“Mommy blogs” are a genre of online journal that chronicle mothers’ everyday experiences through frequently updated posts displayed in reverse chronological order. Breastfeeding, cloth diapers, post-partum depression, first days of school, soccer games, family vacations, snacks, play dates, birthday parties—mommy blogs document the everyday ups and downs of mothering. Some A-list mommies have millions of readers and make a living on sponsored posts, but most of the 3.9 million mommy bloggers (Laird, 2012) write for free for a small network of on- and off-line friends and family, including fellow bloggers. By one estimate, 18.3 internet-using mothers read blogs at least once a month (Walters, 2012).
The attraction of mommy blogs for those who read and write them may come from the times in which we live. As geographical mobility disrupts networks of family and community advice and caregiving, many turn to the internet for information, support, and relief from isolation (Arnold & Martin, 2016). Mommy blogs have also taken hold amidst the “mommy wars”—a contentious cultural conversation about who should raise children (and how) when 70% of mothers are in the paid workforce (US Department of Labor, n.d.). News reports frame working or staying at home as “choices” and imply that neither “side” is doing it right; in this context, it is appealing to find an online community that offers reassurance from other mothers and relief from the impossible task of being perfect (Arnold & Martin, 2016).
Mommy blogs have always received mixed reviews. The very term “mommy blog” threatens to reduce these bloggers’ writing to one dimension and that one characterized diminuitively, even dismissively. Nonetheless, “mommy blog” has become the de facto term of reference and one that some seek to reclaim (Friedman & Calixte, 2009). Early press coverage criticized mommy bloggers for exploiting their children and for narcissistic attention to unsavory aspects of child care (e.g., Hochman, 2005). At the first BlogHer convention of women bloggers in 2005, controversy broke out in the closing session, when one attendee commented that, “if women stopped blogging about themselves they could change the world.” Mommy bloggers heard the comment as targeted at them and they took issue, arguing that mommy blogs were “radical acts” in their authentic representations of motherhood that make mothers feel less isolated (Camahort, 2006).
Feminist scholars took up the call to understand how a personal blog about women’s ordinary experience could be a radical feminist act. Implicit in criticisms of mommy blogs one can hear age-old doubts about whether women’s experiences are important, whether women’s voices belong in the public sphere, and whether women could or should be entrepreneurs (Lopez, 2009). A blogger who interacts with reader response is engaged in “a constantly evolving negotiation of her role as mother and her place in Internet parenting cultures” (Hammond, Stitt, & Powell, 2010, p. 84). By self-publishing their fragmented, imperfect stories mommy bloggers are reclaiming women’s own authority as experts on mothering, creating solidarity, and resisting the pressure to live up to impossible ideals (Lopez, 2009). Although blogs do require literacy and internet access, they enhance access to community and conversation in a variety of ways: they are accessible to women in remote geographical or non-normative social locations, they suspend concern for physical appearance, women with disabilities can engage through assistive technology, anonymous asynchronous interaction can facilitate talk about loaded topics, and women need not arrange child care to participate (Friedman, 2010).
Even those who proclaim their liberatory potential, however, recognize that mommy blogs are fragmented, diverse, and ambivalent, a “comingling of convention and subversion and the enormous possibility for change” (Goriss-Hunter, 2016, p. 153). For example, references to “momtinis” and cocktail playdates may assert independence and defy stereotypes but can also trivialize problem drinking (Garrett, 2013) and perpetuate a notion that feminism consists in coping with larger structural inequities through individual consumption (Dubriwny, 2016). Although many mothers can access the internet, the most popular mommy bloggers are still white, middle- to upper-class mothers who are married to their children’s fathers (Friedman, 2010). Yet even the star bloggers are more complex than their demography might suggest and a part of their appeal derives from their criticism of traditional expectations of motherhood and their willingness to grapple with good mom/bad mom dichotomies (Friedman, 2013; Peterson, 2015).
In the most extensive study of mommy blogs to date, Friedman (2013) concludes that a lack of uniformity is itself revolutionary. In addition to the validation and empowerment individual mothers may experience, Friedman examines how the collective narrative of motherhood that emerges from the “mamasphere” reveals mothers who are multi-dimensional, contradictory, and diverse; engaging in varying mothering practices; and making fluid connections across space and time. In contrast to a notion of “Mother” as a stable, individual identity defined according to fixed parameters, the character of “Mother” that emerges from linked, archived, unfolding posts and comments encompasses hybrid selves, constituted through the doing of relationships with children and with readers, and emerging through an open-ended hyperlinked story. Friedman concludes that “it is precisely because it is impossible to say anything generalizable about the mamasphere as a whole that it is a radical maternal space; not as a result of the activism of individual mothers, but because of the implications of all these narratives coexisting, and the endless unspooling dialogue that therefore emerges” (p. 152). This plurality gives mothers “a continuum of practices and narratives that contextualizes, challenges, and reinforces their understanding of their own mothering practices” (Orton-Johnson, 2016, p. 22).
Mommy blogs have continued to evolve and change in the decade since they rose to prominence. Many in the first generation of bloggers began writing during or shortly after their pregnancies; now, their children are old enough to read those blogs (and have teachers and peers who can read them, too), leading some to blog less frequently or with more opacity. Blogs have launched lucrative home-grown businesses and book contracts but many bloggers, including both the famous and those toiling in obscurity, say they ran out of energy for writing extended essays daily or weekly (Roberts, 2015) or felt boxed in by an online identity that no longer expressed who they were (Dawson, 2016). Mommy blogs have not been immune to broader concerns about uncivil discourse, doxing, trolling, and wearisome arguments that leave participants battered (Loe, Lumpstone, & Miller, 2016). More recently, concerns for how advertising compromises authenticity and leads mothers to exploit their own children for profit have shuttered some of the most popular and profitable blogs (Ronan, 2015). Some bloggers became uncomfortable with the shift from banner ads (which appear around the margins of a blog and don’t penetrate the content of the story) to advertisers’ preferences for sponsored content (incorporating product endorsements into stories about and photos of moms and their children; Khazan, 2013).
Likewise, after a wave of early studies documenting support, community, authentic storytelling, and radical potential, more recent studies curb this enthusiasm. The political impact of mommy blogs may be blunted by bloggers’ active work to keep their networks small and intimate (Morrison, 2011). Whereas previous forms of consciousness raising used personal reflection and sharing to stimulate explicit social critique and political action, most mommy blogs do not. Mothers may share their challenges and frustrations, but problems and solutions continue to be framed at the level of individual mothers rather than problems of social structure (Craig, 2016). Mothers achieve the “crowdsourcing of validation” that celebrates a depoliticized individual resilience and commodifies their stories for the commercial platforms who profit from views, shares, and clicks (Van Cleaf, 2015).
This commodification is the most discussed development, not only in blogs (Hatfield, 2014) and news (Ramirez, 2009), but also in recent scholarship. The trust and relationships bloggers had with their readers made them irresistible to marketers, transforming “mommy blogs” into “women-owned and operated media” and personal journals into personal brands (Borda, 2016). Competition for sponsors replaced solidarity and the types of sponsors that sought mommy endorsement were those who have traditionally targeted women with household and child care products. Consequently, posts written to sell those products replicated a homogeneous and traditional narrative of better home-making through consumption (Borda, 2016). Disgruntled former readers have criticized monetized blogs for pulling punches, carefully curating content, presenting a sanitized aspirational narrative, and using their children as props in a performance (Hunter, 2016). Although these critiques have focused on the most popular blogs, Borda suggested these trends threaten to tarnish the entire genre.
In a little over a decade, mommy blogs have garnered public scrutiny, fierce loyalty, and scholarly dissection. Some believe the Golden Age of Mommy Blogs has come and gone and some might be tempted to say “good riddance”. However, millions of moms still read and write blogs and blogs have always been diverse. For example, mommy blog readers interviewed by Orton-Johnson (2016) differentiated between blogs that uphold traditional expectations of motherhood as perfect, easy, natural and fulfilling versus “reality blogging” that told about messy mundane experiences to validate and comfort other mothers and “confessional blogging” in which sarcasm and self-deprecating humor challenge conventional representations of motherhood. In addition to the high profile, high gloss, high income bloggers that have attracted so much attention, there were and continue to be smaller networks of bloggers who narrate daily life and interact with one another about their experiences. In my own research, I am investigating how the power of blogs for personal and political transformation may be most evident in the smaller networks of lesser known voices from the margins of mommy blogging, rather than among bloggers from the mainstream center. As Friedman (2010, p. 359) observed: “Although mainstream mothers may dominate bandwidth, it is diverse mothers who may take most advantage of new forms of connectivity. Lesbian mothers, disabled mothers, trans-parents, parents of children with special needs, and myriad other diverse families are represented on the Internet.”
The explosion, evolution, and persistence of the mamasphere is worth studying for what it can tell us about how the coincidence of technological features, user practices, and social context gave rise to a distinctive social space with distinctive patterns of communication. I plan to explore how some less known, lesser studied online places may have realized the “radical” potential of mommy blogs, for authors and for the larger public. I plan to describe what those places look like and what conditions allowed something powerful to occur. And, if it does turn out that this is no longer occurring, I wish to find out what conditions contributed to the demise or transformation.
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