The Mommy Blog Is Dead. Long Live the Mommy Blog
Brené Brown is speaking and all of us are crying. Our fingers press the corners of our eyes, sparing our carefully applied makeup. We are all so beautiful in this room. There are so many fluttering outfits: bold jumpsuits and floral dresses, off-the-shoulder tops fringed in ruffles. Our hair is perfect: blow-dried, deep-conditioned, ironed, curled, and braided. Our lips are shades of coral and red, smiling and welcoming. We are moms, and we’ve come here to learn how to make money by being moms.
Brown, 53, is a best-selling author and research professor who has spent decades studying shame, vulnerability, and empathy. Brown became famous when her 2011 TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” went viral. She is being vulnerable with us right now, recounting her professional failures. She was told she’d never find an audience, so she used the internet—her blog, her TED Talk, her social media presence—to create one. She’s telling us to take care of our brands, by which she means ourselves.
We are so very tired. When we leave this conference we will go to our jobs, our children, to a pile of dishes and toys strewn across the floor. But right now, we are sitting here, beautiful, taking notes, feeling feelings, learning how to monetize our identities as mothers. And we will do this through Instagramming, blogging, podcasting, Facebooking, working with advertisers, knowing our angles. We are preparing ourselves to perform motherhood with a hashtag.
For more than a decade, the three-day Mom 2.0 Summit, held this year in the ballroom of the JW Marriott in downtown Austin, Texas, has served as a central meeting place for influencers representing the enormous economic influence of American mothers, who make 85 percent of household purchases in the United States and have a yearly buying power of $2.4 trillion. The Mom 2.0 Summit was founded by entrepreneurs Laura Mayes and Carrie Pacini in 2009, and was first held in Houston, with only 175 attendees. Today, the conference is sold out with 1,100 attendees, each of whom pay up to $529 to attend.
Gone are the days of Mom 1.0, the mom blogger who launched frustrated missives about parenthood into the ether of the internet, hoping to monetize her words and find a measure of financial success while wrangling an overwhelming empire of the self. Today’s mom influencers operate like media moguls: monetizing, marketing, and creating value from sophisticated brands they create and run from their living rooms and home offices.
The Mom 2.0 Summit has pared influence down to a simple equation: moms plus marketers plus media. The women present at this convention represent the face of the $11 billion mom-influencer industry, and though they wield considerable power, it’s clear they are also the product.
When we leave this conference we will go to our jobs, our children, to a pile of dishes and toys strewn across the floor. But right now, we are sitting here, beautiful, taking notes, feeling feelings, learning how to monetize our identities.
In the 23,000-square-foot Marriott ballroom, attendees listen to keynote speakers Brown and actor Amber Tamblyn, while in smaller rooms down the hall they attend panels about optimizing their content for SEO, using Instagram, working with brands, and even political organizing. Arranged along the hallways are representatives from companies such as Amazon, Best Buy, Dove, and Google, offering cookies, blowouts, massages, hair-care products, baby wipes, probiotics, essential oils, and plastic flutes of prosecco in an effort to woo their way into the wallets of American Mothers.
I am here at the epicenter of momming and money in order to understand what it means when one of our culture’s most sacred identity markers becomes a profitable branding tool. How motherhood, which has been historically used as a way to keep women from accessing professional accomplishment and financial resources, becomes an economic pipeline.
It’s fucked-up what we do to women in America—specifically mothers. Women still bear the mental, emotional, and physical weight of caring for families; married mothers in America still do twice as much housework as married fathers, and 42 percent of mothers say they had to take time off to care for a child, while only 28 percent of fathers say the same.
One of the single factors that drives the American wage gap is motherhood. To work is to be accused of abandoning our kids; to not work is to be thought of as living solely for our children and our family. American women earn on average a 5 percent lower hourly wage per child, and this “motherhood penalty” costs women, on average, $16,000 in lost income per year. Becoming a mom influencer is a way for women to exert control over a demanding, prescribed role that also isolates them from true economic independence.
Nine years ago, I started a blog. I was pregnant for the first time and had just completed my MFA at Lesley University in Boston. I had an adjunct job teaching composition at a local community college and another job at a relationships website, where I was getting buried in social media strategy and internet outrage.
I wanted to write, but no one was taking my pitches. I didn’t blame them. Who’d want to publish the musings of a 28-year-old mom in Iowa? So I did what so many lonely, modern, digitally savvy moms do: I started a blog, hoping that somebody—anybody—would take notice and read.
Mom blogs were not exactly scarce in 2010. Heather Armstrong, the creator of Dooce.com, the ur-text of the genre, launched her site in 2001 and had her first child in 2004. Rebecca Woolf, the voice behind the popular website Girl’s Gone Child, had been blogging since 2002 and had her first child in 2005. Monica Bielanko, of The Girl Who, has blogged about motherhood since 2005. None of these women set out to create a genre, much less an entire industry; they were simply smart and talented individuals who started experimenting with blogging software and discovered an audience of people just like them: women dealing with diapers, leaky nipples, rotting milk, shitty toddlers, messy homes, kid vomit, and dog vomit—characteristics of modern motherhood that the New York Times would dismiss as the “banalities of one mother’s eclectic life” in a 2011 profile of Armstrong.
While popular mom bloggers in no way represented the demographic diversity of American mothers, the sentiment within the Times piece reflected a broader cultural dismissal of the concerns of American mothers. But on mom blogs, readers—who were usually other mothers and women—didn’t have to justify the importance of their struggles. They could read, commiserate, and, sometimes, observe the tiny frustrations of their existence elevated to art.
There was money, too. First came the ads, display banners and sidebars for companies and products like Disney, Kraft, Target, and Aden + Anais diapers. Then came the speaking engagements and book deals. Bloggers have been famously private about their incomes, but from the outside it appeared that the top bloggers were doing well—new houses, clothes, travel. Brands began to take notice too.
In 2009, Armstrong tweeted about the nightmare of her experience getting someone to service her broken $1,300 Maytag washer. A repairman attempted to fix the washer several times and as the laundry piled up, Armstrong grew increasingly frustrated. She posted about the ordeal, and the ensuing firestorm—not just from her readers, but from sympathetic people across the nation—prompted Maytag to send a new repair person immediately. Behold, the power of a mom influencer!
By 2010, the year I began blogging, there were conferences for mom bloggers everywhere, and ad networks were partnering with bloggers for giveaways and sponsored posts. I posted updates on my blog three times a week or more. I wrote about my days exhaustedly thinking that my breast pump was talking to me, saying, “Bob Hope, Bob Hope,” over and over. I wrote about how I though the Man in the Yellow Hat in Curious George was an idiot. And I wrote about my fear of raising a daughter in a world that routinely abuses and assaults girls.
When I started, there was already a sophisticated taxonomy of bloggers: recipe mom, fit mom, product-review mom, shitty mom, pretty mom, Mormon mom, homeschooling mom, tragic mom, moms who drink and swear. The idea was no longer to just write out into the void and hope the void wrote back; blogging was becoming a strategic enterprise, one in which you focused on finding your audience and growing your personal brand.
On mom blogs, readers didn’t have to justify the importance of their struggles. They could read, commiserate, and, sometimes, observe the tiny frustrations of their existence elevated to art.
One of the women who has made this transition better than I did is Meredith Masony, who runs @thats_inappropriate, an Instagram feed on which she publishes short videos and memes about the terrors of parenting and housework to some 197,000 followers. Her videos play off the tropes of motherhood—yelling at your kids, laundry, fruit snacks, minivans, exhaustion. When I find her in the hallway outside the ballroom at Mom 2.0, I meet a 38-year-old mother of three who is, smart, funny, and well-dressed, in a pastel blouse and slacks. Like many attendees, she’s running an empire, doing the writing, video, photography, design, coding, SEO, social, meal prep, and butt-wiping for her family and for her brand.
Masony started out by blogging anonymously and posting videos about her life to Facebook. Today, she and her husband, Dave, work as a team on their many ventures, which include the aforementioned Instagram feed, the advice podcast Take it or Leave It, an online community for “perfectly imperfect” parents called Hot Mess Express, and Masony’s self-published 2016 memoir, Scoop the Poop.
After Facebook changed its algorithm in 2017, hurting many publishers, Masony’s digital strategy shifted as well. Now she and her husband focus their energies on their videos on YouTube and Instagram, and on creating online communities on Facebook, where they can directly engage with and talk to their fans. Like most mom influencers, Masony declines to share how much revenue she brings in. I tell her, somewhat jokingly, that she should sit down with BuzzFeed cofounder and CEO Jonah Peretti and tell him how to make money from online media.
“I don’t know who that is,” she says, as women buzz in circles around her, vying for her attention. “But if that company needs a speaker, tell them to call me.”
Beth McDonough and I first talk on the phone a month before the Mom 2.0 conference. Beth, a queer stepmom to a seven-year-old girl, does social media for an ad agency during the day, and in her spare time does some freelance culture writing. She’s savvy, but she’s come to this world, like so many of the original bloggers did, out of desperation and loneliness. Beth says she feels like the only gay stepparent in her small town of Meadville, Pennsylvania, and even among her fellow bloggers she feels alienated. Many of the mom bloggers she knows are white, cis-gendered, heterosexual women, and many are also deeply religious. Once, Beth tried swapping blog content with other mom bloggers, but when one of the participants found out about Beth’s “lifestyle,” she declined to publish her posts, telling Beth, “I don’t feel comfortable being associated with your brand”—essentially saying that she objected to Beth herself, because when you are the brand, rejection can’t be anything but personal.
Beth and I meet for breakfast on the first day of the conference. She’s dressed in dark jeans and a peach blazer and her blonde bob is all business. I follow her to a session on diversity, where one of the panelists, Muffy Mendoza, the author and activist behind BrownMamas.com, explains that companies who feature people from diverse racial and economic backgrounds in their marketing campaigns are 70 percent more likely to capture new markets: “Advertising trends show that marketers want ethnically diverse content: Get ahead of the curve!”
Muffy tells the folks assembled to imagine their brands as houses on an intersection; what are the streets? Beth raises her hand. “I am at the intersection of queer families and stepparenting.” Muffy nods. “Great!” and looks for others to volunteer the diagrams of their lives.
I try picture my brand at the confluence of a few streets; I imagine it as a small house trapped under a tangle of overpasses. Journalist. Boy mom. Girl mom. Feminist. Media critic. Humorist. Religious. Divorcée. Cat lover. Tired human. Can “tired” be my brand?
For so many American women with small children and exhausting jobs and even more exhausting partners, the promise of making money from the diapers and the spit-up and the endless rounds of cartoons seems too good to be true. It also seems foolish not to try.
I’d made some money with my blog too. After I had a few successful posts, I put ads on the site, which brought in about $50 to $100 a month, just enough to pay for my site’s hosting fees. I did some sponsored posts, which made about $100 per post and received free products. I got a lot of McDonald’s coupons. But companies wanted more—more pictures of my kids, more stories about us, our pain, and our struggles, all for $100 a pop. By the time my second child turned two, I’d quit.
“We call motherhood sacred. We trap women into that sacred space. And they can’t even make money off of it?”
It feels strange to talk about how to monetize ourselves—to talk about how to market our skin, our faces, our pregnancies, our leg hair, our armpit hair, our lips, eyes, and asses. But so many companies have built their entire business model on the bodies of women and mothers. Why not let women and mothers build businesses on them as well?
Beth is worried she’s putting out too much money without getting much in return: $20 a month for the blog; $100 a month on Facebook ads; $1,000 a year for blogging courses; more than $1,000 for the flights, tickets, and meals at this conference alone. She doesn’t even want to know the final number on all she’s invested in making her new career viable.
These high start-up costs make her worry she’s become a part of a scheme that so many mothers find themselves in: the world of multilevel marketing. MLMs lure in women who are drawn to a model of commerce that allows them to sell products—like LuLaRoe leggings, Mary Kay cosmetics, or Young Living essential oils—on their own time and rely on a pyramid model, where sellers climb the ladder of success by recruiting others to sell under them.
A recent BuzzFeed article, in fact, compared mom blogs to MLMs, arguing, “Bloggers often invest a significant amount of money on these tools to get them started, but there’s no guarantee that your upfront investment will pay off.” The two industries attract the same kind of women: stay-at-home mothers who are looking for a way to do something else while still prioritizing their families. Both fields promise these women success and empowerment—not in spite of their status as mothers, but because of it.
But MLMs and influence are very different. The structures, the sales, the paths to success, and the products. With influencing, what you want everyone to buy into is you.
It cost a lot for Gabriele Montero to make it to Mom 2.0, financially and emotionally. Gabriele grew up in New York City, the daughter of a single mother. She saw how hard her mother worked at a rotating series of endless jobs as an administrative assistant. How she set aside her passions and dreams to provide for her kids. Right now, Gabriele works for a railroad: she has a desk job and goes into an office every day. She misses her son while she’s away—the little smiles, little jokes, little chubby knuckle dimples. She hates what America does to working women, expecting them to do everything and be everything to everyone. “I’m constantly giving my everything to my work and to my home—I’m being pulled in so many different directions,” she says. “And I realize none of it’s for me.”
In addition to attending Mom 2.0— which cost her $1,208.32 for ticket, hotel, and airfare, plus another $30 on business cards and $100 on clothes—Gabriele also pays $39 a month for life coaching from Rachel Hollis, the author of the best-selling Girl, Wash Your Face, a self-help book that promises to help women uncover all the lies they believe about themselves. Hollis, 36, is part of the second generation of mom bloggers. She’s monetized a “you go, girl” ethos by encouraging other women to pay for encouragement.
Hollis, who is based in Austin, built her empire as a mom influencer starting in 2015, when an Instagram picture of her stretch marks went viral. She gained a following dishing out beautiful pictures and bons mots like, “The only person you need to be better than is the one you were yesterday,” and “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”
Gabriele loves the life-coaching sessions, which are done via video posted in a private Facebook group. The sessions center around Hollis’s book and focus on goal-setting and visualizing success. “I don’t have a lot of options and I feel very stuck in my life,” Gabriele tells me. “My mom worked all the time in jobs that she hated. She passed away about 15 years ago, but the last two years when she found out that she was sick with cancer, she quit her job, she started taking sailing lessons, she bought the car she always wanted, she started painting. When she died, she told me, ‘You have to do what you want.’”
When Gabriele arrives in Austin, the day before the conference begins, she heads to a tattoo parlor near the hotel, where she gets a tattoo of her son’s name on her arm. Before she left for the conference, she made a spreadsheet of all the sessions she wanted to attend and sent it to me, so I would be informed of her schedule. I’m impressed. Gabriele might not know what she wants her specific brand to be, but she knows what she wants in general—namely, to find a way out of the mess that is contemporary American motherhood.
It’s easy to criticize mom influencers—and they are criticized a lot. A recent Washington Post article lamented the loss of authenticity among the mom bloggers today. One hand-wringing paragraph explained, “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.”
McKinli Hatch is one of the influencers who has come under fire. A viral meme, started in 2012, pokes fun at the Instagram mom for the names she’s given her children. The meme features one of McKinli’s pictures from 2012, showing the blonde from Utah smiling happily and cupping her baby bump in front of a chalkboard with names crossed off: Taylee. McKarty. Nayvie. Maylee. (The chosen name, Lakynn, is circled.)
The picture is often used as a meme on social media to poke fun at “mommy bloggers” and their baby names. But Hatch, who has has more than 68,500 followers on Instagram and a feed full of posts featuring her beautiful life and beautiful children, is operating from a different playbook than the one used by earlier mom bloggers. The 28-year-old—who also runs two online clothing stores, one for women and one for children—uses social media as a tool by which to impress audiences with her perfection, not her vulnerability.
In fact, while many of the women I meet at Mom 2.0 are funny, engaging, vulnerable, wild, and weird in person, when I follow them later on social media, I find that their feeds are highly polished, full of sponsored posts, perfectly curled hair, and tight abs. Public presentation is their business—literally, their business. Criticizing mothers for their lack of authenticity is just another way of saying that women owe others a public performance of our bodies or our mental health.
Jenny Lawson has little patience for arguments about authenticity, lost or found. She has been blogging since 2007 and her raw, honest renderings of her struggles with motherhood and depression have earned her a loyal following at her site, the Bloggess. When her book Let’s Pretend This Never Happened debuted in 2012 and became a New York Times best seller, people wondered where she had come from. “I came from mom blogs,” Lawson explains to me at Mom 2.0. Even though traffic is good, she doesn’t sell many ads on her site, and she doesn’t begrudge anyone who does. “We call motherhood sacred,” she says. “We trap women into that sacred space. And they can’t even make money off of it?”
On the final day of the conference, I attend a roundtable discussion about authenticity sponsored by WaterWipes, an Irish baby-wipe brand. Sitting around a table in a large conference room, a WaterWipes PR rep tells us about the company’s campaign #ThisIsParenthood, dedicated to highlighting what parenting actually looks like. The company wants mom influencers to post authentic pictures of themselves in authentic parenting moments and use the aforementioned hashtag.
“How authentic is too authentic?” I ask the WaterWipes representative. Her eyes narrow as she looks at me. I am thinking about the time I locked myself in my room, sobbing, after my two-year-old shit the floor and I had mastitis and my eight-month-old baby wasn’t napping and my husband refused to come home from work to help me. Instead, I say, “Like, can we use swear words?”
The rep tells me there’s a documentary on the company’s website about the difficulties of parenthood that has a swear word in it. “Just the one?” I ask.
Yes, she says. She explains that it appears during a scene when a husband featured in the documentary realizes aloud just how “fucking hard” parenting and working are for his wife.
This feels like a kick in the chest. I, too, have left my children to work. The night before, I was supposed to meet with some mom influencers for dinner, but I was late because my kids called, sobbing because they missed me. On the way to the dinner, I cried in the back of the Uber while my friend, the journalist Rachel Sklar, hugged me and assured me I was a good mom. On this trip, I miss my kids in such a bodily way that it feels like a constant ache in the muscle and sinew that hold me together.
Criticizing mothers for their lack of authenticity is just another way of saying that women owe others a public performance of our bodies or our mental health.
The WaterWipes rep explains that she has a toddler and that she has cried at her desk more times in the past year than she ever has in her entire career. The women around the table nod. It is fucking hard.
The rep explains that, coming from Ireland, the company has had a hard time getting women in America to be authentic about motherhood in public. I think about the time in 2013 when I wrote a blog post about how much I loved buying my kids Christmas presents. It was syndicated on Huffington Post and quickly went viral. Good Morning America called. I was excited. But when the camera crew showed up, they were more interested in seeing a room full of Amazon boxes—piles and piles of presents—and in finding out how much money I had spent than they were in my ideas about culture and parenting. At one point, I asked the cameraperson, “Are you trying to make me look shallow?” He shrugged: “I just get the shots they ask me for.” Later, when the segment aired, I heard the hosts call me materialistic. Every year, the story recycles and I get hate mail. This has been happening for six years.
One woman gently suggests to the WaterWipes rep that perhaps mothers don’t allow themselves to be vulnerable in public because they are justifiably afraid. She tells us how she recently posted something on Instagram about how hard it is to be a working mom. She said she got criticism, a lot of criticism, telling her to quit her job. Telling her she was a bad mother. “Whatever we do, we get backlash,” she says. The others around the table nod.
When the Mom 2.0 conference began in 2009, mom influencers were just women putting words on a blog and seeing what would happen. Maybe they’d get fired; maybe they’d have a best seller. Now, ten years later, mom influencers operate like full-scale media companies. Moms no longer beg brands for help—it’s the brands that are thirsty for moms.
It’s weird to come here four years after my failed career as a blogger, to once again hear how to monetize the incredibly complicated and messy life I live. Once again, I find that I have no idea how to do it.
Four years ago, I had no other outlet for my ambition: I was exhausted by my children and chores and all the things I wanted to do but couldn’t because sick days, doctor appointments, therapy, meals, school volunteering, housework, oh, and my work—that was all up to me. I wonder how I failed. Was it because I didn’t know myself? Because I didn’t know my market?
I came to Austin to understand the balance between capitalism and our identity as mothers. I read two cultural histories of motherhood in preparation for this trip. I want to be critical, to hold us all accountable. I want to hate the conference, just a little, but instead I love it.
I love every floral jumpsuit, every smile, every earnest selfie. I love the Dove suite and back massages at the Constant Contact booth, the puppies to snuggle and wine to drink. I love us as we eat tacos and cry to Brené Brown. I love us because, right or wrong, we are mothers trying—doing whatever we can do to find some way to handle the crushing weight of everything we are expected to hold.
The women who line the hallways at Mom 2.0, Instagramming, talking, laughing, making plans, making connections—we are just women, mothers, humans who are stuck, who are looking for a way, any way, to make our dreams of financial security come true.
Meanwhile, companies continue to make bank on moms. I ask my friend Rachel, who is at the conference to promote her newsletter for single parents, if she ever worries about profiting off of motherhood. “I’ll treat motherhood as pure,” she replies, “when everyone stops regulating and profiting off of my free labor.”