With her blog, Dooce, she ushered in an age of confessional writing online by women, inspiring millions of readers and creators to come.
Though I have been given credit, I did not call Heather Armstrong “Queen of the Mommy Bloggers” in my 2011 article for The New York Times Magazine. The headline writer gave her that title, which she wore until Wednesday morning, when nearly every obituary seemed to invoke it.
But a queen she was. She ruled her corner of the internet — a place where women, especially mothers, learned that they had a voice and that if they used it in long, thoughtful, deep and honest narratives about their lives, other women would read and rally round.
Before there were influencers and clicks and “authenticity,” there was Armstrong. At the height of her clout, a decade or so ago, she had millions reading her blog, Dooce, which she had started in 2001, back when if “you said you had a blog, people thought you had a venereal disease,” she said. But her willingness to discuss the mess and chaos of her life — her depression and alcoholism — in a voice that was raw, arch, vulnerable and often funny, opened the door for others to do the same. It also earned her a spot on the 2011 Forbes list of the most influential women in media.
So began a brief but golden age of women making themselves heard on the internet, proving what is now assumed but was then brand-new: that a woman writing about her life from her kitchen could make her life into a living.
When she wrote her first post, she was 25-year-old Heather Hamilton, with an English degree from Brigham Young University and a job at an internet start-up in Los Angeles. At the time, blogging was about sharing photos and anecdotes with faraway family and friends, but Armstrong never intended for her family or her co-workers to read her work, as it was filled with her feeling of freedom at leaving the Mormon faith and sarcastic skewering of colleagues.
Her parents and her bosses all found the blog, though. She lost both her job and, for a time, her family. She reconciled with her family, but the professional fallout was more lasting. To be “dooced” became shorthand for being fired for what one writes on the internet.
Returning home to Salt Lake City, Armstrong lived in her parents’ windowless basement with her new husband (and eventual Dooce business partner), Jon Armstrong, and blogged about how embarrassing that was. Dooce’s traffic grew steadily, then took off in April of 2003 when she announced she was pregnant. Her comments section filled with predictions that her site would become a sappy “mommy blog” — a relatively new term, usually used to diminish or dismiss the blogger. Armstrong was certain she would never be any such thing, because she didn’t think she “could keep up the writing pace” and planned to stop blogging when the baby arrived.
For more than 20 years, Armstrong chronicled her life online and in books. Credit…Daniel Dorsa for The New York Times
But in the months after her first child, Leta, was born, Armstrong was overcome by postpartum depression,and none of the combinations of medications prescribed by her psychiatrist helped. Not only did she not close Dooce, she used it to share her turmoil. She was hospitalized, and when her husband visited for the first time, she handed him a stack of notebook pages with blog posts written in longhand for him to transcribe onto the blog. Traffic soon quadrupled.
Stabilized on new medication, in 2010 Armstrong wrote a best-selling book about her breakdown, “It Sucked and Then I Cried,” had another baby, Marlo, and got divorced. Readers followed along, and many came to think of her as a friend, one they often worried about, someone who encouraged them to tell their own stories online. As word spread on Wednesday that she had died by suicide, at age 47, thousands of those women mourned her online.
Rebecca Woolf, a writer who started her own successful blog, “Girl’s Gone Child,” in 2005 said Armstrong inspired her. “She shaped the internet as we know it today — and launched a million storytellers with her willingness to write boldly and unapologetically about the struggles of being human,” Woolf wrote.
Ree Drummond, who grew her blog, “The Pioneer Woman,” into a TV show and a retail empire while Armstrong was at the height of her fame, wrote simply: “My heart is breaking.”
But just as Armstrong created possibility for women on the internet, she collided early with its dark side. When hers became one of the first personal websites to accept display advertising, she faced vitriol from readers. An online group known as GOMI (Get Off My Internets) predated Reddit as a place to bully bloggers. Anonymous members of the site criticized Armstrong about her parenting, hairstyles and weight loss. They mocked her mental health struggles, and more recently, her relationship with Pete Ashdown, a successful Utah businessman and former U.S. Senate candidate, with whom she shared a home from August 2018 until her death this week.
In an interview yesterday, Ashdown said he blamed the hatred and a sea change in the blogging landscape for Armstrong’s descent into depression in 2015. She took a break from the blog because, as she said at the time, she was tired of the harsh comments and of the need to create artificial situations in which her children could highlight sponsors’ products. She was also increasingly depressed, and when she did post, the depth of her pain alarmed many of her longtime followers.
She did not want to kill herself back then, she told me during an interview for Yahoo News in 2019, because she would not do that to her children. “But I wanted to be dead. I thought how amazing would it be to not feel what I’m feeling ever again. And the only way to accomplish that would be if I were dead.”
She was diagnosed with drug resistant depression and in 2017 enrolled in a small early drug trial that used propofol, an anesthetic and sedative, to suppress nearly all brain activity. She underwent the procedure 10 times in the course of a month. To Armstrong it felt like a series of deaths, and then, miraculous rebirths.
She wrote about the experience in her second book, “The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live.” But by the time it came out in 2019, the darkness had in part returned and, Ashdown said, she berated herself that it was not a best seller like her first book. She wanted to reach more people, she told him, and she drowned her anger in “drinking and drinking and drinking,” he said. She discounted the many emails she got from readers who said she had “saved their lives” with her story. “Heather had no idea of the ripples she caused in people’s lives,” he said.
A year into the pandemic, he gave her an ultimatum to stop drinking, and she stayed sober for nearly two years. But recently, he said, she had returned to alcohol.
In earlier times, he said, she might have written her way out and found support in her readers — but the internet had changed. TikTok and Instagram are filled with influencers describing their mental health journeys now, and Armstrong’s long poetic discourses did not fit on those new condensed spaces. Her increasingly disturbing and erratic posts alarmed many of her longtime followers.
Her blog entries, once almost daily, appeared monthly, at best. Her final post, on April 6, described the pain of early sobriety. “22 years of agony I had numbed with alcohol had come alive and transformed itself into an almost alien life form,” she wrote. “I often felt like I was being electrocuted for hours at a time.”
Then, she spent the rest of the post describing her awe at the woman her 18-year-old firstborn had become. And so she ended her writing life where it had essentially begun, writing about motherhood, with its mix of joy and despair.
“I have always been present for my kids and, good lord, you can say what you want about how I should not be dragging either of them into a post about their alcoholic mother,” she wrote, “(but) I am going to give myself credit for having raised a woman who more than anything else possesses a ferocity for life.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
Lisa Belkin is a journalist and the author of four books, including “Genealogy of a Murder.”