Heather Armstrong started her blog, Dooce, for writing about her co-workers with names like “That One Co-worker Who Manages to Say Something Stupid Every Time He Opens His Mouth.” She also drew the ire of her family when she wrote candidly about her break with the Mormon faith and their Rush Limbaugh brand of conservatism. “I honestly just thought no one would ever read it,” she said last week, 14 years and 8,300 posts later.
When she began blogging, Armstrong was a 25-year-old ex-Mormon living in L.A. By 2004, when she began working full-time on the site, she was married and pregnant, and had returned to Utah, where she became one of the first mommy bloggers. It’s a term she loathes, but still uses (sardonically), as in her Twitter bio, which reads, “I exploit my children for millions and millions of dollars on my mommyblog.” By 2011, when the New York Times called her “The Queen of the Mommy Bloggers,” Armstrong, her husband, and an assistant were working full-time on the site, which generated 100,000 daily readers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue.
“That story came out at a really weird time,” Armstrong told me when we chatted over the phone last week, her comments peppered with curse words and the occasional laugh. “My marriage was falling apart, but I obviously wasn’t going to write about that. People think they know everything about you when you write about yourself online, but at the time, there was a lot I couldn’t share.” The piece ended, rather presciently, with a quote from her then-husband Jon about how much she discloses: “She has the ability to take a single episode and turn it into an epic, and then, if you go word by word and ask, ‘What did she reveal?’ it’s really not very much.”
Within a year, they announced their separation on the blog, which generated widespread media coverage. Posting the information publicly made sense — over the years she’d blogged about moving in with her boyfriend, marrying him, and having two kids together.
Armstrong has never been one to shy away from writing honestly about her struggles and readers love her self-effacing, candid tone. When she spent a few days in a psych ward with postpartum depression after the birth of her first daughter, her husband came to visit her and was handed a sheaf of handwritten pages, which she asked him to type and post for her. She’s written about depression, anxiety, and the challenges of parenting, but things got difficult when she and her then-husband separated. “Post-partum depression has one major perspective, mine, but divorce has many, many sides and it doesn’t feel fair to write about that.”
Still, many of her readers, who’d been following her stories for years, were irate when she wouldn’t write about the split, her new boyfriend (“I have no desire to write about another relationship. Because I can’t give you the full picture"), or raising her kids mostly alone after her ex relocated to Brooklyn. While she says she’s loved writing about her life for all these years, she’s now ready to move on. “I realized that on a day to day basis, writing Dooce was causing more pain than joy and I knew I needed to stop,” she said. “The blogging world has gotten rather toxic and I just feel really drained.”
She told the Cut about what her readers never knew, the difficult decisions that go into writing about children, and what she’ll do next.
Was it difficult to write “Upward and Ahead,” the post where you confessed your mixed feelings about writing Dooce and announced that you’d be largely moving on? How long had that been in the works?
The feeling had been simmering for over a year, but I knew that I had a very solid contract with my ad network and nothing could happen before that came to an end. Initially, I didn’t know if I was going to say anything. I thought, I’ll just slowly stop and no one will notice. [Laughs.] I knew people would wonder and I felt like I owed it to my audience to be upfront.
You’ve been blogging regularly at Dooce since 2001, and posting daily for years. In the post you say that living online has become something of a health hazard. What do you mean?
The publishing schedule is just so extreme now. There’s an expectation that you’ll post at least once a day. It’s not like I’m photographing myself in what I’m wearing that morning, I’m writing stories, and the creative output of that is almost impossible to maintain with the attention span of today’s readers.
Also, something of a contentious relationship can develop between bloggers and our readers. We’ve invited readers into our lives. But, it’s always been the case that we’re not showing them everything and when that becomes clearer at certain times, they get angry. A lot of readers wanted to know every single detail of my divorce and when I refused to satisfy that desire they got really angry. Just because I’ve made a living telling stories about myself, doesn’t mean I owe you my life.
Have you ever dealt with fans who’ve become overly invested?
Oh, yeah. Most recently, when I published “Upward and Ahead,” I got this email from a woman who said, “This is the hugest betrayal, we’ve invested our time in you when we could have been following other bloggers, you owe it to us to continue,” and then added, “How dare you take your children away from us!” I just sat there with my mouth open. I’d like to point out that that’s not an isolated instance. I want to say I understand, I mean I got really mad when Breaking Bad ended, I was like, “Fuck you guys for taking this out of my life,” but at the end of the day of course I realize that Breaking Bad is not mine.
In 2011 you were called the “Queen of the Mommy Blogs” in a New York Times Magazine cover story. How do you feel about the term?
I find the term extraordinarily dismissive. The problem is that it stuck, so I’ve embraced it. We pioneered an industry. Thousands of women were making really good salaries for years in writing about what is happening inside their homes with their kids. I love it when people ask, “What’s the point of a mommy blog?” This is how we connect, communicate, heal.
The internet saved my life. Hands down. The only way I got through my postpartum depression was by writing about it and talking with other women who’d gone through the same thing.
If we consider you an OG mommy blogger, how would you say things are different now from when you started?
Now, a lot of mommy blogs are about documenting instead of storytelling. It’s a photo essay of their kid sitting on the countertop in perfectly clean clothes licking the cake spoon. It’s so curated. In beginning, it was all mess. People were craving honest stories about parenting. I think people are craving that again now, but bloggers are afraid to be that honest. Since blogging is so flush with money, the immediate thought is, is there going to be money in that? How do you monetize a mess?
How do you think about your children’s privacy when you’re regularly writing about them online?
Especially as they’ve gotten older, I’ve been much more careful. The story of a child from zero to 3 is pretty universal — kicking, screaming, pooping, not pooping. As they develop their own little quirks and personalities, I’ve worked hard to protect them. People think I reveal 95 percent of my life when it’s really only around 5 percent. My older daughter is 11, and now I won’t write anything about her on Dooce without her reading it first. They’re both completely aware of what I do. Their friends read Dooce, their teachers read Dooce, our neighbors read Dooce.
Is that ever a challenge for them?
No, because I’ve been really careful about what I include and don’t include.
What about for you? At one point, regarding not disclosing details around your divorce you wrote, “Business-wise this may be a bad decision on my part, withholding these details. Because your desire to know all the ins and outs has left you little patience for me.” Is it difficult for your business to be wrapped up in writing about your personal experiences?
It can be really hard. My divorce was a real wake-up call in terms of that. Before the separation, we were really struggling and I was thinking, I need to do this, but of course I won’t be able to write about it. Readers are going to revolt and take sides. I can’t possibly get divorced. I knew I had to for my health, but there I was, weighing the business aspects of a huge life decision.
I realized that I was going to get divorced and that many people were not going to allow me my humanity. There were all sorts of crazy rumors flying around online, there are thousand-page-long forums devoted to picking me apart, and people writing their own blog posts about whose side they’re on. That was really hard, especially when I was in such a bad place myself.
My philosophy now is if I want them to allow me to be a human, I have to offer the same generosity. If it makes these people feel better to sit down and say something really nasty about my divorce, that’s sad. Clearly, they’re dealing with their own shit. Recognizing that doesn’t totally eliminate the pain it causes, but it releases the sting a bit.
Is it hard to create space between your job and your life when Dooce, your source of income, chronicles your life?
Definitely. I mean, for ten years I could not fully enjoy a vacation. We’d be on a big trip and everyone’s getting on the boat and then there’s one mom sitting on the dock, on her computer. That was me. But there’s a lot of joy in it. For a really long time my mind-set was, there’s so much that’s going to happen that’s going to be really fun to write about. In the past few years, as the publication schedule has ramped up, I realized there’s not a point in my day when I’m not thinking about the blog. It just got exhausting.
It seems like a lot of blog readers don’t understand how time-consuming the behind-the-scenes business is. How much of your time would you say is devoted to editorial?
In the past five or so years, I’d say I probably spend 25 percent on editorial and 75 percent on the business side. The business has been really interesting to me. Years ago, a bunch of us mommy bloggers stood up and said we have stories to tell and these audiences sprouted up. Then we went to advertisers and said, “Hire us,” or, actually, “Let us hire ourselves.” It was always really interesting to convince large brands to let me be irreverent. I mean, otherwise, my readers would just give the jerk-off motion and close the page.
How did your audience react when you switched from banner ads on the side of your blog to more-integrated sponsored content?
Starting out as someone who didn’t do any of that, it was hard for my readers to accept sponsored posts. There was a lot of complaining. Then for me, it also got to a point when I was like, I don't want to dress my kids up in Old Navy clothes. I was like, What the fuck am I doing? This is not how I want to spend my time. Mommy bloggers are going to come after me with knives for saying that. I love Old Navy, but eventually, it was like, Really, you want me to do another post?
You’ve talked about navigating their privacy online, but did you ever feel like it was ethically difficult to involve your children in sponsored posts?
Completely. I’m not going to mention the specific campaign, but the brand was an organic fit and the activity was something we normally would have done. The problem was that my children did not want to do it at all and I had a deadline. I was like, I am now going to force them into this activity they don't want to do because I need to write about it by the end of the day. This is really strange. I got on the phone with a mommy-blogger friend afterward and was like, “No more. I don't want to do that to them ever again.” What I want my website to be for them is a catalogue of tremendous stories of their childhoods, not sponsored posts I had to force them to participate in.
I’ve spoken to a number of mommy bloggers about the ethics of including their children in sponsored posts and none of them have ever been that candid, but I find it really hard to believe that it’s always 100 percent fine and positive.
There’s no way. Anyone who says that is lying to you.
What are you going to do next?
I’ve been doing a lot of consulting for brands who want to work with influencers or need help figuring out their online presence, companies that are like, [robot voice] “I don’t know how this space works.”
How does it feel to wake up and not have to write a story?
It feels amazing. It’s been two weeks and that’s the longest I’ve ever gone without posting in 14 years. Writing a blog like Dooce really nips at your heels — I was always thinking, Next post, next post, next post. Now, I’m not beholden in that same way. I don’t even know what I’ll write about next.