I live in the world that Heather Armstrong made. Anyone who writes about parenting today does. Her writing — discursive, personal, funny as hell — lit up the internet when her blog, Dooce, appeared in the early 2000s. I came to it myself a few years later, just before I had children; it was a bracing way to get ready for the transformation of motherhood. When my older child was born within days of her younger child, Marlo, I felt like she and I were linked by our twin experiences. I shared that deep sense of connection with hundreds of thousands of other readers whose own birth experiences, family lives, divorces, and mental health struggles made them feel so close to her. It’s why the announcement of her death today cut so deep.
When I started reading Dooce, the print magazine was still King (and Queen). Parenting advice was meted out by experts in jaunty two-page spreads, or in books that purported to answer every question you could ever have about the newborn experience. Nurseries were rarely photographed for glossy pages, and when they were, it was only the most beautiful ones that made the cut. I worked at one of those magazines, and when I didn’t have enough to do, I spent hours reading Armstrong’s words. I went back to the beginning of Dooce and then, like finding a box of old love letters in order, I read them all.
Armstrong did not have any answers to the big parenting questions — she was very clear with us that she was frequently floundering, or thought she was — but her astonishing honesty was better than any certainty about “what to expect.” For other bloggers, the unlimited space to write was a rope they often tangled themselves in, but Armstrong was a master of the form. She could string you along through a seemingly random series of events, and drop an epiphany on you like a little bomb. She could spend paragraphs describing her daughter’s stubborn unwillingness to walk on sand and you would be crying with laughter. Yes, she spent more than a little of the internet’s vast real estate talking about bodily functions, but if that was the kind of thing that put you off, well, you could go find yourself a different blog. It was the mid-aughts. There were plenty.
Over the years I came to know her daughters and her husband; I even somehow came to care about her dogs and her mother, the Avon World Sales Leader, who found her daughter maddening but loved her fiercely. Moms!
Armstrong helped invent a genre — the Mommy Blog — and was one of the first people to make a steady income and then a very good living off her own, homegrown website. I think she took her role as a pioneer and leader in that field quite seriously, but what I liked about her blog was how allergic she was to the saccharine and sanctimonious stuff that plagued so many of her imitators. She resisted mightily the portrayal of mothers as beatific nurturers, who, transformed by hormones and childbirth, ceased to be the flawed, weird, angry, horny creatures we had been before children.
I absorbed something from Armstrong that I wish I could thank her for: The idea that motherhood wasn’t something to perfect or endure. She was deeply in love with her children but unapologetic about how bone tired and anxious they made her. Instead of being dimmed by the act of giving birth or caring for children, her own thoughts, ideas, and feelings burned brighter. Reading Dooce, I figured it could be like that for me too, and I was right.
Heather Armstrong also wrote a great deal about her lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety. She wrote about her postpartum anguish, about her voluntary hospitalization, about her many forays into psychiatric treatment, and her sobriety. I know her candor was a gift to many others who suffered, and to the people who loved them and craved insight into their pain. She seemed to struggle even more acutely in recent years, and some of what she wrote was erratic and puzzling. Today, many many people on social media, upon learning of her death, wished her peace at last. I’m heartbroken she couldn’t find it where so many of the rest of us did: In her writing.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.