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The “Intimate Public” of Mommy Blogs: A Genre Study
Motherhood has been culturally recognized as a distinct social position, though its status is often considered within the context of other systems. With the emergence of digital writing and online communities, motherhood has become a unique phenomenon taking the blogosphere by storm, simultaneously bringing both an intimate and social perspective to the forefront of mothering research. In this paper, I will provide an overview of the content scope, participants in, and implications of the subgenre of blogs known as “mommy blogs,” a framework within which women writers nurture an “intimate public” through deliberate and communal interaction.
Women have remained the subordinate half of a patriarchal system, causing a distinction between the public and private spaces that they occupy. Mothers in this system have been selected as caretakers and domestic preservers, leaving them little room in which to explore or process issues beyond the private home. In certain societies, such as those with low socio-economic status or less industrialized economies, women-centered kinship networks provide substantial support for the community as a whole. However, in mainstream, middle-class American society, mothers have a delineated path that they are expected to follow; one that both controls and presents ideals by which these women are supposed to abide, encompassing the many expectations placed on mothers that define culturally what “good” and “bad” mothering look like. These myths are often presented under the guise of parenting “experts,” who have published numerous books that populate the shelves at bookstores and libraries, or through websites that promote certain parenting styles in a hyper-idealized format. All the while, women who consume this information do so from a point of solitude; whether they stay at home or opt for a career, they are expected to embody an impossible number of identities and roles that severely limit the honest representation of what a mother really wants. Without the solidarity provided in the past by collaborative groups, such as women-centered kinship networks (Cherlin, 2009) or such groups as ladies literary clubs, mothers become isolated and cutoff from the intimate bonds necessary to survive. Mommy blogs have provided both a window into and a means to cope with the daily demands of mothering from an honest and evolving perspective; by both sharing their own experiences and having access to the experiences of others, women gain emotional and social support that is otherwise absent in our current social structure. Lauren Berlant (2008), in her book The Female Complaint, calls this “intimate public” an achievement:
Whether linked to women or other nondominant people, it flourishes as a porous, affective scene of identification among strangers that promises a certain experience of belonging and provides a complex of consolation, confirmation, discipline, and discussion about how to live as an x (p. viii).
Because blogs are characterized by their interactive nature as well as their intentionally small audiences, they also provide qualitative insight for researchers on the realities of motherhood and mother identity that would be otherwise unobtainable through interviews or other traditional forms of data collection. Researchers are
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actively involved in the subgenre of mommy blogs through participation and observation; several of the articles used to support my claims have been written by self-identified mommy bloggers, who are also working in the field of sociology.
How Blogging Works: The Who, Why, and How
In a 2008 ‘State of the Blogosphere,’ Sifry found that out of 133 million existing blogs approximately 36% of women and 16% of men published regularly about family issues (as cited in Lopez, 2009, p. 729). This points to the notion of “mommy blogging” as a qualified subgenre within the larger field, though this term has not always been received by its participants with pride. The participants within this “intimate public,” a term coined by Berlant (2008) in The Female Complaint, are generally white, middle-class, heterosexual females who are of childbearing age (Lopez, 2009). Lori Kido Lopez’s (2009) research focuses on the “radical” notion of mommy blogging, particularly its persuasive entrance by females into a male-dominated field. She challenges the domestic, or private sphere that women have been assigned to, acknowledging the digital space
that this evolving community has settled within that has provided a venue for honest and provoking conversations pertaining to family subjects. Such topics include childbirth options, childcare, discipline, feeding, medical and health information, as well as parents-as-partners, single parenting, and mental health. Despite a failed representation of all mothers due to socio-economic restraints that limit access to technology (thus explaining the demographical data), mommy blogs shed new light on topics that have been marked as inappropriate for public discourse, which thus unpacks the myths of motherhood that the genre of parenting literature generally perpetuates.
Aimee Morrison, a self-identified mommy blogger and author of the paper “’Suffused by feeling and affect’: the intimate public of personal mommy blogging” (2011) explains in detail the rhetoric of mommy blogs, considering audience, purpose, and delivery as essential to understanding the affective nature of this subgenre. Morrison associates mommy blogs with network theory as these blogs rely on collective production and circulation, or a mutual and non-linear model of interaction between authors and their readers. She contrasts this with broadcast theory, which would involve a small group responsible for production of a text that is given to and received by consumers. Morrison (2011) identifies through an anonymous survey that more than 80% of respondents reported their readers to be other bloggers. This points to the unique property of mommy blogs, and blogs in general, that require an immediate and interactive response on behalf of the audience in order to flourish. Even more so, mommy blogs navigate this “intimate public” by maintaining small audiences and limiting their search-ability, relying on readership and network-propelled circulation to nurture their community. I find this to be incredibly interesting when compared to the communities that have provided a similar sense of companionship prior to or beyond the Internet, such as ladies literary clubs or women-centered kinship between families or neighbors; the community of mommy bloggers seems to have roots in these localized practices despite their international and often semi-anonymous presence.
Morrison (2011) continuously emphasizes the properties of an intimate public, those being a controlled audience (generally small and selective, as well as interactive) and the intimate, personal disclosure that determines topic choice and the amount of detail included. Therefore, though the authors maintain a certain degree of autonomy, the subgenre of mommy blogging is participant driven and thus forms a subculture within the genre. Mommy blogs are autobiographical by nature, updated frequently, and are accessible freely by anyone with an Internet connection (Lopez, 2009). Readers check in habitually, and authors use informal and narrative language producing a conversational tone (Lopez, 2009). Blogs are also often tagged, using keywords assigned to entries that associate entries with shared tags into searchable entities, which Lopez (2009) believes gestures to the “fragmentation of identity represented in blogs” (p. 738), though I will take this further and claim that fragmented identity is a concept associated specifically with the female identity, as evidenced by the many unattainable expectations placed on mothers and the many roles women must balance on a daily basis.
In terms of topic, what distinguishes mommy blogs from personal blogs written by women is the “recurrent theme of writing about children” (Lopez, 2009, p. 734); a choice that has led to marginalization even within the community of female bloggers. In a BlogHer 2005 conference, a conference attendee named Alice Bradley, claimed that ‘mommy blogging is a radical act’ (Lopez, 2009). This controversial statement at a conference for female bloggers that originally aimed to challenge misconceptions that females only blogged about children earned itself a session at the 2006 conference with Bradley’s claim as the session title (Lopez. 2009). Perhaps what Bradley calls attention to is the identity of mother and its need for reform and reclaiming: according to Lopez (2009), “the entire concept of being a mother is overwhelming and imbued with failure. Once women become mothers, their lives are taken over by society’s strict sets of rules and expectations.” This “new-momism,” a term attributed to Douglas and Michaels (as cited in Lopez, 2009, p. 731), is evidenced in the barrage of parenting literature thrown at new and expecting parents, in the social
practices surrounding motherhood represented in the media (television shows and advertising), and institutionally through maternity leave and lactation policies. These examples all serve as places for these rules to be taught and reinforced. Though mommy blogs intentionally limit themselves from broader public discourse (which Morrison argues is a hindrance to achieving social change), their presence in the blogosphere is growing and with that comes continued uncovering of the hyper-idealized image associated with motherhood identity.
What is at Stake for Families?
May Friedman (2010) in her essay “On Mommyblogging: Notes to a Future Feminist Historian,” says that “maternal isolation has directed many different waves of feminism” (p. 197). In placing the feminist movement on a timeline we see that these waves coincide with the societal elevation of women, and consequently the shift from women-centered kinship within communities to a more individualistic environment. Andrew Cherlin (2009), a prominent family sociologist, recalls the nineteenth-century ideal of True Womanhood which focused on the private, domestic lives of women that came to define the woman’s sphere; while this distinction limited women in terms of social clout, it provided for a network that included other female relatives and/or members of the community that became impractical to maintain when the boundaries between gendered spaces were challenged. Community in general, but particularly for women who have been subordinate in a patriarchal system, fosters identity development and empowerment through reflexivity. Created kinship, or the actively constructed ties that individuals create with others, provides emotional support and personal satisfaction common to both modern expectations of relationships as well as communal values. This type of connection found amongst mommy bloggers counters individualism by providing a new accessible space for those who may otherwise be limited by their lack of local resources.
While mommy blogs are collectively working to redefine aspects of motherhood identity, these blogs also serve as educational tools and are becoming recognized sources of reliable data. In an article titled “’Motherbirth or childbirth’? A prospective analysis of vaginal birth after caesarean blogs,” Dahlen and Homer (2011) discuss findings from a survey conducted by analyzing blogs to gather data pertaining to VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Caesarean) decisions. Like the other studies considered in this paper, Dahlen and Homer (2011) used Google Analytics to search for specific terms and themes in blogs which provided them a sample from which to begin analysis. Mommy blogs thus not only serve as the thread by which communities form and are held together, but also provide entirely subjective information for their readers. When faced with heavily implicated decisions pertaining to childbirth, childrearing, parenting, and partnership, women often turn to the internet to find answers. Blogs provide a unique take on the information usually presented objectively by medical professionals or other trusted authorities on parenting issues.
Despite their limitations, mommy blogs hold the power needed to access social change through solidarity, expounding on the “intimate public” and creating a space where both the public and private aspects of family life are engaged. These blogs illustrate contemporary motherhood identity as well as the social construction of expectations placed on parents while maintaining a space on the fringe of mainstream media. Through what Friedman calls “women’s storytelling” (p. 199), honest accounts of motherhood are given to the public as living data and thus an evolving archive is born through deliberate, consciously created communication. The subgenre of mommy blogs within a larger digital space, as well as the genre of parenting media, holds the potential for radical redesign that considers the actual dynamic needs of contemporary American families.
Berlant, L. (2008). The Female Complaint. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Cherlin, A. (2009). Public and Private Families: An Introduction. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Dahlen, H. & Homer, C. (2011). ’Motherbirth or childbirth’? A prospective analysis of vaginal birth after caesarean blogs. Midwifery. 1-7.
Friedman, M. (2010). On mommyblogging: notes to a future feminist historian. Journal of Women’s History 22(4). 197-208.
Lopez, L. K. (2009). The radical act of ‘mommy blogging’: redefining motherhood through the blogosphere. New Media Society 11(5). 729-747.
Morrison, A. (2011). “Suffused by feeling and affect”: the intimate public of personal mommy blogging. Biography 34(1). 37.