August 25, 2022


Long Days, Short Years: A Cultural History of Modern Parenting. By Andrew Bomback. MIT Press. $22.95.

     Being a doctor (specifically a nephrologist), Andrew Bomback decided to write a book called Doctor, a title word that can be both a noun and a verb. Being a parent, he decided to follow it up with a book that could have been called Parent, which would also have been a noun-and-verb single-word title; but instead, as he explains at some length if not very convincingly, he chose to call the book Long Days, Short Years, in deference to the oft-stated phrase regarding child-rearing, “The days are long, but the years are short.”

     The bit of flailing around regarding the book’s title is emblematic (perhaps, doctor, we should say symptomatic) of Bomback’s feeling of flailing around as a parent – but interestingly, that is a positive aspect of the book, not a negative. There is something refreshing about a “parenting” author who admits to being imperfect, knows he does not have all the answers, and is not entirely sure what all the questions are. The result is that Long Days, Short Years is plainspoken and straightforward in expression in a thoroughly non-didactic way that readers are sure to appreciate.

     The book does, though, have some rather questionable notions, largely when trying hard (a bit too hard) to fulfill the promise of the second half of its title by delivering A Cultural History of Modern Parenting. For instance, Bomback at one point says that parents in the 1970s and 1980s “seem, from today’s vantage point, irrationally obsessed with a fear of kidnapping” – a valid observation – but then goes on to suggest that the fear “may reflect a more deep-seated worry about whether the entry of women into the workforce was a form of child abandonment.” Where did that come from? Bomback is clearly no psychoanalyst: tossing out notions like this without explaining them or backing them up is not the strongest way to get readers to pay attention to what Bomback is trying to tell them.

     Well, what is he trying to say? “The modern version of parenting portrayed in contemporary popular culture is vastly different for moms than for dads.” Well, ok, but therefore what? Haven’t gender roles always been presented differently in popular culture? Ah, but not differently the way they are currently different – this seems to be part of Bomback’s point. He establishes his solid socially liberal bona fides by writing about “gender dynamics” and saying that “parenting remains arguably the most gender-normative component of modern adulthood,” but then, again, what? Well, maybe parenting is not best accomplished by parents, or at least by parents on their own: “The twentieth century ushered in not only an era of parents looking for professional advice but also an era that crowned a new breed of authorities.” OK – and so?

     A lot of the “so what?” and “and so?” elements of Long Days, Short Years have to do with Bomback’s experiences with his own children. His wife, also a physician, asks one of the book’s key questions: “Why does every kid in America need a diagnosis?” Like many “why” questions here, this one is never satisfactorily answered – but the how of diagnosis and the what regarding handling the diagnosed condition do get explored. Son Mateo’s “sensory integration disorder” – one of the trendy behavioral-conditions-of-the-moment – is discussed in some detail, for example, along with the way it is managed through an outfit called TheraPlay. But the specifics here are of less import than a question Bomback poses regarding other parents and, by extension, himself and Xenia: “Are the moms and dads ‘parenting’ so ineffectively and counterproductively because their children are difficult, or are the children difficult because their parents are failing at their basic duties?” The question would be more useful to readers if Bomback would forthrightly state what those “basic duties” are (or should be) – but the underlying question of this book, one that is never asked, is: for whom is it written and in what way, if any, is it supposed to be useful?

     The answer seems to be that different parts of the book are likely to be of interest, and perhaps of use, to different parents. Bomback enjoys trotting out the names and basic prescriptions of various parenting tomes, likes to talk about different parenting approaches and fads (from helicoptering to free-range parenting), and generally seems to take a scattershot approach to the whole matter of having children and being involved in raising them. He clearly takes pride in his own ability to absorb the jargon-of-the-day and do something with it, commenting at one point that “I was showing off some of the verbiage I’d learned from all the parenting books I’d read over the last few months.” And he certainly makes the point that parenting can be, and often is, utterly exhausting. But that is scarcely news; and in fact, not much in Long Days, Short Years is news – and in time (and not much time at that), the fads through which Bomback wades will be replaced by other fads that will be equally useful or useless, depending on whom you ask and how you personally feel about kids and families in general. Long Days, Short Years is a descriptive rather than prescriptive book, one whose “cultural history” elements are on the shallow side but whose personal-experience material often connects with readers. “The struggles of modern parenting are a reflection more of the adults than of the kids,” Bomback writes near the book’s end. That is a “well, duh” moment – one of quite a few in the book. Little here is revelatory, but at least the book conveys the experiential sense of shared madness that so often defines parenthood or parenting or, to put it simply, raising kids.

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