It's Hard To Be A Rock Star & A Mom: The Story Of Laurie Berkner's Feelings
Screaming, jumping up and down, singing all of the words they know (and making up ones they don’t), and trying to crawl out of the mosh pit and onto the stage. No, this isn’t Coachella. It’s a concert by "kindie-rock" star Laurie Berkner, dubbed the “Adele of the preschool crowd” and the “queen of children’s music." She’s what Raffi was to so many of us as kids, our first introduction to singalongs and groupie fever, the words to songs like “Baby Beluga” now so easily recalled that chances are when you got tired of the nursery rhyme standards, you didn’t have to dig very deep to sing them to your little ones.
My introduction to Berkner came almost two years ago when our daycare told us that our then-8-month-old really loved a song called “I Know A Chicken,” which the children accompanied with egg-shaped shakers. We didn’t know it then, but it turns out that almost every daycare and preschool music program uses at least one, if not more, Laurie Berkner Band songs in their curriculum. Chances are high that even if you’ve never heard of her, your child is most definitely familiar with her hits.
As a lesbian couple, we wanted to make sure that this curly-haired musician wasn’t harboring any religious fanaticism or homophobic views, so we looked deeper into her catalog, and I was relieved when I discovered how much of an inspiration she was not only as a mom but as a woman. As it turns out, Berkner's struggle to balance work and parenthood is very relatable.
“I remember so many people saying how lucky I was to have a career in kids’ music because I could incorporate my own children into it so easily. That was not at all the case,” Berkner tells me. “As soon as [her daughter Lucy] became a toddler, she was keenly aware of me being nearby but inaccessible during the shows, and even more so during meet-and-greets when many other children found their way onto my lap. That was really hard. I stopped bringing her, but I hated leaving her.” Berkner tried again to bring Lucy to “work” when she was a little older, even going so far as to bring her on stage during concerts, but Lucy wouldn’t understand when her mom couldn’t hear her as she performed, and as a result, often felt like her mother was ignoring her. “I remember her telling me that she loved coming to my shows and she hated coming to my shows, for just these reasons,” Berkner recalls.
She fell pregnant just as her band got big. “It was right around the height of everything," she recalls of selling out concert halls at the time, and having a baby changed the trajectory of her super-fame among 2-year-olds. “My work ethic is really strong but has been massively tempered by being a parent. But that doesn’t mean I would’ve been any happier. Lucy taught me how to slow down. I had goals, but I don’t know… now I feel like when I put aside work and I just snuggle on the couch, I just feel happy. I just really feel grateful to be alive.”
Like many children’s musicians, Laurie Berkner started out in rock bands before growing tired of playing for adults who would get drunk to the point of yelling “Free Bird!” as a request. She was already plugged into the children’s music scene as a music specialist for various preschools and daycares in New York City, and she made 500 copies of her first album, Whaddaya Think of That? (on cassette, no less), selling them all in just a couple of months, keeping track of her sales on a piece of graph paper that she carried around with her.
Children’s music labels at the time ignored her, so she started her own record company, Two Tomatoes, in the living room of her cramped one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.
Before long, celebrity parents came marching: Madonna and Sting had her perform at their children’s birthday parties, and national magazine coverage in People and Us helped propel her band (which included husband Brian Mueller and long-time friend Susie Lampert) to their TV debut on the Today show in 2001. But because Berkner was still operating out of her apartment, it wasn’t long before the demand for her music far exceeded the supply. During a particularly chilly morning over coffee (for me) and tea (for her), Berkner recounts coming home from her day job as a music teacher to wooden pallets of cassettes and CDs walling off the dining table.
After moving her company out of her home and into a real office, a fourth studio album and ~critical recognition~ followed. Even Sex and the City used one of her songs in a 2003 episode, setting 2004 up to launch her rocketship of a career into the next stratosphere. Just into the new year, however, Berkner and her husband discovered she was pregnant. Even with morning sickness, though, Laurie’s band still managed to debut on children’s cable networks, Nick Jr. and Noggin, with a series of music videos. She laughs as she tells me how she would actually lie down on the set in between takes to keep from throwing up. That year, though, nausea be damned, she also managed to release her first picture book (with CD) and her band started charting on Billboard lists. Nick Jr. was so smitten with her that they invited her to regularly appear on their new series, Jack’s Big Music Show. In September 2004, Laurie’s daughter, Lucy, was born.
As a new mom, she was rife with the self-doubt that often plagues new parents. But when Lucy started to prefer seeing her mom, dad, and Susie (who is essentially her godmother) on Jack’s Big Music Show, instead of live and in person, it understandably freaked Berkner out. “I started to imagine that the made-up, colorfully dressed person on the screen with the pre-recorded soundtrack was more interesting to her than her own mom, and for a time it made me never want to be on TV again. I lost a couple of opportunities because I wouldn’t agree to do anything that was filmed for about a year.”
As Lucy has grown, though, so has her role in Berkner’s career. Berkner apologizes for being a “braggy mom” when she tells me about Lucy’s wide-ranging musical abilities, from musical composition to playing the drums and the ukulele. And, just like her mom, Lucy is more than forthcoming when giving her opinion on Berkner’s music. From how to make a song more fun (it was Lucy’s idea to add the line, “laughing like I’m Santa Claus” to “Santa’s Coming to My House Tonight”) to singing on various albums throughout the years, and giving tips on the social media aspect of her mom’s rock star career, Lucy has become more involved as she grows.
Berkner also freely admits that over the years her relationship with Brian has also had to adjust to accommodate the demands of her burgeoning career and running her own business. Before they were married, they did therapy wherein Brian pleaded with her to work a little less. She promised him she would only work one weekend day a week, meaning she would work a paltry six days, instead of seven. But, soon after she got a call, requesting her for a child’s birthday party. Madonna's daughter. She didn’t hesitate before saying, “What day did you want?”
Successfully catering to the whims of Madonna and seeing no end in sight for her career trajectory, the couple persevered, but marriage changed things yet again: “Once we were married, and in the same band (mine) and running the same company (mine), touring (my songs), and raising a child together, we had nothing but to-dos and business to talk about,” she explains. “Kids’ music was my passion, not his. Brian was really part of something I was building, rather than building his own thing. He needed to find out what his own path was.”
So when Lucy was 15 months old, Berkner and her husband jointly decided that it’d be in their best interests if he left the band. His own path, it turns out, was psychology. “He’s an amazing person to have on your team as a supporter,” Berkner boasts, “I think that’s part of what has made him a good therapist.” As someone whose own marriage found the earlier stages of our daughter’s life (and we didn’t even work together) challenging, I greatly appreciate Berkner’s candor, especially after learning that she and her husband have ultimately been together for more than 25 years.
While one might think that being a quadruple-platinum artist offers flexibility that many 9-to-5ers don’t have, when I ask her what’s the hardest thing to make time for when it comes to being a parent and a rock star, she answers, “SLEEP!” with a laugh. Every week her goal is to go to bed by 10:30 and get eight hours of sleep, and every week she ends up saying, “I didn’t do so great with that one.” Still, ever the optimist, she’s developed a routine for essentially mind-dumping her evening’s thoughts into a Moleskine notebook before bed. “It helps me fall asleep faster,” she admits.
Whatever sleep she is able to get allows her to be ready for a reasonable 6:30 wake-up call before she has to get Lucy off to school. Somehow Berkner manages to find time to write new music (blocked off in her calendar as “LB sacred writing time”), record with her band in the studio, create 12 videos a year for her insanely popular YouTube channels, get to her downtown office where she and her devoted team of kickass women work out more of her schedule that often involves concert logistics, press interviews and handling the business aspects of owning her own record company, while still making it home to make dinner for the family. On the morning we meet, she has just come from the gym, looking younger than she does in some of her earliest videos, while I feel like I’ve aged years in just hearing what her typical day looks like.
I realize throughout our three-hour discussion that it’s easy to see what makes this powerhouse of a woman so relatable to children: Whether she’s marching like a dinosaur or doing the Monster Boogie, she’s high energy in all that she does. Even after two decades and while balancing her family's needs, she is still trying to just be the best rockstar to tots that she can. “I try so hard NOT to sing at kids, so that they are the agents. It’s them singing those words, and they feel it,” she explains to me when we’re discussing my daughter’s current favorite song, “Superhero.” (My wife and I were recently elated when our daughter started using her thumbs to point to herself as she sang the verse, “Look, look, look at my comic book and this is who you see: Batman, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, and me.”)
I took my daughter to see Berkner in concert last October and had no idea what to expect. My child had only just turned 2, and while she loved watching all of the Laurie Berkner Band videos, her attention span was pretty typical for that of a young toddler. I also worried she’d be disappointed somehow because I didn’t know if the live experience of a concert would irrevocably alter the very different and personal experience of watching Berkner in our living room on our television.
Marveling at the intensity of the baby mosh pit that quickly formed in front of the stage, it occurred to me that some of these children, like my daughter, have loved Berkner for at least half their lives. I’m already sad for the day Laurie’s music isn’t in rotation as much in our household, but I know from the memory of my own childhood favorites that I'm giving my daughter something by bringing her there. After all, you never forget your first concert.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.