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Don't be fooled by the fancy electronic gates at Sheryl Crow's Cross Creek Farm, outside Nashville. Or by her stone and brick mansion, surrounded by 154 acres of rolling pastures. Don't be fooled by any of that country estate stuff, because the minute you walk into Crow's house and see plastic toys, tricycles, a high chair, and sippy cups scattered on the floor and counter, you know: This is the home of a regular mom.
Three years ago Crow left her Hollywood Hills spread -- and the celebrity world she'd become part of since her 1993 smash debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club -- for a quieter life in Tennessee. Her diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer in 2006 played a big part in that move. "After I learned I had cancer, my life took on such a sense of urgency," says Crow, sitting in her white-on-white living room. "I knew my life was never going to look or feel the way it was before. Having a life-threatening illness, even though it wasn't going to threaten my life [Crow underwent successful radiation treatments] made me reassess everything." One key revelation was that she wanted to be a mom, whether or not she had a partner. In May 2007 Crow adopted Wyatt Steven, followed by a second son, Levi James, in April 2010.
"I've always had maternal instincts," says Crow, who, as a former music teacher, has spent plenty of time with kids. "And there are many different ways you can go about that. My sons didn't have to be from me. They didn't have to look like me. I just wanted children to love."
She also increased her activist role, helping champion causes such as Feeding America and breast-cancer awareness. "I was raised in an involved community. Through our church we'd work at an old folks' home or plant trees. I want that for my kids." This month she will represent the CMT One Country initiative at the CMT Music Awards, which links volunteers to a slate of good causes, including Habitat for Humanity. She's also an environmentalist, determined to heal the land -- her farm is solar powered -- and heal herself: Her new cookbook, If It Makes You Healthy, features organic vegetarian recipes full of disease-fighting minerals and proteins.
These days, at 49, Crow looks terrific. She's lean, muscular, and model pretty. As we sit she listens intently for the sound of Wyatt coming home from preschool with his nanny, who'll also have Levi in tow. Her voice is soft, thoughtful -- and tired. "I sleep with two monitors: one for my baby and one for my 4-year-old," she says. "They yell 'Mommy!' and I'm up. I'm a 24-hour mom."
For now, though, the house is quiet. And Crow takes this rare peaceful moment to talk about the new rules that guide her life.
1. REDEFINE "NORMAL"
"The other day I told my parents, 'You guys set the bar so high, you've ruined everything!'" says Crow, laughing. Crow grew up in Kennett, Missouri, the youngest daughter of Wendell, a lawyer, and Bernice, a piano teacher, who have been married for 56 years. Crow used to crave that "normal" life. "I wanted to get married, have kids -- the whole thing," she says. She was engaged to Tour de France winner and fellow cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, though they famously split in early 2006. But after her illness she had a revelation. "I thought, it's not normal for someone from small-town Missouri to become a world-recognizable recording artist. There hasn't been much in my life that's been normal. So why am I holding up normalcy as a template? Letting go of what I thought my life should look like has been one of the biggest shifts -- and opportunities -- for me."
Now, instead of dating famous alpha males, Crow seeks more low-profile, "empathetic" guys. "I used to be really strong going into the relationship, and then I would make myself really small," she says. "I'd sort of make myself...wallpaper. That happens to a lot of strong women."
She is currently dating a local musician, whose name she declines to give. "You should be everything you are in a relationship: have desires and needs and weaknesses as well as be strong and accomplished. It's nice to be able to share your vulnerability and not scare off the other person." Does she still want to get married someday? "It's just important that my boys grow up in a healthy situation," she says. "If I get married, I want to marry a man who wants to be a father to my kids."
2. PUT YOURSELF FIRST
This is not an easy one for Crow. In the past she stretched herself too thin, giving to friends at the risk of depleting herself. "Sheryl almost never says no," says close pal Kimberly Williams-Paisley (the actress and wife of country singer Brad Paisley). "In terms of going the distance for a friendship, she has raised the bar for all of us."
Forcing herself to tone down that impulse "is one of the reasons I've kept the tattoos around my breasts," Crow says, pointing to her chest. Under her shirt are the marks from her radiation therapy; she could have had them removed but chose not to. The cancer, she says, was her wake-up call to take care of herself. "Sometimes I find myself slipping back into the position of being everyone's caretaker. Then I'll get out of the shower and see the marks. They remind me that I have to be the most important person in my life."
3. LET YOUR KID PEE IN THE BUSHES
In the middle of our talk the nanny comes home, holding a half-asleep Levi in his carrier, while Wyatt careens into the living room. Crow: "Hi! Can I have a hug?" Wyatt: "I don't want to!" Crow: "Ooooh, let me see that face." Wyatt frowns. Crow: "Oh, that's a mean face!" Crow laughs, and then admits to giving her mom the same brush-offs when she was young. "Certain things are not worth the battle," she says. "I expect my kids to toe the line in terms of manners, but with other things -- maybe it's because of what I've been through -- I'm not so flappable anymore." Williams-Paisley is grateful to know a like-minded mom. Her older son, Huck, and Wyatt are good friends. "Sheryl is so laid-back, she doesn't fuss over things," says Williams-Paisley. "Both of our kids like to pee in the bushes, and we don't apologize for that. I saw a sign that said, 'Good moms have sticky floors, dirty ovens, and happy kids.' We both live by that rule."
4. PLAN A GIRLS' NIGHT OUT
Every couple of weeks Crow tries to gather with friends (usually Williams-Paisley; Tracie Hamilton, the wife of Olympic figure skater Scott; and fellow Nashville resident Nicole Kidman) to share sushi and parenting advice. "Sheryl will say, 'Okay, this is what I'm dealing with -- what do you think?'" Williams-Paisley says. "She puts it right out there and opens it up for discussion."
Crow also enjoys a girls' night in with the kids' nanny, settling down for "mindless" TV couch time after the boys have gone to bed. "We laugh and say we're like an old married couple," says Crow. "On Thursday nights it's exciting because: The kids are bathed! We've read them books! We've brushed their teeth! Now it's time for Grey's Anatomy! It's nice to have a guilty pleasure."
5. LEARN TO DE-STRESS
Crow meditates for 30 minutes each morning and, if possible, 30 minutes at night. "It decreases my nervous energy and creates more space in my day," she says. She's also a big exerciser -- she runs an hour a day and bike-rides. "Exercise gets rid of so much clogged-up energy. When you burn through that dark energy, you feel so much lighter inside."
6. EMBRACE AGING (THAT'S RIGHT, YOU HEARD HER!)
Surviving a serious illness led Crow to want to "be gentle" with herself, especially when it comes to aging. "I'll see a picture of myself and think, 'Oh, look how old I'm getting!' But we can make ourselves crazy about our imperfections to the point where we don't even look like ourselves," she says, referring to extreme plastic surgery. "Instead, I try to let go of the panic about aging. That's where you'll find grace. And grace is what keeps us young."
7. TEACH YOUR KIDS TO GIVE BACK
Ask Crow who has inspired her and she says, "The people at Feeding America." Crow got involved with the hunger-relief organization through actor David Arquette. "You'd be amazed at how many people in this country go hungry," says Crow. "Moms come in for boxes of food just to keep their families going -- they inspire me with their determination." So much so, she says, that over the next 10 years she would like to shift from playing music to doing more philanthropy. In the meantime, "I want to help my kids learn about volunteerism," she says. "When we pass people in need on the street, I always let Wyatt give them money. It's important for him to understand -- even though he's just 4 -- that we are so blessed."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2011.