Heather Armstrong Told the Truth About Motherhood, and We Owe Her So Much For It
When I tell people that I’ve been reading blogs like Cup of Jo and Cupcakes & Cashmere for going on two decades, I can see them confusedly doing the mental math: Wait, I thought you were 29? I am, and the truth is I started reading what have derisively been called “mommy blogs”—a.k.a. blogs written by women who don’t shy away from homing in on the joys and trials of motherhood in their content—during a socially rocky period of middle school that sent me looking for solace among grown women who lived lives that looked nothing like mine and talked about them freely on the internet.
I can’t say exactly when I stumbled across Dooce, the lifestyle and parenting blog helmed by writer Heather Armstrong, who died this week at 47, but I vividly remember her voice, which was clear as a bell in a crowded field of content creators who could rarely reproduce her signature snark or emotional honesty. I was closer in age to Armstrong’s two children than to Armstrong herself, but I still felt drawn to her descriptions of life as a parent and a person, and not always in that order. As I got older, I spent less time perusing the Momternet, but I still hung onto a fondness for Armstrong, whose explanation for why her eldest wasn’t potty-trained yet (“Maybe I like changing diapers. Did you ever think of that? How could that be any worse of a preference than liking licorice? Or choosing to wear gnome shoes? Maybe changing diapers keeps me young and nimble”) lodged itself in my brain, especially once I’d racked up my own encounters with Pampers as a teenage babysitter.
We’re long past Dooce’s early aughts heyday, but overall, the writing of mothers is still devalued more often than it’s lionized. As Rolling Stone writer E.J. Dickson recently wrote, Armstrong’s work was “diminished as most efforts of mothers are, simply because she chose herself and her parenthood journey as her primary subject matter.” Jenny Offill’s notion of the “art monster” comes to mind when I reflect on Armstrong’s work, not because she was monstrous, but because she was honest to a fault about the not-so-rosy parts of motherhood—and, to many people, monstrousness and honesty are one and the same, particularly when they’re deployed by a woman who’s had the audacity to nurture new life and (gasp!) keep working anyway.
Armstrong was far from perfect, but she never, ever declared herself to be. It’s been disappointing to see some obituaries focus on her flaws and foibles instead of noting the outsized effect she had on blogging as an art form, and the permission she gave to a generation of women—mothers, yes, but also weird tweens reading her website at night when their own moms thought they were asleep—to tell the truth about their lives, even when it wasn’t sexy or sweet or placating to the reader.
The fact that Armstrong died by suicide might seem like a reason to avoid talking about her work, which often focused on her history of mental illness (and, later in her life, her sobriety journey), but we stand to lose something important if we forget what Armstrong put out into the world. In retrospect, nearly everything she wrote reads like an often-humorous, occasionally heartbreaking attempt to be known and (hopefully) understood.
Armstrong may be gone now, but it’s not too late to familiarize yourself with her words and consider all that brutally honest and unflinching writing about motherhood can offer us.
Originally Appeared on Vogue