On screen, it’s a world of muted pastels, smiling babies, and soft-lit photography—a hip new take on the domestic perfection of the 1950s.
There are mommies with tattoos, mommies with bulldogs, mommies with Etsy shops, and mommies with decorative moustaches. The children are almost always clean—or adorably mussed—and dressed in marigold yellows, olive greens, and creamy blues and pinks. The husbands have elegantly disheveled hair, swoon-worthy senses of style, and looks of true love on their smiling faces.
But, off screen, it’s often a world of murky blues, tearful mommies, and impossible darkness—the sensations of postpartum depression that are prevalent among new mothers, but also commonly ignored in public conversation.
The mommy blog movement, with as many as 3.9 million moms blogging in 2010 according to an eMarketer study, is one of the fastest growing areas of the web. From Mormon mommies in New York to homeschooling mamas in Wyoming to work-at-home moms in Oregon, the maternal perspective is taking over the cyber world. However the reason for so many picture perfect blogs popping up might be less than divine.
Chelsey Andrews stands in her Portland, Oregon kitchen chopping garlic while her sixteen-month-old daughter, Laureli, gives her opinion in a flurry of high-pitched squeals. On the wall across from mom and baby hangs a decorative chalkboard sign with “Le Bon Café” on top and “Today’s Menu: breast milk, dirt” handwritten in yellow chalk. Framed by the soft light coming in her kitchen window, Andrews looks almost angelic with her blonde hair pulled back and long white dress billowing as Laureli loops around her legs. Mom and daughter coo at one another as Andrews adds the chopped garlic to a frying pan of pot stickers and greens while Laureli drags a cloth bag along the floor.
It’s right after naptime on a Wednesday, which means Laureli is still bleary-eyed, Andrews’s husband Mike is at work, and Andrews has just packed a day’s worth of writing, emailing, and editing photos into a few short hours.
Andrews’s blog, The Paper Mama, features a banner of blonde-haired, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked Laureli glancing up with a serene look. Scroll down and there’s impeccable photography, fashionable clothes, and giveaways of too-cute, too-hip handmade crafts from her blog’s many sponsors.
Andrews, 28, only started The Paper Mama a year ago and it’s already attracting more than thirty thousand page views a month. Her blog is well known within the mommy community for its photography and weekly photo contests, as well as Andrews’s dramatic birth story.
Birth stories, where mothers post their personal tales of going into labor, are commonplace on mom blogs. Unlike the familiar “It was the most beautiful time of my life” story most mothers tell, Andrews’s was, to put it mildly, frightening.
It was an unpleasant pregnancy with difficulties abound. At just over thirty-six weeks, Andrews began having unusually painful contractions just seconds apart instead of minutes. Extreme pain made it difficult for her to breathe. After an ultrasound showed she had a massive amount of fluid in her abdomen, Andrews was rushed to surgery as doctors thought her appendix might have burst.
Surgeons found that Andrews’s appendix hadn’t burst—her uterus had torn and the massive amount of fluid was blood. An emergency cesarean section was performed to keep the child safe and surgeons worked to stabilize a flat lining Andrews. She had expected to wake up from surgery still pregnant, but things were very different when she awoke in recovery.
“I woke up six hours after surgery to someone telling me congrats on my baby. Whoa. Really confusing,” Andrews wrote on the birth story page of her blog.
The less-than-dreamy pregnancy and post-pregnancy stories are more common on mommy blogs than their colorful and chic designs would suggest.
Tara Mumaw started her blog, Our Journey, two years ago for the same reason most join the blogosphere: to share news with friends and family about her life with husband Brandon. But after enduring two miscarriages in 2009, her interest in most things disappeared.
“I was devastated. My depression spiraled out of control. I was a wreck. I didn’t work—I couldn’t. I couldn’t get out of bed. I stopped taking care of myself, my husband and our home,” Mumaw remembers.
Her hope returned when she became pregnant for a third time, and despite fears of losing the baby again, the pregnancy stuck. Her daughter Kennedy is twenty-three weeks old and Mumaw often refers to her on the blog as “our miracle baby.” She posts a new picture of Kennedy on Our Journey every day.
“A picture a day, so the memories don’t stray,” she writes on her blog.
Back in Andrews’s kitchen, she ushers Laureli out to the dining table for lunch. Perched in her high chair, Laureli munches on pieces of potstickers with tiny gooey fingers. Her yellow polka-dot leggings wiggle with each bite. Andrews sits down to the same lunch and laughs when Laureli reaches out for more.
“Hungry girl,” she says, beaming at her daughter.
Sitting underneath dozens of charming family portraits, it’s difficult to imagine that this peaceful pair almost died sixteen months ago.
After a traumatic birth and loss of more than three liters of blood, Andrews faced an even more trying time as she adjusted to sudden motherhood. A few months after surgery and with a new baby to care for, postpartum depression left her sleepless and sobbing on most days.
“It just almost seemed impossible to raise a baby. You go from being pregnant and sleeping all the time to just…” she pauses, looking over at a bouncing Laureli, “not.”
She struggled to connect with her baby since she wasn’t awake when Laureli was delivered. Her husband was helpful, but was out of the house working most days. Few of Andrews’s friends in Portland understood the crippling depression she was trying to handle and she was concerned about how antidepressants would affect Laureli, so she moved to the Internet to find answers.
“I was worried about the drugs in my milk passing the drugs to my baby. My friend told me to look up Dooce,” Andrews says of one of the most popular mommy bloggers out in cyberspace. “Dooce is a big believer that it’s not going to hurt the baby and what’s going to hurt the baby more is if you’re extremely depressed.”
Heather B. Armstrong launched her blog, Dooce, in 2001 and has since become one of the most revered professional bloggers, particularly for her honest discussion of depression and motherhood. There are too many “Thank you for helping me remember I’m not the only one out there with this problem” comments on Dooce to count.
Inspired by Armstrong’s writings on postpartum depression and medication, Andrews started taking antidepressants at the end of March 2010. She opened The Paper Mama a few weeks later in search of an accepting and understanding community that could help her move out of her depression.
“I just kind of needed to find a way to talk to anyone who was going through what I was going through. It was very cloudy and very hard to get out of,” Andrews says.
The Paper Mama opened her eyes to a huge group of mothers who not only understood her feelings, but also advised her on how to get through it.
“It really helped me to know that other women were not sleeping and having a hard time,” she says. “It’s kind of like therapy. It’s a big community and the people I’ve met offer advice. You sit there and you think all these things and you go, ‘Why don’t I talk about it instead of holding things in?’”
Mumaw agrees, admitting that although she started Our Journey to keep in touch with family and friends, her fellow mom bloggers are now a great support group.
“They have been my rock for over a year. They are there to say ‘that sucks’ when you get a negative pregnancy test and there to give encouragement when you do see those two lines, as the fear sets in just moments after seeing them,” she says.
Mommy bloggers throw regular “linky parties” where bloggers link posts based on certain themes, like “Steppin’ Out Saturday”, when mom bloggers post pictures of what their families wore that day, or “Vloggin’ Vednesday”, when they post a new video blog, usually of their babies doing something cute. The mommy blogger community has inadvertently created a massive network that can offer support to any mother who needs guidance or encouragement. Andrews credits her blog and the community with helping her to get out from under the postpartum depression cloud. She still struggles, but as Laureli gets more independent and lets Andrews sleep through the night, the pressure has lessened.
“I am doing better. I would just be sitting there with the baby and it just makes you not want to do anything. You cry a lot and you kind of feel helpless,” she says.
In addition to her blog, Andrews runs two online Etsy.com businesses that thrive through her mommy blogging—one manipulating photos and making web banners for other bloggers, and another making artwork, cards, and playful paper crowns.
Now, instead of sitting on the couch and crying for hours, Andrews blogs, works on projects for her business, and communicates with other mommies while Laureli naps. She spends the rest of the day playing with Laureli and taking care of the house. And, for now, that’s just what she needs.
“The best thing is for you and your baby to be happy,” she says, looking down at Laureli in her lap.
“Hap-py, hap-py,” Laureli repeats, leaning back into Andrews’s chest and sticking her tongue out with a sneaky smile.
“That’s right, happy,” Andrews says, smiling back.