I love my children so much! Wow! It’s like no other love you can experience unless you have children yourself. It’s really quite special. Recalling seeing my babies for the very first time still brings tears to my eyes (happy tears!). From the moment the doctor plopped my brand new baby on my belly while he cut the umbilical cord (what an extraordinary experience!), I found that every day brings new challenges and special rewards. Every time your child says he loves you or every time you get a real hug or a kiss (yay!) from your child is like music in heaven. Oh, and that first smile….pure magic. It more than makes up for the sleepless nights and the near-constant breastfeedings. I stepped into the role of motherhood armed with books and childhood development research. I was going to be an amazing mom with all the answers, but I found as I went along the bulk of what I needed is patience (this is hard for me!), an open mind, and flexibility. Unwavering optimism doesn’t hurt either! The books certainly helped, don’t get me wrong — I’ll have a section on my favorite books soon — but those ideas above will help to lay a much smoother road for you, especially with practicing.
Practicing at home when you have a child (or children, in my case) is a skill unto itself. You’ve always had your own schedule where you were free to practice at will, but now, you will find that you’re practicing on baby’s terms: in between diaper changes, feedings, playtime, etc. You suddenly need to become an excellent manager of time and priorities to make it all work. When you start adding more children to the mix, wow, does it get trickier! This is definitely where patience, optimism, an open mind, and flexibility help a lot. Every stage of childhood with your at-home practice is different. It seems as one issue lightens up and gets easier, there’s another one that makes it more challenging. You’re a musician, though, and you are used to challenges, right? It’s part of what drives you. So, you can do this, too!
Practicing and Baby
You have a baby in the house! Congratulations!!! This is such a special time. Enjoy it! Yes, it’s exhausting, emotionally draining, excruciating, even, when you’re up at midnight and every two hours following while nursing your infant every single night, but this is such a short time in the grand scheme of life. It’s so incredible! You are lucky to get to enjoy this time in your baby’s life. Soak it up!
In my experience, practicing with an infant is relatively easy. (If you’ve just given birth, get your health care provider’s consent.) Your baby’s needs come first, always (always!), but once they are settled down and sleeping (or otherwise happy), practice away. Don’t worry about being “too loud.” Remember, your baby just left a fairly noisy world in your body: heartbeats, breathing, stomach churning, blood flowing, swallowing, talking, the list goes on. It’s loud in there! So, at least in my experience, your practicing is probably not going to startle your baby. Don’t forget, he heard your instrument in utero and in a very loud environment. So, practice whenever you get the chance, your baby usually will let you.
As your baby gets to be a little older, say 5-6 months and more, they stay awake a bit more and love to look at fun toys and “play.” This is a great time for parents, as well! Seeing the world through baby’s eyes is so much fun. Play with your baby! I remember laughing and smiling so much at my children during this age that my cheeks hurt! Loved it! Of course, if they are happy and content and you feel like you want to practice, go for it. They’ll start to pay a little more attention to you and your instrument at this time, and they’ll be fascinated by it. When my children were around this age, (say, 3-5 months) I would alternate between having them on a blanket on the floor with soft toys and having them in a baby seat (“punkin seat”, strapped in a portable car set, etc.) so they could watch me. They enjoyed it, too! Usually they would just fall asleep after a few minutes, and that was a nice bonus too. Extra practice time, right?! You’ll know when they are tired or bored because they’ll cry. Attend to their needs immediately. You can always pick your practicing up when they are happy again.
When baby starts crawling and walking (whoa!) it starts getting a lot more challenging. Make sure your house is adequately childproofed (see your child’s health care provider for more information). Both of my sons started walking fairly early, 9 and 10 months. Wow! Was that ever crazy for me! I felt like I couldn’t even leave to go to the bathroom without worrying that they would crash into something. I remember using a lot of pillows, everywhere, and thankfully we already had the gates up on our stairs. You will have to be incredibly flexible and patient during this time: getting even a full hour of practice will be difficult and likely frustrating. They’ll want to yank and try to climb on your music stand; they’ll want to explore everything (and I mean everything!); and even try running, which almost always results in falling (hence, the pillows). With a lot of patience, and smiling at your baby, you’ll manage just fine. I am lucky and have an upstairs where I can “gate” myself and children all in one place while I practice. If you can do this, it makes it a lot easier. You can simply close doors where you don’t want your baby to roam, like the bathroom, and practice as they play near you. As for the music stand issue, I’ve actually put my music stand on the other side of a gate leading to our office so I can still use the stand, but my child couldn’t get to the stand. It’s a little strange, but it does work while they are awake. If you live in a one-story house/flat/apartment, I would recommend putting a gate between the kitchen and the rest of your house, if you can. They do make rather large gates (available online) if the area leading to your kitchen is large. I think this would take a lot of the worry out of your day, actually. Then, you can put your music stand on the other side of this gate and use it like I mentioned above. If you own a fireplace, I would recommend a fireplace gate, as well. This isn’t the easiest stage of childhood for efficient, productive practice, but it is one of the most fun stages! It’s terribly brief, so enjoy your child during these short months. It is an amazing time! I do miss my children at this age so very much.
Practicing with a Toddler
Toddlers love to explore….everything! They have newly developed skills, which allow them to do just that with wide-eyed excitement. The whole world is starting to open up to them as they discover new things and as their skills improve. What an exciting time for them! And, due to their short attention spans, toddlers quickly move from one activity to another to another in no time. It’s all exciting, new, and fun!
I have a toddler at home now, and he is everywhere. I keep us upstairs with the stairway baby gate locked, so I can practice without worrying about him on the stairs and to keep him in one area. My toddler benefits from having older siblings around, but when the older two are at school it’s up to me to try to keep him entertained so I can get some work done on the flute. The key (for me) is find a few toys that really capture your toddler’s short attention span and keep them close by (and for me, I want them to be educational, as well). All of my children love computer toys, and we have a couple of great ones by Leap Frog that teach the alphabet, numbers, and spelling. We have a few music toys that are tolerable in small doses and quiet toys scattered around. I’ve found that when they can physically move from one toy to another it helps keeps them a bit more occupied, since they are moving and changing what they see around them. An added benefit of finding what works for you and your child while practicing is that they learn a very important skill quickly: learning to play independently. The earlier you can start this, the better it is for everyone. You will probably find that you’ll need to stop practicing quickly from time to time to re-introduce a toy — and I mean really sell it to your child – but that’s OK; it’s an added few minutes of practice, right?! Again, you are probably not going to get in long practice sessions during this time, but you should be able to make the most of the time that you do get in. Patience is key here.
Potty-training. Ug. It’s something you obviously have to do at one time or another. My toddler is very interested in the potty right now since he sees his older siblings go all the time. “Wan’ go potty! Wan’ go potty‼” has become a near-constant phrase here. If you are at a point where you can comfortably take a week off of your instrument completely, that’s probably the best and least frustrating way to go with potty training. You can be solely focused on getting your toddler on the potty every 20 minutes or so and being right there with him while he sits, without fretting about your practice schedule. If you can take two weeks off, even better. Seriously, I strongly recommend you take time off, or have someone around to help you. Frustration will only set in, and your child will pick up on it as well, which could really thwart your efforts. Finally, it can be really tough, but I don’t recommend pull-ups during the day while you are potty training. They learn much faster when they have that yucky wet feeling from time to time than when it doesn’t feel any different from being dry by using pull-ups. Save pull-ups for naps and nighttime, and invest in a couple of mattress protectors (not just one; you’ll thank me later). Good luck!
Practicing with Multiple Children
When you add a new baby to your growing family, well, it gets interesting. Your first child (in most cases) has learned to play fairly independently, so you can mostly combine what you did while practicing with one baby in the house while having the older sibling around. The key is to get the older sibling interested in a toy or activity, so you can keep your eye on the baby while practicing. In my case, my first two children are only 16 months apart in age. I had to figure out how to keep the baby safe while my toddler played, so I could practice. Mostly, while he (the baby) was a newborn, it was easy: he just slept, and I practiced while he slept. As he started to age and spent more time awake I would alternate between letting him play on the floor on a blanket (the blanket was a stay-away zone for my older daughter) and having him play in a baby seat strapped securely with a lot of interesting toys to look at/play with as my daughter played in another part of the same room or area. As he learned to walk, which he did fairly early, it became a little easier because the two would just play in tandem and do their own thing. I had a lot of stopping and starting with my practicing to take care of immediate needs with my children, which I found frustrating, but with patience I learned to make it work for me.
This wasn’t always easy, of course. Since my daughter was just a toddler when my first son was born, she had a difficult time learning to leave the new, and very interesting baby alone while I practiced. Usually, I could interest her in a simple book (she’s always loved books and is now an avid reader!) or a toy, and this would work for a while. Most days were pretty difficult, as I remember. I found that I was mostly just trying to keep my skills maintained, and that was the best I could do each day. I had days where I felt like I couldn’t get a thing accomplished. However, I think that the more I let go of the idea that I had to practice a certain number of hours every day and focused more on practicing efficiently and effectively (i.e. get the job done, and that’s all), the more relaxed I became about everything in general. Honestly, the first couple of years that I had children in the house, I probably only practiced an average of 45 minutes a day — some days I got more practice. I found it so difficult and frustrating, not to mention the guilty feeling that would creep in because I wasn’t paying 100% of my attention to my children. I think when I learned how to be wiser and more relaxed about my practicing and about my approach to life in general, the easier it has become.
My third child was born right at 2 1/2 years after my second child. I actually stopped playing altogether for the first month and a half after he was born just so I could get my head around having three children! Wow. I had a more difficult recovery time with the third one, so I think it was really good for me to have taken that time off. Once I got back to my flute, I really felt like I had a handle on my now larger family and how to make it all work.
Setting a schedule (with allowance for flexibility) is important. Your children need to have the feeling of security and routine. This will help them to learn when to expect you to practice and play with them, etc. I mention “allowance for flexibility” because it’s impossible to have days that stay perfectly the same all the time: you’ll get called for gigs; someone will fall sick; and so on. Here is my [very loose] schedule (using 24-hour clock):
6.00 Work-out or run. Shower.
6.50 Children up (on school days). Breakfast.
7.40 Children to school.
8.00 Clean kitchen from breakfast. Start laundry on laundry days.
8.30 or 9.00 Practice. (Toddler plays)
10.30 Snacks. Playtime.
12.15 or 12.30 Lunch.
14.00 Housework. Snacks for toddler? Playtime.
15.00 Pick up children from school.
15.15 Naptime for toddler. Snacktime.
15.30 Schoolwork. Housework. Figure out dinner
16.30 Start on dinner.
17.45 Must be out of the house on orchestra days. Otherwise, this is family time until bedtime.
These are times when I would like to start the activities listed, but it doesn’t always happen perfectly like this everyday. Before my second child was in school, I spent some of my practice time breaking up quarrels between my sons, so I would try to make adjustments in my schedule, or something else would pull me away, but I always try to get right back to my schedule, if possible. Also, I start thinking about and preparing dinner so early because often times I’m pulled away to handle another issue between my children. I think it’s wise to allow time to do what needs your immediate attention, but then try to get right back to your schedule.
With children (three in my case), it takes a lot of patience and perseverance to make your musician life work for you. You have to be smart about what you do and have the willpower to keep it going, but above all have patience with yourself and your children. Find what works for you and your family and stick with it. If it’s not working, diagnose the problem and fix it. It can be a challenge, but it is definitely doable. As my dear friend, Karen Evans Moratz, once told me when my daughter was just a baby, “Just go with the chaos, Mommy.” I like to remember that!
(c) 2014 Donna M. Wilson. All Rights Reserved.