Over the course of nearly 20 years writing professionally about pop culture, mostly as the head writer of The A.V Club, I’ve discovered who my audience is. While I hate to generalize, I’ll generalize anyway and say my average reader is a dude, probably in his 20s or 30s, who has trouble relating to other human beings and is more comfortable with pop culture than messy things like emotions. In other words, me.
But last year, when I was relieved of my position as a staff writer at Pitchfork’s film site the Dissolve shortly before the site itself closed, I found myself unemployed, with a 6-month-old baby to provide for and no freelance career to speak of. I was, to put it mildly, concerned, so when my friend Claire Zulkey asked if I’d be interested in joining her as a writer for parenting website mom.me, I jumped at the chance — both because I desperately wanted to make money to provide for my family and keep us from starving, and also because writing about the glorious adventure of parenting was extremely appealing to me.
Mom.me seemed like a bit of an odd fit for me, in part because I’m, you know, a dude. For a long time, whenever I linked to an article I had written for the site, the link was accompanied by a graphic insisting that whoever was reading it was a women and a mother, and that mom.me understood.
But that was part of why I wanted to do it. I liked the idea of calling myself a “mommy blogger” — I liked the way the term combines vague hints of genderqueer motherfuckery (in this case, literal motherfuckery, as that’s how babies get born) with the homey familiarity of domestic life. Mommy blogging has a history and a cultural currency that daddy blogging does not. There are so many places in our culture that are angrily demarcated as male realms; it’s a challenge and a novelty to be a man in a place that’s mostly for women.
Also, after two years of writing exclusively about film in a fairly impersonal, unemotional way, I was excited to once again be wading into the messy psychological swamps of my emotional life. The first piece I wrote for mom.me was about being inexplicably labeled a “Snarkitect” by a Washington Post book critic reviewing my 2009 memoir, The Big Rewind. Becoming a father, I explained, engendered an intense emotional engagement with the world that made it impossible to sneer at society from a smug place of faux superiority.
With that piece, I felt like I was officially ending the pre-dad part of my career and beginning a new phase. Now my son and wife wouldn’t just be the center of my emotional life; they’d be a big part of my professional life as well, as subjects I never get tired of writing about. And I was encouraged by the response the piece got. I’ve made a point of being as open and honest about my emotions in my writing as humanly possible, and it was satisfying to see people respond to that honesty.
What do I know about what the average mother wants to read? Judging by how many times my pieces are read, the answer is “not much.” Mom.me is the only place I write for that lets me know how often my essays have been read, and I alternate between caring deeply about those numbers and reminding myself that I write for the creative satisfaction.
I’ve always been my own best audience, but when I’m writing for a mommy blog, it would perhaps behoove me to write more for an audience of actual mommies. At the various princess parties my 19-month-old son, Declan, attends (there seem to be very few non-princess-themed parties among the 2-and-under set), I come across plenty of mothers, mostly suburban women of wealth and leisure, and it’s almost impressive how little I have in common with them outside of parenting. I suppose that does also go a long way toward explaining why I do not currently hold the mommy-blogging game in a viselike grip.
Nevertheless, my writing has gotten more popular at mom.me over the past year or so, suggesting that I’m getting progressively better as I go along, in the same way I’m getting better as a parent. My strategy for mommy blogging is the same for parenting: I just muddle through and hope that everything turns out okay in the end.
There isn’t much overlap between the audience for mommy blogs and the audience for my writing about, say, comedy podcasts. Parenting is really only interesting to parents. If you’re not a parent, reading about it is like watching a friend play video games for hours: hard to appreciate even on a vicarious level. I try to be entertaining, but I know that parents read mommy blogs to see how other parents’ experiences compare to their own.
Which means there’s an innate narcissism in mommy blogging — you have to be narcissistic in order to serve the readers. It’s arrogant to believe that our experiences as parents are so fascinating that we must share our thoughts about them with the world. Then again, it’s also arrogant to assume that your thoughts on movies and books and music are so trenchant and important and clever that they similarly need to be shared with the world. So I’ve really just traded in one form of writerly arrogance for another. At least writing about parenting from the perspective of someone who has no special knowledge or insight is more honest than presenting myself as an expert in the art of cinema.
When I worked as a full-time critic, I saw film criticism as a way to write about everything as filtered through the prism of film. On a similar note, I feel like being a mommy blogger has similarly given me an opportunity to write about everything, from a trip to the birthplace of the Cabbage Patch Kids to my dog’s complicated relationship with my baby, filtered through the prism of being a dad.
I love that mommy blogging gives me permission to write endlessly about myself in a semi-socially condoned fashion. There’s a catch, though: Because the goal is to speak to the experiences of a wide range of mothers, the key to popularity is to write about something with broad appeal. So a column on the challenges of trying to wean our baby off of co-sleeping understandably gets read more than an article about parenting at the Gathering of the Juggalos.
Mommy blogging has been good for me. It’s created a bond between my mother-in-law and myself, because it’s the only writing of mine that she understands. My pop-culture writing is so jokey and dense with allusions that, for her, I might as well be trying to communicate in Esperanto. An article about how Better Off Dead anticipated the current wave of anti-comedy is useless to her, but she never tires of reading about her adorable grandbaby.
And it’s let me contextualize what’s happening in my life, while it’s happening. Writing about being a parent has forced me to think about my own traumatic childhood. I’ve been able to better understand my own dad’s struggles as a single father, to empathize with what he went through. For me, writing about being a dad is also writing about having a dad.
On some level, being a male mommy blogger has its advantages. When women blog about being parents, the universe often takes it as an invitation to judge them harshly. (Then again, the universe also uses women being born women as an excuse to judge them harshly.) Mothers are constantly being judged and found lacking, particularly in the Momosphere. Yet, as a father writing about parenthood, people are less likely to judge me, and more likely to cut me some slack just for writing about being a dad. I benefit from this double standard even as I’ve railed against it in multiple mommy-blog posts.
That said, so far being a male mommy blogger hasn’t made me into a cultural phenomenon, or earned me enough money to move out of my in-laws’ basement. In my writing, I’ve mocked the idea that a dad looking after his own damn child is so crazily implausible it could only be the basis for a comedy, but I’ll admit “Mr. Mommy Blogger” has a nice ring to it. Just give Dwayne Johnson a kid and — boom — instant blockbuster. Integrity is all well and good, but baby’s gotta eat.