Thursday, August 11, 2022

Q&A with Andrew Bomback


Photo by Jim Metzger


Andrew Bomback is the author of the new book Long Days, Short Years: A Cultural History of Modern Parenting. A physician, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and McSweeney's. He is associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.


Q: What inspired you to write Long Days, Short Years?


A: I began writing this book out of frustration with my own parenting. I wasn’t doing an effective job with my own kids, and so I sought out as many helpful resources as I could find.


As I started consuming parenting books, blogs, podcasts, and seminars, I sensed that parenting today is a uniquely challenging job with pressures and anxieties that no prior generation of parents has ever experienced. I hoped that dissecting and exploring those challenges would be informative for my own parenting.


In sum, I started researching and then writing this book to learn more about why parenting was so hard for me and how I could make it easier, and in doing so I recognized how many other parents are in a similar situation.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: “The days are long but the years are short” is a saying that’s often thrown at exhausted parents, in a sense trying to guilt them into appreciating the time they have with their kids, even if that time feels incredibly painful, demoralizing, and not-what-you-signed-up-for.


I co-opted this phrase for the title of my book because, to me, it explicitly acknowledges the unique unhappiness so many parents feel today. At the same time, there’s a push-pull in the expression—it may acknowledge this unhappiness but doesn’t validate it and in some way shames it. And that shaming of parents is also a modern phenomenon.


“The days are long but the years are short” sums up so much of the anxious energy around parenting today.


Q: In the book, you discuss the increasing use over the years of “parent” as a verb. What accounted for that change?


A: The verb form of parent and hence the concept of parenting as something to do, rather than someone to be, technically arose in the late 1950s (according to Merriam-Webster), but the use of the verb form really exploded in the last three decades of the 20th century, at least in print.

As a cultural touchpoint, though, the verb form of parent feels like a distinct, 21st century word, at least how it’s used today. Moms and dads in the 2000s and 2010s inherited the vast parenting literature of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s that laid down prescriptions on how to best raise children, and the parent-as-a-verb ethos that is so prevalent today is basically a response to, “How are we supposed to deal with all of these prescriptions?”


The verb form of parent suggests that raising children is a skill or science that can be learned, practiced, and eventually mastered. And the elusive, likely impossible, pursuit of that mastery is the essential struggle of modern parenting.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Early in my book, I relay what to me was an astounding statistic: a mother today who works outside the home spends essentially the same amount of time (and a lot more money) tending her children as a stay-at-home mom did in the 1970s.


This normalization of parents devoting themselves to their children 24 hours a day, 7 days a week—at the expense of their own lives and, to some degree, their own happiness—is unique to the last half century.


I hope readers see themselves in this book and recognize that their struggles in raising children today are not theirs alone, but rather the shared product of enormous changes over the last 50 years in the expectations thrust upon moms and dads.


Some of the pushbacks against this trend of helicopter parenting that I discuss in the book, whether it’s in the form of free-range parenting or espousing a RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) approach, are still intentionally cultivated by parents, so there’s an effort and work involved even in trying to raise kids with less hovering and more independence.


Taking a longer view, going back 100 years, the work for parents has steadily increased by excluding older generations (mostly grandparents, but sometimes great grandparents) from the childrearing experience, as it’s become increasingly rare for multiple generations to live in the same house or even the same town.


This has taken a toll on parents, who not only have lost a much needed source of shared labor but also a reservoir of practical advice.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently in the beginning stages of a new book-length essay on adherence, which is a term the medical community now uses instead of compliance.


Essentially, I am trying to explore situations in which cooperation is essential and how to help individuals reach a place where they are motivated to do such cooperation. I will be exploring adherence mostly through the lens of medicine and parenting.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My book is not an advice book. I didn’t want to write a “how to” book because so many of those already exist, and also because I am not positioned to give advice to other parents.


I struggle so much on my own that I never offer suggestions to other parents unless they specifically ask me what I’m doing. In part, this is because the successes I’ve had feel so specific to my children and my household.


This is what I find so problematic with parenting advice books: their “how to” guides feel like a set of instructions for a completely different product than what I have. I am more interested in “how come” books that explore the extent and causes of problems and acknowledge that there may be no pat answers to these problems.


In the parenting sphere, for me a “how come” book is an investigation into the emergence of an immersive, all-in approach to raising children that has made parenting a competitive (and often not very enjoyable) sport. That kind of investigation guides me throughout Long Days, Short Years.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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