Have Son, Will Travel

by Katey Sleeveless

My partner Hawk and I began traveling the country with our son playing shows when he was two months old. When he was five-and-a-half months (I once scoffed at such exact figures, but have since learned these distinctions are important-two weeks is a learning curve of epic proportions-), we gave away or sold almost everything we owned and pointed Glen, our 1988 Toyota Huntsman motorhome, northeast for thirty shows spaced over two months.

Especially in those days (and even now that our son is three), there was an air of impossibility about touring with a child. Back then, we didn’t travel with a caregiver, so the logistics weren’t concrete. We learned that it was best if we left lots of breathing room for our “plans” along with a dedication to adaptation. We needed to be able to say, “I guess we’ll both do solo sets,” and ride the sudden learning curves of how to navigate the waters of public breastfeeding and downtown motor home parking. It became important for us to remain expectation-less about how a show would go because of factors like how our child responded to the energy of a venue or the people.

Other parents we meet say, “You’re very brave.” People without kids often remark, “I thought life was supposed to be over when you have children.” They also say, “It’s good to know it’s not.” A lot of people say, “I showed your story to my partner, and it helped convince him/her that we can do this, too.” Everyone asks, “What does your son do while you play?” When he was small, there were as many answers to that question as there were shows.

On that first tour as a family, we didn’t realize all the campgrounds of New England would be closed by October. We brought our baby into the clubs of New York City without regard for how it might coincide with someone else’s night life. He’d snooze right through our quiet solo sets. We were once held and almost searched in upstate New York when we parked overnight in a public lot in the midst of a terrible snowstorm; and we were guarded about who we spoke to, shielding our son from potential kooks, something that has never quite worn off even as we careen through the grocery store to this very day. We ate a lot of reconstituted mashed potatoes, the kind you can buy in a pouch for $1. And we loved it. It shaped us. It defined our family, and it made us close as hell.
I started traveling the country when I was fifteen, high-tailing it to all corners and coasts with the hollow weight of a guitar. Music and travel were synonymous, and everywhere I went, I wrote lyrics and chords to capture the feeling of the freedom I felt traveling paralleled with growing up. My spirit was calmed and enriched by the gentle rhythms of voyage along with the seriously stunning connections one could make seemingly anywhere. Meanwhile, in the Midwest, a young man was also writing songs and exploring sonic landscapes. He’d go on to form a band that spent a lot of time in a 15-passenger van named Trudy.

It was only fitting that my partner and I met and courted within the whirlwind of travel. We were introduced through musical pals, joined forces for a west coast tour, then fell in love, quickly setting the pace for a life of future adventure (read: Las Vegas Bellagio-fountain-hopping, getting kicked out of casinos (plural) for lewd dancing, and sleeping in bank parking lots a block from the strip). From the get-go, we dreamt of traveling the country in a motor home, playing shows and finding that special somewhere to call home. We moved in with each other, intending to save money for another trip. A week later, we found out we were going to have a baby.

Our immediate states of mind had us thinking we’d better buy a house and settle down, post haste. For a few days in August we stared at each other with serious faces (the kind of faces people who are going to be parents make) and discussed making down payments, finding a house in the country, or taking over the family business. I was admittedly somewhat panicked that my life was going to end in central Iowa. Going on the road was such a natural part of our lives, it would be hard to stop; and it hadn’t been immediately evident that it could continue. But little by little, we thawed out, woke up, came to, and realized our vision could adapt. Wouldn’t it be cool for our kid to say, “My parents took me on tour with them”? We realized we could create our own life and our own lifestyle. Our family could be whatever we wished! Our future shapeshifted to fit the pending little one.

We decided we’d start traveling as soon as the baby was ‘ready.’ We didn’t know when ‘ready’ would be. We guessed he might be strong and sturdy enough by the time he was six months old, so we circled a date in October and watched my tum expand (which is nothing like watching grass grow, paint dry, or water boil).

Lio was born at home, and afterward we sat around the living room drinking tea and talking with our midwife Sheryl. She swept her gaze around our little apartment, smiled (more to herself than us, it seemed) and said, “All of these instruments remind me of when I first started attending home births in the 70s. How wonderful for your son to grow up around music.” Her observation strengthened our resolve. Seeing Lio as a music lover in training helped us realize our decision to take him on the road would be incredibly formative. We did a few show-and-baby test-runs, traveling to Colorado when he was just a couple months old for a little festival, then playing a handful of shows closer to home. While it cast some light on the unpredictability of simultaneous child rearing/show playing, these were places where we almost always knew someone eager to occupy the baby while we played. We weren’t quite getting the full picture of what it would be like in places where we lacked the support of friends.

We started booking shows for our east coast tour a few months after Lio was born. Instead of the web of bars we were accustomed to playing, we turned our focus toward house shows, galleries, cafes, collectives and diy venues, coffee shops, record and book stores, and other all-ages venues and clubs. I told the contacts that we had a small son. People were very receptive. We booked thirty shows from Iowa up to Maine, then down the coast to the Carolinas. I made curtains for the motor home, and Hawk caulked (try saying that one) extra waterproof layers onto the roof and windows. We crafted a foldout crib out of one of the motor home couches. As the midwest weather turned chilly, we set sail in The Big Ship, headed east.

It turned out, for us, that traveling with a baby wasn’t a whole lot different than a regular tour–you just have, well, a baby. You might stop a little more frequently, or you might not-at least no more than if you have a tiny-tanked bandmate. When it’s time to stretch your legs or get gas, that’s when you pop on a fresh diaper and feed the little one. If you set out to explore a city, you stuff the little fella in a sling or carrier, and off you go. You can still stay at friend’s houses, only now you have a bassinet. There’s a lot more stuff- toys, clothes, a walker, baby blankets, stuffed animals-but tour is usually pretty cramped anyway. And there are always non-baby-spurred predicaments on a regular tour, so what’s another round of variables?

While one of us strummed and sang from a cafe stage or the floor of a record shop, the other watched the baby within the motor home. If the atmosphere was fitting, and Lio docile, we’d watch him in the venue, or maybe play songs together, Lio snoozing stage-side in a bassinet. If there wasn’t a show in the books, we’d explore a new city or small town, find an early campsite, make a fire, and watch movies, read, write, sew, sing, and talk.

And, yeah, don’t get me wrong- it was exhausting. Caring for a child, carrying that child around, feeding it from your own breasts, lugging equipment in and out of venues, keeping your brain and eyes split on the show and your child, trying to stay nourished and hydrated on the road while nursing; it was intense. Between our shows and the baby, we didn’t get much sleep. And the motor home was our world; it was tiny. And did I mention we had our dog? As the weeks turned into months, and the weather grew cold, we knew we needed to spread out and enjoy our own space for a while. It was nearing Christmas, the show circuit was coming to its annual semi-halt, and we were slowly beginning to salivate over the idea of a stationary home. Traveling gave us so many ideas-it was time to make them come true.

We began to fall in love with the South somewhere around Charlottesville, Virginia. Our next stop was in Greensboro, North Carolina. We loved it, and within days we rented an old house in the country and began to make music together.

Fast-forward two and a half years. Lio has been to 35 states on five tours; I just did the math, and he has spent 22% of his life on tour. These days, we take a series of friends along who watch Lio at a predetermined location (usually a good friend’s house). A half-dozen pals have traveled along to help watch him. Now, our routine is fairly concrete: We drive to our friend’s house, unload and eat dinner, make sure Lio is all set up with our traveling nanny, then take off for the show. We’re so very lucky to have wonderful friends spread all over the country, who will point us toward places to stay if we don’t know anyone. We’re lucky that Lio has such great people who care about him, and who root for our little traveling clan.

We enjoy our tours even more as our family blooms. Travel is exciting for a toddler, figuring out the world and all its wild accessories; and then we get to introduce our son, one by one, to the magical people around the country who have given us hope and inspiration by way of friendship for our whole lives. We so enjoy uninterrupted time together in a tumbleweed of what feels like a family vacation highlighted by what are essentially date/work nights for Hawk and I – i.e., our shows.

Now, at three years old, Lio adores music (what kid doesn’t?), thrives off meeting new people and new situations, and knows most of our best friends, geographically scattered as they are. He’s been to CMJ and SXSW, with his own picture window, a small bookcase filled with books and toys, a DVD player, coloring books and his own snack cooler. We’ve traded the motor home for a more comfortable conversion van. We’ve rigged a velcro curtain system to block out stimuli like light and sound for naps-and nap time is honored, even when we’re traveling. Lio loves to give us “Have a good show” hi-fives, and to ask us about how it went the next morning. As he’s older and more self-sufficient, as well as being able to maintain all sorts of fabulous conscious memories, we’re considering an overseas tour.

Our methods aren’t foolproof, but they’re ours. We’ve created memories that are a priceless part of our family story.

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