Published on December 10th, 2014 | by Meg Lemke0
THE LONGEST SHORTEST TIME: An Interview with Hillary Frank
Hillary Frank hosts and produces The Longest Shortest Time, a podcast about struggles in early parenting, which she calls “a 3am bedtime companion.” Frank produced radio before she became a mother, at shows like This American Life and All Things Considered. After her daughter was born, she started her passion project solo–and now, several years later, the show has been brought into WNYC as its audience grows. The production is thoughtful and, from the first episodes, impressively polished considering that Frank was doing it all alone from her bedroom, still recovering from a traumatic birth injury and taking care of her newborn at the same time.
The cadence of Longest Shortest will feel familiar if, like me, you keep on NPR as constant background. (Or did before the toddler learned to say “NO NO N-P-R! ONLY BAY-BEE MUSIC!). There are quirky stories, questions, commentary. But it is also something different, welcome, and unexpected. If you are in it with that baby, panicking, then tune in to the 3am episode release to have your pain taken seriously. The Longest Shortest Time speaks intimately to all of us who may feel alone with a small new warm human squirming in arms, up in the middle of the night, wondering what is possibly happening, what’s next, what’s been lost. It takes as its starting point how hard and how unique the challenges of the first few days, months, and years can be. From there, it gets only more interesting.
My thanks to Hillary Frank for letting MUTHA turn the mic around on her… Once you’ve read our interview, listen in to the show and let us know what you think.
MUTHA: When did you start The Longest Shortest Time?
HILLARY FRANK: Sasha was almost a year old when I started it, in 2010. I had a rough childbirth—I couldn’t walk for almost two months. Then shortly after that we moved to a town where I didn’t know anybody.
I needed to talk about that with other moms, but didn’t have the friends around me to do that. From my career as a radio producer, I knew that if you stick a mic into somebody’s face you can pretty much ask them anything. So, I started interviewing people about struggles in motherhood. At first it was a selfish thing, to make me feel better. It worked for that. Then at the end of every episode I would say ‘If you have a struggle in early parenthood, that you want on this podcast, let me know.” Strangers started emailing me. It became something that was cathartic for others, too.
MUTHA: How did you manage it with childcare?
HILLARY FRANK: The set-up was: I’m only going to do this when I feel like I want to do it. I would do it when she was napping. Then, in the beginning, the only childcare I had was a babysitter who came maybe three hours. Other than that, it was a half-hour, here or there.
When you start a podcast, everyone will tell you ‘you have to have a schedule,’ even if it’s only once a month people need to know when it’s coming out. But I realized that wasn’t going to work for me. I made twenty episodes in the first three years. Not a lot by podcasting standards.
MUTHA: It sounds like a lot to me!
HILLARY FRANK: It felt like a lot of work.
MUTHA: You proved them wrong. You did get on a schedule, eventually, and it became a job for you at WNYC. But to start, you did what made sense for you as a mother.
HILLARY FRANK: For me, it made for better work. It wouldn’t have been beneficial for the show, if I felt forced to stay on a schedule, it wouldn’t have been as well thought out.
MUTHA: I think the depth is what listeners find so appealing. We get so much that is “bite-sized” about motherhood.
HILLARY FRANK: I produced it differently in the beginning, too. I didn’t script, my rule was that I wasn’t taking any time to write things out. I would interview mothers and then cut the interviews down. I didn’t write narration to go in between. For the top of the show, my introduction, I would have bullet points and ad-lib it over and over again. I’d do it on my bed, recording over and over again to get it right.
MUTHA: Listeners follow you working through your traumatic childbirth experience over the first years’ episodes. This culminates in the episode “Rewriting Your Birth Story” where you interview your midwife and Ina May Gaskin. Do you feel like you’ve come out on the other side? Has your midwife responded to the episode?
HILLARY FRANK: I sent her the link, but I haven’t heard from her. I feel like I didn’t villain-ize her. I had questions about why things were done the way they were. Did they have to be done that way? Were there other options?
Any trauma stays with you and becomes part of you. My birth experience used to be the only thing I thought about all day long. Now, I’ve made a job that is based on this thing that happened to me. I do think I’ve come out on the other side, now, where I think about it sometimes, but I believe in a healthy way. I’ve mastered how I feel about it. But it haunts me still.
MUTHA: I find that having had a traumatic early parenting experience can keep us focused on the first years. I had different difficulties, but I feel locked in them, they still feel so present. I find myself with this cliché feeling, where I don’t want Lola to grow up, and I wonder if it’s about letting go of those experiences. Does it affect how you see Sasha as a child?
HILLARY FRANK: Parenthood is a constant exercise of realizing that at times you could have done things differently, but that you were doing the best you could given the resources you had.
Sasha and I experienced a trauma together. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that a baby is another person. When you go through trauma with, say, a war buddy, it’s understood that it bonds you. What I’m hoping is that as Sasha gets older, we have this experience that we went through together, and maybe it’s shaped her and makes us closer.
MUTHA: Ina May Gaskin is a figure that many of us revere and want to emulate. But the pressures that her movement has put on to those who want a natural birth can create a love/hate relationship. One of our most popular birth stories on MUTHA is S. Lynn Aldermann’s “Ugliest, Beautiful Moment (Or, Fuck Ina May).”
And we also have a fantastic interview that Michelle Tea did with the documentary filmmakers of Gaskin, on Birth Story the movie.
HILLARY FRANK: On the spot in her Longest Shortest Time interview, Ina May suggested that she would consider revising her books, and invited me to put a call out to listeners. We got between two and three hundred comments.
I think it’s a sign of the success of a story that you get both extremes thinking you said something a certain way. The extreme natural birthers were defending her, saying “ I can’t believe you would blame what happened to you on Gaskin”—which is not how I feel I presented the story. People feel that she is their hero.
MUTHA: I think she is heroic. But, to me, the issue for advocates is that you determine an acceptable level of loss in pursuit of the larger point. For those fighting against the hospitalization of birth, there seems to be that acceptable level of loss: some mothers’ guilt about ending up in the hospital. But, I find that I’m surrounded by mothers, who are felled by that guilt, and it doesn’t feel acceptable.
HILLARY FRANK: There was a doula who told me that I should take responsibility for the trauma that happened to me in childbirth—that because I chose a hospital I should blame myself.
I didn’t respond to all the comments, but I did respond to her. It was not what I expected to hear from a doula, and it hurt me. She apologized.
People have also thanked me for doing this story with Gaskin, because they felt like no one had listened to them. It’s a hard thing to say in public in certain circles: ‘I support unmedicated childbirth and I wanted that, but I feel like the message that they’re portraying, of what mothers should expect, is kind of a lie.’
MUTHA: These issues are caught up in a larger system and the way people feel their choices are limited. I had a high-risk birth, and I had been “marked” as high-risk early on. So I had a hospital birth. NYC is a difficult place to give birth. Where I live in Brooklyn, it’s a hot-bed of progressive, natural parenting. But something about the dynamic of the city funnels so many women through a medicalized birth experience.
I don’t know if I could have hitch-hiked to The Farm. I still don’t know! Early on I was reading Ina May Gaskin. Then, I had to get more tests, more monitoring, and I took a blood-thinner, to prevent late miscarriage and stillbirth in women with my clotting factor. Ina May in her books would just have a paragraph referring to whatever was happening, ending with: ‘refuse it’. And on the other side, you have an OBGYN telling you your child will die–that you will potentially miscarry at 36 weeks. I found it impossible to navigate.
HILLARY FRANK: That’s true of all parenting issues. It’s presented in the media as black and white, you are either this type of parent or that type of parent. And I think most of us are somewhere in the middle.
MUTHA: But there’s a sense that childbirth it is out of your control. What is appealing—and true—about Gaskin’s movement is that she puts it back in the control of women. But there isn’t a support system set up. We’ve had some beautiful, inspiring stories of homebirth on MUTHA. But early on, homebirth advocates will usually offer a disclaimer “if my birth was high-risk, I wouldn’t have made this choice.” So where does that leave those of us who are?
HILLARY FRANK: Then the question becomes: how can we make women feel more supported in the hospital environment, and not feel like a victim. How can mothers avoid feeling like something’s being done to them, rather than, “this is going to be medically necessary” but we are here to support you.
MUTHA: There’s something quietly radical about the show, in that you take on these topics but market to a more mainstream, general NPR audience.
HILLARY FRANK: I wouldn’t classify it that way. When I hear “general NPR audience” I think of more upper-class, White. Though, that will vary around the country. I think we have a lot of listeners in the middle of the country. We have international listeners. We have lots of church-going folks who like the show. I can see the faces of those who join our facebook group and it’s a diverse crew. I’m trying to appeal to an audience that’s as diverse as the stories I’m putting out there.
MUTHA: Why did you choose to focus on struggles in early parenting? Do you think the show is going to grow up now, with your daughter?
HILLARY FRANK: When I started it, I thought, “this will be about the first three months,” and then the first six months, and then it was the first year…. Then, a mother wrote to me about her daughter who went naked all the time [who had a sensory processing disorder]. Her child was 18 months old. So I decided, “well, it will be about the first two years.” Now, as I’ve joined WNYC, I set it as the first three years. And we’re having conversations about whether it should expand.
Parenting media is an oversaturated market. We don’t totally avoid the cute stuff. But what is missing is a real conversation about the struggles. I think of LONGEST SHORTEST TIME as a public service for those who don’t feel like there’s media out there for them when they feel vulnerable as parents.
The show is so much more than a show—we’re creating a community of listeners who are becoming friends. A non-judgmental culture exists here. We all can’t help but judge sometimes. But you can change the way you react to those thoughts, and then we can learn more from each other in this time when we’re really vulnerable. I’d love to see this ethos spread to other parenting media.
MUTHA: Recently, you looked back and addressed your own more judgmental response to an interviewee in an early episode, which was about sleep-training. It reminded me of the early days when I was so in it, I did react more strongly to other mothers. Then you realize that different choices typically end up in the same place—great kids. Why do you think we are we so much more judgmental early on in parenting? What has it meant to you to listen back and hear your own transitions?
HILLARY: It’s high-stakes to bring a new person into the world. We want to do it right, and sometimes we’re correcting for things that happened in our own childhood.
Every child has different needs. But again, the media presents choices as black and white. You see a parent doing something a different way. You think: “I read an article! I’m doing it right! But what if they’re doing it right? Am I doing right by my kid?” Because if they’re doing it right, then you’re doing it wrong.
I don’t know the answer. You’re grasping at straws, you’re not getting any sleep, you want your kid to sleep. One camp is telling me my kid will be messed up if I let them cry. The other camp is telling me that they will be messed up if you don’t let them cry. So what do you do?
In retrospect, I see that I approached it one way and my friends did it differently, and all of our kids are fine. Maybe it affected them differently, but the techniques didn’t ultimately matter.
MUTHA: It’s also subtle, what could set off someone’s sense of being judged. You brought up in a recent episode that you have your own trigger questions, like “are you having another child?” Which is one of my own, though I feel worse for the person who asks me, because then they’re treated to a long monologue about my marital disputes on this topic.
The world, older ladies of the supermarkets in particular, really wants us to have more babies. When you spoke about it on the show, I felt you holding in anger. But, don’t you expose yourself to questions by putting your life on the podcast?
HILLARY: Well, you noticed in the episode that I said it was a trigger question for me, but then I didn’t talk about why. I think if you listen to the show, you can probably guess the reasons—and I have many reasons. But, I try to protect myself, and I try to protect my daughter.
We don’t know how the internet is going to be used in the future. We’re putting up pictures and stories of our kids and someday they’ll be able to both access those records and information about us. I don’t want to say things that could embarrass her. And, it’s weird to say, being the host of a podcast that’s so personal, but I am a private person. I edit myself, I say what I want to say and I keep private what I want to keep private.
MUTHA: But, you want the people you’re interviewing to open up.
HILLARY: I do. They have more anonymity. And, I tell them that what they say will end up on the podcast, and they can keep things off the record.
MUTHA: Do you think in radio/audio? You are also a writer.
HILLARY: I think in stories. And whatever media makes the most sense for a particular story is the one I choose. Recently, it’s been radio. Before, I wrote young adult novels.
After I had Sasha, writing a novel seemed impossible. Creating and raising a person didn’t leave me the energy. It was like I used the same part of my brain to raise a child as I did to write a book. But, interviewing other people about their own stories started taking up a totally different part of my brain. Now, this is occupying me fully.