Lots of businesses get hate mail, but few owners react the way Heather Armstrong does. She prints out nasty e-mails, puts them in her driveway and drives over them with her car.
"That's the attitude I have," she said, "and it's made my life a thousand percent better."
Steeling herself against vitriol is one of the challenges of being, by many measures, the nation's top parenting blogger. The 32-year-old at-home mother's irreverent, occasionally profane and often hilarious musings on prosaic topics from potty-training to postpartum depression have propelled her blog, Dooce.com, to No. 59 among the Web's top 100 blogs, according to Technorati, a blog search engine.
The Salt Lake City resident enjoys enviable influence and enough ad revenue that her husband, Jon, quit his job in 2005 to manage advertising for Dooce (rhymes with moose).
Among the Web's 200,000-plus bloggers on parenting and family, few have succeeded to the extent of Heather Armstrong; countless at-home parents would love to be in her position. But less obvious is the behind-the-scenes price an at-home mom pays to shoulder her way to prominence in the blogosphere giving up her privacy, sustained time off and any remnants of work-family boundaries at all.
Most powerful individual bloggers, such as Arianna Huffington of HuffingtonPost.com on politics, or Mario Lavandeira of PerezHilton.com on celebrities, keep a measure of personal distance by blogging on public topics. In contrast, Armstrong writes about herself, her husband, her 4-year-old daughter, Leta, clashes with her parents and the escapades of her dog, Chuck. She has the ability "to make the mundane seem interesting," said Pete Blackshaw, an executive vice president at Nielsen Online. In a measure of fans' devotion, a recent post on removing a raccoon from her chimney drew 530 comments.
Mommy blogs in general tend to be everyday diaries of details one might share over coffee baby's first step or the perils of finding a preschool. Most are blander than Dooce, less humorous and significantly less profane.
Most Web diarists, for example, are too reserved to report, as Armstrong does, that she's "married to a charming geek," had "lived life as an unemployed drunk" for a while, or landed briefly in a mental hospital for postpartum depression. Some mommy-bloggers find her cursing and vulgarity offensive. But it's that outrageousness, humility and raw honesty that also feed her bond with readers, making her dominant in an emerging Web sector Blackshaw calls "The Power Mom."
Armstrong's fan base is a powerful lure for advertisers. Neither she nor her husband will discuss ad revenue, but they and the Internet rating service Quantcast say that Dooce draws about 4 million page views per month. In a "quick back-of-the-envelope guesstimate," Shani Higgins, Technorati's vice president, business development, estimated the site could yield $40,000 a month in revenue from companies coveting her traffic, such as BMW and Verizon.
Armstrong's product endorsements bestowed only on items she's purchased, she said wield impressive clout. Yukiko Kamioka in Colchester, England, said she was struggling with only 10 visitors a day to her Web site, seabreezestudio.co.uk, until Dooce endorsed her handmade bags; 3,000 visitors immediately swamped her site, and she soon sold out of her merchandise.
The life of a blogger, though, inflicts significant strain. A scathing parody on ViolentAcres.com, set up as a letter to her daughter Leta, said, "Since your father and I started exploiting you for cash, neither one of us has had to work a real job for a few months now. Score!" Recently, another popular blogger on parenting, Boston writer Steve Almond, quit his BabyDaddy blog on Babble.com, citing "angry and aggrieved" responses to his writings.
Behind her hip facade, Armstrong feels similar pain. She said she has sought therapy to cope with vitriolic posts. "The hate mail will invariably happen, and when it does your entire world will crumble around your ears," she said. In one example, she said a person she thought was a friend posted a comment saying she "wanted to punch me in the face because she hated me so much." She added she can understand why "famous people turn to drugs or commit suicide."
Of course, Armstrong can dish it, too. A former Web designer, she was fired from her job in 2001 for writing negative posts about her bosses. Her site's name soon became synonymous with being axed over the contents of your blog, according to UrbanDictionary.com as in, "I've been dooced."
She's had to learn to draw boundaries on what she writes, to avoid hurting loved ones. An "aching and bleeding diatribe" she posted a few years ago against her parents' faith, Mormonism, alienated them so badly that "it was like a bomb had gone off in my family," she said. "My dad didn't speak to me for several months, and my mom was devastated." She took down the posts, thinking, "OK, this is a little bit more powerful than I'd thought it would be," she said.
She and her parents have since reconciled, but now, "I have strict boundaries in my head," she said. "I'm not going to write anything about my family that I wouldn't say to them in real life, in front of other people." Also, "a lot goes on in our marriage that I will never write about," including her and her husband's sex life, she added.
The time demands of sustaining what has become a brand name are incessant. Experts say keeping a blog fresh and topical is essential. But after posting most days for seven years, Armstrong has periods of writer's block so intense that they're "physically painful," she said. She carries a notebook almost everywhere, recording thoughts and ideas. To take a vacation, she has to pile up extra material. "Many nights I've gone to sleep crying because I want my life back," she said.
"The pressure on her to come up with something unique to say all the time would be enormous," said Susan Carraretto, co-founder of 5minutesformom.com, another popular site. Blackshaw added, "It's kind of like 'Mom meets "The Truman Show"' ... Everybody is watching" constantly.
Armstrong and her husband face marital strain from working so closely. "He and I have had our marital problems for sure, and we go to therapy all the time. We're together 24/7. I'm not sure every couple could do that, but he and I are best friends."
Neither expected to make a living this way. Heather Armstrong intended to quit blogging after her daughter was born in 2004 and be a stay-at-home mom for a while. But as she fell into a severe postpartum depression, she found blogging a valuable outlet and an antidote to the isolation she felt.
"Immediately I realized that writing things down and sharing it with people was getting me through the day," she said. A warm response from "this community of mothers" reading her posts "lifted me up and gave me the courage" to check into a hospital for four days and get treatment, she said. It was at the urging of her husband, a former Web creative director, that she made the transition from blogger to breadwinner in 2005.
These days, her posts are more sanguine, on topics ranging from tiffs with her mother over global warming to a freak fish found in a Utah pond. And her old plan of going back to work as a Web designer is history.
Hassles notwithstanding, she said, "Now I think, 'Wow, I'm so glad I stuck with this.'"