There’s a gigantic white bear lying smack in the middle of Melissa Etheridge’s living room, but the petite singer seems oblivious to everything but the snapshot in her hand. “Here it is,” says Etheridge. “Isn’t she gorgeous?”
Etheridge isn’t talking about her partner, filmmaker Julie Cypher, or looking at that famous, steamy photo of the couple nude. This time she’s showing off baby pictures—of their 2-year-old daughter, Bailey, and their 6-month-old son, Beckett. At home, surrounded by a jumble of stuffed animals, blocks, and crayons, Etheridge seems happier than ever, a woman in love.
Since 1993 the Grammy-winning singer and songwriter, with her sold-out tours, best-selling albums, and screaming fans, has been making headlines as a genuine rock-and-roll heroine—and a dedicated activist to boot, most recently flying her rainbow colors as the narrator of the new documentary After Stonewall. Now the woman who came out at President Clinton’s inaugural celebration is boldly entering new territory as she promotes gay and lesbian family values.
While lesbian and gay parenting has become a cutting-edge issue in the 1990s, for Etheridge it’s the personal side of raising children that’s truly changed her life. Warm and direct, with tousled hair and a friendly smile, she’s as unpretentious as the mom next door—with a more powerful voice than ever.
So, congratulations! What’s it like having a new baby again? Well, we just went from one to the other, so it wasn’t that huge of a change. But it’s great! We’re so much more relaxed this time; we’re not up listening to every single breath he takes.
Does that mean you two are actually getting some sleep? Well, I sleep a little bit more. Julie’s still breast-feeding, so she’s up during the night. Beckett’s a big boy, and he eats a lot.
And how’s Bailey adjusting? The first month she was like, “Hold me. What are you doing holding him?” Now, five months later, she’s way into it. The routine’s up in the morning, a little bit of Sesame Street, a little breakfast, then off and playing. I’ll go into my office and work and do stuff, and Julie will write in her office. Plus we have a little bit of help on weekdays.
So it doesn’t seem like total bedlam most of the time? No, no, it’s great. And you know, I’m a sucker. If Bailey wants me to come look at the tea party she set up with the Beanie Babies, I’m right in there.
Since it’s frequently much more interesting than what grown-ups do. Exactly. “Gee, I must tear myself away from the business phone call. How sad.”
Has parenting changed you? The whole idea of having a child has made me much more of an activist, more concerned about the world. I mean, I used to be concerned, but it was sort of finite. Now I want the world to be better—perfect—because my children are going to be here after me. Things mean more. Things matter.
Do you ever catch yourself being your mother or sounding exactly like your dad? Yeah, well, I catch myself.… Having children makes me understand more about my mother. It also makes me angrier about the things my parents didn’t do. It’s just so important to me to tell my daughter that I’m an emotional person, that we all are. Whereas when I was growing up, it was, “Don’t cry, don’t cry. Everything’s OK. Don’t be angry. None of us are angry.”
Kids are so perceptive. They’ll notice that, Hmm, Mom’s angry, and she’s not saying anything and stuffing it down, so I think that’s what I’m supposed to do. They just imprint it, and off they go.
So now I say to Bailey, “I understand you’re angry; there’s nothing wrong with that. You just can’t hit the dog.”
What about the way people treat you now? Do your friends see you differently? There are some things people without kids don’t get. You know, we’ll be invited to a dinner party. “Great, OK,” we say, “we’ll be there. What time?” “About 10.” And they don’t understand—we go to sleep at 10!
Do you still get that annoying question, “Which one of you is the real mom?” Oh, yeah. [Shakes her head] I just say, “Julie’s the birth mother, and I’m the real mom.” I’ve adopted Bailey, and I’m in the process of adopting Beckett. But when people ask me in interviews, you know, “Do you feel as close to the children as Julie does?” I’m like, That is such an insane question. When you take the responsibility and you’re there every day, it sinks right in. I would throw myself in front of a speeding truck to save them. There’s no doubt about it.
Do your kids have a relationship with their biological dad? Not really. They know him and know who he is. Of course, Beckett can’t know anything right now. But when they ask who daddy is—boom—we’ll say that’s who it is.
So he’s not really involved as a parent? No. A few months ago I was going through books with Bailey, and 99% of them are about Mommy and Daddy. And she said, “What’s the daddy?” And I said, “Well, some people have a mommy and daddy, some people have two mommies, some people have two daddies, some people just have one mommy or one daddy.” And it made perfect sense to her. I think soon she’ll start to understand that biologically you have to have a daddy to exist, and we’ll just deal with that as it comes.
What about your relationship with Julie? Do you ever wonder if you’re ever going to have sex again or read a book again or just talk together like adults for two minutes? We do sit there at the end of the day and go, “What did we do with all our spare time before we had kids?” We must have just piddled it away because we never knew how much spare time we had.… There’s a real strong partner vibe there. You know, maybe the wild sex all day long, all around the house, is not happening as much.