The following post is pretty long. It is a guide to being in the showbiz trenches (travelling and performing concerts alone) with a baby. A caveat: she’s totally worth it, because THAT FACE.
This morning Beatrice woke up shrieking at 7.45am (I’m saving “screaming” for special occasions now when she does the Code Red version). I’m very lucky; she now sleeps for about six or seven hours a night, although she doesn’t tend to go to sleep until at least midnight.
Bojan, I noticed, was next to me (he wasn’t when I went to bed). I got home last night/this morning at 1am after a concert in London; he got home at 3am after a concert in York. He’s barely had any time off since she was born, and December has been the busiest of the three months she’s been with us. We both woke up; I started feeding her. He said, half-asleep but gleefully, “You know what we can do now? GO BACK TO SLEEP. We can sleep ’til noon.” He sighed with pure happiness and rolled over and was instantly snoring. Poor thing. He’s got a concert at the Wigmore tonight, but at least he can sleep all morning. I have a glorious day off, and a C minor Mass tomorrow (Saturday), a carol service on Sunday, and a funeral on Monday, but the last two are in Oxford, so my life is much easier than his right now.
So far, since she was born, I’ve done eight gigs, a few rehearsal-only days, and one singing lesson in London. Only two days of work didn’t involve Beatrice coming with me, because Bojan happened to be free, so he stayed at home with her. I’ve also had two travel-only days, around a concert day near Norwich. That was nice (good gig, nice people, good fee), but also awful (too far to travel alone with a baby on three different forms of public transport in freezing weather). Most of my work has coincided with Bojan’s, so mostly I’ve been on my own, dragging her around from Oxford to various other places. All she’s had as a result is a mild cold, thank goodness.
While we work, one of us has to be with the baby, because she feeds (the use of this word has made me want to say “It’s feeding time at the zoo!” every time I feed her) every hour or so in the evenings, and it’s inevitably me, because, well, it’s my product she’s eating. So getting back at 1am last night/this morning (ok, I exaggerate, it was 12.40) involved coming home on a bus from London to Oxford, with a baby strapped to the front of me.
I’m writing this account for a number of reasons:
- To cheer myself up: so I can look back and say, “wow, I was really tough and awesome in those early months. Good for me.” And when I say “look back”, I mean next week when I’m not working because we’re in America for Christmas and I can’t remember why my back hurts. But also years from now. Especially if I have an office job in the future – so I can remember that it wasn’t all glamour.
- To brag: yes, to brag. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, in terms of exhaustion and mental energy in the face of an unhappy small person who really just wants to be at home in the bedroom attached to a boob with many, many consecutive seasons of the West Wing (and more recently Gilmore Girls) on in the background, not being moved further than, say, as far as it is to the park in her lovely pram (third-hand from another singer, which is the best way). The journey on the bus last night was easy, but I’ve had other nights when it hasn’t been, when she’s screamed pretty much all the way home, and the only thing that will keep the screaming at a low ebb is to continually bounce her in my arms and sing “Baby’s Boat A Silver Moon”, still the only lullaby I know, for two solid hours. Never mind the back pain. And then you have to be beautiful and groomed and switched on for a concert. I’m pretty pleased that I’ve managed it, but it hasn’t been fun.
- The longer-term purpose of this blog is to keep a record of what it’s really like to have a tiny baby as a jobbing singer, for myself (when/if we decide to have another one), but also for anybody who’s thinking about doing it and wants an unromantic look at the reality of parenting a new person while performing. And also, it’s nice to have an account of what Beatrice is like right now. I’ve already forgotten the details of the first few weeks, and I’m quite sad about that. It’s not that I want to re-live it every day, and I certainly don’t want to go back to what I can remember vaguely as a sleep-deprived nightmare. It was punctuated every hour and a half by the reminder, every feed, that my nipples were bleeding, and that I’d forgotten to drink enough water (the stabbing headaches that come with breastfeeding are quite something). But the point is that now Beatrice can do exciting things that she couldn’t do back then, and I want to remember what she was like as a true newborn. I guess the thing is that you have to be able to type with two hands to get a reliable account down.
Anyway: public transport and babies. It’s miserable way of travelling. But it CAN BE DONE.
We don’t have a car, and the train is prohibitively expensive (and the station’s on the wrong side of Oxford for us), but we do live about an eight-minute walk from the bus stop.
The bus, which is a fairly comfy long-haul coach, goes straight to London for the low, low price of £6 per single journey if you spend £72 on twelve journeys at once. Which means, in a beautiful example of cosmic justice, that I have become That Person, the person I used to roll my eyes at, the person with the baby who gets on the bus and you think OH GOD, NO NO NO NO DON’T SIT NEAR ME, and you also think WHY ARE PEOPLE SO £*%#ING INCONSIDERATE, BRINGING THEIR OFFSPRING ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT? THAT BABY IS TOO LITTLE TO BE OUT. TAKE YOUR BABY BACK HOME, YOU MONSTER. WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU CAN BRING THAT INFANT ON THIS BUS WHEN THERE ARE SERIOUS COMMUTERS TRYING TO GET TO WORK?
Here’s the answer. It’s now blindingly obvious to me, like a huge neon sign advertising a West End show. Why did that person bring that baby on a bus?
When I took her in for a full day of rehearsals last week the babysitter had cancelled the night before, for the very good reason of a stomach bug (better no babysitter than a vomiting baby several days later. But it was a rough day). So this is the face I made at 7am that morning, with the prospect of a full day of sitter-less rehearsal ahead, and this is the face that would greet the “why are you on this bus with your baby?” question, if anyone dared ask it. Do you know why I’m here, Mr Commuter, apparently ignoring me but also wordlessly kicking me under the table every five minutes and sighing and grimacing every time you look at my baby? I’m commuting too. I am going to WORK. We are the same, you and I, except I have another human to look after while I commute. Now go back to your laptop, you exceptionally irritating little man. And yes, I’m about to change this baby’s diaper right in front of you. Just concentrate on your emails and you won’t notice a thing.
Contrast with this face, on my way to London yesterday at lunchtime with Beatrice FOR THE LAST TIME THIS YEAR!!
So here’s what you do if you have a baby and you have to get to a rehearsal and/or concert some distance away from your home.
1. Organise a babysitter. Top tip: make sure you have this list of people ready BEFORE you give birth to your baby. In your befuddled, sleep-deprived state a month later (I went back to work at four weeks, but I don’t recommend it), or even two months later (the luxury!), you will need to phone someone (a) reliable, (b) baby-friendly, and (c) at short notice. If you haven’t already made your list (I hadn’t), you will suddenly not be able to remember the names of any of your friends, let alone figure out who fits those criteria.
A note of explanation: you need to hire a babysitter because it is not possible to be fully in charge of a baby and also fully involved in your rehearsal. It makes you look unprofessional, it inevitably annoys your colleagues, even if they claim it doesn’t, it’s disruptive, and you’ll be horribly frustrated both as a musician and a parent. I have now done it twice, and it was awful, even though my colleagues were very nice about it and very complimentary about how lovely and calm Beatrice was. You might need to occasionally feed the baby (because you can hear her hungry screams two floors away), or help the babysitter with something during the rehearsal, but your head needs to be in your score most of the time. Also, holding a baby makes it impossible to also hold a score and pencil, let alone turn your pages at the right time. GET A BABYSITTER. The babysitter can do anything, from just occasionally handing you stuff while you suavely feed the baby and sing at the same time with your music on a stand, to being someone who takes complete charge of the infant in a separate building for three hours while you do a concert. On any point in that spectrum, they are worth the money. If they’re your friend, then even better; they can provide ace moral support. NB: even if they’re your friend, be sure to pay them. Properly.
2. Get your stuff together. Babies require a lot of gear. When I go to London to work with Beatrice, I get everything ready before I manoeuvre her into the sling, because once she’s in we need to start moving immediately or she’ll get angry. My boots need to be on my feet when I put her in the sling. My phone and keys need to be in my pocket. My concert bag needs to be fully packed, with no uncertainty about whether I’ve remembered my nice earrings. But also – oh, joy – for the bare minimum of away-time, which is 2.5 hours’ travel each way with a three-hour rehearsal and a concert in between, there’s an additional backpack stuffed to the gills with roughly twelve hours’ worth of baby stuff.
Here’s my current, and evolving, list, in no particular order:
- About ten diapers (because WHO KNOWS WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN)
- Two tiny bottles of newborn formula
- A bag of frozen breast milk (she decided yesterday that she hates formula, so it was good that I brought that – things might’ve gotten really ugly otherwise)
- A bottle
- A clean baby blanket to lay her on at the venue/on the bus
- Three extra outfits in case of diaper explosions. This is not a joke. Pack them.
- A bag of clean wet wipes and a bag for dirty wipes (we use the washable kind)
- A package of emergency back-up disposable wipes (you can never have enough)
- A little toy with a bell inside that she’s just started being able to grab, for distraction
- Three pairs of socks (she kicks them off with great cunning)
- Two muslins for soaking up spilled milk/baby puke (though she very rarely throws up, you never know when you might get caught out) – I’ve only actually ever used the muslins to soak up water, because…
- A water bottle. Breastfeeding is desperately thirsty work, and although sometimes a water bottle can leak and soak your concert clothes (unless your muslins were in the same bag and saved your dress! Yeah!), it’s worth taking the risk and shoving one in that baby bag. Be sure it’s firmly closed and upright.
- A changing mat, preferably one you can whip open with one hand and also fold easily with one hand. Pre-crease it if necessary and practise at home.
- Three hats: one in the bag, one on the baby’s head, and a spare in your coat pocket
- A plastic bag in a VERY easily accessible area, for anything that might get apocalyptically dirty. Putting it in your coat pocket is a good idea.
- Breast pads/shields. Bring about six for one day, just in case. When you feed on one side, the other side will leak/spray (depending on how recently you’ve last fed from that side), and you will also leak uncontrollably during concerts if you haven’t fed for a while. Sometimes the baby decides to sleep for an hour or two, and who wants wet patches on their nice concert dress? Not me.
Optional extra, if you’re going to work without the baby, or if you’ll be separated from the baby on the trip for several hours: a manual breast pump (one that doesn’t require electricity and is compact and can be shoved into the bag of baby things) and pre-sterilized storage bags. You’d better hope the venue has a fridge, or all that liquid gold is going to go to waste. Apparently it can only be left out for an hour at room temperature, but I’ve brought home bags of milk pumped at the Tower of London (the choir room kitchenette is great): I stored them in the fridge during a carol concert, and then brought them home in my rucksack – and they were still cold when I got home, so they went straight into the freezer for later use. Thank goodness it’s winter.
Side note: I never used to understand why women pumped breast milk on tour/at work. I’d never bothered to talk to anyone about it, or to think about it for more than a few seconds. I had a vague idea that it might be uncomfortable to have full breasts for an extended period of time, and that it was good to take home the extra milk for the baby, or something. I now know that after a few hours of not feeding, it becomes agony. The pain is acute and uniquely desperate. I’m struggling to find a comparison to make to explain the sensation to you, but it’s something like having an insect bite, say, on your arm. At first it’s just noticeably there, a slight swelling, but eventually you realise you’ve been bitten by a poisonous spider and the bite is getting bigger and bigger, with dramatic swelling, and all the blood in your body has apparently gone to that spot on your arm. The pain is unbearable, your skin is tight, your flesh is rock-hard, and there’s an evil tingling sensation in the middle, where the bite is, that’s more of a burning than a tingling, really, and it does not bode well. The overwhelming feeling is of pressure.
Top tips: (1) your boobs will leak eventually if you leave them for too long, but the leaking won’t actually relieve the pressure, only take off the top 5% of it. The pain will continue. And (2) if you leave them for too long you can get something called mastitis. I don’t want to get into that here. Just look it up.
Back to the main story, though. Now that you’ve assembled all your gear, congratulations! You’re ready to travel. But before you go:
3. Make sure you’re actually ready.
- Is your baby very, very recently fed?
- Is your baby very, very recently changed?
If you have any distance to travel before you can safely feed or change the baby again (say, a ten-minute walk to the bus stop, or a twenty-minute tube ride to a train), it’s worth doing this now. If your baby is asleep, good luck to you – you can do (2), but probably not (1). The reason you should double and triple check that your baby doesn’t want milk right now and couldn’t possibly be topped up any further: babies who are peacefully sleeping in a sling (motion sends them to sleep) can wake up the moment you stop walking at the bus stop. They will shriek inconsolably just as you’re congratulating yourself on how easy this parenting-while-working thing is, and then you’re screwed, because it’s below freezing outside and you can’t take the baby out of the sling to feed her, and WHERE IS THE GODDAMN BUS? OH, IT’S LATE AGAIN. And then everyone at the bus stop hates you and you have to walk away from the queue and bounce around/dance on the spot with the baby still in the sling, pleading with her to please stop because it’ll all be fine in a minute, really, just sixty seconds, shall we count together? One, two, three, four… oh, crap. Um, baby’s boat a silver moon/sailing o’er the sky/I’m going to change the words because/I’m really bored of them/Scan, lyrics, scan/So that I stay sane/Where is that infernal bus?/This is really bad.
Re (2), changing the baby, I don’t think I need to explain that one. Better safe than sorry.
This is why I have to allow an extra hour of prep time to make sure I leave on time. If you have a baby you’ll know how they mess with your timings, but if you’re going to a gig and you’re on a schedule, be sure to allow extra extra time.
So: you’re ready to go. The baby is fed and changed. Now what?
4. Mental check: Phone/keys/wallet/concert dress/shrug/tights/concert shoes/makeup bag/hair stuff/hairbrush/music/folder/jewellery/bus pass/oyster card/oh-wait-I-can-just-use-my-contactless-card-instead/ok-we’re-done.
No time to mentally check the baby bag. You’ve triple checked that already, right? It’ll be fine.
5. Walk to the bus stop.
6. Wait for the bus.
Baby still asleep, or quietly alert? Congratulations! Accept compliments from strangers, smile, and tell them that really, she’s an easy baby. Yes, she’s your first. You’re very blessed, etc., etc.
7. Get on the bus. Request the nice downstairs priority seat because, well, just look at you. You’re laden like a camel on the way to a Bedouin market. She might even sleep for the whole journey. My daughter usually does on the way to London, and then refuses to on the way back, but every baby is different. These are the two eventualities, equally cute. You’ll notice that I put her on the seat next to me; this is because she gets overheated for two hours in the sling, and also because if she’s awake she gets very cross. The safety implications bother me, but I haven’t figured out a better way yet.
8. Changing priorities. (Enjoy that pun? I did.) Now, make sure you check that baby’s diaper at least once on the bus journey, preferably in the middle and again towards the end. But do not make the mistake I made last weekend and change the baby in a leisurely way even though she’s kind of grunting and bearing down and making strange, concentrated faces at you – just as the bus is pulling into its first stop in London, where you’re supposed to be getting off. That means she’s about to spray you with acid-yellow poo the moment the diaper is off, and it will fill the changing mat like an infernal lake and also spray onto your nice white-and-blue dress and the really nice scarf your husband gave you for Valentine’s Day four years ago. And guess what? YOU didn’t bring a change of clothes, did you? You only brought several extra outfits for the baby. You’re going to have a yellow stain on that dress forever.
So let’s say you’ve reached your destination without incident. The hard part is now over, assuming you have a babysitter ready and waiting.
9. Arrive early for your rehearsal, for easy handover.
Remember that the handover takes time – you have to explain where all the stuff is and set them up somewhere unobtrusive, near the rehearsal space but not too near, with the bag ready and everything accessible for them; they didn’t pack that bag, you did, and if they need to find diapers/wipes/a bottle in a hurry they won’t want to dig through three emergency outfits and a blanket and all the other paraphernalia with rising panic as the baby yells or poo leaks onto their lap. Or both. They need to know where everything is BEFORE you go away and start rehearsing.
So you do your rehearsal, you have a break in the middle (feed during that break, and do not refuse offers from colleagues of a cup of tea and a piece of cake), you do a bit more rehearsing, and then you have an hour or two between the rehearsal and the concert to eat and get ready.
10. Somebody will offer to bring you dinner. Accept this offer. Do not go out for dinner with the baby, even if you are in the West End and it seems cool to try. Stay put in that dressing room! You won’t regret it. Babies and restaurants are bad enough at the best of times, but tonight you have to get your head in the game for a concert as well, and trying to breastfeed in a straight-backed chair at a Chinese restaurant before a gig while you try to eat with one hand AND talk about the birth to your colleagues is not the ideal preparation. I tried this at 8 weeks or so and it was pure, unalloyed misery.
11. Get ready early. Stupidly early. During the break dinner break, put your makeup and dress on long before you think you have to, and ONLY then are you allowed to eat (you can also eat during the interval, assuming there is one, if a nice person has brought you some food before the concert or, if you’re superwoman, if you’ve brought food yourself). Soon everybody will come back to get ready for the gig, and the room will be crowded, and you’d better be ready to go before that, especially if your baby is in the room with you. Time has a funny way of bending and then snapping back and spanking you while shouting “Surprise! It’s concert time and you’re not dressed! Ahahaha!” Let the babysitter hold the baby while you do your dress/hair/makeup. Don’t feel you’re suddenly on primary baby duty just because you’re done rehearsing, or you’ll find it’s five minutes before the concert and all you’ve done is feed the little one for an hour, chatting happily about the horrors of birth (again) with childless colleagues, and you now have no time to get ready, and the baby doesn’t want to be taken off the breast, and you’ve forgotten to drink any water or eat anything, and OH GOD NO.
12. Try to sneak in a last-minute feed before you go on stage. This only applies if you’re ready to go (dressed, fed, makeup done, hair pinned, etc.). Place a muslin strategically under the baby’s chin so that if she’s in an unfocused mood or only moderately hungry (i.e. not latched on furiously, efficiently draining every drop), she won’t dribble half of the milk back out onto your dress. She might also do this because she’s in a different environment and new things are fun to look at. Like mirrors. Who IS that baby in the mirror who seems to follow her everywhere she goes?
13. This is important: choose a concert dress that allows easy access to your boobs. I should’ve mentioned this before, but having a concert dress with a deeply plunging décolletage and/or quite stretchy fabric is a great idea. If you come offstage in the interval, or after the whole thing is finished, and the babysitter is at her wits’ end because the child is screaming, you’ll have to get that boob out at lightning speed, and if it’s not a flexible dress, you will rip a seam. If you somehow manage not to rip a seam, another pitfall of the inflexible dress is that you won’t be able to get the boob all the way out, or pull the fabric sufficiently far away from the baby’s mouth to prevent huge milk stains. And the concert will be over, so you won’t really care in the moment, but you’ll be annoyed the next day when you unpack that concert bag and remember that the dress is dry clean only.
The concert is over – hurrah! Congratulate the babysitter on a fabulous job, but don’t let her leave yet. Sit down and feed the baby (see above for tips), and then give the baby to the babysitter so that you can pack your stuff up. DO NOT CHAT ENDLESSLY. Everyone will want to praise the baby and talk to you about her and say merry Christmas and whatnot, but you have to get all your ducks in a row because there’s a long journey ahead, and you don’t want to get locked inside St Martin in the Fields with a suitcase, a backpack, and a baby strapped to your chest just because you dilly-dallied. I speak from experience.
14. Before you leave, refill that water bottle. You’ll need it on the journey back, and you won’t have access to a tap or a shop that sells water for another few hours.
15. Head home. The earlier rules for getting to London/your destination apply here again, but be aware that you might want to strategically take a cab, or accept a lift from a colleague (if you’re lucky) for part of the journey, depending on whether or not it’s Saturday night and there are likely to be lots of drunk/rowdy people on the tube and/or bus you were planning on taking. Just get home as swiftly as possible. Also, remember that you have the right to take up two seats on that bus. You need to be able to put the baby down somewhere to change her, don’t you?
16. Arrive at home. YOU’VE DONE IT – GOOD JOB. Put your concert bag and the baby bag in a corner – you can unpack tomorrow – and concentrate on getting your (I hope) sleeping baby into bed. She’ll probably wake up when you take her out of that sling, and you’ll probably need to feed her again. Keep the water bottle close by. Tuck her in when she’s done; brush your teeth; take off your concert makeup if you’re feeling really energetic. Enjoy the sleep while you can – she’ll be up in a few hours.
So that’s it for now – in Beatrice development news, she’s just found her left hand (does that mean she’ll be left-handed?) and has been turning it over and staring at it, mostly in a fist, for the last three days. She used her fist to whack a dangling Christmas ornament of The Skater two days ago and I nearly died of happiness.
We leave for the US on the 20th and will spend Christmas with my mom in Illinois. I can’t wait. I hope that you, dear reader, have a very happy holiday season with the ones you love.