THE NEW YORK TIMES
Mommy (and Me)
By David Hochman
As stomach bugs go, the one that hit the Allen family of Redmond, Wash., this month certainly got a lot of play. Barely an hour after Jaxon, 5, showed his first miserable symptoms, his mother was posting her satirical account of Pukefest 2005 on her Internet blog, Catawampus. By bedtime, after the virus had clobbered Neve, 7; Veda, 3; and Luka, 18 months, Dad was logging on to type his own send-up of the insanity in his blog, the Zero Boss. And Grandma Bunny weighed in a few days later with a 1,000-word treatise called “The Flu From Hell” on her site, Bunny Beth’s Bargains.
The world’s most thankless occupation, parenthood, has never inspired so much copy. For the generation that begat reality television it seems that there is not a tale from the crib (no matter how mundane or scatological) that is unworthy of narration. Approximately 8,500 people are writing Web logs about their children, said David L. Sifry, the chief executive of Technorati, a San Francisco company that tracks Web logs. That’s more than twice as many baby blogs as last year.
While it is impossible to know if the reader of Good Housekeeping circa 1955 would have been recording her children’s squabbles on www.myperfectchild.com, had the Internet arrived half a century earlier, it is hard to imagine her going head to head with Ben MacNeil, who has chronicled his year-and-a-half-old daughter’s every nap, bottle feeding and diaper change (3,379, at last check) on the Trixie Update (trixieupdate.com).
Today’s parents - older, more established and socialized to voicing their emotions - may be uniquely equipped to document their children’s’ lives, but what they seem most likely to complain and marvel about is their own. The baby blog in many cases is an online shrine to parental self-absorption.
“People who get married, especially people in their 30’s, and then have kids, are used to being the center of attention,” said Jennifer Weiner, whose candid, motherhood-theme Web log, Snarkspot (jenniferweiner.blogspot.com), led to her novel, Little Earthquakes, a tale of four new mothers. The blogs, she said, are “a primal scream that says, ‘Hey, I may have a kid, but I’m still here, too.’ “
Daniel J. Siegel, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain and Development at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of Parenting From the Inside Out, said that what is being expressed in these Web sites “is the deep, evolutionarily acquired desire to rise above invisibility, something parents experience all the time.” He explained, “You want to be seen not just by the baby whose diaper you’re changing, but by the world.”
With a new blog popping up every 4.7 seconds, according to Technorati, it is no surprise that there would be parent blogs, along with those for dating, politics and office life. But what makes them interesting is the way that blogging about parenthood seems to have become part of parenthood itself.
Heather B. Armstrong of Salt Lake City credits her blog, Dooce.com, with saving her sanity, if not her life. When it began in February 2001, Dooce was a collection of anecdotes about Ms. Armstrong’s single life in Los Angeles, with provocative entries like “The Proper Way to Hate a Job” and “Dear Cranky Old Bitch Who Cut in Front of Me at Canter’s Deli.” After someone sent an unsigned, untraceable e-mail message about Ms. Armstrong’s blog to her company’s board in 2002, she was promptly dismissed, and “Dooced” entered Urbandictionary.com as a term for “Losing your job for something you wrote in your online blog, journal, Web site, etc.”
A year later Ms. Armstrong married, moved back to Utah, gave birth to a daughter, Leta, and was soon after hospitalized for severe postpartum depression. Her moving, confessional entries from that time generated thousands of e-mail messages and, she said, helped speed her recovery.
Now about 40,000 people log on to read about Ms. Armstrong’s efforts to break her daughter’s binky habit and of her concern about swearing in front of Leta. Like most parent bloggers, Ms. Armstrong steals time at the computer when the child is napping, after the baby sitter arrives and late at night. She said she blogs at least 15 hours a week. “Dooce probably saved my life,” she said. “The writing and voice I had let me hold onto part of the original and old Heather, something that being a mother and the depression couldn’t take away.”
It is a theme that recurs. Parents have never waited longer nor thought more consciously about having children, yet time and again the bloggers voice surprise and sometimes resentment about the unglamorous reality of bringing up baby.
“Honestly I had a lot of illusions about motherhood,” said Eden Marriott Kennedy, who was 37 when she had her first child and now writes about him at Fussy.org. “You get settled in your ways. Until it’s here, you really don’t know how dehumanizing and ugly parenting can be sometimes. The blog’s a place where all that stuff can go.”
Exposing the dark underbelly of parenthood is not exactly new. Books like Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year and Andrea J. Buchanan’s Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It have made it clear that raising children is not all sunshine and sippy cups. What is remarkable is that being a parent has inspired so much text and that so many people seem eager to read it.
“If there’s a parenting issue out there, somebody’s blogging about it,” said Julia M. Moos, a managing editor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the editor of Dot Moms (roughdraft.typepad.com/dotmoms), an online collective for mothers that blog. Her Web site has links to more than 500 mom blogs and about 100 dad blogs.
Mr. MacNeil, of the Trixie Update, said he doesn’t understand why more than 1,000 people a day visit his Web site (“I was even recognized at the mall once,” he said), but his own motives are clear. “Parents have been parenting for hundreds of thousands of years, but this is the first time I’ve ever done it,” he said. “In its simplest form, the blog lets me chart the void.”
And this being an age in which publicizing the private has never been more rewarded, a fair number of parents are hoping their blogs will attract the attention of book publishers. Mr. Allen said he hopes the Zero Boss (www.thezeroboss.com) will help him sell a manuscript he has written about being a father, which is perhaps not too far-fetched.
Early next year HarperCollins is planning to publish The World According to Mimi Smartypants (already available in Britain), a compilation of posts by the popular blogger who writes at smartypants.diaryland.com. “If you only went by what the magazines and parenting books said or what your relatives told you, you’d think you were a neurotic freak who was doing everything wrong,” Ms. Smartypants said. (She declined to reveal her real name.) “Blogging makes parents more relaxed.”
But the question is, at who’s expense? How will the bloggee feel, say, 16 years from now, when her prom date Googles her entire existence?
“Fundamentally children resent being placed at the heart of their parents’ expression, and yet I still do it,” said Ayelet Waldman, whose blog, Bad Mother (bad-mother.blogspot.com), describes life at home with her four young children and her husband, Michael Chabon, the novelist. Ms. Waldman, a novelist herself, has blogged about her baby Abie’s recessive chin and gimpy hip and the thrill of the children’s going back to school after winter break.
“A blog like this is narcissism in its most obscene flowering,” she said. “But it’s necessary. As a parent your days are consumed by other people’s needs. This is payback for driving back and forth to gymnastics all week long.”
At some point, however, parents may find themselves at a crossroads. Molly Jong-Fast, who has been a frequent subject for her mother, Erica Jong, said, “There comes that inevitable moment when parents who write about their children need to choose between their writing and their children’s privacy and honor.” Ms. Jong based a children’s book on her daughter as well as a pilot for a Fox sitcom. “There’s no compassionate way to do both, so either the parent or the child will end up feeling resentful.”
Incidentally, Ms. Waldman’s mother, Ricki Waldman, 64, a hospital administrator in Paterson, N.J., said she does not quite understand all this blogging business. “I think parents today know so much about all the things that might conceivably go wrong that they overreact and can’t stop talking about them,” she said. “We didn’t know what we were doing either, but look, our kids survived.”
The anxiety and uncertainty so commonly expressed in the baby blogs definitely make for good reading. (“He likes cars and tutus with equal passion,” Melissa Summers writes of her 2-year-old, Max, on Suburbanbliss.net. “I think he might be gay.”) But it also shines a spotlight on a generation of parents ever more in need of validation, an insecurity that doesn’t necessarily serve the cause.
What the blogs show is that “parents today are focused on taking their children’s emotional, social and academic temperature every four or five seconds,” said Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. “It deprives us of having a long view of development. Kids do fine. The paradox is that the way to have them not do fine is to worry about them too much.”
Maybe that is so. But perhaps all the online venting and hand-wringing is actually helping the bloggers become better parents and better human beings. Perhaps what these diaries provide is “a way of establishing an alternate identity that makes parenting more palatable,” said Meredith W. Michaels, a philosophy professor at Smith College and the co-author of The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women. “You’re turning your life into a story that helps answer the question, ‘Why on earth am I doing this?’ “
As Alice Brady, who writes the popular baby blog “Finslippy” (finslippy.typepad.com) out of her Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, apartment, put it, “I’d be a lot angrier if I didn’t do this.”
And of course the more parents blog, the less likely they are to get the attention and validation they seem to crave. “If every parent in the world has a blog, then maybe it really will be about the child rather than the parent,” Ms. Waldman said. “Because at that point the child is the only one who’s going to read it.”
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
January 30, 2005