Never too big for a cuddle

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By Claire Tustin

I am a singer, song writer, actor, and creative workshop leader, based in North East England.

First and foremost though, I am a mother, of two beautiful daughters, Ella and Nina. They were given their names after my favourite two jazz singers, because when I was pregnant with Ella I made most of my living singing in a jazz trio, which required me to perform long sets of jazz standards all over the country; sometimes to enthusiasts who really appreciated and loved our music, sometimes to drunken wedding guests, many who would think nothing of pinching my backside mid song. Whatever the gig, I was always required to be glamorous and sociable, and I loved it.

Despite planning for a baby and really wanting one, it nevertheless came as a bit of a shock when I had my first child. I was left alone in the house for days on end, feeling exhausted, drab, lonely and overwhelmed with the enormous responsibility of motherhood. I felt I had lost myself. I was anxious; what if I dropped the baby? (Never, even when I fainted whilst breastfeeding from the pain of mastitis.) What if I forgot to do up the straps on the car seat? (More than once I actually did!) What if I fed her food she was allergic to? (Regularly, it turned out…) 

None of our extended family lived anywhere near us at the time, only one of our friends had a baby, and me and my partner felt pretty isolated for quite a while. I maintain to this day that it takes at least three adults to look after a small baby, if everyone is to get enough sleep, eat healthy meals and live in a clean home. I can really see why in other cultures people live with their parents, or in communes. 

I had my kids in 2002 and 2004. There was no social media then. The previous social life me and my partner had enjoyed; going to the pub and to gigs, was over, but we didn’t have much then to replace it. There were two things that helped me through the foggy sleep deprived years of bringing up two small children, other than the piercing love I had for them. The first was friends; new Mum friends who could talk nappies, breast feeding etc with me, and also friends without children who enjoyed the company of my kids. The second thing that helped me were songs. Songs to help them go to sleep, songs to distract them when they were grouchy, songs for tickling, songs for eating, songs for walking in the park. I found to my interest that I could make up new songs for my children that they seemed to like, and when I taught them to other people, they liked them too. My creative self started to wake up, but it was a different self, who wanted to sing about ladybirds, about turtles in bathtubs, about sleepy sunsets and silver moons.

I began to adjust, and I really enjoyed being a mother. I was lucky to be able to work part time in a music organisation; Sage Gateshead, where they were supportive to young parents, and I got to write, teach and perform for children so I felt quite creative at work. It was a happy time. We moved house to an area near woods and beaches, we got a dog, the kids and I were pretty feral, and I loved it. I wrote songs about insects, animals, and plants, songs that told stories and songs that made people laugh. 

Claire and her daughters

Claire and her daughters

Four years ago, things began to change again. Funding constraints at work meant that I was being asked to do more management and meetings rather than create theatre and music. Eventually I chose to leave and try being freelance. I still miss the friendships and community of artists I had easy access to there. Freelance life can be very lonely. Meanwhile, my husband’s new drumming group Spark! was getting more and more gigs abroad so he was and still is, often away. And my daughters, who I’m still really close to, are growing up fast. They are 14 and 16 now, and whilst we still chat and hug every day, they need me much less than they used to. As I write, it is the Easter holidays, and when once the three of us would be meeting friends with kids at the park or tramping together in the woods for a picnic and climbing trees, now the house is empty. Instead of carrying children on my shoulders, I am taxi-ing them to dance classes, helping them revise for GCSEs, and discussing the complexities of teenage life, like what to do if a boy sends you a picture of his erect penis, (this is more common that you would think, people, I have stories that would make your hair curl!) how to deal with bullying, and the reasons why my daughter does not need to shave her arms. Instead of plaiting their hair in the morning and getting them dressed, I am taking them to get their noses pierced, shelling out for new bras at an alarming rate or buying them booze for the party on Saturday night. (In case you are shocked, we decided that to allow a little bit of drinking would be better than forbidding it and risking being lied to. It is so far working OK…). There are joys; we often like the same TV shows or books and can enjoy them together, we chat for hours sometimes, we laugh a lot….there are also days when I feel that underarticulation and sullen grunting might be a new Olympic sport.

Just like the adjustments I had to make when I first had children, there are rebalances to make now, as I learn to start letting them go. I miss having tiny hands to hold, and little people crawling into bed with me, pressing their feet against my back. I miss the days when they were unselfconscious and open hearted, instead of full of the doubts and provocations that puberty, high school and social media bombard them with. They retreated into their chrysalises, Ella aged 16 is starting to slowly emerge, Nina (14) will be a while longer in hers. I tend the pupas, feeding them with encouragement and love, with negotiation and compromise, with energy and challenge. I try to do the same for myself, and we will all emerge, different butterflies into the garden of the world. 

Last year I was asked by director Sarah Punshon at The Dukes theatre in Lancaster to write a song for Wendy to sing to the Lost Boys in the Christmas show Peter Pan we were creating. “Something about… never being too old for a cuddle….” This song almost wrote itself, and despite me consciously creating it for the show, thinking about that story and those characters, when I had finished it, I found myself in tears. I realised it is also a song from me to my children, who are growing up, but will be Never Too Big for a Cuddle. I reckon none of us ever are. 

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Listen to Never Too Big for a Cuddle and hear Claire’s album for children Dancing with the Bees:

Find lullaboogaloo on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and her YouTube music channel for kids.