aspiration

The Evolution of a Mormon Mommy Blogger

In 2011, Salon published an essay by Emily Matchar called “Why I Can’t Stop Reading Mormon Housewife Blogs.” Matchar, a self-described “standard-issue late-20-something childless overeducated atheist feminist” — more or less how I might have described myself at the time — obsessively followed a group of young white women who were chronicling dreamy, picture-perfect lives with beautiful young children, good outfits, tidy homes, and handsome husbands. Matchar and her similarly childless and striving friends read the blogs because they were “uplifting,” and because they put a positive spin on domesticity, she wrote. The essay pointed out the avenues blogs offered for subterfuge, for masking pain, but ultimately Matchar parsed the perusal of these blogs as a pleasure — and not even a very guilty one.

This essay materially changed my internet consumption habits, along with those of a number of women I know. I was in grad school, and Matchar’s piece caused me to spend what was probably hundreds of hours delving into the back catalogues of the women named in the article.

On the surface, I was doing what looked a little bit like hate-reading — some of the bloggers were so smarmy, the writing so breathless, the lives so artificial. Moreover, Mormons have long been an object of suspicion and curiosity in non-Mormon America, and the women’s religious devotion added another level of voyeuristic appeal. The disparity between my assumptions about their real lives and the lacquered image they presented — even the chaos of childrearing somehow picturesque — was fascinating. I was certain that the authors were all on the verge of sticking their heads in an oven. And though I wouldn’t have admitted back then, I was also reading as a person curious about wife- and motherhood, territory I could see in the distance but had not yet entered myself.

Most of the blogs lost their appeal after I had spent 12 hours reading their entire archives. But one stood out: Natalie Holbrook (now Lovin), Matchar’s chief subject, who, back in 2011had a new baby named Huck and wrote a blog called Nat the Fat Rat. “It seems that a lot of popular culture wants to portray marriage and motherhood as demeaning, restrictive or simple,” she told Matchar for the piece. “But in the LDS church, motherhood is a very important job, and it’s treated with a lot of respect.”

Nat the Fat Rat began in September 2005 with a trip to the Brooklyn Target, where Lovin planned to set up her and her husband’s tiny apartment. They had just moved from Portland, Oregon; they would be in Brooklyn for a year while her husband completed a job training program. Lovin started the blog to stay in touch with family and friends; her first posts are full of wonderment about New York, navigating the subway, going to a baseball game, seeing the lights lit up for the four-year anniversary of 9/11. The author loves her husband Brandon, loves eating Chipotle, loves quoting You’ve Got Mail. It’s pretty basic, in all senses.

Over time, the blog becomes a record of substantive life events, as Lovin shares glimpses of her existence, one dictated by wifehood, with humor and what reads as honesty. They move to Moscow, Idaho, so that Brandon can go to law school, and Natalie struggles with the change. She struggles with infertility — a two-year hiatus in the archives. She struggles with jobs — admin jobs, or retail jobs, mostly unfulfilling. When she finally gets pregnant, the blog is a record of her joy (and the vagaries of pregnancy). They move back to New York so that Brandon can get a master’s degree. Huck is born, a squishy, beautiful baby.

Over time the tenor changes — the look of the blog becomes sleeker. Nat the Fat Rat becomes Hey Natalie Jean. She gets sponsorships, a beautiful loft in Brooklyn with exposed brick. She writes a book. Once a quiet defender of her faith, she leaves the LDS church (her husband does not). She struggles with secondary infertility. She gets a tattoo. And then suddenly they are back in Moscow, where Brandon gets a professorship at the law school, and Natalie gets chickens. In April 2016, she and Brandon get divorced. She shutters her blog, the archives too.

Throughout all this, Lovin became the subject of over 2,500 pages of mostly disparaging comments on the “blog hate” site Get Off My Internets (GOMI), a place where people come to dissect the lives of popular lifestyle bloggers, and which became the funhouse mirror of the blogging boom. My own interest in Lovin’s blog waxed and waned over the years, but her writing, and the outsize way people responded to it online, have stayed with me. So when I saw that Hey Natalie Jean had been resurrected last month, it felt like an event. I texted several women I know, all of whom have a soft spot for Natalie. And then, on a whim, I sent her a message. We arranged to talk via phone.

First, we spoke about what her days look like now. She is Natalie Lovin (her maiden name), and that adorably squishy baby is now a second-grader. As revealed in her post, she is back in Portland, where her parents live, and feeling unmoored. She has Huck full-time while his father is temporarily teaching overseas, and she’s job-hunting. She’s also sewing, after posting an embroidered T-shirt for sale on her Instagram. “I’m gonna be sewing for the rest of my life,” she laughed. “I’ve got about 55 T-shirts I need to embroider flowers on.”

She had stopped blogging before, in 2006, just a year after starting the blog. She and Brandon had moved to Idaho, and she was trying to get pregnant. She had a job she hated at an engineering firm. She didn’t write for two years, but then she felt like she needed an outlet, she says, a space to “create something else … not for an audience at all.” She hazards that, initially, about five or six people outside her family read that version of her blog. This was 2008, right in the middle of the golden age of blogging: “At that time, people were using the internet differently. You would go to BlogSpot, and then you could hit ‘next blog’ up in the corner, and it would just refresh to random strangers.” One of her readers submitted her to the “Blog of Note” feature, which permanently altered the blog’s trajectory. (The lifestyle blog powerhouse Cup of Jo was a “Blog of Note” around the same time.)

With an audience came a level of scrutiny that quickly became overwhelming. Before Lovin and I spoke, I peeked into the GOMI archives, which eventually became so vitriolic that a number of readers migrated over to Reddit to discuss not only their issues with the mommy bloggers, but with GOMI itself — a site of internecine warfare so complex and intense that it could support a doctoral thesis. GOMI and its founder have been periodically covered in the media (Natalie spoke about the site in a Guardian article, and wrote about it occasionally on the blog), and I told her we didn’t have to dwell on it. But I did ask when the malevolent side of her audience revealed itself.

It was in 2010, shortly after Huck was born, and she was up for a night feeding. She had set up a Google alert for her name on the advice of a fellow blogger. “It was something along the lines of, ‘If I never see her big, ugly nose ever again, it’ll be too soon,’ something like that. And I’m sitting there, the fog of postpartum with the baby, like a vampire on my nipple, and just being like, ‘What is this?’” The Salon article, she says, ratcheted it up intensely. All the curious gawkers — women like me — brought a new kind of readership.

I asked her whether she had a support system in other bloggers. She does, she says, and they agree that the forums seem to reserve special vitriol for her. “That’s always made me feel kind of better, like, ‘At least I’m not making that up.’” From my perusal of GOMI, it does seem like Lovin is the focus of particularly mean-spirited examination. But she is also the focus of particular partisanship. For many readers, Lovin took on a kind of underdog status — partly because of her GOMI haters, partly because some of the elements that made her a Mormon Mommy Blogger are no longer in play.

But we at Team Nat still inhabit the catty universe that spawns a place like GOMI. We are keepers of mommy blogger folklore — we trawl social-media feeds for esoteric knowledge. This lore, for example, holds that Lovin feuded with another woman in Matchar’s Salon piece. (Now a wildly popular blogger with a luggage line and five children.) Women who read these blogs talk about this rift like it’s the WWE, and one of its pivotal moments is known as the “white wall incident.” The other blogger posed for a photo against a white wall — something Lovin often did to showcase her outfits — and wrote that it “felt so dumb.” The forums, and the group texts, were aflame at this obvious provocation. If you think this is stupid I don’t really know what to tell you — it is stupid.

I have to ask Lovin about it. My friends and I would text about this, I tell her, and wonder whether we were collectively fabricating these backstage dramas for our own titillation. “I asked myself that question so many times,” Lovin says. “Is this real, or am I imagining this?” (The strife was real, she tells me, to the point that she stopped going to the church she and the other blogger both attended, with the blessing of her husband, the family’s priesthood holder.)

One of the reasons Lovin partisans support her against enemies real or imagined is the feeling of authenticity that characterized her blog for so long. She also, unlike some of her blogging colleagues, has spoken out about political issues.

Although her blog was closed for business during the 2016 election, she used the platform she had on social media to point out that Donald Trump is a disgrace (hardly a bold statement, but many of her contemporaries wouldn’t go there). And when she blogged about the church, she wrote (gently) that “I’m going to let go of a few things that I’ve been told are Right and Wrong that i honestly, prayerfully, just don’t believe,” and was “disgusted” with the LDS leadership’s threat to excommunicate members who advocated for gay marriage. She tells me part of what drove her to write this post was a message she received from a young woman who was self-harming and couldn’t see a place for herself in the church until she found Lovin’s blog. “I can’t stand here and pretend like this is okay. I can’t put my name on this. I can’t do this anymore,” Lovin said of the decision to define her relationship with her faith — and her opposition to its administration — on her own terms.

But turning her writing, a form of labor, into something that brought money into the household, necessitated a shift from this kind of person to influencer — a paradox for anyone who monetizes a personal blog, but a special paradox for someone whose vulnerability and realness endears her to readers. An overview of GOMI pages suggests, in between the people who just appear to hate her existence, that one faction of readers enjoyed Lovin’s writing and was disappointed by her perceived transition to aspirational lifestyle blog aesthetic. (This phenomenon is not restricted to Lovin — it’s even the subject of an academic paper.)

In the beginning, she tells me, “we were selling banner ads to each other, sidebar ads, and it was maybe a couple hundred dollars a month.” This covered date nights and her own clothing. But by 2012 and 2013, large agencies had gotten in on the action. She signed on for a year and made a sum she describes as “quite a lot.” It was “kind of amazing. Kind of overwhelming.” The agency had her change her blog’s name from Nat the Fat Rat to Hey Natalie Jean so that she could attract sponsors “like Chanel” (Chanel did not come around).

Readers became upset. At one point, after a string of sponsored posts, she acknowledged the frustration when promoting a piece of Pantene spon-con: “I tweeted ‘I know there’s a lot of sponsored posts, but I am really proud of this one. This is Pantene, and blah blah blah, and here’s the link,’” she says. “I heard back from my agent that Pantene was so ticked off. They didn’t care that I had said, ‘But I am proud of this one.’” Pantene didn’t pay her. She and the agency parted ways. (Chafing at the traces of sponsorship is a problem for bloggers; the Ur-blogger Dooce quit blogging for similar reasons.)

Lovin speaks about this period when blogging was her profession with what I consider to be surprising equanimity. “Up to the end, it was a career. It was an income. It was hard to give up in that vein, because it was a bit of freedom.” She dialed it back, she said, for her marriage, and for her mental health. Reading over the archives in preparation to start writing again has been instructive, she says. What read to her early readers as revealing, real posts were their own kind of performance. In therapy she had a revelation that “My entire blog for so many years was taking my relationship and making it okay.” She wouldn’t call it a caricature, she says, because “everything that I wrote was true and real, but I was cherry-picking my marriage, and I was writing the character as a whole, as kind of the best-case scenario of what I was experiencing.”

She suspects the way she used her blog as an outlet also has to do with Mormon culture. “A lot of us are, or were, in marriages that were limiting, because it was a very patriarchal society in the church, and we didn’t have a voice at church. We didn’t have a voice at home, in a lot of the cases. We followed our husbands’ career. We didn’t have a career of our own, or if we did, it was always second tier, and we were always celebrated in the church for having children. If we couldn’t have children, or if we had fraught relationships with our children, then what? What were we then?”

Overall, she says, she is enormously proud of the blog. And she is grateful that she has a record of her son’s life. Blogging and motherhood were a natural pairing, something that makes sense to her. The posts she wrote about motherhood are some of her favorites. But now that Huck is 7, she says “it’s not for me to write his life anymore. That’s going to be something I figure out as I go along. My blog is not going to be what it was.”

I don’t really follow any Mormon Mommy bloggers today, although I now am a wife and mother myself. But the fluorescence of interest Matchar’s article generated does feel like it permanently altered the way I consume things online, particularly personal essays, particularly writing by and about women and mothers. It has complicated how I think about authenticity and marketability and labor and the treacherous career paths available to women.

To write this piece I revisited some old blog standbys to see if they were still around. She looks great, I would remark to myself of a writer, as though we had gone to school together. Look at the kids, I would think. The baby’s not a baby anymore. The obvious artifice of what are now more often called lifestyle blogs still strikes me, in most cases, as creepy, even when you have to respect the hustle of making the very substance of your life — or its appearance, at any rate — good enough, attractive enough, interesting enough to earn your living under capitalism. One of the complaints about blogging is that it’s braggy and performative, an act of falsehood, of self-curation. I bring this  up with Lovin. She is derisive: “If blogging were a male-dominated field, no one would say anything like that … There would be a Pulitzer Prize for blogging, if men did it more.”