By Lauren Apfel
On May 18th, 2017 the New Yorker declared the online personal essay dead and buried. Cause of death was, apparently, a multi-organ failure. Slashed budgets and a need for increasingly click-bait content that left writers cold and over-exposed. A saturated market that led sites to seek out other sources of revenue. And the final nail in the coffin: a sea-change in the political climate that made the airing of individual laundry—dirty or otherwise—feel woefully irrelevant.
But what about the personal parenting essay? As the co-founder and editor of a relatively new digital parenting publication, the pulsing heart of which is the first-person narrative, I’d argue (to paraphrase Mark Twain) that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.
On May 23, 2016, a mere year before Jia Tolentino delivered her death sentence, Randi Olin and I launched Motherwell. In one sense, the timing seemed ideal. We were riding the crest of a wave. First-person writing on the Internet was ubiquitous enough for it to be described by Slate, in late 2015, as an “industrial complex.” Parenting writing was no exception.
To glance, even casually, around the Web was to believe it. Other parenting publications were thriving: the confessional, blogger-style sites such as Scary Mommy and HuffPost Parents with their millions of actively engaged social media followers; the newsier broadsheet parenting blogs at The New York Times and The Washington Post with their undeniable clout; and the more literary venues such as Brain, Child Magazine, where my co-founder and I started our careers, and whose online presence had been growing like a wild flower under our tender loving care.
The problem, insofar as there was one, with parenting writing in the years preceding Motherwell’s launch was not a lack of outlets or interest. It was a lack of depth. In November of 2014, I wrote an article for Time addressing this issue with a sweeping defence of the “mommy blogger.” In the brief spell I had been on the scene, I contended, there had been a palpable uptick not only in the quality of writing about parenthood, but in a recognition of its cultural importance. Call us what you will, I said then—and I believe it to be just as true today—but those of us who are chronicling our experiences raising the next generation of tolerant citizens, those of us who are thinking deeply about what it means in the 21st century to be both a woman and a mother, we are indeed doing serious work.
The Internet agreed with me. Big, venerable sites were now courting, and featuring, parenting essays, written mainly by women. Slate, Salon, Vox, Aeon, The Atlantic. New sites and parenting verticals were popping up on a regular basis. So in this sense, we were certainly riding a wave with Motherwell, capitalising on the surge of—and desire for—intelligent commentary on parenthood.
And then, six months after we went live, Trump happened.
The energy of the Internet changed overnight. It became at once frenetic with emotion—anger, fear, disbelief—but also overwhelming and oddly stultifying as a result. It felt, at least in my liberal bubble, almost sacrilegious to post anything not on the subject of political outrage. Publishing an essay about breastfeeding or the empty nest seemed, at this point, the literary equivalent of plucking idly at a fiddle as Rome burned all around.
And yet, while there was definitely outrage to be expressed and action to be taken, for moms and dads life trudged on. The little kids still woke at 5:45am, needing to be fed and entertained. The bigs kids still needed to be driven to band practice and gymnastics, all the while kept informed in a suitably soothing way. Trump was President, the doomsday clock was inching ominously towards midnight, but people were still parenting, their parenting concerns now ricocheting wildly between the mundane and the profound. How do I find time to take a shower with a baby and toddler in tow? How do I explain to my eight-year-old that the leader of the free world is a person who grabs pussies and builds walls?
As a publication, the balance between these poles was a delicate one to strike, particularly in the immediate wake of the election. We didn’t want to ignore the political situation entirely, to step clear out of the fray, and we didn’t. But at the same time, it felt necessary to carry on with our original vision of running personal essays about parenting topics that didn’t hinge on the new world order. People were still weaning their babies and waiting for their teens to leave home, after all.
In the New Yorker article, Tolentino concludes, “No more lost-tampon essays in the age of Donald Trump.” And maybe that’s fair enough. We might not be writing about tampons gone missing anymore. At least for a time. But I have no doubt that we will continue to write, in one way or another, about bruised nipples, about maternal ambivalence, about how to rear children who believe love is love.
Because parenting writing is a unique species of personal essay. The thing about kids is that we keep having them, and as long as we have them, we will keep wanting to talk about them. The rawness, the radicalness of the felt-experience of parenthood, of motherhood in particular, hits each generation anew like a blast of icy air. And even though parenting will always be spring-loaded with its own end date—that’s the other thing about kids, damn them, they grow up—as one generation of writers ages out, another crop will inevitably take its place, regardless of which direction the political wind is blowing.
With the rise of the online mother-writer over the last 10-15 years—fostered by voices such as Dooce and Ayelet Waldman and Lisa Belkin—women gained an unprecedented space to come to terms with the isolating and often crippling expectations of modern motherhood. Which is exactly why the personal parenting essay will not die. Because the first-person narrative serves here not as an opportunity for navel-gazing, but as a lifeline. A hard-won platform, a vehicle to assert the inherent value of mothering and, above all else, a mark of our shared humanity—at a moment when we need it most.
Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She likes to write about parenting on a regular basis and believes strongly in providing a platform for others to do the same. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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