Nikki Mingledorff is the owner of Learning Through Play and the program director of the Family Mediation & Divorce Center. Her background is in marriage and family therapy, but Nikki found her true calling as a parent educator and coach where she helps families become more resilient. A graduate of Tulane, Nikki has called New Orleans home for over 25 years. She and her husband Jason live in Algiers Point with their three boys (ages 14, 10, and 7), a dog, four cats, and plenty of plants. A consummate traveler, voracious reader, and lover of all things tea, she firmly believes fest season is the best season.
THE ROAD TO HOME
I didn’t intend to marry a musician. When I was younger, my plan was to become a doctor, meet my future husband in medical school, move where our work led us, and then we’d have three kids—everything very similar to my parents’ story. This is how I ended up at Tulane University.
I quickly learned the plans I had laid out for myself weren’t really mine after all. Without my Filipino tiger-y parents constantly whispering in my ear, I actually found space to discover who I was and what I wanted out of my life. As difficult as this initially was, I realized my not-always-functional family upbringing is actually pretty commonplace, and the study of psychology gave me an academic arena to intellectually discuss interpersonal interactions and relationships, family of origin issues, and intergenerational patterns.
In the spring of 2000, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in English and planned to take a year off before starting my masters program in marriage and family therapy. During that time, I had absolutely no plans to meet my future husband. But as it turns out, fate had different plans.
You Play a Mean Sax
I still remember the first live music I ever saw after moving to New Orleans. Galactic was playing at the Mermaid Lounge. I distinctly remember Theryl DeClouet, a.k.a. Houseman, and his soulful vocals amidst the funky tunes Galactic jammed out. I’d never lived in a place so vibrant and alive, and the city’s joie de vivre was palpable. Still, I didn’t think I could settle down here. The drinking, the crime, the constant opportunities to party—NOLA didn’t seem like a place I could feel comfortable raising a family. I had no idea. I also had no idea that my future husband was actually playing on stage that night.
The next time Jason crossed my path was when a guy I had been dating heard about a band called Papa Grows Funk. I decided to catch one of their shows at Old Point Bar. They were great—fun, funky, and danceable with a handsome and talented saxophone player standing front and center. We both noticed each other, and after the show, I saw him at the bar and told him, “You play a mean sax.” We fell into easy conversation, and I was not only impressed with his playing, but he was also intelligent and well-read. Unbeknownst to the both of us, our eventual family home would be just down the street from the bar in which we were standing.
Independence vs. Teamwork
In the beginning, we were both so fiercely independent, but we complemented each other well. We were passionate about our chosen careers, so when I was accepted into a graduate program in California, he supported me every step of the way. Long distance didn’t actually prove to be too challenging for us since I was already used to Jason‘s touring schedule. After only a month of separation, Jason proposed (using the burlesque show he regularly played in no less!), and the mutual goal of planning our wedding together while we were living cross-country kept us connected and strong. After our wedding, though, our real struggles began to take shape.
By the time we got married, we had both been independent for so long that we struggled living together and accommodating each other’s needs and schedules. Being a horn player, bands hired Jason to tour, gig, do studio recordings, write charts, and/or book other horns in addition to his touring regularly with his main band. When he was in town, he worked many late nights and weekends. He never really had a routine schedule, and holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries were all fair game for gigs and tours.
While I enjoyed hearing about his shows and adventures and we both supported each other’s work schedules (mine also being somewhat unconventional), we began to struggle to connect in regular and meaningful ways which, as it turns out, is my love language. After Katrina, Jason also started teaching in the music program at Loyola University, but continued to tour about 100 dates a year. Although navigating our schedules was difficult, it wasn’t until we decided to start a family that we encountered major issues.
I consider attachment therapy work to be the bedrock of my career focus. It’s what attracted me to psychology in the first place. After I got pregnant, I worried that our child would not thrive if both of us continued working the schedules we had—the most important tenet of attachment theory being that children need to develop a secure relationship with at least one primary caregiver for optimal healthy development. With Jason’s constant traveling in mind, I decided to become a stay-at-home mom after our first child was born.
Both Jason‘s and my family live out of state, so we tried our best to create a village of support, much like I had while growing up. We had his band families, college friends who still lived in the city, and we ended up moving to Algiers Point, a charming neighborhood that gave me the sense of security and belonging I needed while I was often solo parenting.
After we became parents, we struggled to work together as a team. Our parenting philosophies were different, and our independent natures—which served us so well when we were geographically separated and working toward our careers—did not serve us well as parents. We didn’t have to contend with this for long though, because soon enough, Jason would be on the road again. He actually did take time off from touring after our first son Brady was born, but both of us were anxious for him to get back on the road after butting heads so much. As Jason would tour then return home, each time we disagreed, I got into the habit of trying to patiently wait before I’d once again be enjoying, for the most part, making unilateral parenting decisions.
I found it frustrating when Jason dismissed my expertise for some well-meaning advice he got from one of his friends or a member of his family, especially when he so often would fail to do any research behind the methods he wanted to try. I literally gave up my career, where I often taught positive parenting practices, to focus solely on parenting our child. To me, it seemed dismissive and controlling, especially since he wasn’t consistently present. As it turns out, he just wanted to be a part of the process. He wanted to have a say and have his parenting interactions be validated (turns out words of encouragement is his love language). Of course at the time, we didn’t understand the other person’s point of view.
By the time we were pregnant with our second child, our problems became unbearable. The biggest problem we had was that he, for the most part, was happy with me. His needs were mostly being met. I couldn’t say the same for myself. I constantly felt dismissed, unappreciated, and not prioritized. Something had to give. I distinctly remember the night everything changed. I had already used every method in my therapy tool belt to try and connect with him, share my concerns, and forge a healthy parenting partnership, but nothing seemed to work. I was miserable.
That night after a huge fight, I remember telling him that I knew he was a good man, and a good father. I knew that even if our marriage didn’t work out, he would still be a good father to our kids and wouldn’t put them in the middle. Saying that finally made something register with him. The fact that I had thought all of this through to the point of us maybe not staying together shocked him. I finally got him to understand the depth of my unhappiness and that it was caused by his dismissal of my feelings. He thought if I could just stop feeling that way, it would solve everything. It’s almost funny looking back on it now, but this fight was the start of him truly understanding what empathy is and how it works.
After this conversation, he understood better what he needed to do. He started therapy to learn how to communicate and empathize better, we found a couples therapist, and although the road was not a straight path, we learned how to have a healthier marriage and parent together as a team.
The Irony of Our Timing
Although it wasn’t always smooth sailing, things drastically improved after that fateful night. Our second son Cole was born three years and three months after Brady’s birth, and our third son Ryan was born three years and three months after Cole’s birth (three is legit my favorite number, although this birth timing was not planned). Ironically, each time we got pregnant, Jason got busier and busier. After Cole was born, Jason’s main band started to have some serious differences of opinion, and they broke up when Cole was a toddler. He joined other bands and found other work, but it wasn’t until after Ryan was born that he was offered an opportunity he couldn’t turn down.
In 2014, Jason was offered the opportunity to play with a band that toured even more heavily than what he had done in the past. At the height of his touring days with Papa Grows Funk, he was gone an average of one third of the year. With this new opportunity, it would be double that. This band was special, though. They held so much promise and would provide a lot of opportunities.
During Jason’s time with St. Paul and The Broken Bones, the band played late night TV talk shows, traveled the world together, opened for The Rolling Stones, had their music featured on two popular TV series, and played countless sold-out shows, stadiums, and festivals, including Elton John’s Oscar party. The schedule was a bear though.
Tours consisted of a three weeks on, one week off format. Mind you, the one week off didn’t factor in travel time, so if he was in Europe or Australia, he would sometimes only be home for a few days before leaving again. This also required him to quit teaching at Loyola. To prepare for this huge shift, we decided to hire an au pair before Jason’s touring schedule started. Finding the right fit was difficult, but after extensive searches, we finally found a wonderful choice.
Bruna ended up becoming like a little sister to me and a big sister to the boys. I’m not going to lie—when this schedule started, even with full time live-in help, we struggled a lot! Full time help was not the equivalent of a parent or a husband. Bruna was great, but she didn’t do any house repairs; she didn’t help with non-child-centric work or errands. She had a specific schedule so she wasn’t on call for middle-of-the-night sicknesses or emergencies. We had to work hard to all be on the same page, especially when Jason would drift in and out so suddenly. We no longer had just one child; we had three different kids with three different schools and schedules. Jason called or FaceTimed when he could and helped as much as he could virtually.
It Takes Two (and a Village Too)
With Bruna’s help plus that of our village, we began to navigate our challenges better. But it was still a sort of half-life. Jason continued this schedule for two years. Even though we fully supported him and his career, he saw how drastically his being gone so much affected our family. In 2018, he decided to stop touring with St. Paul and The Broken Bones. With Jason back at home and with Bruna’s help, both Jason and I were able to move to the next stages of our career. Jason resumed his position at Loyola, and I was finally able to more clearly focus on my career. It took a long time to get our home and family in a better place, but when you know what matters most, you do what you have to do.
Even as a trained therapist, I often struggle to find my way as a parent. With children constantly growing into their own personhood, we must navigate an ever-changing family topography. And parents aren’t just parents; they’re people and partners too. It’s hard to find the balance. Help is essential, so get it wherever you can: therapists, educators, coaches, consultants, mentors, family, friends, neighbors, au pairs, nannies, babysitters. Regardless of what you do for a living, to raise children well, it truly does take a village.
illustration by Victoria Allen
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