In March 2005, Heather Armstrong, a prolific writer whose astonishing cultural impact was routinely flattened by the infantilizing, dismissive term “mommy blogger,” wrote this about the shock of new motherhood, the singular feeling of “on-ness.”
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this is that I don’t know how much longer this will continue. I can honestly say that I don’t expect to sleep in a full four-hour stretch for at least another couple months, and by that time I may be such a lunatic that I will be crouched in a corner, drooling, scratching sores that don’t exist, mumbling to myself What was wrong with our previous life that we felt the need to change it in this way?
In August 2012, I sobbed to my mother as my newborn peacefully rocked back and forth, swaddled within an inch of his life, in a contraption we called “the spaceship.” My mother told me to go to sleep, that she’d watch the baby. I wanted to sleep so badly. I needed sleep so badly. Except I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid of my insomnia, which I thought had worsened my postpartum depression that I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with, because I knew how humans could sleep. You can find out more about it here. sleep. What could happen to an individual who doesn’t sleep? couldn’t sleep? I was rigid when the baby slept. I worried about his breath, worried about when he could wake up and calculated which boob should be nursed first. Not only was I certain that I’d never be able sleep again, I also knew that I wouldn’t feel myself again. In my darkest moments I thought I’d made a grave, unconscionable mistake by becoming a mom.
In August 2012, I didn’t know Heather Armstrong existed. As the first in my friend group to have children, I didn’t know that someone who wasn’t me had experienced the terror of Not knowing As a mother. I didn’t know about Armstrong’s struggles with postpartum depression, or that she eventually found treatment that helped. I didn’t know so many things in August 2012, but as someone who has been thinking about the impact of mothers sharing their stories online for several years, I know without a shadow of a doubt that Armstrong’s writing would’ve provided immense comfort, validation, and revelation back when I was lost to myself as a newborn mother.
Heather Armstrong died at 47 on Wednesday. She was reportedly a suicide. In 2001, Heather Armstrong, then a 25-year old ex-Mormon woman, began writing about her experiences. By the late 2000s, she had achieved both financial and community success with her disarmingly candid prose and her ability to open up much-needed discussions about the less-rosy side of motherhood. Lisa Belkin wrote an article for the New York Times about Armstrong’s financial peak. She earned between $30,000 and $50,000 per month. And as Rebecca Woolf, a writer who started her own blog, Girl’s Gone Child, in 2005, told me over a phone call, Armstrong was instrumental in helping to form a “community of women who built the whole fucking house.” This “house,” of course, ultimately turned into the multibillion-dollar momfluencer industry of today, which impacts how mothers shop, how mothers vote, and how mothers see themselves.
The Obsession with the Look at the pictures below. The idea of motherhood has always kept us from exploring the lives of others. mother.
After my own postpartum depressive episode, Zoloft therapy, time and community with other moms helped me to recover. When I had my second child, I didn’t experience a complete crisis of identity (or a recurrence of PPD), but I continued to search for a better way to inhabit motherhood, to retain my subjectivity in the midst of diapers, mind-numbingly boring Music Together classes, and Cheerios crumbs ground into the crevices of car seats.
In my research, I found blogs (and then Instagram posts after Instagram posts) that featured perfectly lit freckled babies cheeks, perfectly wrapped baby wraps, a perfectly serene mom, and so on. My fascination for these picture-perfect mothers led me to a book about the disconnect between the idealized motherhood of our culture and the realities of mothering. Now, in 2023, momfluencer culture is dominated by the mothers who can best adhere to our culture’s requirements for Ideal Motherhood. Despite the many momfluencers who have created both financial and cultural capital through countering the dominant narrative of today’s “angel of the house,” the majority of financially successful momfluencers are still white, cis-het, thin, attractive according to Western beauty standards, and have shared at least one expensive kitchen remodel with their thousands or millions of followers. They earn both followers and money through their ability to inhabit an imagistic ideal rooted in domesticity and femininity. Yes, they sometimes share their #momfails in self-disparaging Instagram stories, but their central narrative is one of relentlessly upward momentum. We flock to them for their 20-percent-off codes, their affiliate links leading us toward nap dresses, and their uncanny ability to perform something that looks authentic, but that isn’t and never has been real. Our obsession with the look of motherhood has always distracted us from being curious about the lives of those who mother.
But Heather Armstrong’s writing was nothing if not real; her writing made readers forget about the looming specter of Ideal Motherhood, and instead invited them to examine the gorgeous, thorny complexity of being human. To read Armstrong’s work is to immediately disabuse oneself of the idea that motherhood destroys the wilderness of a person’s inner life. Lyz Lenz, the author of Belabored and the newsletter Men Yell At Me, credits Armstrong for modeling the life of a writer—who also happened to be a woman and a mother. “I was just a mom in Iowa,” Lenz emailed me. “But Heather showed me that could be an asset rather than a drawback. [Her] writing was peerless … It was deeply personal, riotously vulgar, skin-peelingly honest. I didn’t know of anyone who wrote like that at the time—man or woman.”
Jaime Green, the author of The Possibility of Life, started reading Dooce in the early aughts, despite not being a mother herself at the time. “Dooce felt so honest and real,” Green told me via email. “Like someone I could be friends with, or might want to grow up to be like.” Instagram user Xan DM’d me to say, “This is THE parasocial relationship of my lifetime. There is no blogger or influencer out there who was or will ever be a must-read the way Heather was for me when I discovered her in 2004.” Sherisa de Groot, founder of Raising Mothers and A Home Within Myself, said that Armstrong and her peers “allowed us as younger writers, as voyeurs, as champions in their corner, to see the possibility and validity in sharing our lives in whatever ways we saw fit,” adding that “the impact that these women made on the internet, on real-time memoir writing, on publishing, is astounding.”
“The content now could be placed in any shiny print publication. Back then? It looked like a snapshot from a family album.”
Belkin credits Armstrong as being the “first influencer,” and being the first of anything often comes at a price. Armstrong was one of the first writers to forge a vibrant online community through her writing, and one of the first to monetize it; but she was also one of the first to publicly screw up online, getting fired from her day job for her unabashed directness, and being frequently lambasted by readers and writers on GOMI—or “Get Off My Internets,” a site devoted to snark and often cruelty—who felt “duped,” for example, when she and her husband Jon divorced. In a recent New York Times piece, Alex Williams wrote that the “breakup of her marriage outraged many Dooce loyalists,” a sentence I can’t fathom being written about a male writer who confined his work to the printed page rather than the internet. I also can’t imagine such a male writer’s genre being called a “personal blog craze,” his readership being described as “cultishly devoted,” or that male writer’s home being reduced to “function[ing] as a fishbowl.”
Lenz points to the inherent misogyny of demanding the impossibility of everything from women writers. “Audiences believe we are entitled to every aspect of a woman’s life and story. We cannibalize women and reject them when we choke on the bones. … I think Heather gave us everything, but at what cost?”
Armstrong struggled with mental illness throughout much of her life, and Woolf says readers could sometimes be “vicious” in their demands that Armstrong be the kind of “authentic” they wanted her to be: “If I was struggling with my mental health when I was writing on the internet, I have no idea what that would have done to me.” Later in her life, Armstrong’s posts were sometimes erratic, and Dooce reader Liz Brink DM’d me about the force of her own parasocial relationship to Armstrong, which made her want to “reach out and intervene” after reading recent troubling anti-trans posts that warned moms against supporting gender fluidity in children and urged resistance to the use of ADHD medications. “My mom friends and I were all so worried about her,” Brink wrote. “A lot of us feel like we … failed [to help her]?”
When Armstrong started writing, she did not aspire to be a “mommy blogger,” simply because neither the term nor the career existed at the time. Danielle Wiley, founder and CEO of Sway Group, started her blog, Foodmomiac, in 2005, and told me that the first wave of mothers writing online couldn’t conceive of monetizing their maternal identities: “We didn’t start blogging to make money. That truly wasn’t a thing!” Wiley, reflecting on how the landscape has shifted from blogs offering gritty, funny, unfiltered personal essays to a marketing juggernaut banking on our culture’s obsession with the myth of the Perfect Mom, told me, “The content now could be placed in any shiny print publication. Back then? It looked like a snapshot from a family album.”
And while some contemporary momfluencers have created flourishing online communities, back in the early aughts, multiple people told me, community and creative expression were the entire point. Wiley says her blogging community was “so precious and special,” and she “can’t imagine what those early days would have been like without it.” Dooce reader Lela Moore told me via DM: “If it weren’t for Heather Armstrong, I don’t know if I would have believed as much in internet communities, particularly those forged and supported by women. Or that people would read about parenting struggles and that it would become acceptable to acknowledge that it’s a fucking hard job, along with the other hard jobs of being human and doing the work that sustains you.” Woolf, who finds the term mommy blogger “so degrading,” emphasized that she, Armstrong, and others formed an artistic, revolutionary collective. “It was like punk rock. It was like zines. We were making our own stuff and saying things no one else was saying and hyping each other up.”
Prior to the advent of Instagram and Pinterest, two famously image-focused apps, monetization was fairly straightforward for writers. Brands would pay them to host banner ads (created entirely by the brands) on their sites, or would sponsor a post. But unlike the momfluencers of today, who are often responsible for conceptualizing, writing, editing, appearing in, and filming sponsored content that could easily be viewed on prime-time TV, Woolf emphasizes that back then, writers “had the power.” In a post sponsored by Target, for example, Woolf could write “whatever she wanted” as long as she included a line indicating that the post was sponsored by Target. This enabled writers to maintain their unique voices, because their unique voices were responsible for their huge audiences, which were, of course, what brands wanted access to.
And it was Armstrong’s inimitable voice that was emphasized again and again in the many DMs, emails, and phone calls I received while writing this piece. As Lenz notes, Armstrong’s dedication to drilling into the heart of a matter made her “words glint off the page golden.” Armstrong’s voice created profound ripples in the lives of so many, and gave women and mothers permission to find their own voices, their own lives, worthy of serious inquiry.
In a post from 2004 titled “You be well for me,” Armstrong wrote this:
If you know someone who is depressed, please understand that they are in pain, and please help them get help. Most importantly, listen to music a little louder, dance a little crazier, sing out loud in the shower, honk your horn for no reason, give your dog an extra treat, call your mother and tell her you love her, hug your friends even if they aren’t the touchy-feely type, eat french fries once even though your diet tells you not to, walk around your house naked, and hold tight to your motherfucking family.
Leave a Reply