Hillary Frank on trusting yourself—and your child—in parenthood

Hillary Frank is a veteran podcaster and renowned journalist, and her podcast, called "The Longest Shortest Time" is one of the most recognized parenting podcasts out there. It started as a way for Hillary to cope with her loneliness and struggles in her early weeks of motherhood and has since grown into an immense collection of stories from parents in all sorts of circumstances. Since its debut in 2010, it has won numerous awards, and tons of critical acclaim, including being on the 50 Best Podcasts lists in both Time Magazine and The Atlantic.
In this episode, Hillary and Liz chat about Hillary's new book, "Weird Parenting Wins: Bathtub Dining, Family Screams, and Other Hacks from the Parenting Trenches," as well as everything else she's learned in her near-decade of listening to parents tell their stories.

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LIZ: Well, Hillary Frank, welcome to the Motherly podcast.

HILLARY: Thank you.

LIZ: Hillary something I always want to know whenever I meet another fellow mom is what was your view of motherhood before you actually became a mother.

HILLARY: So I loved babies before I became a mother. I was always going to be the person who was like grabbing the baby out of people's hands. But that didn't mean I necessarily wanted one of my own. And I wasn't sure. I wasn't sure if I was going to do it. I don't think I quite realized how crazy it could be and how it could turn your life upside-down but I did have a sense that it was going to be hard and I wondered do I want to take on that challenge.

LIZ: So what do you say to friends today who ask you like, "I don't know if I want to be a mom."

HILLARY: So generally when people ask me. There's a couple different ways people ask the question. One way is how do you know when you're ready? I always say like when you start asking that question you're probably ready. But how do you know like I. I don't. I don't care whether other people have kids or not. But if people. If I feel like people want to be convinced that they should I can do that. I can have that conversation.

LIZ: And what is the case for having kids, in your view? How did you get over that? How did you make that decision?

HILLARY: I think it just started hitting me in my early 30s where I was like I think I do want one of those babies on my own. I do want one that I will hold that will be mine. I started having friends who were having kids and I started yearning. It was my first time really yearning for one of my own when I started seeing them have them. And I think the case for it is it is going to be like the deepest bond you will probably ever have with another person and. And it's so cool to watch them grow up. It is challenging as hell but it also has a way of making other challenges in your life not seem as big.

LIZ: I love that. So for those less familiar with your story, can you tell us how the birth of your daughter which ended up having complications, how that ultimately led to you starting the Longest Shortest Time Podcast?

HILLARY: Yeah. So I had my daughter in 2010 and I had a really rough childbirth and recovery. So I had an episiotomy which is when they cut you to help get the baby out and I also had some tearing. And it turned out that I was. My stitches busted after they re. After they stitched me and so I had to go back into the doctor's office and get recut and re-stitched with just local anesthesia. It turned out that after that I wasn't going to be able to walk for like two months. And I lived in an apartment that had stairs. My bedroom was on the top floor. The bathroom was on the first floor. And so I learned pretty quickly I couldn't do stairs. And so I had to spend those two months on an air mattress in my really dark living room in order to have access to the bathroom. And I wasn't able to do things like get in the right position to nurse my kid. I couldn't give her a bath. I couldn't get up to change her diaper. And these are things that I think like in the beginning for people often feel like. Like annoying like I don't want to have to do all of these things. And it's nice to have somebody else do them but I also felt like I wasn't the mother that I wanted to be. I couldn't care for my kid in the way that I wanted to and so I just wound up feeling like a failure in a lot of different ways. And it was hard to find other people who would talk about that honestly with me. I felt very alone. When my daughter was four months old we moved to a new town where I knew nobody and I was trying to make friends just with like random moms I would see like in a coffee shop. And I remember seeing this one mom who had a little baby and being like. It was like a very, very small baby and I was like, "Wow. Look at you. You're out and about. That's awesome." And the mom just looked at me and said, "Well it's been two weeks." Like end of conversation. I didn't know what else to say. And so I wanted to find people who would have those real conversations with me and I knew from having like over a decade of experience in radio that if you stick a microphone in someone's face you kind of have license to ask them anything and people are more likely to open up. And so I decided I was going to start this podcast. At the time podcasting wasn't what it is now and the idea that you could like have a job as a podcaster wasn't a thing. And so I thought it would be just my way of like you know it would be like a portfolio piece for me to get a job later. And I just started interviewing people. I would do this call out on the show and say like if you have a story about a surprising struggle in early motherhood let me know. Maybe you'll be on the show. And I just started hearing from people. And this thing that had started like a way to heal myself became this thing that was cathartic for other people too.

LIZ: How have you seen parents open up through the podcast and having the way for us to start to tell authentic stories about the reality of parenthood? How? How have you seen that evolve?

HILLARY: I think what I found through the podcast which is different from like conversations out in the real world, people were really hungry to open up because I think when people are having the same kind of experience that I was where you're. You're out and about and people don't want to engage about those things and so like they were really eager to have these intimate conversations. And so you know I've seen people really want to open up about hard things that really you would not hear in everyday conversation about health issues, about you know parent's sex lives, about gender issues and all kinds of things. I think parenthood is like a launching pad to talk about every big aspects of our lives.

LIZ: And so tell us what does it mean when you say the longest shortest time and what does that represent for you in parenthood generally?

HILLARY: So longest shortest time was something that a good friend of mine said to me when she came to visit me when I was living on the air mattress. And I was like, "I just feel like this is never going to end. This is the rest of my life; me on this air mattress with this baby that I can't take care of." And she was like, "No it's finite. It feels like it's never going to end and then in retrospect it will feel like a blip. It's the longest shortest time." And that phrase stuck with me.

LIZ: It's almost like a way of saying it's just a phase. It doesn't feel like a phase but it's just a phase.

HILLARY: Exactly.

LIZ: Is that something that you've returned to yourself as a mother over the last eight years?

HILLARY: Oh yeah. I mean I think at first I thought the longest shortest time is the first three months. And initially, that's what I thought the podcast would be about. It's the first three months. And then I really came to learn that being a parent is a series of longest shortest times because your kid is constantly changing and going through these different phases and you're gonna. You're gonna see one in hindsight that's going to feel very far in the rearview mirror and then there's going to be another one that you're coming up on and you're going to feel like that one's never going to end.

LIZ: So you've written this book, Weird Parenting Wins and it's sort of this anti-philosophy of parenthood in a way.

HILLARY: That's right.

LIZ: Why did you decide this was the parenting book you wanted to write?

HILLARY: So on the longest shortest time we don't give advice. Very rarely. Really the only times we give advice is when we do the series called the parent guide to doing it which is like sex advice for parents and then we get experts in to talk about that. But people keep asking us to give advice. The thing is like I'm not a parenting expert and I don't really believe in parenting books. But what I've found is that you know the things that tend to work for people are the things that are born out of moments of desperation when like there's nothing else left but just like sheer creativity. And so I wanted to write this book because I wanted to like put out there into the world of parents that there are all these other parents who have tried these weird things that have worked for them and maybe those things will work for you or maybe it'll spur some creativity for you when you feel like you don't know what else to do.

LIZ: Part of what I love in this book is you see parents doing all sorts of silly, zany things to. To soothe their kid or find ways to survive. What I love in the way you describe it is how becoming a parent and the ways you connect with your child you end up kind of being childlike and if you can kind of enter into that for a moment, the stress of it all not working exactly as you planned it can kind of lighten.


LIZ: Can you think of an example in the book of perhaps a weird parenting win that another parent brought forth that you tried yourself and found your own win?

HILLARY: So, one of them is a game called what's on my butt.

LIZ: Yes.

HILLARY: And so that's the one where this is like when you're really tired. You don't feel like playing but your kid feels like playing and so like you as the parent lie face down on the couch and you tell your kid to go find an object, put it on your butt and you have to guess what it is. And it's like the harder the object is the longer you get to just be lying face down and the kid gets to feel like they're playing a game. So I played this with my niece and my daughter when we were visiting my parent's house. So my brother has a little daughter who's a little younger than my daughter. And I encouraged them to go grab my dad's rolodex because they have no idea what a rolodex is. They've never seen one and.

LIZ: That bought you twenty minutes?

HILLARY: Yes. My brother. I. I had them put the rolodex on my brother's butt and he like couldn't guess and they didn't even know how to give him clues 'cause they didn't know what it was. So that was fun.

LIZ: Can you describe the parenting philosophy that you've developed over the course of your life as a mother as well as this podcast host, hearing from other parents. It's not. It's not about what experts say. Is it about trusting your intuition? Is it about something else?

HILLARY: Yeah. I mean I really believe that it's about trusting your weird side. It's like the thing that you would least expect. I mean first of all, it makes sense. The kids. Kids love humor and surprise. And. And I think we as people just love that too. I think. I think that weirdness is almost like the thing that bonds us all. Like. Like no matter how you're going to decide you want to raise your kid you're always going to be driven to absurdity. I think maybe because parenting is so hard. Because it really is about like life and death you know. Like keeping a person alive and keeping them safe. And that's like some heavy stuff.

LIZ: Absolutely.

HILLARY: Right. So like the stuff that. Of course the stuff that's going to work is going to be a little lighter I think.

LIZ: So let's say you're a very serious parent. How? How would you encourage someone to access that weird side of themselves that might help them reconnect with their kids?

HILLARY: Yeah. I think if you can like separate yourself out from your serious situation and just almost like observe yourself from outside and be like, "This is just a game. This is a game I'm playing. I'm playing at the game of parenting." You can. You can probably access your silly side.

LIZ: How do you like to do that with your daughter now?

HILLARY: So sometimes that comes up when I don't expect it. And sometimes she's leading it. So sometimes it's about like noticing when she wants to turn something into a game and going with it. So, for example, she has for a long time, had a pretty big obsession with death, like just talking about death. She's never known anyone who died but she. Once she found out that this was a thing that happened she was just constantly, constantly talking about it with me. Asking me over and over when I was going to die, when she was going to die, how I was going to die, how many ways there were to die. She would start listing all the ways to die. Like get hit by a bus or falling out of a building. She was just like old age. She would make this list. So she kind of figured out the game that helps her with it, with this anxiety which is that she has glow in the dark skeleton pajamas. And then she has these like glow in the dark monster fingers, glow in the dark vampire teeth and she likes to go into her closet, turn on the light, get herself all glowy and then she comes out into the dark and she tells me she's going to kill me. And she kills me over and over again and I do like my you know damsel in distress impression. And I'm like, "Don't kill me. No don't kill me." And then I like I die. I to a big dramatic death scene. And I think you know my first instinct is probably going to be like don't. You know actually don't do this. Don't pretend to kill me, that's not nice. You know we shouldn't be. We shouldn't be like pretending to hurt each other even. But in the moment it did dawn on me this is going to help her. She's acting out this death thing. She is. She is trying to embody death, the thing that is scaring her and so I'm just gonna go. I'm just going to go with this and let her lead it.

LIZ: I think that is such an interesting example because you know you mentioned that your daughter came up with the game and that you kind of took this improv approach of saying yes and I'm a damsel in distress. I wonder if you think that children if we. If we listen to them are kind of leading us to where they need us to be as parents.

HILLARY: Yes. Yeah I've never thought of it exactly in that way. But I think that's exactly it. And I also think you really hit upon something. I think that parenting really is just a big improv game. You know?

LIZ: Yeah. I know. Yeah. (Laughter) So one of the themes in your book and in your work is that parenthood is so individualized to the needs of the family, to the different kids, to where you live and your particular circumstances. But I'm wondering is there. Is there a universal theme in parenthood that you still do hear?

HILLARY: This is the highest stake thing. That most of us will ever have to do and so of course we want to feel like we're doing it right. And I think that that's. That's a common theme. Like people want to feel like they're doing it right. Like they're not screwing their kids up. We're all going to screw them up a little bit but you want to like minimize that.

LIZ: So how do you know that you're doing right as a mom? Like what are those moments that make you feel like okay that was a win. I've really figured this thing out.

HILLARY: Yeah. I mean I don't know but I. I think whenever things don't feel like they're falling apart I feel like it's a win. And like you have to actively work to get it to be like that. The idea that. That families could just automatically be like happy without any work I think is a myth. Or I haven't seen it. So I think when I feel like I've hit upon a thing that makes us all feel kind of calm, at home, that feels like a win.

LIZ: So you keep doing that thing until it doesn't work anymore. (Laughter) That's out the window. So Hillary one last question before we go. It's something we talk about here. Something we talk about here a lot at Motherly is that motherhood can help us discover superpowers in ourselves that we didn't know we had. So have you discovered? What's your superpower?

HILLARY: My superpower. My superpower I think is that singing a song about what's going on can always make things better.

LIZ: Can you give an example of that?

HILLARY: Yeah. My daughter hates brushing her teeth. It is a struggle. If I can summon the energy to sing a song with her about actually like vocalizing how much I hate brushing her teeth with her, I get out my frustration with her but she thinks it's hilarious and she starts singing alone.

LIZ: How does it go? How does that song go?

HILLARY: Yeah. I'm trying to think. I knew you were going to ask for me to sing it. It changes all the time but you know sometimes it's the blues. So. So it's like, "Dena nana nana, we're brushing your teeth. Dena nana." And I can't do this on the spot. Yeah. It's going to be hard to do it without being in front of her little mouth.

LIZ: Yes. But the blues works.

HILLARY: The blues works because. Yeah so because I make her sing the blues sometimes when. When she can't get it together. And I'll say like, "You can't complain unless you're singing the blues." And then she'll sing the blues about. About like the teeth brushing. And then it makes her laugh and it makes me laugh. And everything's much better.

LIZ: So Hillary is there anything that we didn't talk about in this conversation that you think is important for our listeners to know?

HILLARY: I mean I just think like. Yeah. Just trust. Trust yourself. When. When some weird thought comes into your head, trust yourself and know like as long as. As long as you're not like hurting your kid, you're doing it right. I think. I don't think enough parents hear that they're doing it right.

LIZ: And when you say you're doing it right what do you mean?

HILLARY: I think it's really common for people to be like, "Oh that thing worked." But no one. No one has endorsed this way of doing it and so. Like they might classify things that are actually wins in my view as fails 'cause it's like, "Oh I played what's on my butt because I was too lazy. A parenting fail." But. But if you look at it a little differently you're actually getting some me time which is in turn giving you the patience you need to be there for your kid like half an hour later.

LIZ: That's a parenting win.

HILLARY: That's right.

LIZ: Hillary, I really enjoyed our conversation. I really enjoyed your book, Weird Parenting Wins. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

HILLARY: Thanks so much for having me.

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