John Gallagher wrote his dissertation about how people with a large following online relate to comments from their audience. Over many years he interviewed people who were top Redditors, top Amazon reviewers, and he interviewed Heather and me.
Heather and I both started blogs in 2002, we both got in trouble for writing about our coworkers, we both wrote about our bodies, our pregnancies, our money, and our divorces. We both received book deals and accolades and death threats. And I always admired her.
When I told Gallagher, “If I have haters that means I have an audience” he told me Heather said the exact same thing. I realized he was my best source of information for how Heather thinks about her blog — I always picked up when he called.
Heather was an early adopter of everything, and I learned to follow her. People told me, “Do it like Dooce” so I added photos to my blog. I couldn’t do photos like Dooce, but I knew to do photos of kids and animals because of her. Federated Media wanted to run ads on my blog and I kept saying no until an account manager said, “I work with Heather Armstrong” and then I said yes.
I remember walking through Target answering Gallagher’s questions about writing online. The craft aisle had the best reception so I paced while my son spread out crayons and papers and scissors on the floor so I could keep philosophizing about comments.
Gallagher told me Heather and I were the only people he interviewed who read all the comments. Heather said she gets “a jolt of happiness” every time she gets a comment. I said mostly I feel like I’m writing just to make sure someone is there.
I saw Heather getting paid to show her kids on her blog. I tried it once and the post took forever to write because I had to give my kids stage direction. So I was relieved when Heather announced she stopped doing ads with her kids — and I liked her kids more than ever because they put their collective foot down.
By that point I was so overwhelmed from homeschooling two kids and relocating two times that I was not even posting each month. I read that Heather engaged in “direct manipulation of algorithmic timing in IPI environments therefore considers the factors that go into spatial display.” What even is that?
Don’t answer. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it was, I wasn’t doing it. I knew at that point I was failing at blogging. And I saw Heather was failing at parenting.
People say Heather killing herself is not all that surprising given her problems with addiction. This is what I know from having Heather as my secret coworker for the last 20 years: before the addiction killed her, the blog did.
It’s easy to make life look fun when you can control your kids. But that ends. So don’t start thinking that you’re going to be the mom with the big influencer career and your spouse will be with the kids. It doesn’t work.
Content creation to feed influencer life is the sweatshop labor of the new millennium. Gallagher told me that Heather and I both mentioned wanting a regular paycheck but our big brands prevented us from getting regular jobs. These conversations with him served as reality checks for me: blogging had us boxed in.
Gallagher’s book came out in 2020: Update Culture and the Afterlife of Digital Writing. By then it seems Heather’s kids moved to their dad’s house. Permanently. She stopped posting about her kids. Heather never mentioned L going to college even though L’s dad’s new wife wrote all about it.
My older kid also went off to college. And like Heather, I’ve had a hard time finding my way on my blog since then. But I keep trying because I don’t think I can survive without blogging.
I thought Heather and I would both find new footing. But she killed herself two nights ago. So it’s just me now, but Heather still guides me. Because before she lost her will to live, she lost her emotional connection with her kids.
Being a mom influencer takes a huge amount of time and attention and well, everything, away from the kids. And the more time you take away from kids the more you have to earn to justify it. And with influencing, the kids end up getting auctioned, along with your brand and time and energy, to the highest bidder.
Also, daily parenting is way, way harder than daily content creation. And so much less fun. Parenting is quiet and still — making space that the kids can take up. Parenting means never being the center of attention.
Good parenting is the opposite of good content. So it’s inevitable that moms eventually stop influencing in favor of building relationships with their kids. But if you wait too long, and you stop too late, there are no more relationships to build.
It’s fitting that Heather’s final post was a long, meandering violation of her promise to stop writing about her kids. Heather’s loyalty was not to her children — her loyalty was always to her writing. We’ll remember her for her writing. But as a writer I’ll also remember that when she needed a reason to keep living, she felt too alone to go on.