What I've Learned: Heather Armstrong - SmartMom

What I’ve Learned: Heather Armstrong

We had the privilege of chatting with Heather Armstrong – the blogger behind the amazingly popular Dooce.com. Years ago she was one of the first bloggers on the scene – but she’s not your average mommy blogger. With her signature mix of sarcasm, wit, and charm she spoke to us about blogger burnout, her relationship with her mom, and dry summers in Utah. 

SmartMom:    

Hey! How are you doing?

Heather Armstrong:         

Well, my kids are with their father in New York and I thought that it was going to slow down but I was wrong about that. It’s like, you know how you get a big house and you can fill every corner with things? It fills up every corner like water? When I have free time that’s what happens. It’s like stuff just builds up.
What I've Learned: Heather Armstrong for SmartMom

SmartMom:    

How would you describe what you do with your website? How did you first get started blogging?

Heather:         

I have actually very, very recently moved away from my website, I have been doing it for 14 and a half years. It started in 2001 when there wasn’t such a thing as content management system really. I hand coded page, I FTP-ed them to servers. That sort of thing.

I just started writing about my life. [Lie down, hold on, lie down, you are making me nervous, lie down, lie down] Okay, sorry that’s my dog. I just wrote about my life and it took off from there.

SmartMom:    

So did you start your blog before your oldest was born then?

Heather:         

I started my blog when I was still single, and yeah I was just writing about living as a single woman in Los Angeles and the fun that I was having. Then I wrote about meeting or reconnecting with a man who would become my now ex-husband. Then I wrote all about the pregnancy and everything.

SmartMom:    

Wow. Yeah so do you enjoy doing the brand consulting now? Is that what you are focusing on?

Heather:         

Yeah, the whole landscape for blogging has really changed, especially in the last two years, but even in the last five. And what’s different about my website and a lot of what you see now is that I can’t really delegate what I do to anyone- all of it is me. And the publishing schedule it demands is excruciatingly exhausting, and almost impossible. And I realized that in order just to not burn out completely and to sort have anything left of myself for my children that I needed to look at some other strategies for my career.

SmartMom: 

Tell me about your kids. You have two girls is that right?

Heather:         

I do. I have an eleven year old name Leta, and a six year old named Marlo.What I've Learned: Heather Armstrong for SmartMom

SmartMom:    

How long have they been away at this point? Do you miss them?

Heather:         

Oh my God. [Laugh] Yeah this is the first time they’ve been away this long. So their father moved to New York last September and the way things are arranged is that he gets six weeks out of the summer. But I didn’t want to be away from them for a straight six weeks so they are gone for two and a half weeks the first time and then three and a half weeks the second time. I have been away from them now for a week and it’s like… I should be partying but it’s actually sad. I am staring at their empty beds and smelling their pillows.

SmartMom:    

Oh wow that must be so hard. So you live in Salt Lake City?

Heather:         

Yeah.

SmartMom:    

That’s so far. Did they fly by themselves or are you–

Heather:         

No, no, no, they are both too scared to do that. They are pretty seasoned now when it comes to traveling because they have been to New York a few times and they are good travelers, but they are too scared to travel by themselves. I took them to New York last week.

SmartMom:    

Oh okay. Yeah that’s, –eleven is still a pretty tender age.

Heather:         

And she’s very wise for her age, she’s just a little tentative when it comes to certain things. And the airport is a loud and scary place.

SmartMom:    

What are some of your favorite things about your kids and their individual personalities?

Heather:         

Well, for one, my kids could not be more different from each other. My older child is a total book worm. Loves to read. I can’t keep enough books around. She will just rip through a 300 page book in just two or three days.

SmartMom:    

Were you like that when you were younger?

Heather:         

A little bit, but not in recent years because I have been so busy. I don’t really have time and I am too tired to read. [Laugh] But I kind of live vicariously through watching her do it. And she is extraordinarily funny; she’s very sarcastic and she’s fantastic that way. And everybody who meets her falls in love with her. And then, my younger child is just… you can’t help but fall in love with her immediately within the first minutes. She is the most gorgeous child. The largest dimples you’ve ever seen.

SmartMom:    

Aw.

Heather:         

She is the one that I’m going to have to make sure there is no window to escape. If she is going to climb out the window when she’s a teenager she is going to hurt herself. [Laugh] She’s the one who is going to be escaping. She is a rascal.

What I've Learned: Heather Armstrong for SmartMom

Sweet Marlo

SmartMom:    

Who do you look up to for parenting advice?

Heather:         

My mom. My mom is my best friend and always has been. I talk to my mom on the phone probably two or three times a day still. And my mom and I have always been very, very, very close. And really, in what I do with the kids I try to do what my mom did with me; that is how I structure everything.

SmartMom:    

Does she also live in Salt Lake?

Heather:         

She does and that’s really why I live here. Because I could really do what I do from anywhere.

I started up my website in Los Angeles and we had to move back to Utah just for financial reasons and I’ve always missed L.A. very deeply and would love to move back, but I stay here because my mom is here.

SmartMom:    

Other than L.A. is there any other city you’d want to live in?

Heather: 

Yeah, I would love to live… well would I? I think San Francisco. San Francisco has some pretty cold summers, but if I could summer elsewhere I would love to live there.

It’s so cold there in the summer. My birthday is in July and I spent the coldest birthday I have ever had in San Francisco – it was 45 degrees. They have terrible summers.

SmartMom:    

Oh, that’s terrible.

Heather: 

It’s just the way that it’s situated on the coast that the weather patterns there are interesting.

SmartMom:    

Is it just you running your website or do you have anybody that helps you out?

Heather: 

It’s just me now. I have a guy on call for technical stuff who helps me out a few hours a month, but other than that it’s just me.

SmartMom:    

What did you study?

Heather:         

I studied English. And had no idea what I was going to do with that degree. [Laugh] Got out of college and started working with a man who ran his own online business in 1997 and he taught me HTML and Java script and Photoshop. So that’s how I got my start.

SmartMom:    

How do you strike a balance between work and being a mom?

Heather:         

My work is really demanding. During the school year I have a baby sitter who picks my kids up from school and is here until 5:30pm, that way I can get in a full workday. And I really make a concerted effort to walk away from my desk at 5:30 and I am with my kids until I put them to bed. Sometimes I will go back to work after that. But both my kids and I are similar in that we like a lot of down time. So our weekends aren’t crazy. We’re not the family that goes to every museum and park. We will do one or two things, but we spend a lot of the time on the couch together. But it’s hard. That was another reason that I wanted to step away from blogging – you are always thinking, “okay, how can I mine what we are doing for content?”What I've Learned: Heather Armstrong for SmartMom

SmartMom:    

Is that the reason you decided to step away from it?

Heather:         

Yeah. I will be honest: I really didn’t experience that sensation until about a year ago.

In the past, stories just came to me. I would think “Oh I can’t wait to write about this.” I approach my writing differently- like, I’m not going to just tell you something that happened, I’ll create a narrative around it because I want you to enjoy reading about it.

And then I realized I was having panic attacks when I didn’t feel like writing, or when I didn’t have anything I wanted to say. And when I started having that stuff hanging in my head I realized, okay I couldn’t live like that much longer.

SmartMom:    

You mentioned that you and your kids enjoy a lot of down time. What does the perfect day look like for you?

Heather:         

An ideal day for me is… my older daughter finally started sleeping in. She usually will sleep in and she can take care of herself in the mornings. What I will usually do is go get my younger kid who wakes up early and I will bring her into my bed and I will let her watch Netflix for probably another 30 to 45 minutes while I doze a little bit more. And then we get up and I fix cinnamon rolls and we sit around reading. I allow quite a bit of screen time for my children which I am sure is just going to go great with a lot of people but–

SmartMom:    

[Laugh] Hey, it’s all about honesty!

Heather:         

Yeah. They love Minecraft and they build like the craziest things and they love to show me what they have built in Minecraft. And that gives me some down time. Because during the week I am just working constantly and it’s go-go-go-go-go especially as a full time single parent I don’t have any down time at all. I put my older child to bed and to get a really good night sleep I have about 45 minutes to myself, and that’s it.

So, we get up, we lounge and then maybe go grab some lunch with a friend and then go to that friend’s house and let them play while I sit on the porch with the friend and see them run around and hear them giggling and screaming, and that sort of thing: friends and family.

SmartMom:    

Is Salt Lake City nice in the summer?

Heather:         

For some reason it turned into Las Vegas last week, in terms of the heat, but I love that. I love the heat.

One of the main reasons that I love Salt Lake in the summer is that it’s hot during the day but it cools off at night. It will get down to like 70 degrees with a nice breeze and it’s beautiful and there are no bugs and it’s dry, and it’s just exquisite.

SmartMom:    

What were some of the biggest questions you had or challenges you faced as a first time mom?

Heather:         

‘What am I doing?’ [Laugh] ‘What did I get myself into? How do I do this? I don’t know what I am doing.’ As a first time mom I was shell shocked, completely shell shocked. It was a tough labor and it was a hard birth and she was, –I wouldn’t say she was full blown colicky but she exhibited quite a bit, she was a very irritable baby and didn’t sleep at all. I felt very, very ill prepared in every way. I actually wrote down a list of all the things that a mom should know. Anytime one of my friends is pregnant I sit them down and go, “okay this is going to happen and this is going to happen, I don’t want you to be blindsided.” Because I was blindsided. Everyday something new would happen and I would think, “why did no one tell me this was going to happen?”

SmartMom:    

Have you published that list?

Heather:         

Some of it is in the book that I wrote. I wrote a lot about it. Every time something would happen I would think, “seriously, why does no one talk about this?” And babies can be terrifying, too. Sometimes they make a choking noise and you are like, “oh god, oh god, oh god.” Your entire life flashes in front of your eyes and you are on alert. And then when something happens like a clogged milk duct when you’re breastfeeding – which is so painful – I would think, “why didn’t anyone tell me about all of this?!” I would want to know so I can at least be prepared.

Well, some of my friends are like, “don’t tell me, I don’t want to know that.” And that’s okay. But I did have a few friends who came to me and they were like, “thank you, thank you, thank you for telling me about this because when it did happen I thought, ‘oh this is what Heather was talking about.’”

SmartMom:    

Did becoming a mom change who you are?

Heather:         

Oh completely. Totally. I mean, I felt a connection. This is a very weird thing to say, but I felt a connection with millions and billions of years of humanity on earth, I felt a connection with women who had gone through what I had just gone through.

I thought, “this is what women have been doing for years.” I felt like I had just entered into a deeper understanding of my body and my mind.

And I had such a deeper connection to people as well because I cared so much about my daughter it made me care so much about everyone else in my life.What I've Learned: Heather Armstrong for SmartMom

SmartMom:    

What are some of your favorite baby or kid related products that you have since discovered since becoming a parent? What has made your job easier as a parent?

Heather:         

Well of course you’ve got your screens, which are built in babysitters, especially when traveling. We do a lot of traveling and those are life savers. One of my favorite things when they were babies was a wet wipes warmer. It warmed the wet-wipes so that it wasn’t shocking to change my child’s diaper in the middle of the night. And I loved wearing my children, like Baby Bjørns and wraps. And I was very into breastfeeding and they make really, really nice nursing bras now.

SmartMom:    

You mentioned screen time: is there a favorite TV show or game you’d recommend?

Heather:         

They love Minecraft, and my younger child loves Toca Boca. There is a series of them. There’s a kitchen and a hair salon and a science lab. [Laugh] My kids don’t watch anything but Netflix, I could just get rid of my cable. The only reason that I have cable is because there is some stuff on HBO that I want to still watch. But my kids don’t watch TV, they watch Netflix. And there is this Australian Mermaid show…

SmartMom:    

Oh I know the one! It’s called H2O right?

Heather:         

Yes. [Laugh]

SmartMom:    

Yeah. It’s so good! [Laugh]

Heather:         

She loves it so much. And she knows the titles of all the episodes so I will be scrolling through and she will be like “which one is this?” and I will go “it’s [this]” and she will go “I don’t want to watch that one, I don’t like that one. What’s the next one?”

SmartMom:    

Oh my goodness. I think there’s one with a merman coming out.

Heather:         

Yeah there was one released in like 2005- 2006 and then there is a more updated version. She watches both of them. She is so obsessed with it. She found – and I don’t know how she found this, I may need to put some more restrictions on the iPad that she uses – she found these little mermaid tails that you can buy and swim with and she wants one so bad.

SmartMom:    

Oh, it’s actually fins?

Heather:         

Yeah it sounds really dangerous. I was like, “hm, no.”

SmartMom:    

That is terrifying! Do you have a pool?

Heather:         

We don’t. Swimming in Utah is weird because it’s so dry that you freeze to death when you get out of the pool. I grew up in the South, in Memphis. When you get out of the pool there it’s amazing. Here you get out of the pool and it’s like you stepped into a freezer. It’s strange.Heather Armstrong for SmartMom - What I've Learned

SmartMom:    

What are like some of the values or traits that you hope to instill in your children?

Heather:         

One of the biggest is the value in and the need for hard work. I am very active about it, especially with my eleven year old. I try to get her to understand how privileged and lucky she is. She already has a leg up because of who she is, where she lives, and what she looks like. And because of that, she needs to (pardon my language) bust her ass.

Her one extracurricular activity is piano. She is really good at it, but she doesn’t like to practice at all. And I make her practice every day for 40 minutes and she doesn’t understand why. But then she goes and plays in front of judges and gets ‘superiors’ across the board and she is so proud of herself and I am always like, “remember that feeling, you want to have that feeling many, many times in your life and you have to work for it.”

I also try to teach them generosity and being really kind to people.

I show them generosity by giving stuff away. My sister and her husband have struggled a lot financially and we give away a lot of our stuff to them. We give away their toys to Goodwill. I make them clean out their toys all the time because, my god the toys. I am like “we are going to go through the toys and half of them we are going to give to Goodwill!” Or I ask them for help if I’m delivering a meal to a friend because she got her heart broken or she’s sick.

SmartMom:    

You mentioned that you wrote a book, is there anything you’d like to do next in your career?

Heather:         

Yeah. Very specifically, I want to speak. I have done speaking on panels and at blogging conference and what not. But in the last year I have finally taken the stage alone and I love it. I really, really, really love it and that is a whole other audience that I haven’t tapped into. I have so many stories to share and things that I have learned in the 14 and a half years doing this. I mean, I have done everything right and everything wrong in this space. I have been sort of like the test case for a lot of what has happened. I got fired from a job because of my website back in 2002.What I've Learned: Heather Armstrong for SmartMom

SmartMom:    

What happened?

Heather:         

I was working for someone else and writing about work and they found it and fired me. It was so crazy. That event actually got featured as a question on Jeopardy.

But yeah I’ve spoken at blogging conferences before but I would like to speak on bigger stages in front of different audiences.

SmartMom:    

That’s awesome. Well I hope that you have the opportunity to do that!

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About Mary @ SmartMom

Mary is the Community Manager of SmartMom. She is a new mom to a bubbly little boy who has fire red hair and loves to smile. She loves to walk her dog, Bob, and watch Chicago sports with her husband. Go Cubs Go!