Radio journalist Hillary Frank once thought how-to parenting books had the answers. She also thought that because the experts’ advice didn’t work with her crying newborn, she was failing as a mom.
That was until a friend stopped her mid-shame-spiral and told her: “These first few months are the longest shortest time. Remember that. It seems like they’ll go on forever. And then they’re over.”
That advice not only helped Frank at home, but it propelled her to start a popular podcast, “The Longest Shortest Time,” which captures parenting in all its absurdities.
Eight years later, Frank, who began her career on “This American Life,” knows that being a parent is a “series of longest shortest times,” that it’s wise to view how-to books as suggestions, not gospel, and that trial-and-error is a great teacher.
She also learned that some of the best advice comes from other parents, who manage to think up brilliant, wacky workarounds at extremely low moments. She collected hundreds of these stories from around the world in her new book, “Weird Parenting Wins: Bathtub Dining, Family Screams and Other Hacks From the Parenting Trenches.”
We talked to Frank about why she hates the term “parenting fail,” being a weirdo at heart and how to play with your kids and nap at the same time.
Q: Why did you ask your podcast listeners for their “parenting wins”?
A: Early on, when I was doing the podcast, I did this post on the blog. It was called “Things I Tried.” I had been frustrated by trying things in books that were by experts. Trying them, and having them not work, and then feeling like a failure. I think that’s pretty common. But I had come to the realization that the things that were working were not things I had found in books, but rather things that came out of moments of desperation, and trial and error, and things that friends had told me.
And I was like, well, I wonder if other people listening to this show have had this experience. I did this call-out.
Q: Were you surprised by the response?
A: They started rolling in and they were just wonderful. People would say, “The only thing that would work is that my husband would do a big pig snort in my baby’s ear and that’s what would calm him down.” “We wave a vibrating toothbrush like a conductor in front of the baby’s face.” You would never see those things in an experty-type book, because they are too absurd.
Q: Why did you decide to call them parenting wins?
A: So often we hear people talking about “parenting fails,” and I just hate that term. In some ways, people almost seem braggy about it, like, #parenting fail. For me, I just feel like there are so many ways in parenthood where we can feel like we’re failing. Let’s celebrate the wins and brag about those, because they are so few and far between. And they can be just as fun to talk about.
Q: What’s your favorite win from the book?
A: “What’s on My Butt?” It’s a game that a mom came up with for those moments when you need a little downtime and your kid wants to play. She lies face down on the couch and tells her kid to go find a random object in the house and put it on her butt. And she has to guess what it is. It gets her a little naptime while her kid is playing.
Q: Your book manages to convey how hard parenting is and how absurd and fun kids are. What do these wins reveal about parents?
A: I think, definitely, we’re all weirdos at heart. Also, the best wins come out of moments where we feel like we just can’t take it anymore. You’re either going to lose it, or maybe you have a stroke of mad genius. And maybe you do both. What I’ve found is that when we’re feeling most desperate, we can also be our most creative.
Q: When I first started reading parenting books, I was shocked by how rigid they were. Instead of a collection of ideas, so many of them give directives.
A: They are extremely authoritative, and they lay it out in step-by-step instructions that are supposed to be simple, with quick results. And so many of them could be a good starting place, but don’t tend to work for most people.
Q: How is this book different from other parenting how-tos?
A: Parents tend to judge each other, and I think most of the books contribute to that. So many books are written from a my-way-or-the-highway perspective and if you don’t do it the way that the author is saying you should do it, then they make you feel like you’re not doing it right. I think that a lot of the judging among parents comes from certain parents buying into that, and then looking around at everyone else and being like, “You’re not parenting right.” I understand where it comes from, because parenting is the most high-stakes thing you’ll ever do.
With the podcast, I tried to set up a world in which you could hear all different kinds of parents doing this all different kinds of ways. This book is an extension of that.
Q: Does your book have a serious side?
A: On the face of it, the book looks like it’s all fun and games. And it is, but it’s also really serious. And it’s got not just ways for parents to get their kids to do what they need to do, but also to help themselves. There’s a lot of self-care in there about how to deal with your anger when you have kids, and how to maintain your sex life when you have kids.
So I think it’s important for parents not just to have parenting techniques but to know how to manage their own selves.