Back in 2011, as a new mother floundering in search of community, I, like so many others, discovered the world of mommy bloggers. Their unofficial leader – Dooce, run by Heather Armstrong. I was drawn to her raw honesty about the mental conflict of being a mom. Even as a pregnant woman, I learned quickly that professing anything other than ecstatic joy about impending motherhood resulted in uncomfortable silence and sideways glances. Ambivalence was not socially acceptable for this particular occupation.
The more raw and outrageous she was, the more followers she amassed.
Yet here was Dooce, living out loud in her truth – loving her children desperately yet still haunted by old demons. A woman obsessed over her little ones while acknowledging that they opened up entire new levels of anguish and anxiety she didn’t even know could exist. And there, in the comments, an army of women, all validating her fears and anxieties, empathizing and sharing their own stories as they encouraged her through their engagement. Here was a woman mothering imperfectly and acknowledging inherent tensions that exist between being a mom and being a deeply flawed human not meeting the societal standard that expects woman to become entirely consumed by parenting. We all hung on her every word, investing in that parasocial relationship like it was our lifeline to sanity – she was us.
Somewhere along the way, her distance from us widened and the community gave way to something more malignant – an audience, with all the intendent judgements that implies. As Dooce became more famous, there were more set expectations of what she was supposed to be. Yes, she struggled with ongoing mental health issues that included depression and suicidal ideation, and one of the reasons she became famous was by chronicling her involuntary commitment to a mental health facility after the birth of her oldest child. But these confessions, far from putting people off, only made her more popular; the more raw and outrageous she was, the more followers she amassed. In 2009, at the height of her popularity she boasted more than 8 million followers, was featured on Oprah, had a book on the New York Times bestseller list, and was on the Forbes list of most influential women in media. How serious could her struggles really be in the midst of such success?
She continued to need us, but maybe we needed her less – after all, the internet was full of Dooce dupes.
In 2012 Armstrong divorced her husband, blowing up one of the tentpoles of her curated “imperfectly thriving” image. In the years after, she continued to struggle with mental health issues, admitting to issues with addiction and eating disorders, and indulged the occasional flame war with a commenter, all for the consumption of a shrinking audience. She continued to need us, but maybe we needed her less – after all, the internet was full of Dooce dupes.
In the early days of the pandemic, she instituted a weekly Quarantine Cocktail Hour, meant to rekindle the vestiges of the old community and reestablish solidarity among all the moms stuck at home helping kids struggle through virtual learning. It quickly deteriorated into drunken rants and accusations. She would attempt to develop relationships with followers, friendships that would start with passionate declarations of mutual respect and end with the former fan gaining their own degree of influence and engagement by regaling the comments section with all the crazy things Armstrong had done to scare them off. They all agreed Heather’s behavior was not OK, and never mind that they were piggybacking off their association with her and becoming characters in her story.
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Her mental health continued to deteriorate in full public view, her writing becoming increasingly incoherent and her precarious health becoming more apparent with every moody photo she posted of her needle-thin frame in skimpy clothing. It was as though she had become a character on a long-running show whose storyline had run its course, but she didn’t have the grace to exit the stage and disappear into oblivion. The relationship had curdled – she still wanted the engagement, but also resented it.
The relationship had curdled – she still wanted the engagement, but also resented it.
Things came to a head in 2022, when she posted a couple of rants expounding on, among other things, the danger of giving hormone blockers to trans teens and lamenting the cultural focus on pronouns. Many took exception to the comments – after all, Dooce’s youngest child was nonbinary. She deleted the posts after intense backlash, but the internet lives forever. Entire corners of the internet sprung up for the purpose of hating Heather Armstrong and expressing concern for the welfare of her children in the hands of their unfit mother. In theory, this was still the same Dooce, expressing taboo thoughts loudly and imperfectly, except now the comments felt off-side – she was a character who had outlived her welcome.
Except she wasn’t a character to be devoured for passive entertainment; she was a very fragile woman with extensive mental health issues who made the mistake of thinking the internet was her friend and that her followers wanted the real her. When it was announced she died by suicide on Tuesday night, her story arc now tragically complete, everyone remembered they loved her. Now that death rendered her unable to attend to her comment section, the empathy returned. Now that she could no longer speak, people mourned the loss of her voice. It is just a shame that it took her death to render her humanity apparent to those who had consumed her.
If you are in need of help, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Hours of operation are 24/7 and it’s confidential.
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