catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 7 :: 2011.04.08 — 2011.04.21


The longest shortest time

When my daughter Adelle was a newborn, I spent hours — days, even — in a pale green rocking chair. As I creaked back and forth, cradling this little stranger, I listened to a mix of songs we had made for her arrival. It looped endlessly as I rocked and nursed endlessly — and, in those early days, cried endlessly.

One song in particular never failed to bring the tears. It was “Burt and Elvis” by Sarah Masen, from her 2007 EP Women’s Work is Alchemy. The stanza that got me going was this one:

The bathroom is a temple for existential mothers
Crying when no words will come
Yeah, floors across the big world,
they are knelt upon by grown girls
wondering if they’ve done enough.

I cried because I recognized myself in these lyrics. For one thing, I spent a lot of time crouched in my bathroom temple, taking a sitz bath, healing from the thirty-three hours it took to bring Adelle into this world. As I sat there, I obsessed about her weight gain, the insufficiency of my milk supply, the toe-curling pain of breastfeeding and my obvious inability to parent this tiny being who needed me so much. I loved my child desperately. I literally poured myself out for her a dozen times a day, even when my body rebelled. But I was also convinced I was a terrible mother. I fantasized about running away so my husband could find someone better suited to the task. Once, I held Adelle out, both of us wailing, and begged Nathan to take the baby from me. “I don’t want her after all,” I wept. “Tell God to take her back.”

This was my longest shortest time.

I learned this term — the longest shortest time — from Hillary Frank, almost a year after Adelle and I exited the dark days of early motherhood. I wish I had heard it much sooner, but I’m thankful that other new parents have access to the wisdom Hillary catalogues with her website and podcast, both called The Longest Shortest Time.

Hillary is a writer and radio producer. She’s the author of three novels for young adults, and you’ve heard her stories on public radio shows like This American Life and the late great Weekend America. Thirteen months ago, in February of 2010, during a record-breaking Philadelphia blizzard, Hillary also became a mom.

If my early days of motherhood sound dramatic, Hillary’s were truly and deeply hellish. She tells the full story on her website, but the basic fact is that, following a difficult labor and two episiotomies, she couldn’t walk for the first several months of her daughter Sasha’s life. Two episiotomies. Couldn’t walk. She couldn’t eat sitting up, or nurse sitting up, or change Sasha’s diaper. She had to camp out in her dark living room because the only bathroom in her house was on the first floor. She was in physical pain no matter how much medication she took, but she was also emotionally stuck. She fixated on one “what if” moment from her labor, wondering if accepting a massage from the midwife instead of an epidural would have changed everything — and would have made her a better mother.

Hillary’s friend Kirsten, the mother of a five-year-old, shared a game-changing word of wisdom that finally broke the cycle. “She kept telling me, the thing about this time is that it’s the longest shortest time,” Hillary told me during a Skype conversation. “It feels like it’s never going to end, and then once it does, it feels like the shortest time ever because your kid keeps growing and becoming more fun, and it’s just going to seem like a bad dream. It was the most helpful piece of advice that I got.”

That reassurance came back to Hillary later as she began to cast about for a new project that she could work on while caring for Sasha. When she considered what she had needed as a new mother, the answer seemed obvious: companionship. Commiseration. Audible reassurance, like Kirsten’s. “I think if I could’ve just heard somebody’s voice in my ears, telling me that they’d gone through the same thing or had similar emotions to me, I would’ve felt less despairing,” Hillary said. “When I needed a boost in the middle of the night, when I was just like, oh my God, this baby hasn’t slept for three days and I hurt so much and I can’t get her to nurse — it would’ve been amazing to be able to press play and hear someone else say, I’ve gone through that and it gets better.”

That’s how the Longest Shortest Time website and podcast were born, as “a bedside companion for new moms who want to hear…that they are not alone.” Hillary decided to interview individual parents who experienced something surprising in their own early — and sometimes dark — days with their children. So far, Hillary’s talked with (among others) a music teacher whose newborn son screamed through lullabies, a lifelong vegetarian who started eating meat to ease her baby’s allergies — and, most recently, her own mother, who unexpectedly broke down during the interview. It turned out that, decades later, Hillary’s mom still felt guilty and inadequate because she couldn’t nurse Hillary.

“So many [moms] have these moments where they’re like, I failed because of this,” Hillary said. “That’s the big reason why I want to do [The Longest Shortest Time]. I want to reach out to other people — and maybe I want to reach out to my own early motherhood self and be like, It’s okay, you’re not a failure, you’re working so hard and doing everything you can do, and everything’s going to be okay.”

Just the other day, that Sarah Masen song came on as I was driving home from playgroup. The conversation with Hillary fresh in my mind, I suddenly realized exactly why I’d connected with those lyrics. It was all those words ending in “s.” Mothers. Floors. Girls. Those plural nouns meant that I wasn’t the only one who cried in my bathroom, wondering how I could ever do enough, be enough. I wasn’t the only existential mother out there. There were lots of us, and that made me feel deeply known.

Under the influence of the powerful cocktail of postpartum hormones and sleep deprivation and physical pain and good old-fashioned self-doubt, a new mother can feel like a freak. But hearing another person speak the truth of their experience — whether in a song or in a podcast — mitigates that. “[Telling these stories] just makes you feel less alone, right? That’s what all good literature and storytelling is about, being able to relate and empathize with other people,” Hillary told me. “And I think especially when you’ve just had a baby and you’re so physically isolated on top of emotionally isolated, it makes you feel connected.”

That connection is my own big takeaway from the last year of my life. Motherhood, I discovered, can eat you alive, can make you a resentful and self-involved person. Or it can become a ministry of mercy. You receive this mercy, unexpectedly, and then you are equipped to extend it to someone else. You can send e-mails to friends who reach out for support or encouragement about childbirth or napping or breastfeeding. You can rock and shush and bounce the babies of strangers, women who just need a few minutes to pee or eat or zone out, who need someone to help them bear the heavy load of caring for a person new to this planet. You can bring meals. You can babysit. You can make mix CDs with Sarah’s song. You can link desperate new parents to Hillary’s website. You can tell a mom who’s apologizing for breaking down, “It’s okay. We all do this. It will get better, I promise,” and you can mean it, standing there as living proof. You can do these things because, during your own longest shortest time, they were done unto you.

Do you have a surprising story from the first two years of your child’s life? Hillary is still looking for moms and dads to interview for the podcast. Contact her through the Longest Shortest Time website.

Kate Bowman-Johnston is on maternity leave from her position as a children’s librarian with the Free Library of Philadelphia until May. She has accepted the fact that she is now “that mom” who blogs her child’s highly mundane adventures at

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