Having a baby didn’t stop us from touring with our band — we just bring him along

Guest post by Katey Sleeveless

Photo by John P. Campbell
By the time we had our child, going on the road to perform had become a natural part of our lives. I’d been hopping on the road spinning around the country since I was old enough to drive, and my partner Hawk was always touring with his band. We met playing music, traveled together soon thereafter, and quickly set the pace for a life of future adventuring.

Long before our son Amilio ever saw the world, we dreamt of traveling the country in a motor home, playing shows and finding that special somewhere to call home. We moved in together knowing we’d save some money and soon hit the road. 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 and discussed making down payments, finding a house in the country, or taking over the family business. Little by little, the initial shock wore off, we thawed out, woke up, came to, and realized our vision could adapt.

Our plans expanded to fit the pending little one. We decided to 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 stomach expand.

Like a lot of babies, Lio loved music from the get-go. Playing his dad’s latest album made him coo and instantly relax. He clearly favored and recognized the tunes he’d heard so many times in the womb. Seeing Lio as a music-lover in training also helped us realize our decision to take him on the road could be incredibly formative.

We did a few show-and-baby test runs, traveling to Colorado when he was just a couple of months old for Blank-Tape Records Fest, then playing a handful of shows closer to home near Des Moines. The shows cast some light on the unpredictability of simultaneous child rearing and show playing.

We started booking shows for our East Coast tour a few months after Lio was born. Instead of the web of bars we’d been accustomed to planning tours around, we turned our focus to look toward house shows, galleries, cafes, art spaces, collectives and DIY venues, coffee shops, record and book stores, and other all-ages venues and clubs. I told the contacts we had a small son. People were very receptive. We booked almost thirty shows from Iowa up to Maine, and down the coast to South Carolina.

Fast-forward a little over a year:

We gave away or sold everything we owned, put the important stuff in a friend’s garage, bolted the baby’s car seat down for extra safety, and fashioned a crib out of the motor home couch. I sewed little motor-home curtains, and Hawk caulked extra waterproof layers onto the roof and windows. As the Midwest weather turned chilly, we set sail in The Big Ship, headed East.

Traveling with a baby isn’t a whole lot different from a regular tour:

You might stop a little more frequently, or you might not — at least no more than if you have a tiny-tanked band mate. You still stop to stretch your legs or to get gas, and that’s when you pop on a fresh diaper and feed the little guy. You set out to explore a city, and you stuff the little fella in a sling or carrier. You can still stay at friends’ 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 kinda cramped anyway. And there are always non-baby-spurred predicaments: like how we didn’t plan on campgrounds in New England shutting down mid-September. Lio, though, makes it easy on us: he’s kind of a jackpot baby.

Our nights usually go something like this:

If there’s no show scheduled, we’ll explore, find an early campsite, make a fire, and watch movies, read, and talk. If there is a show, we’ll pull close to the venue and one of us will scope the place out while the other stays behind to gather baby stuff, and ready equipment for carrying. The first person’ll come back with a report: it’s cool in there, and the people are really nice! We go on at nine! Or whatever.

We’ll bring Lio in, get him set up with some toys, haul in our instruments, and hang out til the show starts. Sometimes Lio will race around in his walker and make friends. Other times, he’ll drift off to a sound sleep before we even start. Sometimes he’ll be in a Mood, and only Mom’s arms can soothe him. If the show goes late and Lio’s not yet asleep, Hawk and I take turns putting him to bed and hanging out in the motor home. Or we’ll bow out together at a certain point to run the heater, cozy up, and talk about the show and the day.

A few things about touring with a baby are flat-out different:

While there are plenty of things that haven’t made touring any more difficult with our baby, there are also plenty of considerations we take that probably seem first nature by now. We have to figure out nap times. We keep bedtime in mind. We’re always surveying our venues, hangouts, and potential non-motor-home sleeping quarters for baby-friendliness. (Luckily, we’re self-sufficient: we have two forms of heat (propane and electric), plenty of blankets, and everything we need inside our mobile house.)

While musicians might often get strange looks when they pile out of large vehicle, we now get even more strange looks. Something about Glen (our motor home) just makes people stare, sometimes in wonder, sometimes in awe, and often, it seems, in disbelief. The expressions are exacerbated when one of us emerges from the back door with a baby in our arms.

So far, touring with our son is easily THE favorite thing I’ve ever done:

Seeing and experiencing all the places we’ve traveled through our baby’s eyes has been the ultimate reward. Whatever Lio enjoys becomes instantly enjoyable to us. Whereas before we might judge shows based on audience reception or amount of merch sold, our sense of satisfaction now mostly comes from watching Lio learn, pick up new information, and meet all his new friends.

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

Photo courtesy of Katey Sleeveless
Photo of Lio by Katey Sleeveless

(This post originally published on Offbeat Families in January 2012. Katey and her family are still touring — catch up with them clicking her blog link in the bio below.)

Comments on Having a baby didn’t stop us from touring with our band — we just bring him along

  1. This (re)post has been very well timed for me-thank you! This week I’ve started working from home again following the birth of our son 5 weeks ago. I’m very happy to be reminded that it is possible to keep your pre-parent identity relatively intact and do what you love without your kids loosing out!

    I’d love to hear how Katey and her family are doing a couple of years down the line, if that’s something that could happen 🙂

    • I was just musing this morning how little of myself I’ve had to give up in order to be in an awesome family. The things I’ve had to change have been positive learning experiences – patience, love, calm, understanding, forgiveness. All things I’m much better off with.

      I still keep a tour diary at http://travelingoldenhearts.wordpress.com/ – we recently played SXSW in Austin and brought our son, now three, with us. He still loves touring, and the year or so on and off that we have spent on the road since writing this article has been an incredible life for our family. I am planning on writing a cohesive follow-up to this initial tour post soon! Thanks so much for reading!

  2. Nice. I think most people’s first thought is to change their lives to fit the baby – when really it should be more about fitting the baby into the life you already have (within reason of course!).

  3. So I’m about to pop with babeh number two and I JUST sent the old post of this to my musician husband last week. You guys are awesome.

  4. My folks took me out to my first history reenactment when I was SIX WEEKS no electricity, no heat (this was October in the Shenandoah valley) nothing but a canvas tent. I turned out ok. They were older parents who came from big families and had vowed that they weren’t going to let kids hold them back from what they enjoyed. So, as an only child they would just bring me along wherever they went! It had some great benefits.

    1) I grew up traveling a lot, a 4 hour car ride for me was a breeze as a kid. Now when I travel as an adult it takes a lot to rattle me when I’m traveling.
    2) I had a bunch of adult friends when I was still a kid. My parents told me that I could participate in any adult discussion as long as I could defend my point of view. Benefit? Totally crushed it in debate team (downside I had a problem respecting authority as a teen because I often viewed adults as my peers)
    3) Foodie at heart. When you take your kid places you can’t always bet on a kids menu. I ate off appetizer menus most of my life or split a meal with one of my parents. The good new is at this point I will eat just about anything!
    4) Learning to entertain yourself. Sometimes you are the only kid in the room, and that can suck. My parents always told me that it was my own responsibility to entertain myself, not theirs. What that means is that I used to smuggle books into places like a freaking CHAMP! In fact even as an adult I harbor an irrational fear of finishing a book away from home and being stranded with nothing to read!

    All in all you can take your kids with you anywhere, and I encourage all parents to continue doing what you love ESPECIALLY when you become a parent because there is nothing more inspiring to your child than seeing you doing something that you love and that you are proud of and just being the awesome kick-ass adult that you are!

  5. We have considered a similar lifestyle for when our (future) kids are little. I’m curious: what are Katey and Hawk’s plans for Lio education-wise when he reaches school age?

  6. hello 🙂 this is cool to read and know im not the only one. me and my husband are in a band, trying to make a living off of it. Im busy working part time at a restaurant, and using most of the money for the band. Im a metal singer and currently learning to play bass….I have my hands full! we have 2 boys, 4 and 2 years old. I would love to take them with us, we just need someone to babysit for an hour while we’re on stage. I hope we can make this work for us. My youngest is starting to dislike long car rides and is a hyper one :). I am worried about them being miserable for long rides, and not having kids their age to play with when they are older. I would really hate to leave them with grandparents while were gone. We had two shows back to back over the weekend, both about an hour and half away. we would Be there from start to finish (9pm-3 am or so) So we would end up leaving the kids at the In-laws for the weekend. Im just worried about the longer rides, and being gone for extended periods…

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