Rocking My Baby by Nancy Davis Kho

baby and vinyl record.When I gave birth to my first child, I anticipated many of the life changes that followed. My boobs went from a 36-C to a 36-Long; our savings account level dipped from, “Let’s fly to LA for the weekend” to “I think we could probably stretch the chili another night if I just throw in one more can of kidney beans,” and my sleep cycle turned from deep and restorative to short and snappy. But I was ready, and as soon as I laid eyes on tiny Maddy, I was more than willing.

What I never foresaw was how motherhood would force music appreciation through the sausage grinder.

A month before her birth I was sitting at a Sarah McLachlan concert, the sound washing around me in waves as the baby flipped and turned and kicked in ways that she hadn’t for the prior nine months. “Wow,” I said to my husband, shifting in my seat and trying to massage a foot out of my spleen. “There is definitely a music fan in there.” I considered bringing Sarah McLachlan music to the hospital to play while I was in labor, but thought better of it when I realized it might encourage the child to kick her way out.

From the moment the baby was born, music took a backseat to nursing pads, sleep training and nasal aspirators. Twelve months later when Maddy was on her feet and walking, I emerged back into the real world like a refugee from the underground, pushing back the manhole cover and squinting at the light.

“Neil Finn is playing a solo concert TONIGHT?” I said to a colleague on the sales team at my corporate job one day, as I glanced idly through the entertainment section.

The office where I worked, the small forgotten Western outpost of a large and bustling D.C.-based firm, exuded a studiously lax approach to productivity. The two sales reps spent approximately all their time shopping online and doing hilarious impressions of their bosses back at Headquarters, rather than making quotas. Another third of my office mates were recent immigrants from Hong Kong who were supposed to make copies of glossy annual reports for our clients, big investment firms and banks. When they weren’t doing that, the Hong Kong contingent alternately day-traded on their own accounts based on whichever company’s annual report was causing the phone to ring off the hook, or napped underneath their desks using phone books as pillows.

This being early days for the Internet, it was still faster to wait out the sleepers than to use the dial up connection to log on and look up a phone number. Hence my time-killing study of the entertainment section.

Neil Finn, former lead singer with Split Enz and later Crowded House, had been my favorite singer since high school. In my previous non-mothering life, the one that seemed fuzzier by the minute, I would have had tickets to his show before the ink was dry on the print batch. I stared at the newspaper page like it had just flipped me the bird. “How did I not know that? How on earth didn’t I know that Neil Finn had a concert?”

The nearest sales rep had no answer for me, and went back to not calling our customers.

It’s not that I had been living in a cocoon of silence. It’s just that my attention had suddenly, seismically, shifted to children’s music.

Maddy, in the unpredictable way of infants, sometimes nodded off like sleep was a cool drink and she had just crossed a desert. Other times I’d go through the whole catalog of traditional sleep-inducing tricks like nursing, bouncing, begging, bribing, or driving back and forth to Reno. Someone was cruel enough to tuck a Raffi CD into a gift basket at her baby shower, and one night I got desperate and slipped it into the CD player.

Big mistake. I discovered Willoughby Wallaby Woo, which invites little listeners to incorporate their own names and the names of friends into a festive rhyming refrain about a pachyderm. Seven simple notes, played on and on for infinity, until the Universe collapses in on itself with a guttural cry of pain to match my own.

Still, there was no question that Raffi had transformed a child protective service-summoning howl into a quiet, rhythmic baby snore. I just had to find something that we could both listen to without going crazy.

Luckily Maddy’s birth coincided with a renaissance of children’s music production. When I was a child, there wasn’t a whole media industry aimed at children. There was Fred Rogers’ jingle about the neighborhood, there was Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, and there was your mom’s voice. If none of those things soothed or entertained you, well, Texas, you were on your own.

But by the time the 21st century rolled around, there was money to be made by legitimate rockers with a brand new audience, an audience that struggled to roll from stomach to back and could be reliably counted on to issue broccoli farts in inconvenient settings. Dan Zanes, former lead singer of the Del Fuegos, took his crazy hair and Jack Sprat form and breathed new life into American folk songs, backed by singers like Debbie Harry and Suzanne Vega. Grammy-winning blues rocker Taj Mahal set down his Statesboro Blues in order to shake a tail feather and loop de loop for awhile. They Might Be Giants put a birdhouse in their soul, and then put a series of kids CDs on their royalty list.

Some may call it a sellout, but I think those rockers were smart. They reached their thirties and forties and took a moment to evaluate. The thought process must have gone something like this: “Here are my two options. I can continue to play the club/auditorium circuit and reach grownups, wearing out my knees and never getting a good night’s sleep. Or, for the same revenue stream, I can issue a Pantera Sings Arlo Guthrie CD. Then I go on tour, visit sold-out halls full of happy fans for abbreviated matinee shows, and am still back in my hotel wearing pajama pants and watching TV by 6 p.m.” No brainer.

I still tried to get away with playing my music when we were in the car for any length of time. Because nothing is more amusing than watching a toothless toddler singing about buses, not the “Wheels On The” variety, but rather the version by the Replacements. Still, when a request came from the back seat for “Rock Island Line” off Zane’s “Family Dance Party,” I not only put it on with alacrity, but sang along. I liked to think that if I pulled up at stoplight, with Buckwheat Zydeco’s “Choo Choo Boogaloo” wafting out my open window, the guy sitting in the low rider with the chrome rims in the next lane might think I was on my way to the New Orleans By the Bay music festival, not Kindergym at Temple Beth Al.

I’m grateful to those bands for plowing the middle ground on which both my daughter, with her drunken sailor toddler gait, and I, in my “What Would Joan Jett Do?” t-shirt, could walk together. I maintained my musical dignity and she approached her second birthday having never once sung the words “Willoughby Wallaby Wommy, an elephant sat on Mommy.”

But even if I’d made my peace with what was playing on the home stereo, there was another change I had to acknowledge: I had stopped going to concerts.

In my pre-parenting life, popping out for a show on both a Friday and Saturday night was de rigueur, and a weeknight concert or four each month wasn’t uncommon either. Now, with a toddler at home, the appeal of hitting the shows, not to mention the energy required to do so, had evaporated like so much milk.

Still, I couldn’t completely shake the urge to be part of the living organism that is a concert crowd, sweaty and hopped up on music and beer and the promise of a memorable night.

Close study of the entertainment section revealed a column header that I’d always skipped over before: Family Concerts. I skimmed down the list. Maybe I wouldn’t buy a concert t-shirt, but at least I could say I’d been out hearing live music and connecting to my tribe.

“There’s a kid’s concert at Ashkenaz this weekend,” I told my husband one crisp autumn day. “We should take Maddy.”

If Berkeley, Calif. is the core of the Northern California lifestyle, then Ashkenaz is its molten heart. The club looks like the inside of an old fashioned agricultural shed you see in history books about the 1800s, bare wooden walls with sunlight streaming through the chinks. The light shines onto bands playing Berber, Klezmer, Balkan, and Brazilian music, sometimes all at once, while a snack bar in the corner turns out tempeh sandwiches and vegan carrot soup. Everyone there has dreadlocks and a personal story about the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, even if they were born 20 years after it happened.

My husband and I have lived in Northern California for 15 years. We carry our reusable bags to the grocery store and sometimes even remember to bring them inside. We recycle. We eschew wrapping paper. But there’s something about the earnest political correctness in Berkeley that makes me want to yell “I’m for industry!” as I drive down its streets. I mean, it’s great that Berkeley is a nuclear free zone, with signs designating it as such on the major thoroughfares in and out of the city. I just wonder whether, if an atomic bomb were dropped onto neighboring Oakland, whose job it is to enforce that ordinance?

So, in retrospect, I may not have fully considered the implications of hauling my husband and toddler off to see a Caribbean performer play at Ashkenaz as our introduction to children’s concerts. Kind of like the time in college I thought that, since I was a decent figure skater on my next door neighbor’s backyard ice rink growing up, I would probably have a lot to contribute to the women’s Division III hockey team.

We got to the show on a sunny Sunday afternoon and things started off well enough. While Andrew and Maddy settled in on the gritty floor of the club amidst a sea of other parents and their charges, I made a beeline for the bar and ordered a juice box and beers. Fun! We’re at a concert! I waved to other people’s children and commiserated via sympathetic grimace when a mom passed me, a Stage 4 screamer wiggling in her arms.

Then Asheba took the stage. We knew him by sight already, a slight, bearded man with an enormous crop of dreads kept tucked into his brown knit cap. He worked at our favorite pizza joint, the one that is a worker-owned cooperative. They serve one type of pizza every day, always involving feta cheese and cilantro, and there are no substitutions. It occurs to me that working in a cooperative must involve such a high degree of consensus building that by the time they’ve made decisions about what to name the restaurant, who works what shift, and who has to empty the garbage, the last thing they want to do was invite input from customers. “There’s one pizza and you’ll damn well like it!” may in fact be their mission statement.

Half the audience must have frequented the pizza joint, because parents were soon waving their children’s chubby hands in the air and yelling “Hi, Asheba! Hi, Asheba!” and Asheba smiled and pointed at them each in turn as if to say, “You! I know you! You always order the feta cheese and cilantro pizza!”

He started singing, lovely songs about lemon trees and the Caribbean breeze and touching your knees. The toddlers in the room, including Maddy, were amused, sporadically distracted by plastic bags of goldfish or sips from juice boxes or their own shoes. If he found their lack of undivided attention distracting, Asheba’s energy never flagged. A few of the older and bolder children moved right in front of the stage to clap and dance along, flexing and straightening their knees as their heads bobbed up and down.

And then, so did their mothers.

Andrew noticed before I did, the sly way that moms were pretending to check on errant toddlers when they were in fact scooching to the front of the crowd and getting their Phish twirl on. “Look at that one!” he said, as a woman wearing a droopy thermal shirt bobbed her head left to right, her unsupervised child heading in the opposite direction. “Check it – this one has a spit cloth attached to her overalls with a ducky clip!”

Soon other mothers came forward in their Indian print skirts and black stretchy yoga pants, until the whole front of the stage was shoulder to shoulder with adult women dancing, spinning, waving their arms to lyrics like, “When the sun come down, we go to bed, wake up you little sleepy head! Cluck like a duck and moo like a cow, we’re all friends in the barnyard now!”

I looked down at my outfit, an ensemble I liked to call “The Grey” to distinguish it from its mirror image at home in navy blue. Stretch pants, wide-legged to create an illusion of – what, width?, topped with a striped knit shirt that buttoned down the front for easy access to the snaps on my nursing bra. The print scarf knotted around my neck was less “kicky accessory” than “emergency burp cloth.” Any sense I had that I looked stylish and sassy was clearly a product of post-pregnancy hormones.

Who was I kidding? If these other moms were tempted to treat a kid’s performer like he was Mick Jagger circa 1972, it could happen to me too. In fact, so ravenous was my desire to stay connected with the music scene, I might be particularly susceptible to going bat shit crazy at an Imagination Movers show. I didn’t want to awake from the fog of parenting some day and find that I’d tattooed the face of Greg Page from the Wiggles on my butt.

Driving home with a snoring toddler in the carseat behind us, I realized I needed some rules to protect my music sensibilities. My new litmus test would be this: would I go to this concert if I didn’t have my child in tow?

For a few quiet years, during which our younger daughter was born, the answer was always no.

Then Dan Zanes came to play at a nearby concert hall. I sometimes played the “House Party” CD in the car after I’d dropped the kids off at daycare, just to hear “Queremos Bailar.” And I’d never seen the Del Fuegos play live so this was almost the same thing, right? Right?

A friend and I took our youngest children, both three years old at the time, to see Zanes and his merry band. Lucy laughed with her buddy, skipping up the wide sidewalks that flank the campus and running in crazy squares around the plaza in front of the concert hall while we waited for the show to start. Her plump cheeks flushed pink with exertion as she played a game of chase.

Once the doors opened, we climbed up the long staircase to reach our seats, the children gamely trudging alongside. When we reached our seats, Lucy climbed into my lap and folded her sturdy little legs under her pink velour dress, covering me from chin to knees. Within a few minutes I felt the familiar settling of density as she fell into a deep and restorative sleep.

Lucy maintained her slumber for the entirety of the show, up to and including a rousing encore sing-along of “Sidewalks of New York.”

And that was the last kid’s concert I ever attended. Because I don’t care how long it’s been since my last show: if it’s a choice between no concert and a concert during which I will be mistaken for a mattress, even I can concede that it’s better to stay home.

nancy davis khoNancy Davis Kho is a writer in Oakland, Calif. and spends a lot of time reassuring people that it’s not as dangerous as they hear. Her essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon.com, Skirt! Magazine, and Whole Life Times. Her blog, Midlife Mixtape is for people in that nebulous life stage between “being hip” and “worrying about breaking one.” She’s on Facebook at facebook.com/MidlifeMixtape and on Twitter at @midlifemixtape. And her two kids are finally old enough to torment her with music choices, all on their own.
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  • Raffi calmed our savage beast – sometimes.

  • SWL

    Loved this piece Nancy.  The music that each of my three kids listened to were different, and a bit reflective of my parenting approach/philosophy and energy level at the time. My oldest was weened on a steady and careful diet of Raffi and Dragon Tales songs, along with baby Bach and Mozart pieces; luckily you presented my second child with a Dane Zane CD, and we enjoyed that along with radio Disney songs; my 5-year old doesn’t know who Raffi or Dan Zane are, but easily sings along with Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga.  Riding in the car, it is my 13-year old that sometimes says, “shouldn’t we change the station?”  “Huh? -Oh, I think she’ll be fine – I don’t think she understands all the words.”

  • Not having kids I was unfamiliar with Raffi until I read this essay. Sunday night, I was watching Family Guy and Stewie was asking Lois to play his Raffi CD while on a car ride. I’d say when you are featured on Family Guy, you’re a pop culture icon. Had I not read your essay, that scene would have went over my head!

  • Jill

    This reminded me of the fact that somehow when my daughter was around 4 or 5 she started listening to Tori Amos’ “Scarlet’s Walk” EVERY night to fall asleep. Curious to remember what the song was, I just checked out the first track “Amber Waves” and was horrified to hear lyrics that include “from ballet class to a lap dance…” 

    Now I’m wondering, how did she fall in love with this song in the first place? And thank goodness the lyrics went way, way over her head!

  • Christine

    It’s amazing how well little ones can sleep, even in the loudest places!

  • Tracy

    We are just hitting the 15 month mark in a few days… my little one has not been graced with the sounds of Raffi.  He has however been bombarded by the parenal choice of Caspar Babypants.  Once the lead singer of “Presidents of the United States’, we were introduced to these tunes by my mommy friend who lives in Seattle and often attends CB concerts, kids in tow.  My husband and I have these tunes loaded on the iphone, in the car, on CD, and can, at any given moment, bust out a Caspar tune in unison.  Oh yeah, the baby seems to like it too. 🙂
    As for the concert scene, pre-baby I too would make the effort to catch my favorite artists when in town. But after I had the baby, I was clueless as to who was playing locally and when I did find out, my motivation to actually attend just wasn’t there.  The one concert I did attend (solo) a few months after the baby was born I spent the entire time thinking about what the baby was doing and left before the encore. 🙂  Perhaps one of these days my husband and I will venture back out to catch a show (goo goo dolls in town?) or god forbid, my son would actually attend a concert with his mother. I promise not to embarass him with my groovy dance moves. 😉

  • Poignant and hilarious at once, every note and harmony. A pleasure to read!

  • Risa

    Great piece, Nancy! I think I can still sing “Ha, Ha Thisaway”  or “Baby Beluga” all the way through. Sadly. FYI, my granddaughter  loves “The Train Coming Song,” as she calls it, by Johnny Cash! You never know what’s going to stick.

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