It wasn’t long ago that millions of people knew every detail of Heather Armstrong’s life.
Armstrong rose to fame after she started the blog Dooce.com in 2001. It amassed a cult following for its sharp, witty, and unapologetic look at motherhood’s tribulations, from breastfeeding and diaper changing to the mountains of homework and carpool runs. She opened up about the unspeakable, like which parts of parenthood she despised and why she had left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon Church). Dooce also extensively covered mental health, with Armstrong chronicling her ongoing struggle with depression.
“I looked at myself as someone who happened to be able to talk about parenthood in a way many women wanted to be able to but were afraid to,” Armstrong, now 43, says.
Rabid fans loved her, but she also attracted an army of haters, who flooded her with hostile comments and hate mail and even created digital forums dedicated to smearing her.
She built a lucrative business along the way. At its peak, just after Armstrong appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009, Dooce had a monthly 8.5 million readers, and the blog was reportedly earning as much as $40,000 a month from banner ads. In the summer of 2009, Forbes named Armstrong one of its 30 most influential women in media, alongside Oprah, Arianna Huffington, and Tyra Banks. The New York Times Magazine crowned her the “queen of the mommy bloggers.”
But in 2012, Armstrong’s fortunes changed. It wasn’t just that blogging was becoming less and less of a viable business. She split with her husband, Jon, who was also her business partner, and even her most loyal fans were furious. She was suddenly a fallen internet star whose mental health was eroding. The unraveling of her marriage — coupled with the incessant, crushing hate she endured — contributed to a deep, treatment-resistant depression.
So in March 2017, Armstrong enrolled herself in a clinical trial at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, where she was put in a chemically induced coma for 15 minutes at a time for 10 sessions. The treatment, which approximated brain death, was being tested to see if it could cure depression.
“I was feeling like life was not meant to be lived,” Armstrong says, sitting on her living room sofa one spring morning. “When you are that desperate, you will try anything. I thought my kids deserved to have a happy, healthy mother, and I needed to know that I had tried all options to be that for them.”
Armstrong lives on a quiet, leafy street in Salt Lake City, at the bottom of the snow-capped Wasatch mountain. She shares a home with her boyfriend Pete Ashdown, an early internet mogul and fellow ex-Mormon, and her two daughters, 15-year-old Leta and 9-year-old Marlo.
Armstrong is tall, thin, and blonde — precisely the stereotype of a successful blogger. Except, she notes with a sly grin while petting her Australian shepherd, Coco, “I’m also an irreverent ex-Mormon who is willing to speak her mind.” She admits she has a tendency for melodrama. She curses often and exaggerates frequently.
While she still chronicles her life — her family’s lives — on Dooce, her focus right now is on mental health. This is why she recently published her third book, The Valedictorian of Being Dead, a raw account of her experience with depression and how the trial at the University of Utah helped her recover. “I want people with depression to feel like they are seen,” she says, “especially here in Utah, where teen suicide is an epidemic.”
Armstrong has struggled with depression since college. But she also believes the major depressive episode she experienced two years ago was likely a consequence of sharing her life online so publicly, and for so long.
“The hate was very, very scary and very, very hard to live through,” she says. “It gets inside your head and eats away at your brain. It became untenable.”
Born Heather Hamilton, Armstrong grew up in the Mormon Church but started having doubts about religion in college. She officially left the church after graduating from Brigham Young University in 1997, moving to Los Angeles to pursue a new secular life. It was the era of the first dot-com boom, and she learned HTML and took jobs as a developer, writing code for startups. Her interest in the internet led her to start a blog called Dooce, inspired by a nickname she earned from coworkers, who teased her for a typo made while writing the word “dude.”
A year after she started the blog, in 2002, Armstrong was fired after coworkers found out she was writing about them on her blog. “Dooce” became internet slang for getting fired for doing something online. That same year, she married Jon Armstrong, a fellow web developer she’d met in college who had also left the Mormon Church. They reconnected through mutual friends living in California, and soon moved back to Salt Lake City to start a family.
When Armstrong gave birth to her daughter Leta in 2004, Dooce became all about being a mom. Armstrong no doubt had privilege — she was white, straight, wealthy, beautiful — which she waited until 2014 to address on her blog, admitting she initially didn’t feel comfortable discussing issues like race. But her blog resonated with a large and diverse audience because it offered unfiltered encounters with motherhood.
“Everything I’ve ever read about breastfeeding has obviously been written by a man with no tits, because everything says that as long as the baby is in the right position it shouldn’t hurt to breastfeed,” she wrote shortly after Leta was born. “I am here to tell you that there is no possible way to have an 8-pound creature GUMMING your tender nipple without the slightest bit of discomfort. The only way to describe it to a man is to suggest that he lay out his naked penis on a chopping block, place a manual stapler on the sacred helmut head, and bang in a couple hundred staples.”
She blogged about the good — “I never knew how funny a noise could be until you laughed at it, or just how excruciatingly handsome your father was until I saw your profile next to his,” she wrote about her daughter. She also wrote about the bad. Six months after Leta was born, Armstrong informed readers she had voluntarily checked into a psychiatric ward because she was struggling with postpartum depression.
“When Leta was born all these maternal instincts were slammed into the ON position: the instinct to protect, to nourish, to comfort,” she wrote on Dooce, describing her postpartum depression. “Six months later and I still can’t turn them off, or even turn them down. These instincts have turned into demons that terrorize me from the moment I get out of bed.”
Armstrong was just as candid about marriage as she was about motherhood. She described her dynamic with Jon as a quirky one, in which the duo drove each other mad but were still in love and in it together for the long run. She also wrote how lucky she felt to have a partner who stuck with her through depression. Jon himself shared with readers what it was like being married to her: “Our life is such that we must become adept at crisis management. This is not easy. I also have to be strong and assertive most of the time or else I’ll be blown over by the power of the illness.”
Dooce seemed authentic to readers, so many of whom were also moms, and a community was born. Armstrong was a constant presence in the comments section and wrote regular posts on the site to answer reader-submitted questions.
“Dooce was stored in the ‘friend’ parts of our brain because people really got involved with her experiences,” says Anita Blanchard, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte who studies virtual communities and is a longtime Dooce reader. “We would be standing around at parties talking about her like we knew her.”
Mundane stories about finding a raccoon in a chimney and buying new kitchen appliances drew in audiences, but it was the honesty and humor with which Armstrong wrote about parenting that was most compelling to readers.
“Rarely now do I ever go to the bathroom without Leta in the room because THAT’S WHAT MOTHERS DO,” she wrote about bathroom trips most moms are familiar with but would never openly share on the web. “I can’t shut the door because she’ll start screaming, and can YOU poop when someone is screaming? I DIDN’T THINK SO.”
Dooce’s rise came at a time when readers were turning to the internet for content they couldn’t find elsewhere; mommy blogs in particular had popped up in response to how poorly women’s magazines reflected how women were actually living.
“Heather was the tip of the iceberg,” says Lisa Stone, a co-founder of the women’s blogging platform BlogHer. “There were tons of women that we can now thank for literally changing the way women’s lives are represented in publishing today.”
Dooce was also one of many blogs written by Mormon women. In the late aughts, many educated Mormon women who had gotten married and had children young turned to blogging for both income and fulfillment. The religion practically primed them for the job too, according to Armstrong, since Mormons are taught to journal from a young age, and focus on creative hobbies like crafting and sewing, which was blogging gold for the booming DIY trend.
These Mormon bloggers, among other women, paved the way for a massive, lucrative industry through platforms like BlogHer. Stone says that by the time BlogHer was sold in 2014, the company had paid 6,000 bloggers more than $50 million for work that included advertising and brand deals with companies like Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Ulta, Target, and Coca-Cola.
When Armstrong began putting ads on her blog in 2004, though, she recalls a firestorm of criticism.
“Fans were really pissed,” she says. “It was empowering, though, because I realized I didn’t need some male executive in New York to tell me that my story’s important enough to publish because I can just do it myself.”
By 2011, Dooce was such a thriving business that it was able to support a staff of five: Armstrong, her husband Jon, an assistant, and two babysitters.
Jon Armstrong joked to the Times Magazine that while having their second child, Marlo, had been good for business, the hostility toward Dooce proved to be an even better moneymaker. Trolls flooded Armstrong with hate mail and angry comments, and started blogs of their own to pick apart Dooce. She was a constant subject of conversation on GOMI, a website with forums dedicated to trash-talking lifestyle bloggers, and on the Blogsnark subreddit. The pageviews that came in as a result helped Dooce’s advertising rates soar. Armstrong even started a website called Monetizing the Hate, which she’s since taken down, where she aggregated the most heinous comments and made money off the site’s banner ads.
Detractors felt Armstrong commodified her depression (“I’m Depressed, brought to you in part by Meow Mix,” one GOMI member wrote) and dramatically presented her life through a lens of despair (“Heather needs to get the f**k over her childhood trauma. Like dude, you’re 43 and you’ve spent half your life in therapy. You have a f**king sweet life,” another commenter wrote on GOMI).
The internet has always bred hate, but it was also a different place back then. Armstrong wasn’t subject to trolling from men’s rights activists, but rather fellow moms. Readers were critical of how much she shared about her children’s lives and critiqued parenting choices she made, like sleep training.
“Commenters were very opinionated about her mothering,” says Blanchard, the UNC professor. “And people are very judgmental about mothers’ choices in general. People felt entitled to have an opinion about her.”
As Jezebel put it, “The real problem is not that Heather Armstrong is a bad mommy, a careless dog owner, an arrogant bitch, a bad writer, or a bully — it’s that she’s a woman with an audience.”
Despite all the hate, Armstrong felt her readers were worth it. Sentiments like “Can’t honestly explain how much your sharing, your humor and your hurts have helped me with mine” were common and frequent.
“We cannot thank you enough for your support,” Armstrong wrote to audiences once, after blogging about her depression. “I have found solace in the stories you have sent to me, comfort in knowing that I am not alone in this struggle. I may not be able to see your faces, but I can hear your voices.”
“The only way out of my unhappiness was to take myself out of it,” Heather wrote. “I’m sad and devastated, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been more stable than I am right now. I hope you will at least try to and bear with me as I linger a bit underwater.”
“I’m not sure that I have the words to explain the devastation, pain, regret and sorrow I’ve felt the past couple of months,” Jon wrote. “I’ve tried. After a very painful holiday season, this is where my life is: away from my kids; away from my wife; away from my dogs.”
Dooce fans thought they knew everything about the Armstrongs’ marriage. Armstrong had spent years praising her husband as a hero who supported her through her mental illness. She had written that she loved what a good father he was, and that he was a good partner too.
In reality, though, the couple had been in counseling for years. Reflecting on her marriage now, Armstrong says her ex-husband was “controlling and punishing,” and that there were fundamental differences they couldn’t work through, like how Jon expected her to “just get over” the constant hate she encountered on the internet. (Jon Armstrong did not respond to requests for comment.)
“I felt so depressed about the idea,” Armstrong says of divorce. “I thought, ‘Do I want to do this to me? Do I want to do this to my kids? Do I want to do this to my career?’” Sharing the decision with her audience was also excruciating, and the response was seismic.
Publications like the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Huffington Post, and Jezebel covered the split. Some fans took it hard (“this is the hugest betrayal, we’ve invested our time in you when we could have been following other bloggers,” one angry email read), while others begged the couple to work things out. Non-fans openly wrote that the news had made them gleeful.
“People were just awful to me, calling me a fraud, a liar, saying how my kids were not safe to be with me,” Armstrong says. “It was all broadcast across the web and I was reading about it every day, and it was hell. It led me from one unhealthy situation to the next.”
The Armstrongs’ divorce was finalized in March 2013, and Jon moved to New York a year later to be with a new girlfriend. Armstrong now has custody of her two daughters for most of the year (they spend summers with their father).
The Armstrong marriage wasn’t the only thing in the Dooce universe that had gone south. By 2012, Dooce’s audience — like that of so many blogs — had scattered to social media, so readership declined. Blogging started to fizzle out as a medium, and display advertising money dried up.
Dooce did have a somewhat diversified revenue stream; Armstrong started doing sponsored content as early as 2009. Brands would pay her for blog posts that promoted their products, but she says brand demands began to cross a line.
“It became about products in posts, manufacturing experiences I may not have had, and then including photos of my children,” Armstrong recalls. “It very quickly spiraled and I didn’t feel comfortable with it.”
The Dooce blog lived on for a bit after the divorce. Armstrong filled it with recipes, shopping guides, and tales of single parenthood. In 2015, though, she announced she was taking a break.
“Many of my colleagues have closed up shop entirely, and I have an insight and an understanding as to why they would make that decision,” she wrote to readers. “‘Living online’ for us looks completely different now than it did when we set out to build this community, and the emotional and physical toll of it is rapidly becoming a health hazard.”
Armstrong says leaving the blog was refreshing — at least initially. She went on international trips, booked speaking engagements, trained for a marathon, and began to do freelance marketing for an animal welfare nonprofit.
But the never-ending list single mothers keep of “Things Needing to Get Done,” as she calls it in her book, became unbearable. Armstrong felt overwhelmed by the mundane tasks of laundry and carpool. Pile on the pressures of a demanding boss at the nonprofit and a Salt Lake City dating scene that she wryly calls a “beautiful backdrop for suicidal ideation,” along with the trauma of a public divorce and the hate she still experienced daily, and she found her depression engulfing her.
By the time she enrolled in the University of Utah’s psychiatric study, she says, “I was a heap of nothingness.”
Lifestyle bloggers like Armstrong made a career — a whole life, really — by sharing that life with others. They commodified their identities and experiences by offering their audience an authentic (or at least authentic-seeming) peek at their often enviable existence. No matter how real Armstrong or any of her peers got, there was still an air of aspiration surrounding them.
But what happens when things go off script?
Armstrong isn’t the first person to have her life implode on the internet. A handful of her early blogger peers went through some pretty public divorces of their own: Natalie Holbrook of Hey Natalie Jean, Brandi Laughlin of Mama Laughlin, Jill Smokler of Scary Mommy, Maggie Mason of Mighty Girl. Perhaps the most prominent was evangelical mommy blogger Glennon Doyle of Momastery, who came out as gay and is now a social justice activist and best-selling author.
Divorce, coming out, mental health crises, family deaths — these are the things that shake up anyone’s life, and the intensity only compounds when you live that life online. But many of these bloggers found that instead of derailing their careers, sharing their experiences reinforced their authenticity to their core readership.
“The beauty of the relationship between a writer and her audience in blog communities that have now spanned decades is the trust,” says Stone, who herself was an early internet blogger who went through a public divorce. “The journey changes, and that reinforces our reality even more authentically.”
Armstrong returned to blogging full time in 2017, after the experimental treatment eased her depression. She missed the act of writing, which had helped her process her feelings during the divorce. When she came back, she was pleasantly surprised to find that her most loyal fans were still there waiting.
“I’ve missed my other family very much and can’t wait to start giggling again,” a commentator named Susan wrote when Dooce returned in 2017. Heidi, another commenter, wrote, “I’ve missed you! Like, casually making dinner and wondering about my dear friend Heather and why she hasn’t called in so long-type of missed you.”
In the time that Armstrong had been absent from her site, bloggers had been almost wholly replaced with social media stars who relied on Instagram to gain a following. The word “influencer” had taken over, and quickly. Bloggers had risen to fame thanks to deeply personal posts; Instagram personalities operated in a much more visual medium, relying on photos of cute kids and beautiful homes for likes.
“The biggest stars of the mommy Internet now are no longer confessional bloggers. They’re curators of life. They’re influencers,” the Washington Post wrote in 2018. “They’re pitchwomen. And with all the photos of minimalist kitchens and the explosion of affiliate links, we’ve lost a source of support and community, a place to share vulnerability and find like-minded women, and a forum for female expertise and wisdom.”
The rise of influencers has all but killed the lifestyle blog, as Quartz posited last year, and Armstrong says she disdains today’s influencer economy. On her blog, she describes it as “hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars.” She’s on Facebook and Twitter, but mainly to drive traffic to her blog, and she uses Instagram as a modern-day scrapbook of sorts for her family. (Her following is small, at 50,000 followers, as opposed to mommy mega-influencer Rachel Parcell, at more than 1 million.)
But when in Rome, right? Something has to pay the bills. Armstrong does sponsored work for FabFitFun and Hyundai on her blog and Instagram, and receives affiliate revenue from Stitch Fix and Amazon, earning a commission from shoppers who click through and buy recommended products. In keeping with the times, she also has a podcast about single parenting, which is sponsored by Canidae Pet Food.
Still, Armstrong isn’t Instagramming her outfits with brand credits so they will sponsor her posts, nor is she taking free trips to glamorous locations to shill for beauty brands. Dooce is still about dental visits, therapy sessions, and life as an ex-Mormon.
“Being an influencer today means sharing picture-perfect moments, and that is not what I signed up for,” she says. “Mommy blogging is dead, and I think most of my colleagues would agree.”
Sometime around 5 pm, the vibe in Armstrong’s house transforms from calm and relaxed to humming chaos.
Ashdown walks in with groceries and starts to make fresh pasta for dinner. Marlo, dressed as Pippi Longstocking in honor of her school’s storybook week, gallops into the living room after finishing a play date at a neighbor’s. She hovers over Ashdown as he wheels his dough through a pasta maker, and eventually moves on to her homework, which involves crafting The Very Hungry Caterpillar out of Play-Doh.
Leta arrives with Armstrong’s mother and stepfather, who’ve just picked her up from dance class. She plops down on the living room sofa and plays with her iPhone, occasionally interjecting snappy one-liners into the conversation Armstrong and her mother are having about changes at the Mormon Church. Armstrong’s mom is still involved with the church, and explains that LDS leadership has recently announced it will allow its young missionaries to call home weekly, abandoning its previous rule of just twice a year.
“This is going to have major effects for these kids’ mental health,” Armstrong tells her mother, who nods.
In the next iteration of her career, Armstrong hopes to focus on mental health and is interested in starting a mental health nonprofit.
“Heather has taught me so much, not just about depression but also about love and joy, and understanding life when you are faced with a child who goes in one direction when you want her to go in another,” her mother, Linda, says.
Armstrong’s book is focused near exclusively on her depression and the clinical trial, with little mention of her blogging heyday; Dooce fans say it’s a major flaw, but Armstrong says it was intentional.
“So many readers have reached out to me in the past from reading my blog, asking for help and advice,” she says, “but now I want to reach people who would never read me in the first place, who don’t see mommy blogging as part of the story.”
Armstrong’s life has changed. She’s still blogging to about 500,000 readers; it’s nowhere near her old audience, but it’s where she leverages conversation about mental health and is promoting her book.
Her kids’ lives have changed too, as has the relationship between children and the internet. Leta was a baby when Dooce rose to fame, but now she’s a smart and opinionated teenager who loves the Netflix show The OA. Marlo might only be 9 but she’s got internet access too, though under strict screen-time rules.
“I haven’t known anything other than her blogging,” says Leta about being a subject on Dooce. “It’s just been my whole life. It is kind of weird because I have friends who Google themselves and nothing shows up, but when I Google myself, there are all these pictures and stories. But I love reading old blog posts about myself because they are so funny.”
Armstrong says she’s still invested in maintaining the familial intimacy Dooce offers readers, but she does so with her kids’ permission now; her daughters get initial approval on any photo or anecdote about them that gets posted to the blog or social media. Ditto goes for her partner, Ashdown, who says he doesn’t mind being a subject on Dooce. His experience as a two-time Democratic candidate for Senate made him comfortable in the public eye.
“I had a lot of attention thrown at me,” he says of his runs in 2006 and 2012. “I had to learn to come out from behind my computer screen, so it totally prepared me for being out in the open.”
Not that Ashdown has ever encountered anything close to the hate Armstrong has endured, and he probably won’t. Armstrong is aware she’ll likely, once again, encounter a mob of haters who will see the book and her blog’s heightened emphasis on mental health as another way she’s profiting from her depression.
But Armstrong also believes it’s her blogging career, trolls very much included, that has led her to mental health advocacy. Plus, she smiles, “The worst things that have been said about me have already been said.”
Editors: Julia Rubin and Eleanor Barkhorn
Layout: Alanna Okun
Photographer: Kim Raff
Copy editor: Tanya Pai