From my teens through my mid-thirties, music was as important to me as food, or sleep, or cigarettes. R.E.M.’s Murmur was the soundtrack of falling in love for the first time; Juliana Hatfield’s Become What You Are got me through my first semester of college. Much later, The Decemberist’s The Crane Wife was on constant rotation when I finally moved into my first solo apartment, and then promptly met the man who would become my husband.
After the birth of my first child, my soundtrack was the tinkling music of a Baby Einstein play mat and the drone of a breast pump. I would occasionally play classical music or lullaby renditions of songs by The Cure for the baby, but I felt no real desire to play music for myself.
More than five years later, I’m still not feeling nearly the same level of devotion to music that I once did. It’s enough to make 20-year-old me cry into her Case Logic CD binder. Am I dead inside? What gives?
As with most things, I blame the children.
A study that came out a couple of years ago suggests I’m not alone. This study, based on information collected from Spotify, showed that people tend to stop listening to new music at age 33—or at whatever age they start having children. The idea that musical tastes become fixed by a certain age certainly isn’t a new one, but my complete loss of interest in it took me by surprise.
In my younger, hormone-soaked days, I listened to music, in part, to hear my own emotions amplified and reflected back at me. When you’re dealing with so much angst and drama, it’s a relief to hear someone else describe the exact thing you’re going through, especially when it seems like you’re the first and only person on earth ever to have experienced it. (Thank you, Morrissey and Robert Smith.)
For example, when I was a freshman in college and gutted by the absence of my high school boyfriend, I would lie in my dorm room and listen to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” over and over. (The teen years are not about subtlety.) There was a kind of pleasure in this cathartic wallowing—though my roommate would probably disagree.
These days, most of my personal drama is in the past, thank god. If there is drama, it is mostly enacted by my 5- and 2-year-olds over things like having the wrong color straw or the unfairness of not being allowed to eat jellybeans in the morning. Not exactly the stuff of songs—unless you’re Raffi. In any case, I don’t want to wallow in the jellybean drama; I want to forget about it and then watch Stranger Things while lying on the couch.
But here’s the thing: I still experience big emotions, and plenty of angst. In fact, I think that parenthood can be just as much of an emotional roller coaster as the teenage and single-adult years. So why don’t I turn to music in the same way? What’s the difference?
Part of it is logistics. I don’t have lots of spare time to spend seeking out and sampling new music. (Yes, even though virtually all of it is literally at my fingertips.) And when I talk to my friends, they aren’t telling me about a cool new band they heard. They’re usually talking about a cool new sippy cup they tried, or wondering if their child will ever sleep through the night.
On a more philosophical note, maybe it’s because parenthood is not romantic. And I don’t just mean that in the candlelight-and-saxophone way; I mean it in the poetic sense. Parenthood is all about quotidian concerns. It’s about changing diapers and not running out of milk. It’s about keeping the children alive and scraping spaghetti off the walls.
Parenthood is also, of course, about love and devotion. But as intense and all-consuming as that love is, it is not the kind you lie around daydreaming about for hours while listening to emo. For one thing, there’s no longing. You’re not left wondering if your kids love you back, or contriving ways to run into them at the mall. If parents long for anything, it’s for our children to please go to sleep already so we can drink wine and watch another episode of Stranger Things.
There’s also a sense that music—or at least a lot of the music I used to listen to—isn’t for people like me. It’s for young people, people who are getting together or breaking up, doing drugs and going out and making messes and screwing up and being really cute while doing it.
I should mention that my husband has not experienced this phenomenon. He listens to music as much as he ever did. In fact, he listens to it at top volume in the midst of the kid-chaos, and it makes me bonkers. Meanwhile, I have become the resident cranky old person who yells, “You kids, turn down that noise!”
Lately, though, I have started to feel an ever-so-subtle shift. After more than five years being lulled by the sameness and routine of domestic life with small children, I’ve begun to wake up.
Ironically, some of the credit for this musical reawakening goes to the children. There’s only so much Moana you can listen to before you start dreaming about getting a boat of your own just so you can throw yourself off of it. So I’ve been making more of an effort to play other stuff for them.
We listen to a lot of Beatles, along with Hamilton (which is surely responsible for jolting millions of moms out of their maternal slumber). We have weekend-morning dance parties in which my husband and I dip into our musical catalogs and watch the kids bounce around the living room to everything from The Stranglers to Spoon. It’s a sweet echo of my own childhood mornings spent listening to Queen, The Who, and other records with my dad.
I also have to thank good old-fashioned radio—specifically, Fordham University’s WFUV—for helping me find my way back. They play a lot of my faves from the old days—Belle & Sebastian, The Sundays, The Smiths, etc.—along with some excellent current stuff. Listening to it makes me feel like I’m still a resident of the land of the living, even as I perform decidedly un-sexy tasks like taking my kids to school and picking up the dry cleaning.
It was while driving home from kindergarten drop-off the other day that I felt, for the first time in a very long time, that old, familiar twinge in my chest: Love! It turned out to be Best Coast. Reader: they’ve been around since 2009, but you probably knew that already. No matter—they are new to me.
Maybe my relationship with music just needs to settle into its new adult phase. It will be like the old friends I still love very much but don’t get to see as often as I wish I could. I won’t judge it for being different than it was when I was younger; I will just cherish the time we have together now.
It’s true that having a baby obliterates a lot of the old you. But then, ever so slowly, little bits of that person come drifting back as your children get older and no longer demand constant attention. Who am I now? What kind of person have I become? Happily, people have written tons of songs about that.*
*I recently rediscovered Whitechocolatespaceegg, which Liz Phair wrote after the birth of her son. When I first listened to it, as a 22-year-old, I found it baffling and more than a little depressing; now it makes me weep with recognition.