How the “mamasphere” went from scrappy blogs to multi-platform personal brands in the past decade.
Did moms exist before social media? Technically, yes, there have always been moms, but motherhood as a lively public conversation — a set of references, jokes, warring factions, cliches and grievances — has existed for just a little over a decade. For millennia, the way mothers negotiated their public selves has been defined by a set of rigid moral imperatives. Talking openly about motherhood as a multidimensional, contradictory, hilarious and sometimes unpleasant experience is new.
New mothers in 2020 might not realize that the conversations around motherhood that they may take for granted — about topics like breastfeeding, or postpartum depression, or sex after childbirth — very rarely took place in public before 2005. Previously taboo topics like these have now been taken up by the mainstream: The everyday struggles and victories of motherhood have gone pop.
This transition was navigated between roughly 2005 and 2010 by the first wave of mommy bloggers, who wrote confessional, raw accounts of their experiences on amateur blogs. The iconic blogger from this early period is Heather Armstrong and her blog, Dooce. Another pioneer of confessional mommy blogging, Catherine Connors, started the blog Her Bad Mother in 2005 and went on to become the editor in chief of the now-shuttered parenting website Babble in 2011.
“The early blogs were all about telling the messy story,” said Connors, who is now a writer and consultant in Los Angeles. “And there was a sense that, yes, it had to be really brutally honest if it was going to get an audience.”
Casual profanity, informal references to one’s reproductive organs, the eschewing of motherly “niceness” — these were among the discursive trails blazed by the first mommy bloggers. One might say that bloggers like Armstrong walked so that comedians like Ali Wong could run. Armstrong became renowned for turning the struggles of family life into an intimate form of comedy. Sure, there had been funny moms on TV; the characters of Roseanne Conner and Clair Huxtable were pioneering representations of working mothers. But their humor was aimed at broad audiences, and their maternal identities were never framed critically. The mommy bloggers were the first media voices who spoke directly — and exclusively — to mothers.
Around 2010, the internet began evolving into a more visual medium, Web 2.0, thanks to web hosts that could handle larger photos, and the launch of Instagram. “When blogs went visual, we saw the beginning of the commercialization of the storytelling,” Connors said. “People began to see they could make more money with aspirational content — because brands prefer it. Aspirational sells better than truth-telling.”
As online motherhood shifted from uncensored to aspirational, many mommy blogs became “lifestyle” blogs, and bloggers became influencers. Bloggers like Joanna Goddard of Cup of Jo and James Kicinski-McCoy of Bleubird, now called Bleu, (and later co-founder of Mother Mag) began experimenting with e-commerce, and photography effects rapidly improved. Suddenly, the rough edges of mommy blogging’s early days were replaced with sunlit nurseries, crisp linen sheets and arranged flowers.
To overlook the influence of Mormon and other Christian mommy bloggers on this shift would be a huge oversight. Mormon mommy bloggers in particular were enormously influential in establishing the aesthetic and tone that came to characterize influencer-era online motherhood. Mormonism encourages the careful documentation of family life, and Mormon mothers were among blogging’s earliest and most enthusiastic adopters. Unlike the confessional early mommy blogs, Mormon mothers’ blogs broadcast a clean and chipper vision of motherhood, replete with D.I.Y. crafting projects and coordinated family photo shoots. Many of the most successful Mormon bloggers from the mid-aughts, like Amber Fillerup Clark and Naomi Davis, went on to become mainstream lifestyle bloggers, and although their Mormon faith is no secret, its prominence receded as the years passed.
Through this transition, from consciousness-raising spaces to commodified lifestyle destinations, there remained one important common denominator: claims to authenticity. “Realness” was mommy blogging’s founding currency, and even as bloggers began striving for more polished content by hiring staff and staging photo shoots, they continued to claim that their guiding mission was to provide honest representation — “real” motherhood. Sites like The Glow and Mother Mag brought representations of motherhood to new heights of aesthetic glory, but still claimed to want to shine a light on all of the imperfect truths of motherhood. A new set of online mannerisms hardened into place during this era: the duality of maintaining a flawless image while claiming to be nonjudgmental. “Nobody’s perfect,” this image of motherhood reassures us, adding sotto voce, “except maybe me.”
This saintly moment might be the most demanding iteration of motherhood since the Victorian era. Although previously taboo topics were open for discussion by this point, the aspirational-yet-down-to-earth mother played a role for her audience, of a nurturing port in stormy ideological seas. This mom welcomed all points of view, but deftly avoided courting conflict. She finessed her way around debates that had polarized the mamasphere over the last decade — the debates that, in some ways, shaped this world. (The list of potentially inflammatory topics is endless. It includes, in no particular order, what constitutes a “natural” birth, how much sacrifice should be made for the sake of breastfeeding, how much screen time is acceptable and how to feed a picky eater.)
Exemplars of this trend could be said to include Goddard, Davis and LaTonya Yvette. This era, which I position roughly between 2013 and 2018, drew to a close probably in no small part because of fatigue on the part of the women trying to pull it off. Maybe it’s the influence of the galvanizing political times we find ourselves in, but the saintly moms are beginning to take sides, even at the risk of turning off some of their readership.
This brings us to the present day, when moms are pushing the envelope in both perfect and “imperfect” directions. Today’s most popular representations of motherhood aren’t necessarily occurring on websites anymore, but rather through multi-platform personal brands, exemplified in the Los Angeles haute-slacker cohort of Busy Philipps, Kelly Oxford and Liz Carey. As media producers, they work directly with brands in ways that most consumers wouldn’t even understand, going beyond mere sponsored content. They write, they perform, they consult; they’re ambassadors. They’re profane and genuinely self-deprecating, but glossier and more aspirational than mothers have ever been. They look, through the Instagram filters anyway, like beautiful, languid teenagers. Their representations of motherhood are unsettling, hilarious and subversive, in a way that is diametrically opposed to the kind of subversion that defined early mommy blogs.
Connors sees representations of motherhood as having come full circle from the breakout mommy blog years of the mid-aughts. “Much of what is popular today is glossy or gossipy — just like before the blogs, when all we had were magazines,” she said. “Once again there’s this sense that we need to find a way to tell stories in an honest way.”
Perhaps our anxious times compel mothers to take solace in escapist fictions. Maybe our ultra-competitive job market has sapped mothers’ energy for norm-restructuring online debates about child care and sexuality. Certainly the economic model of social media platforms has rewarded glossy renderings of motherhood over the grittier stuff. Consequently, the most influential moms in pop culture today tend to reinforce old norms about what it means to be “good” and attractive.
However, mothers’ appetite for the messy version of motherhood hasn’t abated; it’s moved back into more private spaces. Private Facebook groups, group chats and Instagram direct messages are where a lot of mothers’ support-seeking takes place in 2019. New subscription services like Chairman Mom invite mothers to interact in ad-free discussion groups that feel a lot like 2009.
The next wave of mom-influencers, meanwhile, will be known primarily for their professional profiles. Women like Audrey Gelman of the Wing and Leandra Medine of Man Repeller are interesting additions to the mamasphere because their identities are hyphenated — an experience that didn’t get much convincing coverage until recently. They are entrepreneurs-artists-community leaders, and their social influence was established before they had children. Now that they do, motherhood adds another valuable dimension to their brands.
Motherhood as an experience both online and off has undergone a dramatic evolution over the last decade. Topics that once provoked outrage — the concept of “having it all” comes to mind — are now the subject of knowing chuckles. Who knows? Maybe 10 years from now, parenting media will have transcended gender binaries altogether, and caregivers of all identifications will be telling their parenting stories as one.
By Kathryn Jezer-Morton