The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Heather Armstrong, a.k.a. Dooce, was real and raw. And we loved her.

Heather B. Armstrong on the "Today" show on April 23, 2019. (Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images)
6 min

Lyz Lenz is the author of books including “Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women” and the Substack “Men Yell at Me.”

I began reading in 2002. That year, the blog’s author, Heather B. Armstrong, was fired after her co-workers discovered she’d been writing satirical posts about the Los Angeles office where she worked during the dot-com boom.

She was writing on Blogger, which had been launched only three years before. In those early days of the World Wide Web, everything was so new. We all felt a bit like the man in Plato’s allegorical cave, blog-posting our way into the internet’s blinding, bewildering light.

The news of Heather’s firing went what we now call viral, and the phrase “dooced” was coined to describe getting fired for what you posted online. This was back when it was a novelty rather than an everyday occurrence. The notoriety helped make Heather a star.

I was in college then, just seven years younger than Heather and also writing on Blogger, posting book reviews and what I thought were funny political posts, even though I’m now sure they weren’t. Most of those posts were modeled on Dave Barry because I didn’t have other models for the type of writing I wanted to do.

Then, here came Dooce. Heather’s writing was sack-of-meat raw, raunchy and transcendently real. She wrote fiercely and furiously. She kept posting after she was fired. She was one of the first women to be branded a “mommy blogger” and, later, a mom “influencer.” She was No. 26 on Forbes’s 2009 list of the most influential women in media. She wrote books. She became a writer on her own terms.

Heather died on Tuesday at age 47. Her partner, Pete Ashdown, told the Associated Press that she died by suicide after years of struggling with depression.

Obituary: Heather Armstrong, who made it okay to say motherhood was hard, dead at 47

The news of Heather’s death hit me like a kick in the chest. I didn’t know her personally, but like so many people, I felt as though I did. I read her obsessively, followed her life as a single person in Los Angeles, then as a married person, then as a mother in Utah.

My own life followed just a clip behind. Her second child and my first were born two years apart. It’s a testament to the intimacy of her writing that we all felt like we were her friends when all that held us together were the flimsy web created by words.

Heather was a role model. When I couldn’t get my writing published, when editors wouldn’t answer my email, when it seemed my life was nothing but spit-up and baby wipes and bleeding nipples, I decided, heck, I’d publish it myself — and started my own blog. Heather had shown me that I didn’t need to ask permission, I didn’t need to wait for approval.

Reading Heather, I learned how to write with humor and heart and skin-peeling honesty. She was like the Hunter S. Thompson of birthing and child-rearing — a wild, weird gonzo journalist of domesticity and dog poop.

She once described her sick toddler as acting like a “drunken blues singer whose wife done kicked him out of the house.” Writing about a visit to the gynecologist, she noted wryly, “Somewhere there has to be a Garfield comic that talks about how Mondays aren’t bad enough already, and here you have to go and throw an enlarged ovary into his soup?”

Her post about getting shingles while breastfeeding was so epically hilarious that even now, nearly 14 years later, every time I hear the word “shingles” I see her saying it like a Broadway singer with jazz hands. If she’d been a man, she’d be a humorist and memoirist. But she was a woman, so she was a mommy blogger.

She wrote about faith and sex and leaving the Mormon Church. She showed a generation of women who would become mothers that the stuff of our lives was valuable and important, that our voices and stories mattered. She elevated the humdrum of domesticity into an art form — one that made you laugh so hard you thought you’d have to lie down.

And her letters to her children — who are now teenagers and whose childhood many of us followed online — were so tender and honest they made me cry. Right before the birth of her second child, she wrote to her first: “I remember when you were three how you would call a lake a ‘lape’ and a river a ‘ribber.’ And then when you were four, how quickly you caught on to my sarcasm, would shake your head and say, ‘Mother, you’re joking.’”

Heather wouldn’t skip the hard stuff, so neither will I. She divorced in 2012, and in 2015 she took a break from blogging to focus on other work. (She was so famous by then, these moves made headlines.) In 2017, her depression reached a breaking point — an experience she chronicled in her third book, “The Valedictorian of Being Dead.”

The online backlash, criticism and hate Heather received was overwhelming. These are topics that academics are researching now and that people now have tools to deal with. But in those earlier days, there was nothing. Although I can’t speak for Heather, I can say it’s sometimes hard to separate the voices of hate online from the voices in your head. When that happens, the world becomes a terrifying place to be.

When Heather returned to blogging, she was a different kind of writer. I stopped reading her as regularly. She wrote a post that expressed anti-trans sentiment. Her writing about her eating disorder would often trigger my own.

Her friend the author Gabrielle Blair wrote on Instagram that Heather had been struggling for a while but that she could see in her last conversation with Heather “how much she was trying to stay alive. It’s hard to be alive. Heather fought for a really long time.” It takes a difficult woman to be the first to do difficult things. Heather would have been the first to acknowledge, loudly, how difficult she could be.

In the end, perhaps the last thing she modeled for us was her humanness. She was strong and messy and funny — but also just a person trying so hard to live.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit or call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.