An Analysis of Motherhood in Three Mommy Blogs

I am studying professional communication in my Ph.D. program, and as part of these studies, I have been examining mommy blogs.  I see them as a way of professionalizing motherhood.  The women who write them have the potential to make money from home, while sharing their “expertise” about mothering.  This makes blogging a place where women can professionalize. I also see mommy blogs as sites of rebellion and community.

Today, I’m going to look more closely at the mothering techniques in three of the top ten mommy blogs.  These top ten are identified by Babble.com.  Below is an infographic outlining some of the interesting facts and statistics about these top ten blogs and about mommy blogging in general.  For my analysis, I’ve chosen the blogs Girl’s Gone Child, Dooce, and The Girl Who.

In Girl’s Gone Child, mothering is portrayed as a taming influence in a woman’s life.  The author, Rebecca Woolf, has written a memoir titled Rockabye: From Wild to Child, and on her about page, she describes her marriage as rocky after marrying quickly and young and having her first baby.  However, they “fell in love again” and had three more children.  Her blog is devoted to these children.  She frequently includes stylish and colorful pictures of these children.

Her mothering techniques are somewhat realistic.  She discusses guilt over not planning a large, fancy party for her daughter Fable’s birthday, but a few days later, she includes a post showing pictures of a successful princess party.  The children are dressed somewhat haphazardly in princess costumes, and the décor consists of a few posed princess dolls on the table.  It’s not one of those children’s parties you see on Pinterest, but instead, it looks much like a party you’d find on any street in America.  It looks fun and planned, but not perfect or catered.

However, the photos on her blog are highly artistic and perfected  (See some of them here).  They show these everyday happenings and her beautiful children, but it tends to be through a rose-colored lens of an extremely expensive camera.  Her life is real, but the depiction of it is too pretty and neat for me to see myself in her musings on motherhood.

Girl’s Gone Child does focus on realistic mothering issues.  I already mentioned guilt, but she has also recently tackled birth control, depression, menstruation, feminism, formula feeding (she has twins), and giving birth.  She doesn’t shy away from sharing these details.  Because she shares this information freely, her mothering style also tends to be open and authentic.  I find myself drawn to her posts and relating to what she says.  By the comments on her blog, I can see that the rest of her audience feels the same way.  They are quick to offer her encouragement and advice when she admits to a shortcoming or feelings of inadequacy.  However, the perfect photos are what distances me from her.  This perfection in the visual aspect of her mothering is similar to what Emily Matchar explores in her Salon.com article “Why I Can’t Stop Reading Mormon Housewife Blogs.”  She says, “Their lives are nothing like mine . . . yet I’m completely obsessed with their blogs.”  She mentions their beautiful photography, their admirable sewing projects, and their delicious cupcakes.  This type of blogging has some similarities to Girl’s Gone Child, but without the religious aspect.

The second blog I’ve been analyzing is Dooce, written by Heather Armstrong.  I find this blog fascinating because it is controversial.  I can’t tell much about who she really is as a mother, but I do get a sense of what she wants me to believe as a reader.  Motherhood is a performance on her blog.  She tends to be competitive with her children and their abilities.

Heather Armstrong, from Wikimedia Commons

A specific example is a post with a picture of her oldest daughter, who just turned eight, with a short description of who that daughter is.  The photo showed her daughter standing up tall, with her chin up confidently.  (See the photo and post here) The caption said:

“She gets herself dressed, makes her own breakfast, packs her own bag. She can write paragraphs of dialogue and read hundreds of pages a week. She shows her little sister how to dress her dolls. She’s memorized a concerto on the piano.

Somewhere, somehow in the last eight years I raised a human being.”

There are some underlying issues here.  First, there’s the bragging.  Every mother is proud of her children, but this is what prompted me to describe her mothering style as competitive and performative.  This description is an issue because it may not be entirely true.  I spend a lot of time around eight-year-olds, and I know that they don’t write paragraphs of dialogue.  As an accomplished pianist, I can also say that they do not play concertos on the piano, unless they are Asian, ha ha (see my Tiger Mother post).  Concertos are two-part pieces, and one usually plays them with an orchestra, and if not with an orchestra, then with an accompanist.  I played my first “real” concerto by  Haydn for a sixth grade competition, in which my teacher accompanied me.

This sort of competitive spirit in motherhood reflects the ideas of new momism, described by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, in their book The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women: The Mommy Myth, as “the insistence that no woman is truly complete of fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children.  The new momism is a highly romanticized an yet demanding view of motherhood in which the standards for success are impossible to meet” (p. 4).  Dooce seems to buy into this, despite the fact that I see many mommy blogs as a reaction to this.  Women are blogging in order to overcome such unrealistic expectations and to let loose online.  I think most of us are “fed up with the myth” (p. 3).

Secondly, and in perpetuating the new momism, there’s a sense of insecurity in Dooce’s mothering style, as seen in her last line.  I see this statement as a way of garnering sympathy from her audience, and perhaps, despite the confidence in her daughter, she has little confidence in herself.  She may have let the new momism get to her more deeply than she realizes.

In other posts, she has a nostalgic side.  She describes time with her children as slipping away.  She highlights her youngest daughter’s “burfly” (butterfly) shirt that is almost too small and laments the fact that there’s no younger child to hand it down to.  She also recounted her oldest daughter’s recent illness as a way of getting to spend time with and cuddle her daughter.  She sees her children as quickly slipping away and seems to relish the time she gets to spend coddling them.  Again, I think this is a performance.  Given the fact that her children, who are still young, have asked her to stop writing about them on her blog (she admitted this in a New York Times article), I would say they are weary of the performance.

The last blog I’d like to tell you about is The Girl Who.  The author, Monica Bielanko, is a self-admitted rebel, who married a guitar player three months after meeting him at a concert.  In a recent post, she’s expressed upset over the release of a video they made in the privacy of their bedroom.  Somehow, somebody got a hold of it.  I won’t say who I think that was, but, as the saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Well, onto her mothering style as depicted in her blog.  She focuses on the absolutely real, to the point of being shocking.  She tackled breastfeeding and posted a picture of herself doing so. She also wrote a hilarious post about shopping with children and Wal-Mart.

Most interesting to me so far is a post called “Psychological Warfare” in which she depicts parenting as a horrific experience, and then ends with “HELP ME.”  She sees mothering as something to be escaped, and I’m with her a lot of the time.  Being a mother, or parent, is hard.  She describes the horror of giving birth and sleepless nights and emotional stresses of discipline.  She’s looking forward to elementary school and the days when crying won’t be the only form, or most frequent form, of communication.  She describes mothering as hand-to-hand combat and says, “I don’t think I ever really thought it out and realized my own role in it all and how difficult, emotional and heartbreaking (and yes, rewarding too) it’s all going to be… and, well, it’s just so overwhelming.”  This is a realistic portrayal of motherhood.  She’s not pulling the wool over anybody’s eyes or performing for her audience.  She is laying it all out there for everybody to see, and honestly, I relate to it.  She describes what I experience on a daily basis, and she does so with an authentic voice that resonates with me.

The ideas in this post show us an ambivalence in motherhood, a feeling that I suspect is common, especially given the prevalence of the new momism.  As Ivana Brown said, in her article titled “Ambivalence of the Motherhood Experience,” “Being a mother is conventionally associated with happiness.  For many mothers, however, mothering is filled with conflict, anxiety, and ambivalence.  Yet maternal ambivalence often remains unacknowledged” (p. 121).  This is where mommy blogs can assuage that anxiety and ambivalence.  Women like Monica Bielanko can address these issues honestly and participate in a sort of consciousness raising, a rhetorical tactic made popular during the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s.

Adrienne Rich, images from Wikimedia Commons

Adrienne Rich, famous poet and activist, wrote in her 1976 book Of Woman Born about this ambivalence.  She describes it, from a journal entry, as “the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness” (p. 21).  She sees motherhood as a constant site of conflict because of her feelings that swing back and forth from “Anger and Tenderness,” which is the title of her chapter on the subject.  She acknowledges maternal ambivalence and suffers guilt for it.  The Girl Who addresses the anger in her post, and Dooce and Girl’s Gone Child focus on tenderness and guilt.  A further examination of posts from all three blogs would, I’m sure, reveal frequent examinations of anger and tenderness in the mothering experience.

This experience of ambivalence is shared through the “mothering” that is accomplished on these blogs through the community of commenters.  When Girl’s Gone Child blogs about her guilt from not planning or throwing the world’s most fabulous birthday party for her daughter, the audience chimes in and assuages that guilt.  They relate their own experiences of motherhood and help to calm any sort of ambivalence that may be lurking there.  On The Girl Who’s post I mentioned above, her audience also comments and relates to what she is saying.  They validate her voice and reiterate the fact that mothering never gets easier, but that it can be got through.  These other mothers create a polyvocal community in which mothering is discussed and dissected.  They also mother each other through their conversations and advice.

These three blogs have different styles of mothering and different styles of presenting their mothering.  They all do it differently, and a limitation may be the performative aspect.  Knowing that their readers are reading and that an audience is watching their “every” move as mothers must affect the way they mother or at least the way they write about it.  It likely also affects their children.  I mentioned the truth of this with Dooce, but in each situation, the blogger may be prone to think, “What can I say about this on my blog?” instead of being in the moment and giving full attention their kids’ needs over the need for a good story or a sensational blog post.

The messages in these posts are different in each one, but the message I’ve gotten from Girl’s Gone Child and Dooce is that I’m not as good as they are.  I get that from the tone of the posts on Dooce, and I get it from the beautiful photography that makes motherhood and life look extra beautiful on Girl’s Gone Child.  My life is not that beautiful, and my children are apparently not as smart or as talented.  I get a sense of competition, which seems to negate the sense of community created by the comments section.  This is a limitation to the format of blogging, that despite a community of commenters, misunderstandings and overt messages negating that sense of belonging can come through in the writing.  The consequences of these messages is a feeling of inadequacy and a feeling of being left out for the readers.

Overall, I feel more of a connection to The Girl Who because of her raw honesty and frustration.  This may have to do with the fact that she’s describing a time of life that I am currently living.  I have a two-year-old and every trip to the grocery store is a nightmare.  I call these Daphne’s “Uncle Kevin moments” because my dad’s brother is famous for his temper tantrums at the grocery store as a young child.  I now have more sympathy for my grandmother.  And The Girl Who’s posts have helped me to have more perspective on parenting a toddler.  I feel like I can face another trip to the store because this honest blogger is out there doing it too.

So, I’m wondering if you follow any mommy blogs?  What is your opinion of their mothering techniques?

Are you a mommy blogger?  If you are, would you be willing to let me interview you?  If so, please send me an email at januarypetersen@yahoo.com and we can work out the details.

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