“Mommyblogging” & Influence…Conclusion: I’m a Free Range Mama

There’s been a bit of an uproar lately about “mommyblogging” as a business. Some women who’ve been at this longer than me, and have a perspective on women blogging that I trust have said the following:

Queen of Spain asked: what about community? A bright line between editorial versus advertising?

CityMama talks about the FTC’s push to regulate “mommyblogging” as commercial speech.

Kim Moldofsky looked at marketing to women through the lens of the recently released “Nielsen Power Mom Top 50″ list.

At Authenticities, Blagica Bottigliero noted that the term “mommyblogger” seems to be used so much by marketers, it’s suffering from meaning fatigue. (And from that I take it to mean that there’s a lot of variety in the PR/marketing people who are out there as well–many who are interested in promoting socially redeeming products and services and doing their part to help create crucial demand for them.)

UPDATED 5/19/09 TO ADD: BusinessWeek reported on the FTC’s closer scrutiny of review bloggers who are either paid or allowed to keep the product itself. It looks as if there’ll be changes in tax rules governing freebies as well. (h/t QueenofSpain)

NO ONE IS SAYING IT’S WRONG to accept, talk about, be paid for, or blog about things received for review purposes. Least of all me. But what everyone is urging is transparency, and maybe mindfulness, about what it is you’re doing.

So with that in mind, I thought I’d navel-gaze about my own situation. I’ll try to be matter-of-fact and descriptive, in an effort to keep the self-righteousness to a minimum.

I’ve been ad-free ever since starting this blog in February, 2003. That’s partly because I had no thought of starting this blog to make it profitable, not to mention making it public. Who wants to read a zillion and one rantings about how much I hate George W. Bush, with a few cat and baby stories thrown in? (The laugh’s on me, because that site is called DailyKos and it’s both a netroots heavyweight and quite prosperous. Of course they do more than just rant, they’re quite effective in liberal-progressive politics at all levels.)

I unlocked my blog in 2007, and as I mentioned in the comments to Queen of Spain, I mostly regret not going public sooner because then I could’ve tapped into the progressive political/feminist blogosphere sooner.

I briefly dallied with making the blog over and adding an affiliate program since I often review books and movies that I like (or sometimes dislike). But I dropped that idea in favor of more remunerative freelance work. I may yet revive the idea.

After mulling just WHO marketers target when they try to woo “mommybloggers,” I’ve finally decided I must belong to a finicky subset called “Free Range Mamas.” Rather than worry about why WalMart isn’t courting *me*, I think ultimately the bigger issue is this: I don’t live in a way that consumes a lot of the things mainstream moms are supposed to need or buy. And this is on purpose.

  • Huggies or Pampers would never sponsor my blog, because I practiced “[disposable] diaper-free” Elimination Communication with my baby. What diapers I did use were cloth from our local service.
  • About 75% of the time, I made and froze my own baby food when my son was young. So no Earth’s Best sponsorship, even though I liked their products.
  • For the first 20 months of my son’s life, he wore probably 80% hand-me-downs which I was lucky enough to get passed to me in the big karmic circle of used baby clothes. (I was thrilled and considered myself lucky to have them.) Therefore, no Gymboree sponsorship, even though I like their kids’ clothes and have purchased many outfits from them since for my son (though I did make fun of their mama and baby programs because they seemed weirdly chipper and cult-like to me, plus I can’t sing worth a damn).
  • Furniture-wise, I bought a crib and a rocking chair for my infant to sleep in and be rocked to sleep in, and instead used the bassinet to help in co-sleeping and the birthing ball in place of rocking. The crib sat empty and the chair was a place to pile clean laundry. (It turned out my son was most lulled to sleep by vertical bouncy motion as opposed to lateral rocking motion–go figure.) So much for the big baby mega-stores like Babies R Us, Pottery Barn Kids, or Buy Buy Baby sponsoring me.
  • I did splurge on all sorts of noisy and silly toys. And I did scour books and recommendations on toys pretty carefully. But even then I bought lots of wooden toys and specialty education toys from obscure mom and pop websites. (I wish I’d bought more hand-made Etsy toys, but oh, well.)

When I think about what mommybloggers I read as an inexperienced mother to a newborn, what mommyblog websites I visited, I’d have to say Dooce, Mothering.com, Dr. Greene, and the odd BabyCenter or other “mainstream” parenting website with handy developmental charts.

I enjoyed reading Dooce–this was after her post-partum depression breakdown, when she wrote lengthy thousands-of-word-long stories, but before she really blew up big and put ads up on her site. But as read, I also realized that I disagreed with a lot of her attitudes and decisions about parenting. I realized reading her site was like training wheels for my own mothering. Once I didn’t need that reassurance any more, I got less and less pleasure from visiting. Women in my mom’s group and other concerns filled the gap. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone, just describing who, as a mom, has had influence on me as a brand new parent. I’m glad for the much-needed laughs and irreverence I did get from reading Dooce and other, A-list bloggers, but for whatever reason, I don’t seem to read them as much any more.

So, who do I turn to when I want to buy something for my kid? Google, and Consumer Reports. A few trusted moms who were friends first before I ever read their blogs with any frequency. And my own judgment.

Who doesn’t influence me now: Dooce, the 11 Moms of WalMart (I’ve been in a WalMart *once* in my life, and I think all I bought was bananas), and any number of popular, funny, delightful, talented “mommybloggers” who write about products they’ve been given. I enjoy their writing and what they have to say, but many times I lack the inclination to buy what they’re describing.

See, thing is, my theory is that as you get more comfortable in your skin as a mom, and as your kid becomes more idiosyncratically themselves as they get older, the less likely there’ll be a one-size fits all solution. Giving a frozen washcloth to a teething baby to suck on will work on 95% of teething babies out there, barring any unusual circumstances. But finding toys for a kid who likes to take apart your old broken vcr and then make a model car out of it (for example), requires creativity and resourcefulness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the easiest way to find such a toy is to send out a big holla to the interwebz and dozens of good ideas will come at you from people who have idiosyncratic children in just the ways yours are. But it probably won’t be from Kits R Us.

So is the upshot that I’m so special and I like the sound of my voice? (No, yes–this IS a personal blog…kidding, and overall, no.) It’s hard to keep from sounding self-righteous any time you explain what you do and why. But bear with me: if there are 26 million women blogging about their lives and families, not all of them think the same.

Knowing the way the world is, I know there are other Free Range Mamas like me. But do we constitute a profitable market, we “live-lightly-on-the-earth-be-peaceful” people? We big city and suburban greenies tentatively dipping our toes into our vegetable gardens, and wondering if it’s against city ordinances to have a goat keep your grass trimmed?

What if living in environmentally sustainable ways is completely counter to capitalism? What supply chain am I keeping afloat if I grow my own vegetables? What hardware store is selling one less lawn mower if a goat cuts my grass instead of a mower? (On the other hand, my need for a veterinarian rises in proportion to owning a goat.)

Point is, my needs are much more modest if I forego the convenience and expense of fast-food, mega-chain stores and their products. At this point, I pretty much have it down to Lowe’s, Vons, Whole Foods, JC Penney, and Target. And even then that seems like a lot.

I don’t even watch tv, or subscribe to cable. (I know, how Amish of me!)

If there’s something on tv I want to see, I usually wait for the clip to show up on YouTube. If there’s a movie my kid wants to see, we buy the dvd or borrow it from the library. (Yes, I’m purposely teaching him that commercials are an annoyance. Because even Gen Xers whose heads are filled with old tv commercials and jingles–like myself–skip through them when they TiVo the programs they want to watch.)

Well, what the hell DO I buy? Books, music, movies, food, clothes, and things that make my house more comfortable and green. Fun experiences and things to do them with, like bikes, scooters, skis.

Still, those aren’t the big ticket items with built-in planned obsolescence (like cars or new appliances or the street-grade crack that’s the near endless need for disposable diapers) that would make a company go out of its way to court me.

Take away the corporations that do all the ad-buying, and who’s left?

Much of the above has led me to conclude that the part of “mommyblogging” that’s cheek by jowl with giant-ultra-mega-hyper corporations works best when that persona is politically center-right. (Did I say person? No, I said persona. Blogging persona.)

And those of us who are center-left, who’d really rather not blog with any connection to WalMart, for example, won’t be finding any corporate sponsors soon. (That’s why you won’t see me crying that I don’t get free trips to Disney World–I wrote a whole as-yet-to-be-published novel making fun of Disney World, for pete’s sake. My spouse worked at Disney and had SILVER PASSES and I still made fun of Disney. I think it’s both a delightful and ridiculous place.)

Because there’s something about us Free Range Mamas that’s like herding cats. Cats with long tails.

Theoretically the long tail was going to set us creative types free and create the next worker’s paradise. So far? It hasn’t. But the interwebz that are guided by the ethos “information wants to be free” have also been darn busy corroding existing corporate business models. (I’m waiting for Hulu to explode free tv as we know it into smithereens.)

What’s ironic is that the anarchic potential of the web–to flatten hierarchy, make instantly accessible new groups of people who you’d otherwise never bump up against IRL–is really shaping up to be an arena that reproduces the same power relations that are at play offline. Who are self-anointed social media gurus at big tech conferences? Mostly white men. Who are mostly corporate-anointed “mommyblogging” social media mavens, with very few exceptions? Mostly white women.

Do I influence these people? I doubt it. Am I upset that I don’t influence them? No, why would I be?

But by the same token, why would it be assumed that a “mommyblogger” talking about a product or service would automatically influence me just because I too have blogged about my family life?

I’m just as likely to buy something a friend has told me about, as I am to hear about it discussed by real people (not sock pupperts) in a forum, as I am to have googled around to see what I can glean about it myself. So maybe that’s something for PR/marketing people to think about: is “mommyblogger” too big an umbrella term? Are there niches within that?

Because I’m much more a Free Range Mama Lifeblogger/Political Blogger than a “mommyblogger” as WalMart or even Nickelodeon would understand it. I’m fickle. Picky about who I listen to. And not automatically inclined to believe “bigger=better.” If I ever was to be sponsored by a big corporation like Clorox, for example, I’d want to know when they plan to stop offering their bleach cleaners altogether. I’d be more than happy to praise their ecological spray cleaners to the skies, but I wouldn’t consider the fact that they sponsor me or give me free products a down payment on my critical silence. (They give me nothing and have never heard of me aside from me pestering them lightly for bee’s waxed non-bleached wax paper, I assure you. This is purely an example.) See what I mean about Free Range Mamas being a more prickly, difficult bunch? That center-left orientation is probably too pesky for a corporation to want to tangle with. What corporation wants a spokesperson all up in their grill when they can find someone who’ll be much more aligned with them to begin with?

And yet. Most moms I know aren’t Stepford Women. They’re a snarky, lively, irreverent bunch. They can smell fakery and corporate shill from a mile away. Many of them, like me, who dearly want a greener world for the next generation, wouldn’t hesitate to ask WHY? HOW? WHY NOT? Why isn’t this made in a way that lessens its carbon footprint? How did this get here, from an unregulated factory in China or the Marianas Islands, or is it at least made in the U.S. where product safety standards are supposed to matter and be enforceable?

Understand this: you mess with a woman’s kids by misrepresenting your product’s safety, and you can expect hell to rain down on your head.

And I think we’ll start seeing more of this scenario: blogging mom X connected to company Y is happy to continue the relationship until a random horrible scandal befalls company Y. Then, instead of enjoying the perks, blogging mom X will be tarred with the same negative publicity as company Y.

Because when a person becomes associated with a company, the company enjoys the “just folks” authenticity and reputation of the blogger, but the blogger also gets tied to the brand of the company for better or worse.

Though I tend to veer away from corporations and have relatively modest consumption habits, we’re aren’t this way, as some might believe, because we lack money or solely because of the bad economy. We’re upwardly-striving, aspiring upper-middle class people like many others of our education and generation. I like pretty shoes, fancy dinners, and nice vacations. Occasionally I enjoy those things. But I can’t say I organize my life around their acquisition.

We’re this way–I am this kind of Free Range Mama–because I’m a citizen first, consumer second; because I was raised by frugal immigrant parents and I can’t (nor do I want to) shake that; because I’m trying to live in truly more sustainable ways so my kid and other kids inherit a habitable world; because the primeval quality of child-rearing keeps us honest in a time-shifted, value-shifted world; because I had a good education and trust my ability to filter the world; because I believe that authority comes from integrity and authenticity, and that people around me can have as much authority as messages that come from “on high.”

Thing is, I’ve never viewed the women’s blogosphere as uniform. And among we blogging women who are mothers, there’s a million and one ways to do it. What I find sad is the possibility that the differences among us stem not from the divinity of our own real experiences, grounded in the truly unique tragedies and moving triumphs of our lives, but variations in quirk and vocal tics while we all tell the same “Weird Places I Have [Huggies logo TM] Diapered My Baby” stories. Is that comforting, or stultifying? I’m not sure, and the balance changes from moment to moment.

I think about being a Free Range Mama at a moment when sustainability is on everyone’s lips. Sure, for a brief moment in the late ’90s Safeway offered canvas bags at the grocery store. Then, a bunch of things happened and we all had national amnesia and forgot, until 2006 or so and Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth woke people up again. And now we’re trying to remember to bring our cloth or mesh shopping bags again, because even little things matter and we’re doing what we can.

Will I forget about our compost heap in the back yard? Life gets busy, people change, get sloppy, busy, or forgetful. Our attention spans are short. We’re human and only do things when we feel urgently pressed to. But, right now our son thinks it’s natural that fruit and vegetable scraps get dumped out there. He automatically asks if there’s recycling. He sees us debating whether, when, and how to get solar panels to reduce the cost of our electricity bill. He sees solar panels powering parts of the Mars Rover. I want him growing up to believe a different and better world is not only possible, but a completely mundane expectation. It’s effortful for us, his parents, to learn new habits and do things differently after decades of living unsustainably. But one of the most powerful motivators is love; if we raise him to expect that doing things the green way is how it’s supposed to be, won’t he go on to fulfill that expectation? The endpoint of our evolution should be his starting point for growth. That’s how progress happens. And maybe this time that’s why we’ll keep composting and trying to figure out how to localize our produce and doing what we can to make change a permanent part of our lives. Maybe this time the cloth bags will stick.

Let me know if you’re a Free Range Mama (or guy) too. If not, no harm, no foul. Ten years ago, I never thought I’d have a compost pile either, or grow my own sugar snap peas. Ten years ago, I didn’t have a son and I didn’t blog either.

[Okay, I'm taking cover because this being the Interwebz, someone will inevitably take umbrage with what I've written and assume that the way I live my life is how I think you should be living yours. Um, actually, no...I'm too busy doing things the long, hard way (made my child homemade baby food! ;) who does that? crazy!) to want to manage someone else's life too. I think I've simply arrived at some sort of peace about why I don't have zillions of corporate sponsors. I'm the wrong match for most of them.]

18 thoughts on ““Mommyblogging” & Influence…Conclusion: I’m a Free Range Mama

  1. Ah! Such a good post and totally at the heart of all of this! I really think what you have nailed down is the difference between putting an ad on your site as a publisher or evangelizing a product.

    For instance: do the WalMart Moms evangelize walmart or advertise WalMart? And if negative publicity comes WalMart’s way are the Mom’s lumped in?

    This is exactly why my ads are separated from my content in such a distinct manner. You can’t say I am ‘evangelizing’ what ads rotate in my side bar. They are ads and I am a publisher. Yet if I write inside my editorial space about them…it’s a different story all together.

  2. Well you influence me—but I’m sort of a “making myself at home on the free range” type of mom who is pretty ambivalent about it at times due to some heady conditioning about consuming and attachment to personal comfort. ;)

    I think you make a great point—yes, some are not a fit.

    Or…some have not yet made a case to corporations how, despite being outside the typical sphere, they are still useful influencers.

    Imagine how useful it would be for a mostly whole food homemade food mom to say “but you know, sometimes, In confess, I need a jar, and in that case, I like Such and So because of factors X, Y, and Z.”

    WRT Wal*Mart (can of worms alert! LOL! just kidding!) that’s a bit regional, in addition to all the rest of what you said. My mom lives in a small town, no a real one, unlike me who lives in a small town very near to a Big City with all of the modern conveniences and benefits of town populated by refugees from big city. The ONLY store for a long, long time was Wal*Mart. Groceries, gifts, clothes, etc. it was a social center, as well, with the food court. It’s easy to forget about radically different lifestyles—as in geography and culture—as well as life choices.

    You had a lot of resonant points for me, but two right off my head were the one about mommyblogger meaning fatigue (and I add too broad to be meaningful conflict, too) as well as, “See, thing is, my theory is that as you get more comfortable in your skin as a mom, and as your kid becomes more idiosyncratically themselves as they get older, the less likely there’ll be a one-size fits all solution.”

    I used the group I’d met in IF support and post-IF support, and kellymom. But as my wings dried and unfurled, I practically forgot about all of my resources, except on the people I know level. KWIM?

  3. I’ve slowly but surely become a free range mama. I do have BlogHer ads, but my one restriction in my contract is that I won’t run ads from WalMart. LOL!

    And do you seriously have a goat? B/c we’re looking into getting one and I have questions….

  4. Aw, thanks for comments, lay-deez.

    @lawyermama: We do not have a goat. I’m slowly easing huz into thoughts about chickens. (No idea what city ordinances are on that…and am leery of the dawn cackling and crowing.)

    @jpippert I think it’s only natural as you grow into your parenting groove that the f2f folks will stick longer than the ones you only know as a reader. Unless! There’s contact of another kind via social media, occasional Blogher meetups, etc.

    Granted WalMart does fill a geographic need, but what I also decry is that very often they eliminated the competition that a person could’ve visited instead as part of their business plan. So of course there’s no alternative. It’s been gobbled by the Borg. Which is not to fetishize the mom & pop store…sometimes the inventory wasn’t the best. But at least the $ stayed in the community.

    @PunditMom I look good in black, what can I say? (The horse & buggy, not so much.)

    @queenofspain I think what I value most is the freedom to say any old shit (including SHIT) about whatever. And sometimes the price of a very large audience is sanding down your edges. (Lucky for those who don’t have to at all.)

  5. “See, thing is, my theory is that as you get more comfortable in your skin as a mom, and as your kid becomes more idiosyncratically themselves as they get older, the less likely there’ll be a one-size fits all solution.”

    I really relate to this. Now that I’ve been at this over 9 years, it’s a lot easier for me to be at ease with my parenting style and family choices. Whether or not they are expert recommended or not. I turn to trusted friends more to bounce my thoughts off and have years of proof that I’m not inept at this whole mom thing.

    I’m also very, very averse to the product recommendation thing. I see way too much of this online.

  6. Christine,
    Thanks for your comment, and for confirming that we all find our respective groove eventually as parents.

    It is an interesting idea that maybe spheres of influence get ever more local as kids get older. Whereas there seems to be a concentration of marketing to mothers of babies and toddlers, because as we all know, that’s when the rate of growth is the fastest and consumption–of clothing, toys, even special videos–is also intense.

    (I missed out on the whole Baby Einstein movement of showing videos to my baby. I think I took him to “mommy and me” movie screenings instead, which is how he got to “see”, i.e., slept through, FAHRENHEIT 9/11!)

    Companies will host “baby camps” for women with parenting-marketing blogs, but I think at this stage it’s less usual to hear of “tweener camp” or even “teen camp.”

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  9. I blog because I write. Alone. In so many notebooks. I blog so those same thoughts can be shared – in the hopes that they strike a nerve with someone else. I hope I am read. And in turn, I read. And I studiously avoid sites that scream ads at me, or whose otherwise innocuous post becomes about some… product. I have a background in marketing, and I am not interested in being marketed to.

    Now. If I google a specific Thing, and a person who has used the product has a useful, critical, well-said something to say about it – it might influence my buying.

    Long live free-range.

  10. Richard on

    Great post, I really enjoyed it. We relied on Consumer Reports for the new stuff we bought – it recommends Ikea’s crib, for example, just $120 and it has been excellent.

    On a side point, you wrote: “It turned out my son was most lulled to sleep by vertical bouncy motion as opposed to lateral rocking motion – go figure.” The wonderful consultant at our local breastfeeding center teaches that the vertical bouncy motion is much better to lull a baby to sleep because it more closely mimicks the sensation of a mother walking when baby was in the womb. It worked for us.

  11. I’ve seen posts here and there about mommyblogger influence, but I gotta tell you, I’m missing something. I can’t say that any of the bloggers I read are mouthpieces for anyone. That doesn’t mean that they don’t take the opportunity every now and then to review a product or a book. I’m fairly free-range, but yes I have done a few reviews, but only for things that interest me, or that I think will interest my kids. Sometimes they’re from big corps, sometimes from smaller businesses. I’m still amazed that any of these firms can find me, frankly! I’m especially moved when a marketer emails me and comments specifically on something I’ve written. Some of the marketers are human, too :) I have the BlogHer ads, but have also blocked WalMart. And I stopped running Google ads when I discovered Yes on Prop 8 ads running on my site.

  12. @CatrinkaS: agreed, if I come across a review someone wrote on a product or service that I was interested in anyway, I’d read it and assess accordingly. But part of why I read blogs by other women/mothers is for the pleasure of hearing their voices and sometimes it can be jarring to realize that a conversation about a product was part of a promotion.

    @Kim/Hormone-Colored Days: it’ll be fun to talk to you, can’t wait.

    @April: if I did put ads up on my site, they’d probably be affiliate programs for books or movies. (When oh when will Powell’s do an Amazon-like affiliate program? I’d love to support Powell’s!) I’m kind of a culture-vulture, and don’t mind as much if someone were moved to buy a book or movie as a result of my review since I’m already talking about it.

    What I haven’t seen much of, and what I’d actually be interested in doing, is local ads. I don’t mind giving ad space to local businesses that make or do things I would actually use. And there are some wonderful kid’s toys and soaps I saw at the Green Expo here in LA a while back that are based here in LA.

    But I doubt those mom & pop businesses can really afford or have thought about buying ads on blogger sites. They’re usually too busy just trying to make & ship their products. The scale at which they operate doesn’t include ad budgets.

  13. So true and honest. Even as I’m a guy and not a mama, still I understand and agree with your blogging concept. I guess I’m a Free Range guy too.

  14. Wow – that’s a breathtaking post. It rings very true in so many ways. I think I’m in your Free Range camp.

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