My children love Elvis, and they don’t even know it. In this same blissfully unconscious way, they love Leonard Cohen, Bob Marley, and Brandi Carlile. They would never recognize Coldplay by name, but they know “Green Eyes” when it begins, beckoning them with its gentle chords and simple, earnest lyrics.
At night, after I read them stories and tuck them into bed, my kids ask me to sing them a song. And because I don’t like children’s music — a crime in some circles, I know — I sing them the songs of pop stars and indie balladeers: Taylor Swift, Patti Griffin, Billie Eilish, Feist. I sing mournful love songs by City and Colour and songs about whisky by Chris Stapleton. Sometimes they drift off to sleep while I fake my way through an Ed Sheeran song they’ve requested or a Bryan Adams classic I’ve insisted upon — “Heaven” is the perfect lullaby.
Their top pick is “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen but sung like Jeff Buckley as attempted by me, though Elvis is a close second. They might not be able to pick Elvis out of a lineup — pictured young or old or anywhere in between — but they’ll sweetly tell me they want to hear “wise men” and I know what to do, leading off with a line about fools rushing in.
If my children and I have a song, it’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” It is our love song, quietly breaking through the darkness night after night. I have sung it more than I can remember, often in the croaky, strained voice of someone who is lying down on a single bed with a child jammed up against her throat, and other times with slightly more grace. It is a song that brings them comfort and calm, even if they have no idea what the original sounds like. As far as my kids are concerned, it’s something I produce like a warm blanket at the end of the day.
I love singing to them, but I don’t like to sing in front of other people. It makes me feel vulnerable and naked, and generally I refuse to do it. I have done karaoke exactly once (on a rare occasion when I was drunk) and my throat tightened up in fear, creating a sound not unlike an unwell bird. But with my kids, I’m uninhibited: I sing my heart out, albeit quietly enough that the sound doesn’t travel too far beyond their bedrooms. I don’t want an audience beyond my children — they are the only audience that matters.
“You’re my favorite singer in the world,” he always tells me back.
Every once in a while, my son will ask to sing with me. As we’re curled up together among his stuffed animals, he’ll indicate he’s ready and then launch into “Hallelujah” with so much tenderness I am almost painfully overwhelmed by my love for him. It’s a privilege to have a child sing with you in complete earnestness and contentment. He sings in perfect melody and rhythm, his tiny 6-year-old voice so sweet and pure, even when he gets the words wrong or skips a verse. When he’s done — or he ends the song because he’s forgotten how the rest of it goes — he asks the same question: “Do you like my singing, Mama?”
“I do,” I tell him. “I love your singing.”
“You’re my favorite singer in the world,” he always tells me back. Before I can tell him how much that means to me, he might lean back into his pillow and ask for “Baby don’t worry about a thing.” I oblige and launch into my rendition of “Three Little Birds.”
One day, my children won’t want me to sing for them anymore. They’ll be too cool, or too aware of the intimacy created by listening to someone you love sing up close, and they’ll stop asking. Age and reticence and a growing need to put emotional distance between us will end this tradition; it’ll become something we did rather than something we do, and my heart will ache just a little.
My hope is that one day, when my children are grown and off living a life away from me, they might think back fondly on those moments in our bedtime routine. That maybe they’ll be off at college and hear “Three Little Birds” at a party, or “Can’t Help Falling in Love” will come on the car radio, and they’ll experience that visceral burst of memory that sound can elicit. That maybe they’ll think of me singing them to sleep night after night. I hope it reminds them of how much they’re loved.
Looking into the future is fruitless, but it can still be sweet. By the time my kids are out of high school or off working jobs, there might not even be radio as I think of it now — at the rate things are going, music will probably be streamed directly into their brains by then — but the songs and the memories will remain. I’ll be there, in one form or another, always ready to sing another chorus while rubbing their backs in time with the melody: gently, lovingly, until their breaths deepen, and they’re safely lost in sleep. And one day, when I am just a memory to them, I hope these songs bring them comfort again. In the meantime, I’ll keep singing.
Excerpted with permission from Send Me Into the Woods Alone: Essays on Motherhood by Erin Pepler (Invisible Publishing).