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by Katy Otto

Photo by Morgan Klein.

Jean is a project director at Future of Music and a seasoned musician and performer. She currently plays in Beauty Pill, but has been in many bands over the years and played on a host of albums. She talked to me about the logistics of touring with a newborn, nursing on the road, and balancing motherhood with her creative practice.

Please tell us about both your creative life/practice and your experience with parenting.

Most of the work that I do is driven by the people with whom I do this work. The music work I have done over the years has been very socially driven. I am highly trained as a musician and I have the ability to work in many different context as a result. It turns out that most of the people that I know happen to be musicians and they all need violin at one point or another. So throughout my life, the choices that I have encountered in music have been about choosing to work with friends to help them realize various projects.

After about twenty years of doing socially driven work, meaning that it was brought to me by my friends, I look back and I see that there is kind of a logic to the body of work that I have developed. I have chosen to explore some of those themes more in depth in projects that I am driving. Additionally, over the years I have had relationships with artists, like Jon Langford from the Mekons or Warren Defever from His Name is Alive, which have deepened to the point where I am an active collaborator. I don't just show up and play and leave without contributing to the context or framework of the project. I am very involved from the beginning. I find that those have been very rewarding collaborations.

I play on all of Jon's solo projects including the Waco Brothers, Skull Orchard, and recently we did a collaboration with Roger Knox, who is known as the Black Elvis in Australia. He is an Aboriginal country and western protest singer. We did an album of the Aboriginal protest songbook called "Stranger in My Land" that came out on Bloodshot Records a few years ago. Since then, last summer when I was pregnant, we toured the summer folk festival in Canada with Roger. A lot of my collaborations happen on the stage, some in the studio, and they are almost always driven by the people involved.

In terms of my other work, I think those principles also apply. I work with the Future of Music, an advocacy organization founded by Jenny Toomey. At the time I was brought in, I was playing in Jenny's band. I knew her professionally also through Air Traffic Control, another project she founded to support artists doing work in social activism. I am also affiliated with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, who I first encountered when I was working as a publicist and a curator for the Washington Performing Arts Society. I have known them for a long time and I recently joined their board. I work with them because the people there bring a lot of value to my life and I feel like I learn a lot from them. We have been growing together in a way that feels very rich and satisfying.

Another organization that I am involved with is the Tricentric Foundation. I joined their board a couple of years ago. That's the organization that was founded to pursue the vision of Anthony Braxton. That's been a really interesting experience. Ultimately I was pulled in because I have a longstanding relationship with their Executive Director Taylor Ho Bynum.

The creative work I do is defined a lot by the people I work with.

I am very new to parenting. I know there are a lot of books out there but I haven't read any of them. I am doing it by responding to the cues of my child and by talking to other people I know about their parenting. A lot of people in my life have children so that is a great resource. My son is now nine months old.

What were some of the fears you had (if any) about how becoming a parent would impact your creative life? Would you say now, in retrospect, that they were well founded?

When it comes down to it, I am a freelancer. So my work is all temporary and I go from project to project. What that means is that I don't have the kind of structure that is going to give me something like maternity leave. Going on maternity leave for me just meant I did not have income for six months and I did not know when I was going to start to get income again. That was stressful. One of the things I learned during my pregnancy and after Leonard was born was that a lot people assumed that I didn't want work anymore - and that was not the case. I only realized this because people were not asking me to do things that they would have normally asked me to do. In music and also in the kind of consulting work that I do, sometimes that could be a creative choice - people not asking me. I support my collaborators' choices, but if it is being decided because of my parenting, that was difficult for me because I had never been asked. Eventually people started asking me again, but I had a lot more time for a while than I thought that I would in the last month of my pregnancy and in the first six months of my child's life.

What does your creative life look like currently? How is it different from before you were a parent?

Well, I noticed that I needed to be assertive about my availability to people I work with. There were some mechanics like that I needed to understand. At this point now, there is a lot of balancing. I had to figure out how to do work now with more responsibilities at home. Once I figured out the childcare piece, that was key.

In times when I am not working on something specific, I also try to be thoughtful. I asked myself what would I like to do if I had down time. It was a luxury for sure to have so much time. I started playing chamber music, which I love doing. I called some old friends to reconnect and do that on a regular basis throughout my break. I continue to do that. It's kind of like working out for other people - when people work out, their blood is pumping, their brains work better - when I have something to work on musically, I think this is the case for me. I will get together with friends, playing in the WC String Quartet, and it will put me in a different frame of mind. Also writing new music. I have more room for that. I figured out the balance, which was a hard journey since things were shifting so much. I think I have a handle on it at this point, which is always a foolish thing to say. But I can see how lucky I am - I can continue to play, to work on records, and even to tour again. Everything feels balanced and right and I don't feel too pulled in any one direction.

How do you carve out time and space for your creative practice as a parent?

After bedtime. That's the thing that I have heard about and I know about. I generally block out evenings and weekends to do creative work. In the weekdays, I do my administrative and consulting work. I do still consider this to be creative work, even though I am using a different skillset. I am not solving musical problems, but I am using strategy and people-managing tools to solve those kinds of problems in the nonprofit arts world. It's a different space but I don't think it's that different from making music. I've also worked in a for-profit environment, and that feels less collaborative and less nurturing. Working in the nonprofit arts, you are surrounded by people who are open, interested in creative solutions to problems, and are willing to think about things in new ways. The limitations, in this sphere, are capacity and time, rather than being able to think broadly. I find that working with people in the nonprofit arts is very similar to working with musicians in creating new work.

What kinds of adjustments did you make to your creative practices when you became a parent?

Touring, for example, is more complicated. My first few tours I brought Leonard with me. There were a whole bunch of things I needed to figure out. I didn't know at first what I was going to need. Now I do - things like a refrigerator and a freezer for milk, a space where it is okay for the baby to be loud or even center himself without distractions. So if I am putting a Midwest tour together, maybe instead of traveling in a van I would travel in my own car. Maybe instead of staying with the band, crashing places or in a hotel, I would get an AirBnB so that we would have access to a microwave and a refrigerator with a real freezer. Cost wise, it can end up being the same, but it just requires more work on the logistics. I had to plan meal times, and work that into the drive schedule. For me, instead of an eight or twelve hour drive day, I would have us do four hour drives - playing shows every day with no days off. That worked better than six or seven hour drives to get somewhere. There was not as much pressure this way.

Managing stress has become a huge priority, a huge focus of my time in these initial months. Managing stress for the family and other people helps to make others see how this can be totally possible. A worse outcome would be if I wasn't focusing on managing stress, and I would go through experiences without enough planning, doing things the way I did before - not realizing the changes I needed to account for with a baby. My collaborative partners would then notice and it could stress them out, which is not the outcome that I want. At the end of the day, it is much easier to do creative work when you don't have that kind of pressure.

The choices you have to make when you don't plan everything out in advance are terrible choices to have to make. They are terrible for the people in the band, who then think we shouldn't have tried to make this happen so early for me, or they feel bad for having me do this so early on in having a child. The reality is there are challenges, but it is not more difficult if you put the time in to plan. The difficulty comes from the fact that it is all new. I am a planner. I started out that way. I am very organized. I know this isn't an option for everyone. I know people who had to stop touring for two or three years after they had a child, and that really has an impact on their creative work. Creative work does benefit from momentum, and that is something that I have always tried to avoid.

What do you tell your children, if anything, about the role of creativity in your life? Do you talk to them (if age appropriate) about the role of creativity in their lives?

We make him solve his own problems all the time. Somebody told me about a book with different ways people treat children. Some people treat children like stupid adults. Some people will treat children like their peers in some ways, and fully able to understand things and solve their own problems if given the right tools. And then there is the grandparent attitude, that the child is very precious and needs to be saved from everything and guided through the world. For us, it has been really important from the beginning to give him a lot of space. We just felt like it was in everyone's best interest to give him enough space to feel like he could figure things out on his own. So, we don't put the pacifier in his mouth - we put it in his hand so that he can decide if he wants it or not. We try to give him as much agency as we can.

We really pay attention to cues that he is offering. He does have consistent behavior around things. We notice that and are then able to respond to it. It requires a lot of watching - watching while he is crying, watching while he is really, really upset, and waiting to see what is going on. I think initially that can be kind of surprising for people when they come to our house, but the end result I hope is that he feels okay. He sleeps through the night, he is a really good baby. I guess we lucked out. I don't credit us with that - I think we were lucky. But I feel good about our approach.

When you brought him on tour, was there someone who could watch him while you were playing the set?

The first time I brought him on tour, he was two months old, and I was playing in San Francisco. There were a few shows and David, my partner, came out. David is also a musician, and the shows were with Jon Langford - with whom David has also played before. David has also driven on tour before, so the dynamic of all of us being on tour was something that was very familiar. Things were very easy on that tour. We had short drives and very little show responsibilities. Leonard, our son, came to the shows and slept through most of them - which makes sense at two months old! He was sleeping all the time. He just sat backstage with us. David watched him during those sets.

Other tours that I have done where Leonard has come along, we stayed with family and friends. Leonard has his bedtime - he goes to bed around seven or seven thirty, and then I go out and I play the show. It's not that different from being at home. We stick to his routine religiously wherever we are. We travel a lot, so we need to. He has been to a bunch of different places. He has been to Canada, he has been to the Midwest, he's seen both oceans - and he is nine months old.

At this point, in the fall, he is going to be on the road every other week with us, so keeping that schedule is very important. When you play music, sometimes you can get away with not showing up at the venue for six or seven, but just after he has fallen asleep - when my son's day is done.

In what ways do you think being an active artist/writer/musician/creator helps make your parenting stronger?

I couldn't really tell you what my life would be like if I wasn't a creative person. Being a freelancer and working from home has made my experience with Leonard different from a lot of my peers, who maybe have to go in the city to work every day. I am at home, and I have a sitter a few days a week, but I am around. I am very aware of what is happening with him and I am able to keep up without too much effort because we are in the same space. That structure itself is probably different from most, and leads to a different style and way of relating than someone who has to go into an office every day for work.

David gets an hour in the morning and an hour at night with Leonard, so his relationship to him is a little bit different because he doesn't get as much exposure to him. On the weekends, though, he is in charge so we figured out how to balance all of us. If we were both leaving the house for work every weekday in a more structured way, that would put a lot of pressure on the time we do have with him, to do whatever it is that we would need to do in terms of developing our relationship with him. I don't feel that kind of pressure because of our arrangement. I can go away for a few days and come back, and I don't feel like I am a bad person. I don't feel like I need to balance that the same way I would if I was going to an office the next day, because I am seeing him twelve hours a day many days.

In what ways do you think being a parent has made your artistic practice stronger?

Sure. Being a parent helps ground people a lot. It has helped me to let go of uncertainty... not let go of it completely, but uncertainty is a huge part of my life in very real ways with real consequences. The uncertainty in my life before he came along was a lot more theoretical. It was creative uncertainty, for example - I didn't feel the same kind of risk as it does when you have to worry about the well-being of a child. You aren't quite sure how you are going to do it, but you are going to say yes to it. Now, it's just regular and relentless - not being able to plan or figure things out for so long. I think that has helped me to let go of a whole lot of things that I would have felt the urge to figure out before. I don't have to do that as compulsively as I did before. I can disconnect from things. The thing about being a freelancer is that you have three or four bosses. You only have to give them a few hours a week each, but you kind of have to be on top of things. I think before it was easier for me to be monitoring everything all the time, but I am doing less of that and still getting all my work done. I am doing that now, and the world is still turning. I had to change some things about how I work but I think they are all positive things.

Are there other people who inspired you in the ways they approached creative work as a parent?

Everybody I know who has had a child has had to figure out has had to make it work, and they have figured it out in different ways. I toured with a child when I played with Ida, with Elizabeth Mitchell, for ten years. From the time she was four years old, we would travel and go out on long tours. I saw how they made it work in their family. Theirs is certainly not the only family that I've traveled with. You have to learn from everybody, or at least I do because that is how I learn - watching other people and talking to other people. I don't learn from reading books, and parenting books are really difficult in my opinion.

The first time I flew, I went online and found things I could use on parenting blogs. What could you check, what was the baggage allowance, what could you bring as carry on - I did rely on blogs for that. I found one of an airline attendant who did cloth diapers with her children while she was traveling internationally - plus she was working on the flight! I have no idea how she did it. It was really interesting.

Seeing how other musicians did it helped. Jon Langford has children, and a lot of other people who I have worked with have been in this space before. There is a lot I can learn from them.

What do your children think of your creative work?

I think he likes people. The parts of my work that he encounters are the parts when other people come over, and then also the time that I am home recording. I think that he likes sounds. He has taste in music - he likes certain things. He likes singing, he likes traditional Korean music, he likes Medications, he likes My Fair Lady. There are things he appreciates. We try to ensure that he hears interesting things.

He is just starting at nine months to exhibit a personality. Music was the first place we noticed a preference, and then food. Korean folk music is one of his favorites - it really calms him down. We are trying to find more but there is a particular singer that he likes. There are even certain songs by this person he likes the most.

Do you think creative communities are friendly to children and parents and encourage their presence? Are there any ways these communities could improve?

Whether or not someone is welcoming to parents has more to do with whether or not they have experience parenting, whether they are creative or not. It's so great if you have an ally, someone who has dealt with what you are dealing with before. It doesn't necessarily matter if they are creative or not.

The first few months I had no idea what I was doing. I had to learn by asking. For example, when you are traveling for a conference, you can ask for a mother's room. You can say ÒI have accommodation requests.Ó That is a totally fine thing to ask for. I didn't even know what to ask for at first - but I learned eventually. I had to figure out how to manage bringing my child to a conference. On the APEC board, other people had ideas about this and knew of other families who were doing that.

I went on a retreat where I was able to bring Leonard and David. They got us a refrigerator for our room. We got access to a freezer. We could wrap up early and take a break during the times I needed to pump. All of those things they were very open to. In some cases I did not know what I needed or how to ask for help, but when I did, the help as there. It has been great.

I work in a virtual office so I don't encounter people I work with in person as much. If you work in an organization that has never had to deal with maternity leave before, you will have to do a lot of negotiation for that yourself. It's just a matter of whether or not they have experience with it. You are in this experience where you have no idea what is going on and then there are all these challenges - but it's nice because you can focus on that. I knew how to deal with logistical challenges and bureaucracy so I could handle that.

Nobody really talks about the financial burden. I was interviewing new parents for the new issue of the Arts Presenters' magazine. One of the people I interviewed talked about having to develop a policy for a staff member - to figure out how to handle maternity leave and her transition for her delivery. They are doing a lot of learning and developing reasonable policies. She mentioned leave without pay - and since I am a freelancer, I explained to her that for me, having the baby meant a stretch of time with no income. These are also considerations with things like health care. Federal policy like Obamacare has increased a lot of public dialogue around these issues. This is sort of similar. New parents forego income to make things work. That is considered a normal experience, but I wasn't prepared for it - and a lot of people I know weren't.

People in other countries just don't understand. I know someone in England who was complaining because she only got a subsidy for thirty hours. They don't understand all the financial planning you have to do in advance in the States. And then there is planning for childcare, and you don't have help doing this. I have British friends with a three-year-old child, and when they heard some of what we were trying to deal with and figure out they just got so confused and upset.

We had to figure out if paternity leave or FMLA was even an option. It can be hard to figure out and know what might even be available to you.

How did becoming a parent affect your creative partnerships with other people?

I don't think it had a real impact. In the cases of people with whom I had a deep relationship, this is just another part of that relationship. For people with whom I don't have a deep relationship, this has no impact on them. I get a sitter, I show up and do what I am supposed to do, and they are not impacted. I think where they might have noticed it was if I had to get up and leave to pump, but I am not doing that anymore and so there really isn't any reason most people would be impacted. Except maybe on conference calls - yesterday on a conference call, someone thought Leonard was a bird!

There is an uncertainty around my availability, so it is incumbent upon me to let people know I am available. That is a little tricky for me, because I want to work with people because they want to work with me, not because I've asked them. But I am figuring it out.

Do you think that some of the challenges parenting presents for creative practice are impacted by your gender? Please share any thoughts you have about this.

By biology, sure. The fact that I breastfed. The fact that I had to carry the baby. That definitely did impact me. Even though a lot of younger, new parents don't intend to fall into traditional household roles, it can still be inferred by others. I see how it happens. I think in our particular situation, I find myself being more organized, structurally - I don't know if that has anything to do with my gender.

I am not seeing strong signs that people are looking at us differently based on gender otherwise. Maybe people aren't asking me to do work because I had a baby and because of assumptions about my gender, but I don't want to assume I know. They may have run into someone else and decided to work with them, or decided on a different direction for a project. The world is a complicated place. I don't want to make too many assumptions about other people's motivations.

Has your creative community been supportive of you as a parent?

The people I am close with have been supportive, certainly. But again, for other people, my becoming a parent hasn't necessarily impacted their experience of me and what I can contribute to the world.

Do you have any more thoughts to share with other prospective or current parents about preserving and nurturing one's own creative efforts while raising children?

I've always been a huge fan of the do-a-little-bit-every-day approach with creative work. If you have the discipline to do this, it can be a rewarding way to do work. The built in reflection time needed to do creative work then happens naturally if you are doing a little each day. That's something that you can rely on and something that can help you maintain the work you are doing in a chaotic environment. Structure is really helpful for us, and for our child as well. We know he will go to bed at seven, and that he will be in a room by himself and we will have time then. It requires a certain amount of discipline to be able to do this, but we started early building our muscles around that.

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