The Invisible Work of Mothers in Music

The Invisible Work of Mothers in Music

Sharon Van Etten, Rico Nasty, Corin Tucker, and more on how being a touring musician can make the struggles of motherhood that much more intense.

Meg Remy couldn’t find any songs about breastfeeding, so she decided to write one herself. The art-pop explorer known for her work under the name  U.S. Girls gave birth to twins in early 2021, and as she was recovering in her hospital bed one night, a nurse explained how she needed to use a device to pump her breast milk several times a day, stimulating her body to lactate at a rate that would sufficiently nourish her two babies. “I had to go connect myself to a machine and just sit there and be milked,” Remy says. “I found it very lonely and isolating.”

But as she spent long spells pumping, she was transfixed by the device’s steady pace and distinctive sound. “It felt like a divine joke to be hearing this pump and instantly being like, ‘I gotta make a beat out of this.’” She spun the experience into a funk jam called “Pump,” featuring a churning electronic rhythm courtesy of a Medela Freestyle Flex breast pump. “How does the milk make it to your mouth?” she sings on the track, as breathy chants of “pump! pump!” offer encouragement in time with the beat.

Sampling a breast pump is one way to make the best of the tedious precarity of working motherhood. Beyond the constant juggling on a personal level, the maternal wall is a real phenomenon that inhibits women’s career possibilities with big and small prejudices that are baked into most institutional structures; mothers are less likely to be hired and make less money than non-mothers. Getting over that wall is an ever-evolving task that also affects musician moms, who have long been forced to make the best of the entertainment industry’s caprices. Their jobs involve heavy travel, long hours, and unorthodox schedules, on top of the act of making art, which requires focus, skill, and commitment. All of it further complicates parenting, and the care and attention raising a child requires. The resulting workload can be invisible to almost everyone but the woman carrying it.

Photo by Amy Sussman/FilmMagic

The image-obsessed world of entertainment has been exceptionally grievous in minimizing the demands of motherhood, with children long considered “career killers.” While that perception has changed over the years—just look at Beyoncé and Cardi B’s wildly successful (and joyously explicit) work since they had kids—many modern musician moms still experience undue pressure amid an industry that’s always in search of the shiny new thing. “It’s ingrained in the back of our heads that we have some kind of shelf life, and if you’re not fuckable, no one’s going to want to see you perform or hear what you have to say,” says the country singer-songwriter Margo Price, who has two children. “We objectify young women and youth, and then set them out to pasture.” 

The electro-pop singer, songwriter, and producer Charlotte Adigéry remembers signing a record contract in December 2020, on the same day she found out she was pregnant. The coincidental revelation clouded her with doubt, and she considered terminating the pregnancy. “I didn’t think that the music industry would support it or even be interested in what I had to say after becoming a mother,” she says. Adigéry ultimately had her son the following year, and her pregnant belly curves outward on the cover of her breakout 2022 album with multi-instrumentalist Bolis Pupul, Topical Dancer. “For the first time, I really learned to love my body, and I wanted to celebrate that,” she says of the black-and-white image.

Price had her own reservations about her second pregnancy. Nearly a decade earlier, one of her twin boys died in infancy as the result of a rare genetic heart condition, leaving her awash in grief. When she unexpectedly found herself pregnant again in 2018, Price wasn’t sure if she was ready for another baby. Early in her pregnancy, Price says she talked to country legend Loretta Lynn’s daughter, Patsy, pressing for answers: Did she resent her mom for being gone all the time on tour? Was she still angry? Patsy reassured her, and not long after, Loretta called her directly to say, “I just think you should have as many babies as you want.”

This reassurance held particular weight for Price, who idolized the late singer of songs like 1971’s “One’s on the Way” (which ends with Loretta quipping, “Oh gee, I hope it ain’t twins again”) and 1975’s “The Pill,” an ode to birth control and women’s freedom. Price delivers a stark pro-choice ballad on her latest album with “Lydia,” where she describes a down-and-out pregnant woman contemplating her future in a clinic. “Make a decision, it’s yours,” she sings. 

Many of the challenges that women in the music industry face echo broader fights against inequity, such as the struggles for paid maternal leave and universal healthcare in the United States. “If something isn’t good for your average musician, it’s not good for your average mother musician,” notes Meg Remy, a Torontonian who was lucky enough to not bring home a five-figure hospital bill along with her two babies thanks to Canada’s universal healthcare system.

The general lack of paid leave contributes to many women—including touring musicians—working through physical discomfort and other health risks all the way up to their due date. Corin Tucker had a rude awakening while carrying her first child during a tour with her band Sleater-Kinney in the early 2000s. “I was pretty young, and there was this feminist mentality of like, ‘Women can do anything, it doesn’t matter if you’re pregnant,’” she says. “But it was pretty horrible. I was so sick and exhausted. I would just sleep in the van all day, play the show, and drag myself to the hotel.”

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There’s no paid maternity leave for the vast majority of musicians, which can leave new mothers with precious little downtime. Raquel Berrios got pregnant unexpectedly around the same time that she had begun making dreamy electro-pop with her partner, Luis Alfredo Del Valle, as Buscabulla. She gave birth to her daughter at home in New York in 2013, on the same day she listened to the masters to Buscabulla’s debut EP for the first time. As Buscabulla picked up momentum, Berrios found her burgeoning music career growing inextricably alongside her baby.

“The first three years were really, really hard,” she says. “It took a toll on me.” There were times when she felt that she was living a “triple life”: going to the full-time day job that gave her family financial stability and health insurance, playing shows at night, mothering most of the hours in between. On some occasions, she’d go to breastfeed her daughter in the morning only to find the baby dusted with glitter and makeup that had rubbed off during a post-show feeding. Meanwhile, Berrios’ health was taking a serious hit from the long-term pressure, creating issues with allergies and digestion that dragged on for about eight years.

“The breastfeeding, the endless nights, the stress of playing—I would never want to relive that,” says Berrios. “But at the same time, it was blissful because I had a baby and I was starting to really do what I loved.”

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Pregnancy’s toll on women’s bodies can make public performance an intimidating prospect. In the summer of 2021, six months after giving birth to her twins, Remy didn’t feel ready for a handful of shows she’d booked around a particular gig that promised a comfortable check. So she canceled them, sharing the news with a photo of her breastfeeding. For Remy, the shows weren’t worth jeopardizing her comfort. “I was still getting my bearings around tandem breastfeeding, and I hadn’t sung other than just around the house,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine putting on a performance in the very physical way that I like to.”

Sharon Van Etten took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival three months after an emergency C-section heralded the arrival of her son in 2017. “Even just being inside my own body again after that was really weird,” the singer-songwriter remembers, adding that she lost some of her core muscular strength because of the incision. “I felt like I couldn’t balance for a long time. It was weird just to go for a walk by myself, let alone to leave my family on a tour.”

Accounting for nearly a third of births in the U.S., C-sections are major abdominal surgeries. Most doctors recommend at least six weeks of recovery. In her September 2018 Vogue cover story, Beyoncé shared some of her own experiences welcoming her twins to the world with an emergency C-section the previous year. “I was swollen from toxemia and had been on bed rest for over a month,” she wrote, noting, “Some of your organs are shifted temporarily, and in rare cases, removed temporarily during delivery.” Beyoncé spent six months resting and recovering before she began to prepare for her next performance, the 2018 Coachella headliner that set a new high for the festival. But most musicians aren’t afforded that kind of time. 

Margo Price ended up hitting the road to play nearly 20 shows opening for country star Chris Stapleton in 2019, just four weeks after having a C-section to give birth to her second child. The shows were booked before Price even knew she was pregnant, and she found herself backed into a corner—keeping the dates wasn’t just about her, but her bandmates and crew, as well as everyone’s longevity in the industry. She wasn’t sure if she’d get an opportunity like it again. Price ended up bringing her newborn daughter, mother, sister, and son with her, performing with her abdomen bound in Spanx and Ace bandages.

“I was ready to get back at it,” she concedes. “But maybe if I was a little more financially stable, I would’ve not felt the need to do that.”

Photo by Burak Cingi/Redferns

In 2023, touring is more important than ever for artists who want to make a living from their music. Streaming residuals are abysmal, high-paying features or syncs are relatively few and far between. Absent major industry overhauls, one option for touring moms looking to balance their work and personal lives is to bring the kids along for the ride, too.

“You leave your life behind, and when you come back, everything has moved on without you,” says Van Etten, generalizing her pre-parenting tour experience. “I couldn’t keep coming back home to that feeling. My son is growing at a rate where he wakes up in the morning and looks like a new person. I couldn’t live with myself if I missed that.” She wrote “Home to Me,” from last year’s We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, with her son in mind. “I need my job, please don’t hold that against me,” she pleads on the song.

Along with maintaining in-person contact, taking kids on tour allows them to see their parents at work and ask questions about what they do. Parents, too, get a mellow reality check. “It’s grounding to have kids around, and to remind yourself that what we do is cool, but also boring,” says Van Etten. “They help you take yourself less seriously.” 

Parenting on the go is a harried operation, whether in a tour bus or between airports; the novelty of short hotel stays or bunk beds on a bus only lasts so long. Most nightclubs and music festivals are often not so kid-friendly, either, largely due to a lack of preparedness that reinforces the idea that an artistic lifestyle is only available to people without children. Charlotte Adigéry, who gave birth in August 2021, brought her three-month-old son along for her first postpartum shows. She recalls one occasion where she’d requested formula and diapers on her rider, but the venue told her such a request was “against policy.” She wondered why those essential supplies were considered unacceptable, while indulgences like alcohol were fulfilled for other artists without protest.

“This is my universe. You want me to tell that story on stage? Well, then you also have to be able to bring us what we need,” she says. For an American tour earlier this year, Adigéry decided to leave her son at home in Belgium with her husband. “That to me is also self-care—being able to choose you first for a while,” she says. “A happy mother is a happy child.”

As moms try to figure out how to live on and off the road, some find a nagging swarm of what-ifs trailing behind them at all times: Are they really doing the right thing for themselves and their families? Are the sacrifices worth it?

“You feel guilty because you start to realize how precious a child’s life is, and you want to be a part of every memory,” says the gloriously unruly rapper Rico Nasty. She admits that she tried to cope with her guilt by buying gifts for her son, who’s now 7, until her mother pointed out the dysfunction. “You can give everything but time,” she adds. 

For Van Etten, even FaceTiming from the road can add to the ache of separation; there are moments when, even through a screen, she can tell that her son is trying not to cry. “What does he think about what I do?” she says. “It’s not just that this is my job—it also makes me a better person for him, for me, and for anyone that knows me.” 

Price is no closer to an answer on how to escape the guilt. She was only able to attend one of her son’s soccer games last year, a statistic that still stings months later. “It makes me feel really bad that I don’t get to be there for everything,” she says. “But what other choice is there in a world where people don’t buy albums?”

Photo by Josh Sisk/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

On the flip side of flagging record sales, some fans can go too far in their fealty to an artist, offering outsize affections that can trample personal boundaries. Social media makes for an even more slippery slope. Rico Nasty, who gushes about treating her son to special time together when she’s not performing, says she asks fans to keep it moving when they see her in “mommy mode.”

“He is the most important person of the day, but when people see me, they don’t always treat him with that respect,” she says. Some fans acquiesce when she declines a photo, but others keep pushing. “If I get disrespectful, then I’m on the next blog, and people are talking shit about how I parent because I cussed you out in front of my kid,” she adds. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, so I’ll just take the goddamn picture.”

Van Etten, meanwhile, has maintained a policy of not naming her son in the press, in order to give him a strong sense of agency early on. “I want him to have his own identity. It’s weird when even the sweetest of fans say his name and bring gifts for someone they’ve never met,” she says.

But the constant boundary enforcement is exhausting, and the tweets, TikToks, and other posts that are prescribed as a promotional necessity for today’s musicians are often antithetical to the demands of parenthood. “How the hell am I supposed to do social media when I’ve got to make sure that a kid’s not climbing the radiator and breaking his arm?” asks Meg Remy.

For many musician moms, another hurdle involves finding the time they need to recharge their creative energy and focus on their work. “When I just get a couple of days [to myself], my mind is so freaking active with melodies and ideas and the time to lose myself—that kind of abandon where you don’t have to really look at the clock or have anybody bother you is so fertile,” says Buscabulla’s Raquel Berrios. “I’ve had to really accept that there are always gonna be these windows of times where I’m going to be able to be creative,” she adds. 

Rico Nasty has been raising her son on her own for most of her music career, with stints of assistance from her divorced parents. She gave birth when she was 18; her baby’s father died of a severe asthma attack during her pregnancy. Being a single parent has had a significant impact on her music: Would-be collaborators had to be flexible with remote work long before it became a norm. Part of the rebellious streak that courses through her music comes from, as she puts it, “being young and having everyone tell you that your life was over because you’ve made such a life-changing ‘mistake.’” That doubt helped steel Rico’s resolve, and she released her first major-label studio album, Nightmare Vacation, in 2020.

But there’s no such thing as free childcare, really, and Rico found that having her parents in rotation at her home was not always relaxing. Last year, she was able to hire a nanny for the first time, and she says she’s never going back. “I was literally burning myself out for years,” she says. “It’s a whole new ballgame.” 

She keeps a routine of making her son breakfast and taking him to school every day, scheduling tours around his school breaks. But her commitments were piling up and weighing her down. “I was coming home so tired,” she recalls. “One time he was like, ‘We sat in the bed all day today,’ and it makes me so sad.” Having a nanny helps her have a softer landing when she gets home from tour. Hiring help can be costly in more ways than one, though: It’s another name on the payroll, an extra seat to buy, and another interpersonal relationship to navigate, one that’s often loaded with more emotional baggage.

Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Despite the constant reckoning with challenging circumstances, all of the working musician mothers I spoke with for this story found immense meaning and personal fulfillment through their music and their role as parents, and how the two intersect. “When you’re sleep deprived and your hormones are raging, you’re vulnerable to internal negative loops,” says Corin Tucker. “But music is so cathartic and energizing. That was always my solace: playing shows and making music. It kept me going.”

A joyful energy immediately gripped Charlotte Adigéry when she returned to performing after delivering her son. “Going on stage and feeling all of this love, it was like dopamine shots of gratefulness and ecstasy,” she says of that first time back. “I want to be that example for him—being true to yourself and going for it. Of course there’s compromise, but never compromise in art, because then you make shitty art,” she adds. 

Rico Nasty has discovered a similar source of inspiration for her son, even as her life has taken turns she never thought were possible. “We are a very unorthodox family, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be successful in our own right,” she says. “I’m so happy that I chased my dream, because now I can tell him, ‘If you think you can do it, do it.’”