Autobiography in Real Time: A Genre Analysis of Personal Mommy BloggingAimée Morrison
Keywords: blogging; mothering; autobiography; genre
‘Mommy blogging’ is a phenomenon of the blog world, attracting vast numbers of authors and readers. i Sometimes referred to as a ‘baby blog’ or a ‘parent blog’ the writings most commonly covered by the label ‘mommy blog’ consist of everyday experiences written up by people—women, generally (see Morrison, 2010)—for whom parenthood is a key identity component, and then published online via a content-management system (CMS) technology that provides for interaction and feedback. This paper grounds an understanding of personal mommy blogs in rhetorical genre theory to account for the opportunities and attractions particular to the social practice of writing about mothering within one available publishing platform on the Internet. In a seminal essay, Carolyn Miller (1984) proposes that “a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish”—that is, not on what a text looks like, nor even what it is nominally about, but what it does (p. 151). The power of this heuristic is that “genre, in this way, becomes more than a formal entity; it becomes pragmatic, fully rhetorical, a point of connection between intention and effect, an aspect of social action” (Miller, 1984, p. 153). Personal mommy blogs, I argue, are more than the sum of technical affordances (e.g., reverse chronological order and capacity for commenting [Morrison, 2007]) or thematic concerns (e.g., cute stories and baby photos), but are determined by the social exigence they answer. Personal mommy blogging is purposive and deliberate social engagement, a creative as well as interpersonal practice that mitigates the assorted ills (physical isolation, role confusion, lack of realistic role models, etc.) and celebrates the particular joys of contemporary mothering, especially in the earliest years of parenting.
This paper will focus on a constellation of texts in orbit around an article about mommy blogging published in April 2008 in The Globe and Mail, a Toronto-based, nationally-distributed newspaper (Pearce 2008). This analysis will examine the various texts associated with the article—the article itself, Globe reader comments on the Globe and Mail website, blogger comments at the Globe site and on blogs that linked back to it, and blog posts by mommy bloggers responding to the article—in order to delineate the contours of the textual and social practices that comprise the genre of personal mommy blogging. All the blog texts and comments quoted here were authored in the context of responding to this article. The primary focus on the Globe and Mail article and its associated texts has several advantages. First, it imposes limits of scale and reach (how many blogs to examine, and which ones), while still illustrating the essential interconnectedness of these texts: a substantial but finite number of blogs and bloggers responded to this article, creating a self-selecting (that is, “snowball”) sample set of interlinked texts for examination. ii Second, it highlights characteristics unique to this genre, characteristics evidenced as much by social concerns (developing friendships, articulating new norms of parenting practice) and writerly concerns (subject matter, ethical considerations, compositional strategies) as by technical affordances of the blog medium (capacity for interlinking and commenting, or indexing by Google for access on the broader Internet). Third, because it is so explicitly a conversation about what is or is not deemed appropriate in terms of textual and interpersonal communicative practice, the article itself and its associated texts at once enact and theorize the establishment of genre.
Rhetorical genre theory has the principal advantage of not only accounting for the specificity of texts in question in their full social complexity but also decoupling analysis from the potentially limiting frame of prior (literary) genres of personal diary or parenting memoir, comparisons to which often bring the mommy blog up short. John Killoran (2003) proposes the power of genre to explicate online life writing, writing that “autobiographical expression draws not just from nature, nor from technology, but from discursive precedent as well” (p. 70). However, his focus on “discursive precedent” is mostly limited to literary notions of form and content. As Andreas Kitzmann (2003) has it, a simple “binary” comparative approach has “the inevitable result of one [medium] being championed, either as victor—celebrating the advent of a more advanced technology of communication—or victim—lamenting the loss of a prior ‘authentic’ mode of expression” (p. 49). The situation is more complex than that. Not simply diaries about private family life that have gone online, nor trivial manifestations of generalized blog-format online publishing ventures more usually studied as journalistic enterprises, personal mommy blogs are best understood as motivated by a widespread need expressed by blogging mothers to create communities and texts to address and understand the subjective experience of their daily lives,. iii
“No, I fine. I put pee-pee in toilet”: Mommy blogging in the news
Searching for accounts of ‘parent blog’ or ‘baby blog’ or ‘mommy blog,’ a graduate student researcher working for me located more than forty newspaper and magazine articles, appearing between 2005 and 2008, as well as numerous transcripts from television spots and radio segments, in venues ranging from local shopping flyers to the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Today show. iv The Globe and Mail article is exemplary of such coverage, foregrounding the commercial and advertising potential and the attendant danger of child ‘exploitation,’ the potential audience of millions, the exposure of children’s private lives, and the potential threat to their safety or future mental health. At the same time, the article trivializes and infantilizes blog writers and their texts. The headline of the 1000-word piece, for example, reads: “No, I fine. I put pee-pee in toilet.” The article’s sub-headline breathlessly suggests that “[w]riting about your daughter’s toilet-training misadventures could net you $40,000 a month and a legion of fans. But some mommy and daddy bloggers are quitting the game in fears that their digital confessions have become exploitation.” The accompanying photograph shows the author of the eponymous blog Her Bad Mother and her daughter, the pseudonymous ‘Wonderbaby.’ The caption mentions Her Bad Mother’s initial impetus as an emotional outlet during the blogger’s post-partum depression. Mommy blogging, the article implies by these constructions, is the province of mentally-ill new mothers, writing up embarrassing or indiscreet—and certainly banal and possibly tasteless—private details of their children’s lives for personal enrichment and name-recognition. The body of the article is less sensational, focusing on the legitimate ethical question of who has the right, and within what limits, to publicize someone else’s life story, particularly when that someone is a minor. Indeed, the article is careful to note that the bloggers they have interviewed are themselves keenly aware of these issues and have thoughtful, if not unequivocal or unambivalent, takes on the issues of privacy, decorum, and the “infinite Googleability” of Internet texts (Pearce, 2008).
However, the article conflates vastly different Internet texts nominally about parenting under the rubric ‘mommy blogging’ in a way that elides important differences between varieties of these texts and thus confounds a generic analysis. The article is structured around the assumption of a commercial imperative—a financial exigence—for writing: its highlighting of “$40,000 a month and legion of fans” presumes a fame-and-fortune social exigence, when, of course, only a very few mommy blogs are viable commercial enterprises. In the article, discussion of such high-profile commercial sites like Babble.com (an online parenting magazine that features a roster of regular bloggers in addition to feature articles) and Dooce (a one-woman blog run by Heather B. Armstrong, who was recently named number 26 on Forbes’ list of 30 most influential women in media, and whose daily readers number in the tens of thousands) narrows to a focus on local instances. In this case, the active and well-known bloggers Her Bad Mother and Don Mills Diva and the defunct T.O. Mama are profiled; these bloggers, too, garner far more hits, readers, links, comments, and advertising revenue than most of their readers (Herring, Scheidt, Bonus, and Wright  describe a standard number of comments for personal blogs as close to zero, for example; Her Bad Mother regularly draws more than 50 comments on her posts, and sometimes significantly more than a hundred). The bloggers who responded to the article write under different circumstances and for different reasons than the featured writers—in a different genre, I argue—than what the article assumes. It is this question of why that confounds the many comment-writers who responded in such numbers to the article; this same question is answered eloquently in terms of social exigence by bloggers taking up the controversy.
What is a ‘personal mommy blog’?
The ‘momosphere’ is vast, its reach and population impossible to determine with certainty, and—in addition to the overwhelming number of blogs and posts—there is tremendous variation in the kinds of Internet texts about parenting being produced. Like all blogs, mommy blogs share the following technical affordances: discrete posts appearing in reverse chronological order, arrangement into columns that also show outbound links, badges of affiliation, and a brief profile of the author. All mommy blogs, of course, are also fundamentally networked texts: commenting, linking, and the design and incorporation of visual banners as well as video and photographic materials, for example, separate these texts from any of their print forebears. Most mommy blogs address similar themes: self-deprecating stories about parenthood, cute stories about children, musings on what it means to mother in contemporary society, calls for advice or support in solving parenting or other dilemmas (see Morrison  for the results of a survey of these bloggers' content practices). But there are significant differences among texts that share these characteristics, most notably in audience, reach, and degree of reciprocity, and these differences can be explained by recourse to the different weightings of the multiple social exigencies identified above.
Some mommy blogs are written for such a broad audience (with daily readers numbering in the thousands, though obviously this is rare) that they resemble syndicated newspaper columns in significant ways. Like syndicated newspaper columns, they aim to maximize audience share in order to command revenue; they are aggressively promoted through interlinked social media like Facebook fan pages and tweets. These blogs skew more toward professional (remunerative) word craft and less toward the development of personal friendships and a bounded but intimate community of support. Other mommy blogs are confessional personal accounts posted raw on the screen with the aim of catharsis, with layers of protection including pseudonyms and password protection designed to severely limit the blog’s circulation. These texts are more oriented toward meeting the author’s need to write than with capturing audience. Yet other mommy blogs, by contrast, are conceived of as simple and effective newsletters for far-flung family members, recording milestones and sharing photographs among a known set of acquaintances; in these texts, the maintenance of prior real-world communities of weak ties and strong ties (see Stefanone and Jang  for a discussion of this fact), and the dissemination of documentary materials of interest, is prioritized over creative or writerly concerns. v
Texts we might sensibly collect under the general category “mommy blog,” then, comprise an archive that is neither wholly continuous nor wholly distinct. As Andrew Ò Baoill (2004) notes in an analysis of the blogosphere, “although some talk of the blogosphere as a conversation, it is in reality an overlapping collection of conversations” (Conclusion, para. 1). Nevertheless, it is possible to separate out a coherent subset of writings about parenting that address the social exigence identified above: development of an adult voice post-parenting, development of a sense of self and a mode of practice of parenting, development of a community of individuals in like circumstances, support and a venue in which to trumpet the joys and challenges (and photos and stories and milestones) of one’s children for a receptive audience and, in some but not all cases, a challenge to prevailing discourses of parenting in the provision of a new written record of life in the mothering trenches. Thus, surveying the breadth of Internet-published texts about parenting, I propose that blogs can be classified based on the following accessibility and usage dimensions, sharing to varying degrees the common exigence above, and arrayed along an axis from least public to most, addressing exigence:
- Password-protected personal web pages designed to share photos/stories with family
- Password-protected personal blogs for family
- Publicly-accessible personal blogs with the URL shared with offline friends and family
- Publicly-accessible personal blogs deliberately inviting an readership of ‘strangers’ online (but building a community based on reciprocal reading, linking, and commenting)
- Publicly-accessible personal blogs trying to maximize an audience of strangers (non-reciprocal; aims to capture a larger share of ‘market’ in order to better sell advertising, or buttress the writer’s sense of herself as a public writer)
- Commercial personal blogs operated as revenue-generating professional writings
- Commercial group blogs operated as revenue-generating ventures
- Commercial magazine-style web sites with multiple blog ‘columns’ in addition to other content, operated as revenue-generating ventures
In this paper, I am writing about the blogs in the middle of the spectrum (numbers 3 and 4 primarily, and some in number 5, that became established originally as smaller-scale texts) a set of texts I nominate ‘personal mommy blogs.’ As we will see, this group largely coheres in terms of social exigence, context of communication, and roles of communicants: that is, they can be understood to comprise a genre, in the rhetorical sense.
“The loneliness of the house-bound mother”
Genre develops in response to a social exigence: the new communication practice must meet, that is, a pressing and non-unique need. For Miller (1984), “genre is a rhetorical means of mediating private intentions and social exigence; it motivates by connecting the private with the public, the singular with the recurrent” (p. 163). To understand the ‘why’ of personal mommy blogging, the exigence that motivates this practice, we need to step away from the computer, as Helen Kennedy (2003) suggests: “research into offline experiences […] should form the context for developing a greater understanding of online experiences” (p. 132). For Kennedy, this research “would […] consider a broader range of social and cultural factors and so arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of cyber-experiences” (p. 131). For personal mommy bloggers, communities built around writing and reading interlinked long-format Internet texts supplement diminishing traditional institutional and familial supports for childrearing: this is the exigence answered by blogging practices.
Many among the current generation of women approach motherhood from a position radically different than any other generation before it, and find essential supports absent. First, the public understanding of motherhood as an activity undertaken in the privacy of the nuclear family, and the widespread distribution of nuclear families into geographically disparate suburban communities removed from public amenities mean that mothers of young children are physically isolated from their existing social networks and contexts. Exacerbating this isolation are patterns of work- and education-related migration that see many more young families settling in communities far from their families of origin. Jennifer M. Heisler and Jennifer Butler Ellis (2008) note this shift, writing that “socialization and support that once occurred within extended families may not be as readily available for new mothers” (p. 446). This isolation can have several consequences: lack of access to informal networks of family or neighborhood child care; lack of access to emotional comfort or pragmatic advice in the adjustment period after bringing home a newborn; and lack of access to adult company. Heisler and Ellis thus surmise that in “[t]he absence of immediate family support […] parents may seek to find ‘replacement support’ from other, non-familial sources” (p. 446), as I propose they do in personal mommy blogging.
Second, many mothers find that they have difficulty developing a strong sense of self in their new roles as ‘Mother’—the contours and character of this role seem opaque to them, and they feel largely alone in figuring it out. This process is stressful: examining how and why new mothers choose to breastfeed, Joyce L. Marshall, Mary Godfrey, and Mary J. Renfrew (2007) describe the path toward role fulfillment as a ‘good mother’ as traversing a “moral minefield” (p. 2147). Sociological, feminist, and psychological research on motherhood speak with one voice: to a one, articles on the subject claim that motherhood is a complex, ambivalent identity category, and mothering as a social and emotional praxis is fraught with contradictions and paradoxes. As Rachel T. Hare-Mustin (1988) notes, “[c]ontemporary attitudes toward motherhood reflect contradictory views […] ranging from idealization to the observation that childbearing and child rearing are held in low esteem compared with male occupation roles” (p. 37). Or perhaps this is a condition of femininity; in their study of adolescent identity experiments online, Patti M. Valkenberg, Alexander P. Schouten, and Jochen Peter (2005) find that gender “was positively related to social anxiety, loneliness, and the variety of communication partners, and negatively to self-concept unity” (p. 219). Women better established in their maternal identities, babies now become toddlers and perhaps joined by a sibling, often look back on the transition from ‘women’ to ‘mother’ as a path strewn with obstacles and made more difficult by missteps. We see this in published motherhood memoirs. In her introduction to the essay collection Between Interruptions: 30 Women Tell the Truth about Motherhood, journalist and mother Cori Howard (2007) notes, with clear hindsight, that “when my son came along, I was as ill-prepared for the massive transition to motherhood as you can get” (p. 14). Part of the impetus of the book project, she writes, lies “in figuring out how this happened. How a woman like me, raised with more opportunities and choices than any previous generation of women, could be so unprepared for motherhood” (p. 17).
Third, corollary to the difficulty of fully inhabiting the identity of ‘mother’ is a pervasive sense of the loss of the antecedent adult ‘voice’ or ‘self’, the subjective sense of identity developed prior to childbearing, as well as an ambivalence about mourning this identity. This problem may be particularly acute among contemporary mothers, many of whom delay childbearing into their 30s and who thus have had time and opportunity to develop senses of themselves as adults defined by career, relationship, and lifestyle choices that are radically disrupted by parenthood (see Statistics Canada, Mother’s Day  and Report , and Mathews, M.S., and Hamilton  for demographic research on the timing of first births; Edwards  on maternal occupation outside the home; and Walter  on role confusion). Many women feel an unbearable tension between their full identification with and performance of the identity category of ‘mother’ and of ‘self.’ Once more, memoirists give individual voice to a generalized malaise. Ami McKay (2007), again in Between Interruptions, writes: “We [mothers] feel guilty and selfish if we take the time to follow dreams that exclude our children, that are ours alone. Yet ironically, and maddeningly, if we devote ourselves entirely to our babies we feel guilty about that too: we feel less than perfect if we are just ‘mother,’ and nothing else” (p. 38).
Fourth, there is a widespread feeling that most popular representations of parenting—in parenting or women’s magazines, in television shows, in advertisements—do not reflect the experiences of real families. Particularly, the reality of single parenting, same-sex parenting, and urban parenting is largely unaccounted for in popular media, and mothers in these circumstances find themselves without much in the way of prior scripts. In the autobiographical essay collection Breeder, editors Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender (2001) aim to bring to readers “real life stories from the new generation of mothers.” vii The stories in the book, claim the editors in their introduction, are not what women might find in the mainstream media; instead, the book aims to present “a kind of optimism based in real life experiences” (p. xii), implying their belief that such were not to be found in contemporary representations elsewhere: “We aren’t the neo-June Cleaver corporate beauties you see in the mainstream parenting magazines, and we aren’t the purer-than-thou organic earth mamas you see in the alternative glossies. We are imperfect, and we are impure” (p. xiii). Heisler and Ellis’s (2008) examination of ‘facework’ in the public performance of mothering suggests that there is a powerful disincentive to be anything but positive about mothering in contemporary culture: “As a new mother, a woman may struggle to balance her constructed, mother image and acknowledge her insecurities, need of connection, support, and advice from others [….] [W]omen do not feel comfortable revealing their failures to others” (p. 446).
The social exigence of personal mommy blogging serves to mitigate these dissatisfactions and resolve these contradictions by fostering fora for adult self-expression, for the articulation of a more nuanced and rich script of mothering, and for the creation of a supportive community of peers with whom to share the full experience of parenthood. Further, as well as improving their own personal positions, these writers often seek to change the broader public discourse of parenting to ameliorate conditions more generally for all women/mothers. Karin A. Martin (2003) summarizes nearly three decades of sociological research into mothering thus: “This literature suggests that motherhood is an identity that profoundly shapes personality and gender, the division of household labour, the relationship to paid work, politics, and the relationship to one’s body” (p. 55-6). Terry Arrendell (2000) notes further that “[e]specially since the 19th century, mothering has been presumed to be a primary identity for most adult women. That is, womanhood and motherhood are treated as synonymous identities” (p. 1192) even as contemporary mothers see the two roles as distinct, or even sometimes incompatible. By writing, women redevelop both their ‘adult’ voices and develop new, ‘mother’ ones; by reading others, they come to see their own experiences as taking place in a broader social context and to understand their fit within that context; by writing and reading each other reciprocally, bloggers develop a stable community of trusted friends with whom to share experiences and trace out and critique or celebrate recurrent patterns of modern motherhood.
The blog medium and the writing practices developing within it are well-suited to these exigencies. Carolyn Miller and Dawn Shepherd (2004) note: “When bloggers talk about blogging, two themes […] are ubiquitous: self-expression and community development” (Pragmatic Action section, para. 1). Miller and Shepherd consider that all blogging (they do not distinguish between kinds of blogs as other scholars have attempted to do [see Morrison (2007) for a survey of some taxonomic schemes]) is motivated by these personal, psychological factors: “we must characterize the generic exigence of the blog as some widely shared, recurrent need for cultivation and validation of the self” (Exigence and the Social Action of the Blog section, para. 1). Laura J. Gurak and Smiljana Antonijevic (2008) similarly propose that blogging promotes both the development of individual voice, and of community. They cannot resist a binary comparison to the paper diary: “On one hand, [personal blogging] is the event of ‘writing oneself’ through continuous recording of past and present experiences, just as in the case of traditional diaries“ (p. 65). But there are differences: “On the other hand, blogging is the event of ‘rewriting oneself’ through interaction with the audience” (p. 65). Accounting for the particular affordances of the blog format, Viviane Serfaty (2004) proposes that personal blogs are distinguished, in part, by the qualities of co-production, in which a text’s audience responds to and thus collaborates in the diarist’s project of self-presentation or self-construction, and doubled self-reflexivity, by which a blogger investigates not only her own reasons for writing but also assesses the operations of the blog format and the community it fosters. Serfaty’s work is a touchstone for the current analysis, in part because her reading of what she calls ‘diary-style’ blogs is attuned to discovering how these texts operate, not in comparison to other kinds of prior print texts, but rather as themselves.
Co-production: Creating a community
The Globe and Mail article was published on April 22, 2008, and had drawn more than a dozen mostly derisive and hostile comments on the Globe website by evening; on April 23, ‘Her Bad Mother’ wrote a response to the article and its accompanying comments on her blog, linking back to the Globe site. Another featured blogger in the piece, ‘Don Mills Diva,’ wrote a response on her blog on April 24. These posts, and the comments and posts written by readers in response to them, at once affirm and enact the momosphere’s sense of its writings as valuable, creative, and deliberate. They also assert Bad’s and Diva’s membership in a broader community of practice. viii Readers use the comment section in Her Bad Mother not just to express their support for the blog, but also, importantly, to name themselves as a community. Commenters, that is, make their own status as mommy bloggers explicit, and see the negative press account and reader comments on Her Bad Mother and Don Mills Diva as directed at all of them. It is difficult to imagine a similar response to a controversy sparked by a paper parenting memoir: as much as we might regret, for example, that many reviewers find Rebecca Eckler’s (2007) musings on parenting shallow and immature by turns, we are unlikely to feel this insult as a personal one. Reading a book, even if you identify with it, is not the same as writing one, while in the community of writers responding to this article, the distinction between who is a writer, and who a reader, is a false one. ix The reciprocity of the genre consists in the balance among its participants, the implicit agreement that if you read my blog and leave a comment, I should read your blog and support you there as well. Lauren Berlant (2008), describing the ‘intimate public’ of women’s culture, notes that “reciprocity emerged as central to what counts as care and carelessness” and that “in the archive of women’s culture, questions about what counts as emotional reciprocity matter tremendously” (p. 16).
Most personal mommy blog authors acknowledge the importance not simply of writing in their blogs, but of receiving feedback from readers, and participating in what they describe as a community. Prominent blogger and professional journalist Queen of Spain notes in the ‘About the Queen’ page of her eponymous blog: “I find comfort in this community of Moms and parents. They are my virtual cup of sugar and global community” (Kotecki Vest). She references the disintegration of traditional material means of support and community available to moms, and her sentiments are articulated by nearly every blogger who responded to the article at Her Bad Mother’s blog. Here’s Sue, on her blog: “this is the one place where I try to be as honest as possible. […] When you stop trying to keep up a facade and open the door, people have a chance to come through it, offering support and friendship and cookies” (Borrowed Light). Conflating writing and community, Kyla looks back on her first year of blogging, and its impact on her life: “[Blogging] has given me a community of beautiful, smart, intelligent, caring, supportive women [….] I can't imagine not having you all with me, even if we are reduced to words on a screen. Words can be powerful, and you all know how to wield them with skill” (The Journey). T writes: “I love blogging but even more than that, I love to read blogs. They’ve changed my definition of what it means to be a reader, what it means to bond with the author behind the work” (Turtlehead). Implicated in the writings of others as much as they depend on being read in turn, mommy bloggers come to understand their own blogs to form part of a larger whole, even if their motivations for beginning the blog was more simply to write.
The Globe article interrogates not just the particular writers it profiles but also the entire practice of mommy blogging. It imagines that ‘mommy bloggers’ and ‘newspaper readers’ are distinct demographics with no overlap, marking mommy blogging as a fringe activity beyond the pale of regular society. Comments appearing at the Globe and Mail website thus speak in the third person singular and plural, and occasionally the second in denouncing mommy bloggers as a group beyond the boundaries of polite society: they write, “these bloggers are nut cases”, “your priorities as a caregiver and parent are entirely screwed. Get a life”, “What kind of person tells others about this stuff? What kind of person reads it?” On Her Bad Mother’s post, by contrast, commenters construe their responses in first person plural and singular. x In this vein, Sam writes: “I was saddened and a little outraged when I read the comments to your article. Not only are they harsh and rude to YOU and YOUR family, but to the rest of us as well. Those commentators refer to ALL of us as pimps and zombies that are taking advantage of our children.” xi Defending Her Bad Mother’s practice, commenters reference their own writings, articulating adherence to a community standard, a set of norms by which proper and improper writings can be judged. They resent the obvious ignorance of the early commenters on the Globe website. KG writes: “As for the comments—they don’t get it. It’s that simple. They don’t understand blogging, they don’t understand the internet, they don’t understand parenting today and they certainly don’t understand you. Us.” Rhiannon Bury (2005) suggests in her study of female fan communities online that “[c]reating a group that uses the pronouns ‘we/us/ours’ necessitates the establishment of practices that set out to create conformity and contain difference” (p. 14). That is, any group that can successfully deploy the ‘we/us/ours’ formation is one that has established consistent and agreed-upon norms of practice.
Co-production in personal mommy-blogs takes several other forms as well: for example, simple encouragement through commenting on an ongoing basis, a form of positive feedback that encourages the blogger in her project of self-narration; shared topics like ‘Flashback Fridays’ or ‘Wordless Wednesdays’ that prompt the blogger to write, and that foster a sense of common interest; inclusion on blogrolls; and passing along memes and awards (see Kitzmann, 2003, p. 58). These modes of co-production are common across the personal blogosphere, as Serfaty (2004) suggests, but they play a special role in personal mommy blogging. Motherhood, many bloggers find, is a fraught and contested identity category, in which they feel cowed by cultural pressures. TF comments: “No matter what we do someone is going to tell us we’re doing it wrong. Stay a home, work outside, write about the kids ... hell, TALKING about the kids can get a mom in trouble.” Lotta, too, finds structures of support online that are lacking elsewhere: “I think it’s fantastic that moms are sharing their stories. How much nicer would the task of motherhood be if we could do that in real life?” Mutual support and recognition provided by systems of co-production offer encouragement and kinship to writers who feel that their mothering labour, generally, is denigrated in public life, and who see their blogging practices maligned in popular media.
Mommy bloggers are highly self-conscious and self-reflexive about their practices. Even the very designation ‘mommy blog’ is contested by those whose writings it would describe. At an overflow panel on mommy-blogging at BlogHer 2007 in Chicago, for example, attendees vigorously debated the meaning of the term, its utility as a category by which to organize their writings, its status as amateur or commercial publication, and thus of its authors as private diarists or ‘proper writers’ operating in the public and commercial sphere, and more, attesting not only to the still-emerging norms of this practice but also the deep investment of its practitioners in determining these norms. Indeed, mommy blogging can seem very often to be about the act of mommy-blogging. Many of the mommy bloggers responding to the article self-identify as writers or would-be writers: commenter Dawn writes in the short profile that heads her blog, “What is there to say? I'm a wife. I'm a mom. I'm a writer. I love life. I love words” (belleoftheblog); this type of assertion is so very common that B sarcastically notes the cliché in her own profile: “I'm a stay-at-home mom who likes to write! I know! I'm a delicate, unique snowflake!” (Frog and Toad Are Still Friends). Many mommy blogs begin with tentative posts outlining the writer’s desire to, well, write, and they resent and refute anyone who will deny them what they construe as their right to express themselves, their skill and competence. Her Bad Mother’s own post rehashing the article in which she appeared was called “Crazy Narcissistic Exploitative Zombie-Pimp Mom-Bloggers, Unite and Take Over,” wittily referencing the hyperbole of the mass media account of mommy blogging while undermining her own ire by simultaneously recalling a silly song lyric by The Smiths. In the post itself, however, she explains herself passionately and eloquently:
The post quickly garnered over 100 comments, and the archived version of the post now lists 21 separate blog post responses appearing within the week. One of the commenters, inaugurating a thread that spun out to many other comments and posts, wondered exasperatedly whether anyone had ever accused Erma Bombeck of exploiting her children for commercial gain. She asks, further, “why is the fact that this writing is posted online […] make  it so inflammatory?”
Some commenters, echoing feminist scholars of autobiography, suggest that life writing by women has always seemed less worthy than great lives: “Mothers have written about their children for centuries. Many, many, many famous female writers have supported themselves in part by writing personal anecdotes about their lives that include their children.” Attempting to reframe the debate, yet others express a simple joy in writing about their own lives, a joy they don’t see captured in the article: KG writes, “[b]logging about your child perhaps does raise the question of their privacy, but really—what are our blogs besides love letters to our children?” For some, leaving extensive commentary at Her Bad Mother was insufficient, and they wrote posts of their own, posts remarkable for their clear-eyed analysis of the repercussions of their own writing practices. Sweetney distills the issue to gender, asking: “Do I, as a woman who also happens to be a mother, have the right to compose a memoir of my life?” (Gaughran-Perez, 2008, emphasis in the original). Yes, she decides. Her post also addresses the money question:
Like Sweetney, Veronica Mitchell questions her own practice in a broader context: “[T]he wider issue—whether writing about our children (sometimes for money! shocking!) is inherently exploitive—seems to me to be reasonably answered with a negative.” She considers the possible longer-term effects of a blogged childhood: “There inevitably comes a day when much of what we do will embarrass our children, simply because our existence is evidence that they are still not yet fully grown, but I do try to write my blog in a way that will not be fodder for future teasing. Each parent has to determine what these lines are” (Toddled Dredge). Other bloggers compare mommy-blogging to the example of preachers incorporating stories about their own families into sermons, to the current bumper crop of blog-to-print parenting memoirs, by Neal Pollack, Rebecca Eckler, Catherine Sanderson, and Rebecca Woolf, and to oldies-but-goodies comic writing by Bill Cosby, Erma Bombeck, and even Paul Reiser.
Mommy bloggers themselves, as these quotations suggest, offer some of the most compelling examinations of what it means to write publicly, and on the Internet, about childhood and parenthood. As Serfaty (2004) noticed, diary-style bloggers appear more likely than other life-writers to reflect in writing on the opportunities and constraints of the Internet as a publication medium, and on the interaction of their online selves and their offline ones, their experiencing selves and their writing ones. Some of this doubled self-reflexivity can be attributed to the affordances of the blog medium: publishing and being commented on nearly daily, mommy bloggers are able more quickly to respond to—to comment on, link to, and post about—popular media representation of their practices. The informality (no editors or other gatekeepers), ephemerality (as days go by, aging posts are superseded and quickly disappear from front pages into the archives), and unique audience composition (generally, readers of blogs also write them) of blogging makes such ‘inside baseball’ writings more likely to be published and to find a sympathetic and interested audience. Many mommy bloggers have categories for this type of writing: ‘bloggity-blog’ or ‘bloggy business’ or ‘blah blah blog’ are some of the self-consciously ironic labels devised by those who can’t seem to help themselves from writing about the genre, but seem to wish they could. Sweetney, again, finds the whole controversy, “BOOORING”: “I mean, I thought we'd collectively addressed the whole ultra-hysterical ‘Are Women Who Write About Their Lives And Have Kids Evil Narcissistic Child-Exploiters?’ thing a looong while back” (Gaughran-Perez, 2008). By way of contrast, consider Anne Lamott’s (1993) Operating Instructions: A diary of my son’s first year. In that text, novelist and essayist Lamott only once and fleetingly attempts to link her writing to her parenthood: in the entry for September 21, she writes, “Writing is on my mind, though, today. It feels good to be writing this. The baby is sleeping [….] It will be odd for him to have a writer for a parent. It was odd for me” (p. 26). The main question about writing raised in Operating Instructions is whether Lamott will be able to cobble together enough book and food review assignments to support her family. The other reflexivity of mommy blogging has to do with bloggers’ common status as mothers; mommy bloggers that is, are reflexive about motherhood. Veronica Mitchell, once more, suggests that it is the ‘mommy’ part of mommy blogging that so incensed critics:
This concern with the cultural ‘script’ of motherhood prompts much of the self-reflexivity of the mothering blogosphere. It is consequential because, as Arrendell (2000) writes, “Mothers actively interpret both cultural messages about childhood and their experiences with children, shaping their parental role in accordance with their evolving beliefs” (p. 1194). Mothers, further, are often excruciatingly attuned to the behaviours expected of them, deliberately performing ‘good motherhood’ in public in ways that sometimes belie their actual emotional and pragmatic experiences (Heisler and Ellis, 2008).
In the introduction to her 1992 parenting memoir, The Mother Zone, journalist and non-fiction author Marni Jackson describes pervasive “maternal amnesia,” whereby the day-to-day experience of mothering is simply absent from the public record. She names this absence “a conspiracy of silence around ordinary motherhood,” and notes that “there seemed to be a hole in the culture where mothers went” (p. 3). For Jackson, the balm for the corporeal, psychological, and intellectual shock of motherhood is to be found in writing and reading individual stories of mothering. “Modern motherhood,” she writes, “is still terra incognita, awaiting its raconteurs, explorers, and household anthropologists” (p. 7). Jackson’s memoir springs from her own “desire to restore the first person to a subject that has so much otherness, so much third-person expertise brought to bear on it” (p. 7). This is the work undertaken by mommy bloggers, on a much broader scale and to much more immediate effect than published memoirists or private diarists. In passionate defenses based on personal values, in sober accounts drawn from hard-won positive and negative experiences, in thoughtful and abstract (even academic) statements of practice drawing on other fields of practice, and sometimes in annoyed rants aimed at clueless outsiders, mommy bloggers support each other in the project of mapping the terrain of motherhood.
Practicing autobiography in real time, enmeshed in tight-knit communities of practice mommy bloggers work every day to fill the void that Jackson describes: articulating private mothering publicly, rewriting the public script of motherhood in the assertion of their own writing selves, and combating the cultural ‘amnesia’ that for long tidied up the story of what it meant to mother. Some of this amnesia manifests itself in the terms of the denigration of personal mommy blogging articulated by Globe and Mail comment writers. Enacting the feminist slogan of the 1970s that ‘the personal is political,’ many mommy bloggers took issue with how they were represented in the Globe article and comments, and defended their own practices, often eloquently. Like so many female life-writers before them, mommy bloggers continue to contest the enforced boundaries between private lives and public writing, forging communities of practice and support at the same time as they develop their voices as writers and as women who are integrating motherhood into their self-image.
Killoran (2003) notes that “disdain toward the public airing of the normally private lives of ordinary people is familiar enough in the autobiographical traditions” (p. 66) and it is perhaps even more prevalent now as so many writers vault over the gates of editorial process and self-publish, on their own terms, online. Killoran suggests that acts of Internet autobiography “can be read not just for its particular autobiographical details but for how it struggles to present in public someone denied such status” (p. 66). Madeline Sorapure (2003) seems pessimistic about online life-writing, arguing: “Already a marginal form of life writing and literature, the diary edges further into the margins when it goes online, calling into question what it means to write, how we read and make meaning, and how identity is constructed and lived” (p. 19). This calling into question should, I feel, make the online diary more central rather than less to the work of autobiography and media scholars. It performs essential work for its authors and meets a real need among its readers. For Killoran, this “new form of publishing offers us a glimpse of what a more democratic practice of autobiography might look like” (p. 67).
For most women, blogging has many advantages over either the personal diary or the print memoir. That is, as a publishing medium, blogging offers affordances that further their communicative aims, and social exigences. Obviously, there is the question of access: personal diaries can be written by anyone, but are very rarely read except by their own authors; print memoirs, meanwhile must clear the various gates of editorial and publisher oversight, and many more authors pen such texts than ever manage to see them published. Also, the time between writing and publication is much reduced in blogging, and inclusion of photos, videos, and other media is simple and of no greater cost than text; feedback can be nearly immediate. As the writers themselves express it above, one of the main attractions of blogging is in its social aspect, its friendship- and community-building facility resulting from the speed, reach, and richness of Internet composition, publishing, and searching. The blog medium, also, facilitates the ability of writers to shift registers, radically and regularly. The Mother Zone is a sustained work of memoir running over 200 pages and its tone of passionate ambivalence and the search for balance extends throughout its full length. Rebecca Eckler’s (2007) books, by contrast, are uniformly light and comic. Anthologies like Between Interruptions and Breeder, featuring and promoting the diversity of writings contained therein, nevertheless hew to a volume-spanning narrative arc, with entries divided into thematic sections, for example. Sorapure (2003), paraphrasing Rebecca Hogan, suggests “that in its grammar, syntax, and content the diary operates on the same principle as grammatical parataxis, in which clauses are joined without connectives or with only coordinating conjunctions” (p. 13). Structurally episodic, the result is a “disjointed, rather than a coherent or causal narrative,” one that accretes disparate records of daily life for its author and readers to interpret in retrospect (p. 13). Similarly, the blog format allows for the posting of a silly photo, a political rant, a meme questionnaire, and a midnight cry for sleep advice as the need arises and circumstances permit, day to day, in a manner that arguably better reflects the emotional cadence of early motherhood than literary print models of memoir or autobiography.
Genre is a process: more than the sum of texts that fall under its reach, genre is enacted in the contested relation between texts and communicants, a negotiation that defines, enforces, or rewrites the rules of engagement that constrain and enable syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic relations that structure texts and interactions. In his foreword to Breeder, prominent sex columnist, gay activist, and parent Dan Savage (2001) notes that his mother’s cohort of women in the 1970s “were the last generation to blindly take on the role of mother, allowing other people’s opinions about what a mother does or thinks or wears to limit them” (p. viii). In the face of all this plurality, a boon in many respects, and permitting a much broader variety of subject positions, practices, and ideologies within the realm of the normal, many women felt lost. Miller and Shepherd (2004) note the sophisticated and complex rhetorical positioning of personal subjectivity in personal blogging texts: self-narration is “not […] the simple unveiling of a pre-existent or perdurable self, but rather a constitutive effort” (Pragmatic Action section, para.1). Further, this self-expression works to build community kinship as well as self-understanding, and Miller and Shepherd thus ask, “Is what is truly novel in the blog the ability to address simultaneously these dual yet mutually reinforcing purposes, to engage in self-expression in order to build community and to build community in order to cultivate the self?” (Pragmatic Action section, para. 6).
As John Frow (2005) expresses it, genre “is a set of conventional and highly organic constraints on the production and interpretation of meaning” (p. 10). It is contentious and consequential: “[genre] is central to human meaning-making and to the social struggle over meaning” (p. 10). Comments and responses, both on the Globe and Mail website and off, are attuned to the questions that animate rhetorical genre study: who speaks to whom, and under what circumstances? What social exigence is this communication situation meant to address? What are the formal linguistic tropes of this communication? Finally, newspaper readers commenting on the article, and bloggers responding both to the article and to those who commented on it, both grapple with the central question of why: Why write about your children and your lives in this way? The Globe article and non-blogger commenters on the newspaper’s website ultimately show themselves to be more attuned to the potential risks of producing publicly-accessible multimedia Internet texts about children, mothering, and the minutiae of daily life. If not frightened by these dangers, many commenters are bored or put off by the whole enterprise. They see inanity and stories about infant excretion polluting the promise of the information superhighway idealized as a space of perfect knowledge and commerce. Writers and mothers engaged in the social and creative practice of mommy blogging, though, see a need for self-expression and community development met. The first group, that is, cannot fathom an exigence that would justify a practice they see as purposeless narcissism that might endanger children’s autonomy and privacy and bore the larger Internet; the second group, adjusting to the changed circumstances and new challenges that parenting bring to their lives, see blogging as first and foremost purpose-driven.
The Globe article—as with other similar treatments in the popular press—operates as a lightning rod focusing mommy bloggers’ attention and critical energy toward rearticulating community norms and asserting the values that undergird their own practices. The fact of the controversy speaks to the contested nature of mommy blogging—its boundaries, that is, are not fully established, its practices not universally accepted, its texts not acknowledged as part of a legitimate parenting or writing discourse. The specifics of the resulting discussion show that this confusion is asymmetrically distributed: most mommy bloggers have attained clear consensus on the boundaries of the genre; newspaper readers have not.
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i Technorati indexes over 1000 blogs in its parenting category. Doubtless many more exist. One index of scale: at the 2008 BlogHer conference in San Francisco, organizers devoted an entire conference track to ‘Mommy Blogging,’ booking this track’s the six sessions into the largest room at the convention site.
ii Sharon Cumberland notes the difficulty of studying Internet texts authored by ordinary people: “quantification of Internet phenomena is nearly impossible because the number of participants is so vast” (262). She proposes sampling (without describing how such samples might be plucked from the larger fabric of Internet corpora) to hint at scale, followed by close reading to determine “a sense of individual characteristics” (262); nevertheless, she cautions, “like Neilson ratings for television and telephone polling for elections, the results are highly stylized constructions for which no verification exists” (262). The same caveat applies, of course, to the current work.
iii Particularly, women’s genres of writing have been deprecated, online and offline: Herring et al (2004) have examined this phenomenon, noting that the “discursive construction of weblogs”—that is, the developing public and commonsensical understanding of what constitutes an exemplary blog, and what blogs ought to be used for—puts “women and children last,” as their title succinctly expresses it.
iv A sampling of these articles can be found in a publicly-accessible Zotero database created for this article, at http://www.zotero.org/aimee/....
v For example, Lindsay Ferrier authors the popular mommy blog Suburban Turmoil (http://suburbanturmoil.blogspot.com). However, she also writes a newspaper column of that name for Nashville’s The City Paper, and blogs under her own name and with the byline “The Blender” at the Parents.com website (http://www.parents.com), which hosts content from the magazines American Baby, Parents, and Family Circle.
vi See Mercer (2004) on the identity work undertaken by women in the process of “becoming a mother” after the birth of their first child; see Fowler and Lee (2004) on the “complex, and sometimes contradictory, processes” of learning to mother; see Bailey (1999) on the ambivalent process of shifting self-identity in women as they become mothers; see also Smith (1991) on this same topic; see Heisley and Ellis (2008) on the “facework” by which women aim to present themselves publicly as ‘good mothers’ according to external messages and internalized notions of what good mothering looks like; see Paris and Helson (2002) on both ego-resilience and vulnerability in women’s transitions to motherhood.
vii Breeder the book sprang from Hip Mama the print zine; it is hard not to imagine that had the originary project started even a few years later, it would have been a blog, if you will forgive the conjecture.
viii A note on naming: Catherine Connors authors Her Bad Mother, asserting her ownership of these writings in a fairly new copyright statement at the bottom of each page. Her blog began pseudonymously; as an artifact of that time, her posts are still signed ‘Her Bad Mother’ and her readers still refer to her as ‘Bad’ in their comments and on their own blogs. Kelly Graham-Scherer authors Don Mills Diva; in this case, too, she signs each post with her pseudonym and is referred to as ‘Diva’ or ‘Don Mills Diva’ among her readership. I follow Internet practice in referring to these writers by their pseudonyms.
ix The implicit hierarchization involved in print memoir writing—the editorial gatekeeping and professional production that marks the memoirists speech as authoritative, the commercial transaction by which a reader purchases access to the memoir—is absent in personal mommy blogs, and this impact might usefully be examined in future work.
x This shift is actually discernible on the Globe and Mail website itself: after Her Bad Mother posted the story on her own blog, at lunchtime on April 24, 2008, many of her readers flocked to the comment section of the Globe story to shift the tone of public discussion in that venue.
xi A note on privacy: in most cases, I have reduced commenters and bloggers names to initials, where their pseudonyms lead easily back to their own writings. I am mindful that most of these women write for small audiences of family members and online friends, and worry that the potential increase in traffic that citation here might bring could upset the ecosystems they have set up for themselves. While their writings are public in the sense that are easily and broadly accessible online, most bloggers do carefully track where their hits are coming from and how many visitors their sites receive each day. I except from this practice writers like Bad and Diva, as well as some others like Queen of Spain and Sweetney, whose blogs already have quite large (500 or more readers daily) audiences, and who have moved their blogs into the broader public media sphere already.
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