Baby talk: Is mommy blogging a vital support system or a virtual overshare?

I visit GOMI occasionally to read criticism about lifestyle bloggers, and find myself laughing out loud. Some of the comments ring incredibly true, while other comments seem jealous and overly harsh. Nowadays people can start their own blogs for free or at a small price through WordPress or Blogger. Anyone can self publish without oversight, editing, or proper research, bloviating all sorts of bullshit into the blogosphere. Sites like GOMI act as a sort of impromptu posse, chasing down bandits who seek to turn the confessional blog voice into a commercial engine or who are just sort of lame. At times, the posse turns into a lynch mob, but it has a purpose.

The question I kept running up against in thinking about this story is, who is fair game? I mean, anyone can say practically anything about anyone else these days, particularly if they’re not part of a company that can be sued for libel.

I ran into an interesting discussion thread on a site called thenheathersaid.com, a healthy living blog, that brought the discussion back to Kath Younger. The site’s author, Heather, wrote a post called “Get off Get off My Internets” in which she discusses how the website GOMI made her feel awful (it pokes fun at her too) and comes to the conclusion that, “If you don’t like what you are reading on GOMI, then GET OFF GET OFF MY INTERNET. Just stop reading.”

In the comments under Heather’s post, Younger thanked her for her opinion: “Well said Heather. I’ve been there once or twice after people told me personal information was posted. I read around and I knew I couldn’t go back or I’d ruin my life worrying about it. A lot of stuff I read about myself wasn’t even true despite a ‘source’ posting it. If anything, knowing there is a site full of those type of comments has made me want to be a kinder person. I don’t understand where all the anger and disrespect comes from—probably from within. I’m a big fan of freedom of speech too though, and like you said, I’d rather they bitch there then on my blog.”

But the conversation didn’t stop there.

A commenter quipped back to Younger that the reason GOMI exists is because of bloggers like her, who edit the comment streams on their blogs, leaving the positive feedback and removing any critique that could open the door for debate. The commenter directed Younger to a comment on GOMI and said, “I found it applied to my perception of your blog to a T.”

The comment says, “If bloggers didn’t censor their comments, there wouldn’t be a need for forums like GOMI. Your (and I’m using the royal “you” here) blog is your blog, and you have the right to delete comments as you so choose. But people will find another place to express their thoughts if it isn’t on your blog.”

The commenter also raised the question of money. Younger, as I mentioned, sells advertising, but she also includes product placements with links back to vendors.

“If you are monetizing your blog, it is like a job. In any other job, you would be subject to criticism and suggestions to improve your work. Bloggers are not exempt from this. Some commenters are more constructive in their criticisms than others, just like some bosses are gentler in their criticisms than others,” the commenter said.

Younger described katheats.com as a “business” and babykerf.com as “a much smaller journal,” and she addressed the criticism of her comment protocol in the following way: “She has an opinion. I happen to have an entirely different one.”

Honor system
In the blogosphere, and really in every form of media these days, the line between what is real and what is depicted as reality is blurred. With Mommy Blogs, the stakes are even higher, because mothers have really strong opinions about mothering and they also seem to spend a lot of time online. So you’ve got bloggers like Harris, who have to edit what they’re saying and what’s being said, because they want to protect their family or because they’re crafting a message. But you’ve also got other bloggers who are editing reality until the only thing that’s left is the happy stuff, a digital update of the June Cleaver or Martha Stewart paradigm. And then they’re selling it.

Younger’s articulation of her own mommy blogging mission is surprisingly innocent.

“It’s pretty awesome that my 86-year-old grandmother signs on regularly to get visual updates about her great-grandson that phone calls and visits couldn’t keep up with. All of Mazen’s grandparents read daily as well,” she wrote. “I also find reading other mommy blogs to be extremely helpful—from ‘Must Have’ posts to shared research, resources, books, experiences and links to other websites—and I hope my blog is helpful to others (and from the feedback I’ve gotten, it sounds like it has been).”

I recently read an article by Emily Matchar on Salon.com, “Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs” (Jan. 15, 2011), where she discusses her infatuation with the “shiny, happy lives” of Mormon lifestyle bloggers and how the Mormon church encourages them to blog about their family and domestic lives.

One line in Matchar’s story stuck out: “And, don’t even get me started on the Mommy Blogs, which make parenthood seem like a vale of judgment and anxiety, full of words like ‘guilt’ and ‘chaos’ and ‘BPA-free’ and ‘episiotomy,’” she wrote. “Read enough of these, and you’ll be ready to remove your own ovaries with a butter knife.”

I e-mailed Matchar, who is also penning the book, Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity (due out May 2013, Simon & Schuster), and asked her what she meant by “judgment and anxiety.”

“People are sometimes incredibly cruel and judgmental on the Internet, and Mom Blogs are not necessarily unique for attracting super-vocal detractors,” she wrote. “But I think Mom Blogs are an easy target because motherhood is such a subject of strong judgment. When a lifestyle blogger presents a certain life on the Internet, it can feel very threatening—is she saying she’s better than us? Why does her life look so beautiful? It arouses all sorts of jealousy and self-hatred, which comes out as anonymous online nastiness. I also think there’s an element of sexism in the way female lifestyle bloggers are criticized—like how dare they have this opinion or look this way or fail to do that for their kids.”

As Younger and others pointed out, reading Mommy Blogs is optional, yet people continually seek them out. Some do it for advice, others because it’s a show.

“Many or most lifestyle blogs, Mom Blogs included, are more about presenting a certain well-edited version of life rather than reality. Matchar wrote: “This is fine, but it can make readers feel really bad. They assume the blogger is ‘just a regular mom’ and forget about how she’s also a writer who wants to present a certain image. I think non-parents read Mom Blogs for many of the same reasons as moms do, but also for the desire to peer into the life of a stranger and imagine what it would be like to be them. I don’t have kids at this point, but often look at Mom Blogs and wonder how I’d be as a mother.”

When UVA’s Tolan validated the underlying purpose of Mommy Blogs, he also offered a warning: When mothers need real help, they shouldn’t Google it.

“They are merely opinions of and viewpoints of the blogger’s. It could be a person with postpartum depression or another mental illness affecting parenting,” Tolan said. “The professional can help them determine if there is a need of treatment or intervention, a blog’s information cannot do that.”

In my conversation with Morrill at Starbucks, she told me one of the reasons she started her blog was to remind people to take care of new moms. When a baby comes into the world, the baby is the center of attention and the mom gets forgotten, so she wanted to spread the word not to forget about the mom—bring her casseroles, keep her company, tell her stories, make her laugh.

While Morrill’s intentions seem completely innocent and charitable, what she said made me wonder if, possibly, the drive of some other Mommy Bloggers doesn’t come from the same place. They feel so neglected, so alone, so in need of attention that their way back into the limelight is to become the star of their own show. They’re more after the “online status” Wilcox mentioned and less interested in being a part of a nurturing community characterized by honest, intelligent dialogue. Maybe they have innocent intentions to begin with, but after the Web traffic starts picking up and the ad prices spike, the pressure to sell an image of motherhood takes control.

Then again, maybe I’m just falling into the judgment trap. I guess I won’t really know until it happens to me.

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