The doula’s suggestion was an innocent one: “Bring some music you like into the delivery room.” How could she have known that her words were being directed at a music obsessive with an almost religious devotion to creating the perfect mixtape? Even my wife, Jillian, the recipient of countless painstakingly curated mixes, couldn’t have known how that simple recommendation would launch a trimester’s worth of work to create the perfect baby-birthing playlist.
Our entire relationship could be traced via playlists, from the earliest ones I made for her when we were dating to those that had accompanied us on every trip we ever took and played at every party we’d hosted. A mixtape to set the mood during childbirth seemed natural, even inevitable.
I called the mix simply “Labour” and worked on it, a little bit every day, for months. I was looking for Jillian’s favourite songs with a chilled-out vibe and appropriate lyrics—a task easier said than done.
One of the first albums that came to mind was Neutral Milk Hotel’s classic, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It was a terrible choice. I somehow forgot that the title track features lyrics like: “And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea.” Not exactly great motivation for a woman in labour. Furthermore, no matter how amazing a song it is, “Two-Headed Boy” has no place in a delivery room.
For a long while, it just became a process of elimination: Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”? Nope. The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma”? Absolutely not. Band of Horses’ “The Funeral”? Forget it.
Eventually, though, things started falling into place. I opened with Jillian’s favourite band of all time, the Cure, and segued into Bon Iver’s hauntingly beautiful ballad “Skinny Love,” followed by some ethereal, almost meditative music from the likes of Volcano Choir and Phosphorescent. I gave myself permission to mix up genres and eras in a way I never normally would, moving from Amy Winehouse to Bob Dylan, Bob Marley to Bright Eyes, Outkast to Gillian Welch. There were times, sitting in my office with my headphones on, when some of the songs brought me to the verge of tears. I envisioned us together in the darkened hospital room, Jillian enjoying some of her best-loved songs between contractions.
But, as with most items on our birth plan, the vision had little in common with the actual event.
At 11 p.m., Jillian’s water broke. At 11:10, she was in full-blown labour. By 11:20, the doula and two midwives were at the house. The thought of going to the hospital was too much to bear, so we decided to have the baby at home. I raced around like some kind of sitcom cliché, grabbing hot water and towels while the women moved from the bathtub to the bed and back again. I did manage to turn on some ambient music at some point, and while I think it mellowed me out, Jillian was so thoroughly involved in giving birth that I doubt she even knew it was on. The thought of breaking out my playlist seemed ridiculous and borderline obscene.
It wasn’t a complete bust, however. Over the next few months, as we got to know our new little girl, Jillian discovered her playlist. Every day I’d hear Camera Obscura or M. Ward or Wilco playing while she fed or bathed or just rested with her. Knowing this was the first music our baby heard—and still hears—makes “Labour” far and away the best, most important mixtape I’ll ever make.
Listen to the playlist here.