In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich warned that “as long as birth--metaphorically or literally--remains an experience of passively handing over our minds and our bodies to male authority and technology, other kinds of social change can only minimally change our relationship to ourselves, to power, and to the world outside of our bodies"(185). Rich sees physical spaces like clinics and community centers as integral to changing the power dynamics for women and more specifically for motherhood. While I don’t disagree with Rich about the importance of clinics and community centers, I think that digital spaces or more specifically the mamasphere is a digital realm where the image of the mother is constantly being remediated. This remediation of the maternal provides what May Friedman argues is a kind of collective cyborg that acts as an oppositional force to totalizing images of motherhood specifically patriarchal motherhood. In the past research like that of John E. Gedo has established “a definition of creativity [that] maintains a rigid boundary between maternal and artistic work” (Randall 196). In this model, creation and procreation are somehow always separated. Pushing against that boundary is maternal writing. Maternal writing is writing about motherhood written by women, and while poetry and novels and short stories and songs falling into this category have most likely existed since people began writing, mommyblogging presents us with a digital version of maternal writing.
Mommyblogs as maternal writing are clearing a space in the imagination in regards to motherhood by providing a multiplicity of experiences and representations of pregnancy, birth and postpartum experiences and it is imperative that we begin to take notice. Mommybloggers are actively repositioning experiences like pregnancy, birth, and postpartum depression through a networked ecology created by mommybloggers who connect with one another, link to other blogs, comment, and spread their compositions across multiple platforms. In addition to discussing the content of their blogs, women in these spaces are actively discussing their writing and role as moms that blog. Heather Armstrong from Dooce.com, among others, confronted questions about advertising and some like Amy Oztan from SelfishMom.com created an index that organizes each of her posts based on degrees of advertising. Mom bloggers are also considering the ethical ramifications of writing about their children with bloggers like Armstrong stating that her children’s stories cease to belong to her to tell as they grow older. Writers in this space are exploring aspects of motherhood often discussed only in marginal spaces like the experience of being a mother after the loss of a child. For May Friedman, this kind of writing acts as a response to external representations of the maternal while simultaneously providing access to the maternal from within.
Despite the prevalence of mommyblogs now and in the early 2000s, the idea that women can’t be creative and maternal in the same space remains pervasive. In fact at the BlogHer convention in 2005, blogger Alice Bradley proclaimed that mommyblogging was a radical act and wanted conference participants to stop positioning mommyblogging as less valuable than blogging about anything else (Lopez 732). Since the advent of blogs in 1994, this kind of digital life writing has had a tie to the personal narratives. Communication and media scholars like Megan Rogers have examined mommyblogs from a critical perspective, and in Roger’s case, she found using Gornick’s principles that mommyblogs are creative non-fiction compositions. Rogers believes these writers who she refers to as maternal essayists are unmasking motherhood in a way that makes for some of the most influential writers of the 21st century. But if stories of pregnancy and childbirth and postpartum experiences found within the mamasphere are maternal essays, they are multimodal motherhood identity assemblages made up up various media including text-based, videos, and memes, among others.
Thinking about Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of assemblage as a “multiplicity which is made up of many heterogenous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them across ages, sexes and reigns--different natures” I want to position mommyblogs like Dooce and The Pioneer Woman as transformative assemblages that are actively changing how we approach pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experiences. Because as Friedman argues “there are multiple mamaspheres and mommybloggers hop in and out of each realm with true cyborg impunity, thus creating different, non-normative collective mother-subjects" (106). If we visit The Pioneer Woman blog, we see a blogger (Ree) who discusses many things including her family life, politics, and cooking. The blog is an aggregation of information with links to multiple archives, other blogs, and different social media platforms. The identity crafted in this space invokes a wholesome image of a woman who is dedicated to her family and is also a savvy entrepreneur selling her “simple” lifestyle. I’m most interested in Ree’s discussions of birth and pregnancy. In one particular post on the blog, the Pioneer Woman discusses the births of her children and the children of her best friend with each birth a unique experience rather than the cookie cutter narrative often circulated by popular media. In fact, Ree is pointing out how different her births were and then how different they were from the births of her best friend’s children. This specific entry is an assemblage traversing time, family units, and media with both images, texts, and hyperlinks. As Alex Reid explains “it’s assemblages all the way down” (31).
Through the use of this assemblage and all of the assemblages that interconnect throughout the mamasphere, birth cannot be reduced to the kind of sterilized and sensationalized versions that dominant popular broadcast media.
Perhaps a direct attack on those very kinds of overproduced and stereotypical popular media images motherhood and childbirth is The Dooce.com--home of mommyblogger, Heather B. Armstrong. Heather constructs a digital identity of motherhood that looks very different from Ree’s as the Pioneer Woman. Heather is divorced, sometimes crude, and frank about her relationships with advertising even referring to the controversies regarding blogging and advertising, “This used to be called mommyblogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing” (Dooce.com). Assembling her motherhood identity through witticisms, photographs, blog entries, hyperlinks, a discussion board, and even a podcast, Heather Armstrong’s foray into mommyblogging brokedown many barriers and unfair projections of mothers that suffer from mental illness. Several of her entries discuss her decision to take antidepressants while pregnant, contemplating suicide during the month after her first daughter’s birth, and her fear of another battle with postpartum after the birth of her second daughter. Because these entries are a part of a larger network, there is not a one-dimensional representation of Heather and her experiences making it difficult to regulate her mother identity to her battle with mental illness. Instead, this facet of her life becomes part of a larger picture or assemblage that might otherwise be invisible to an outsider.
My central argument is that digital life writing has allowed for women to create networked ecologies in digital spaces that are assemblages and via these assemblages we are in a cultural and social moment that is decentering a single image of what pregnancy and birth and postpartum should be ultimately replacing monolithic representations and stereotypes with a heterogeneous network where women are championing their abilities to produce--to create---to compose and perhaps this is moving us closer to the future that Rich imagines when she wonders about clinics where “women could begin to think, read about, and discuss the entire process of conceiving, gestating, bearing, nursing their children, about the alternatives to motherhood, and about the wholeness of their lives” (184). In the mamasphere women aren’t only writing personal narratives, they are also circulating information about pregnancy, birth and postpartum which helps to create new understandings of motherhood.
In order to better understand the impact mommyblogging has had on maternal writing specifically what I want to call pregnancy narratives, we must begin a conscience collection and archiving effort to document these stories in a central location. I have been working with undergraduate students in an effort to create a digital archive for maternal narratives. This project is important for two main reasons. First, creating an archive affords the writing some degree of authority. Archives are associated with value and by archiving these materials, we are making a decision about their value. These are valuable forms of writing, and as such, they should be preserved. Secondly, in creating an archive we want to create an assemblage made up of various kinds of digital maternal/pregnancy narratives (vlog, text-based, image-based) because as Jody Shipka suggests collection based frameworks “allows us to attend more closely to why and how certain connections are forged (or resisted), and to consider how those connections (or collections) help to shape, alter, and transform us, our worlds, and the work we hope to do” (151). While Shipka is referring to a different kind of assembling practice, the central concept is applicable here in that by assembling or collecting pregnancy/maternal narratives and placing them in a central location, we can draw connections and see relationships that might have otherwise gone unseen. It is my goal that by making visible these potential connections and relationships via assemblage, it will lend to a greater understanding of the multiplicities of mothering and to a greater rejection of one-dimensional stereotypes that often work to entrap and diminish the agency of women.