A grinning toddler is bundled in a creamy quilted blanket and bear-eared hat. Next to him, an iPhone atop a wicker basket displays a Winnie-the-Pooh audiobook. The caption accompanying the Instagram shot explains, "i am quite excited to have partnered with @audible_com.... i'm not sure who loves it more, this little bear or his mama!?"
More than 260,000 people follow Amanda Watters, a stay-at-home mom in Kansas City, Mo., who describes herself on Instagram as "making a home for five, living in the rhythm of the seasons." Her feed is filled with pretty objects like cooling pies and evergreen sprigs tucked into apothecary vases, with hardly any chaos in sight.
This is the "mommy Internet" now. It's beautiful. It's aspirational. It's also miles from what motherhood looks like for many of us — and miles from what the mommy Internet looked like a decade ago.
When Heather Armstrong launched Dooce.com in 2001, the emerging mommy Internet was dominated by blogs, and those blogs were raw and authentic. Some writers focused on parenting, but many used a wider lens to chronicle the ups and downs of their lives. Armstrong wrote about her depression, her time in a psychiatric hospital, her divorce and her experiences growing up in the Mormon Church. In a 2008 post about getting her daughter to stop eating treats, she sarcastically described herself as a "monster." "This is about teaching her to eat when she's hungry and stopping when she's full," she wrote. "This is also very much about making her suffer."
Armstrong quickly found an audience. In her heyday, around 2009, she averaged 4 million page views a month, appeared on "Oprah," signed an HGTV contract and published a book, "It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita." The New York Times Magazine dubbed her "queen of the mommy bloggers."
She was joined by the likes of "The Bloggess" Jenny Lawson, Ree Drummond of "Pioneer Woman," Kristen Howerton of "Rage Against the Minivan" and Glennon Doyle of "Momastery," who write about issues of mental health, race, marriage, education and politics alongside the mundane matters of diapers and minivans. Reading their blogs gives you the feeling that you are peeking into their diaries. This is what everyday life — real life — looks like.
But the biggest stars of the mommy Internet now are no longer confessional bloggers. They're curators of life. They're influencers. They're pitchwomen. And with all the photos of minimalist kitchens and the explosion of affiliate links, we've lost a source of support and community, a place to share vulnerability and find like-minded women, and a forum for female expertise and wisdom. "It's just so sad," says Armstrong. "It's all these staged, curated photos that don't show the messier part of life."
For me, the first few months of motherhood in 2016 were — as they are for many women — elating and discouraging. My daughter's first giggles made me cry, as did her first blowout diaper. I felt both #blessed and sometimes quite lonely. Members of my church brought meals, my girlfriends and sisters shared war stories over group texts, and my Facebook group of moms answered modern questions, such as "How do you organize all the digital photos of your baby?" Still, I wanted something more. I wanted to read the stories of people sharing my experience. During the tough moments, I wanted a mommy blogger's reassurance: "I've been there. It's awful. You will survive."
But instead, as I thumbed the screen of my phone during what felt like never-ending hours of breast-feeding, I found trips to Greece and carefully arranged living rooms. Social media doesn't nurture the authenticity and community I craved from the Internet as a new mom. The Facebook groups centered on transactional tips — I need advice or a product, so let's exchange ideas or baby gear — and rarely featured those journal-like entries of the earlier mom blogs. And Instagram is built for beauty (its filters make your life look better), not for rawness.
The death of the mom blog has something to do with shifts in how people consume and create on the Internet. Blogging on the whole has fizzled as audiences and writers have moved to other platforms. And parents with young children have made the transition along with everyone else — although their hours are somewhat more erratic. In 2016, Facebook (which owns Instagram) reported that new parents are especially active "in the wee hours," starting their first mobile visits as early as 4 a.m. By 7 a.m., 56 percent of new parents have visited Facebook on their mobile devices.
Some bloggers use social networks to push people to their websites, but more and more, Instagram or Facebook is the destination. Mom bloggers "used to be able to easily reach their audience through search, RSS feeds or newsletter updates," notes Elizabeth Tenety, a former Washington Post colleague who co-founded the website Motherly, "but now that their core audience is trending towards hanging out on their phones — and by extension social media sites like Instagram and Facebook — the digital environment overall is less of a fit for those types of blogs." The shift to shorter posts and an emphasis on likes and hearts has changed the tone and content of what moms find online: more pictures, fewer words, less grit. The personal-essay industry has absorbed some of the fare that used to appear on mom blogs, but reading a viral post that shows up in your Facebook feed is very different from following a particular blogger.
Meanwhile, some of the mom brands of today's Internet operate in a niche, such as fitness, food, card-making or even calligraphy. And then there are those like the Shyba family, who shot to fame after staging photos of their puppy napping with their baby.
Bunmi Laditan, the woman behind the popular Twitter feed turned book "The Honest Toddler," says there are funny, authentic and interesting moms on those platforms, but there's also a trendy sameness to much of the content. "How many macarons can you look at? How much latte art can you consume? How many photos of babies in the cloth diaper on the minimalist kitchen counter can you see? It's visual Cheetos," she says. "You can't taste it after a while, but you keep eating it."
Financial interests also clearly shape how people tell stories on the mom Internet now. "Advertising got a foothold and started having more and more say in things," Armstrong says.
Over time, mom bloggers, with their thousands of followers, became enormously influential, and, as with athletes and other celebrities, their endorsements became valuable to marketers. Companies send influencers free products they might recommend, sponsor giveaways and pay for posts. Some affiliate programs such as RewardStyle pay when readers click on their links.
The result is blogs like Jessica Shyba's Momma's Gone City, where photos are the main event and the writing seems to exist solely to sell stuff. Sample: "One of the most exciting things we do as a family though, is decorate our home for Christmas. Through my previous partnership with Big Lots, I found out that they offer all kinds of deals and stock tons of holiday décor at great prices, so we headed there to find a few new things to spruce up the place."
These partnerships can be lucrative. Claudia Felix-Garay, who runs the blog the Penny Closet out of Los Angeles, has said she earns up to $1,000 to $3,000 per product-placement campaign. Florida mom Angelica Calad, who posts on Instagram at @taylensmom, says she nets $150 to $5,000 per sponsored post. Baltimore-based Dayna Bolden, who initially focused on encouraging black women to grow their natural hair, has said she made $50,000 in the first half of 2017.
As advertisers shifted to sponsored content, they paid bloggers less for more-traditional ads. Armstrong says a banner ad atop her blog would have sold for $15 before 2011; now those same ads won't sell for 25 cents. She says she ended up locked into a contract that made her feel forced to manufacture experiences: The product had to appear in a photo alongside her two children. "They were asking me to manufacture bulls---," she says. "I felt ashamed as a human being." So she quit blogging for two years.
Laditan, who built and sold a social media platform for moms in 2009, says it's become harder to find mothers who are telling the truth online. "Companies don't want to align themselves with the difficulties of motherhood," she says. "They want to align themselves with people who are winning."
Another reason some mom blogs disappeared: The kids got older. Moms who had babies and started blogging more than a decade ago now have children who are old enough to be aware of — and object to — what their mothers share about them. And those mothers may be more circumspect about chronicling what can be some of the more awkward years of a child's life.
"People age out of mommy blogging," says Laura Tremaine, who used to blog at Hollywood Housewife. "When your kid gets to be too old, you want to protect your kid. Maybe the kid is a teenager now, and he's not so into his poop story being shared all over the world."
Elizabeth Bastos stopped blogging about her children after her father raised concerns over a post about her son's first signs of puberty. "I've written extensively, intimately, damningly, about my children for seven years without once thinking about it from the point of view of their feelings and their privacy," she wrote. ". . . If I'm going to continue writing, I realize I need to find some new material." Some bloggers who got in at the right time moved on to book contracts and the speaking circuit, but the next generation of mom bloggers didn't materialize.
Jill Smokler started the popular website Scary Mommy a decade ago as a way to document her stay-at-home days with her three children. She sold the site three years ago, and now it has a staff of 50 in New York. Could Smokler start the same thriving blog today? Probably not, she says.
Smokler, who still oversees Scary Mommy's editorial content, said her experience is that people want to read in small chunks rather than the longer essays that thrived in the blogging space and that could go into more depth. And most "influencers" are calculating with what they write, looking specifically for ways to grow their audiences. "It doesn't feel like that little slice of the Internet that you could curl up to for your virtual village," she says. "Even if there are bad times, they're not the really ugly things. It's a spill on the floor, it's contained, it doesn't present the mass chaos."
Some bloggers have tried to live in both worlds. One blogger who goes by "Rachael" online has written hundreds of posts since her young daughter accidentally drowned at a beach in 2007. Readers followed along as she dealt with grief and healing after the tragedy. Rachael also maintains an Instagram account, though she admitted on her blog recently that there is a dramatic contrast between what she posts on Instagram and what happens in real life, and that her blog is closer to the truth. "It sure does look like I have one amazing and fantastic life if you were to judge me based on the photos I share on Instagram," she wrote in December. "Those of you who follow here are more privy to the drama that is my mood swings and continuing to work through my grief over losing Hannah. I'm much more real here."
Women obviously did the mom thing before the Internet. My mother raised six children before YouTube demonstrations, Netflix streaming or magical sleep sacks were invented, and moms found ways to connect long before it was possible to do so through a computer screen. Blogging, even in its heyday, had its downsides, too, including spreading false information about vaccines. But blogging gave women a unique platform in a world where men like Dr. Spock were often seen as the experts, and it helped women from around the world connect, says Deidra Riggs, an author and speaker based in Nebraska. "This gave us new, broadened perspectives, and I believe it encouraged us to trust our instincts more," Riggs says. "Especially for women from churches that don't allow women to speak or teach, the Internet has given [them] a community in which to exercise their gifts."
"Mommy blogs" was never really a good term for the genre. Rachel Held Evans, who wrote a recent tribute to these bloggers, said that the term "was insufficient to describe the breadth and depth of what these women were writing about online." Many of the bloggers she learned from wrote about faith, doubt, race, mental health and the "challenges of raising children in our highly-connected, yet increasingly isolating culture."
Parts of the mommy Internet could be shifting again, back to something that feels more like blogs. Thanks to "Serial," a podcast series that helped popularize the platform, many moms are looking to podcasts, says Tremaine, who hosts one herself: "People are less branded on a podcast, and you can get authenticity." The growing genre has made some of the mundane parts of parenting — such as tackling the piles of laundry or stacks of dishes — more bearable. YouTube, extremely popular with Generation Z, could continue to see a rise of mommy-driven vlogging, especially when an even-younger generation enters motherhood.
Armstrong has been trying to cultivate community through a Slack channel, a kind of online group chat, where women can share tips, but she doesn't think it has the same sit-by-the-campfire storytelling advantages. "There's nothing necessarily bad about the way things have gone, except those of us who knew what it was like in 2005 know it's now lacking the rough edges," Armstrong says. "Before, it was, 'I just want to feel less alone.' "
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified a blogger who was named in a story about product-placement campaigns. The blogger was Claudia Felix-Garay, who runs the blog the Penny Closet.