The thing I always try to remember when I worry about leaving my children, and when I miss them so desperately, is that I’m setting an example to them. What sort of a role model do I want to be? Playing in the band balances my life, fulfils and stimulates me in a way that I’m sure makes me a happier, more contented person, and this in turn I am positive makes me a better mother. My own mother worked and pursued creative outlets that contributed to her personal happiness and I consider her to have been (and still to be) an excellent role model. I want my girls to grow into happy, confident women who feel free to make of their lives whatever they choose, and I think the best way to help them get started on that road is to be on it myself.

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