Tags: Parenting

Will This End the Mommy Wars?

A new movement of non-judgment is sweeping motherhood. Can its leader, NYC podcaster Hillary Frank, call a truce?
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Motherhood is “changing,” again. After decades of decline,  more and more mothers are staying at home, and while many of these women are living in poverty (double in number from 1970), 25 percent had college degrees when polled in 2012. And the trend is showing no signs of abatement.

Quite the contrary: We're in something of a “new motherhood” movement, developing its own markets, blogs, and even artisanal food practices, cultivating a new kind of domesticity, as Emily Matcher argues in her book, Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity, which chronicles the new fascination with reviving “lost” domestic arts like canning, bread-baking, knitting, chicken-raising.

And with the rise in stay-at-home-mothering come the “good mommy” vs. “bad mommy” debates swelling in the belly of the internet, leaving undeniable stretch marks. On the one end are the oppressive blogs about what to do or not to do as a mother. On the other, the more recent boastful “bad mother” books, in which women brag about what they won’t sacrifice for their kids. But as Elissa Strauss argued in Salon, “Moms who brag about being lazy and sloppy can be just as judgy as too-perfect ones.” 

And the last thing new mothers need is judgmental company and polarizing conversation, especially in the early months, in those first months when some of us are feeling isolated from the world, existing in a bubble with our new babies, hoping we are doing everything right and being barraged with unsolicited advice from well-intentioned friends and strangers.

So it was a relief to many New York moms to discover Hillary Frank, whose podcast “The Longest, Shortest Time”—a “three a.m. bedside companion for parents” produced by New York’s WNYC public radio station—not only defused some of the neurotic worrying, but also created a sense of community among new parents.

Through 15 to 30-minute interviews with new parents and people working in newborn industries, Frank’s objective is to alleviate anxiety with a simple message: “You are not alone. And as never-ending as those first months seem, they don’t last forever.” The podcasts are frequently moving: In the first episode, a children’s music teacher breaks down as she recounts how her baby would cry when she sang to him. In another, Frank’s mother recalls for the first time what it was like not being able to breast-feed Frank. It’s also fun, and funny, and deeply compassionate. Frank is honest in a way that is humbling: She spoke to a war correspondent and confessed to her feelings of jealousy, and in another instance, had a guest return to the show to apologize for being smug about sleep training. But the show is first and foremost, says Frank, “non-judgy.”

“I did not start out trying to start a non-judgy movement,” Frank told me. “But I realized people were liking that. And I realized what I was reacting against.” And when you’re starting out in a highly saturated market like parenting media, you have to consider what you can contribute when there’s so much out there. “And I thought, Well there is something missing and it’s this tone. I wish it was there, so probably other people do too.” Though WNYC wouldn’t release the number of listeners, The Longest Shortest Time Facebook page has over 5,000 members (there’s a separate page for daddies, moderated by Frank’s husband, which has hundreds of members).

Between the podcast, the Facebook group, and the blog, it appears Frank has sparked a kind of movement: Frank groupies began setting up meetings with one other. Frank took notice, and decided to host a “Speed Dating for Mom Friends” event in Brooklyn back in the fall because she realized there was a real need for new moms to meet.

“It’s hard to make friends as an adult,” said Eve Koltuv, whose children are 6 and 3, and who attended the speed-dating event. Koltuv was chatting up Erin Thompson, a professor at John Jay who is pregnant with her first child. Both Koltuv and Thompson really like the podcast. Thompson follows the Facebook feed, too. “Lots of wise things being said by moms in the group so I thought they’d be awesome to hang out with,” she said, and paused. “I was about to say, who it would be awesome to drink with, but…” she pointed to her belly, and Koltuv laughed. The electricity of a good date crackled between them.

Victoria Drescher, 31, lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 8-month-old. Though she is not a stay-at-home-mom—she works at a non-profit—she went to the event because she said the biggest challenge of early motherhood was the huge strain on the relationship, and the way gender roles played out as stereotyped. “Not only did I take on the bulk of the work, but I wanted that, which I didn’t expect,” Drescher said. “That was really interesting to me.” Drescher, who has a degree in women’s studies, said the experience gave her “a new perspective on things I’ve theorized but not experienced.

Drescher had never heard the podcast, but many of the women at the event—aged 22 to 49—were devoted fans, like Katie O’Brien, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom with a 7-month-old. “It’s just really nice to hear more stories and collect more experiences,” said O’Brien. “That’s what I like about it. I’ve been trying to find ways to meet other people and find out what they’re going through. Especially as a stay-at-home mom, it’s hard to find the connections and make friends when you’re used to the office life. I’m hoping to find people who are going through similar things with similar questions and learn something.”

There is something about the vulnerability of early motherhood—being at your worst while having no control over the most important thing in your life, and yet being constantly judged by the invisible eye of society—that makes the need for friends who won’t judge you particularly crucial. And yet, the presence of so many mothers out on a weeknight in search of friends testified to the difficulty of finding those friends. Add to that the natural vulnerability attached to being in need of friends at any time of life, and you have the success of “The Longest, Shortest Time.”

Frank herself had a rough start to the whole motherhood business. She wanted a natural birth, but had to have an episiotomy during labor. Then she busted her stitches, leaving her unable to walk for six weeks. She couldn’t make it up the stairs of her home, so she was bedridden on an air mattress in the living room. Soon after, she and her husband moved to Montclair, New Jersey, where she didn’t know anybody. It was in the loneliness of this time that Frank conceived of the podcast.

“I wanted to start trying to get my foot in the door again with work,” Frank told me. “And there was stuff I wanted to say.” The podcast filled two needs: the need for a portfolio, and an excuse to bond with people—strangers—who were struggling with this deeply challenging time of life. “I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone in my struggles,” she said. 

But it also gave her something she desperately wanted, and couldn’t find anywhere else. “If you look at other parenting media, it’s easy to think that either there are simple answers, or other people don’t have problems,” she said, laughing. “Because it’s presented as this warm, exciting time, which it is! But it can also be a really intense struggle. And if you feel like either other people are answering those problems easily, or they’re not having them, it’s very isolating.”

Frank’s approach is honest and humble. “You’re raising a human,” she said. “You want to feel like you’re giving your person the best chance, and you want them to do better than you, but none of us know how to do it right. And there are no easy answers. And if someone seems really confident in the way they are doing it, you can’t help but question if you’re doing it right, or after the fact, could I have done that better.”

Which is where the “non-judgy” part comes into it. Mothers are allowed to be open and vulnerable, even about things that aren’t going well. Acknowledging the excitement and Eros embedded in the process of finding the perfect friend is just the kind of quirky, off-beat move that Frank is turning into her trademark. And at the event, it seemed to be working. Though looking for, and even needing, friends compounds our worst feelings of vulnerability, these women all seemed right at home “dating.” In her opening remarks, Frank told a story familiar to many women, recounting her story of her difficult delivery and recovery, and her need for friends in a new town. She went to yoga classes, to the park, on mom hikes, in pursuit of the perfect mom friend. She remembered one rainy day when she forced herself out with her baby into the torrential rain to a yoga class, and two other moms had come too, desperate to get out of the house. “And they were really nice, but they weren’t my people,” Frank said. So she went to a bigger yoga class, where she would find her destiny. “There was this mom,” she said. “I knew when I saw her that she was the one. She was this laid-back mom with lots of tattoos and a giant fat baby named Freddie. And I was like, that’s my mom.”

Though they are not all listeners of “The Longest Shortest Time,” the attending mothers reflected the show and its values—and because this event took place in Gowanus, a recently gentrified, hipster section of Brooklyn—overwhelmingly white, middle class, married, and liberal. And according to the organizers, they made many friends.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter: @bungarsargon