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Where can you talk about ~mom stuff~ that isn't Facebook?
An interview with Doree Shafrir on the past and future of online parenting content
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When something weird or shitty or astonishing happens in digital media, I often find myself texting my friend Doree. Back when I was out there fooling myself about a future in academia, Doree was already navigating the weird and shitty and astonishing space of New York media, and as I’ve written about before, when she was my editor at BuzzFeed News, she taught me so much about writing, and the media world, and how to navigate the transition from manager to peer. She taught me, as I wrote last year, to take a sentence and turn it into a small dagger. This is not a small feat.
In the late 2010s, Doree knew what sort of media she wanted to create — and also knew there wasn’t a real place for it in the established media world, digital or otherwise. So she started a podcast, and that podcast has become a sort of mini-empire for femmes of a certain age. And when she first started thinking about whether a newsletter, with a bit more explicit focus on motherhood, would work alongside it, I told her that I knew it would.
But that newsletter, Now We’re Talking, is also about a lot more than parenting, too — which is part of why I love it. “Now We’re Talking is not a parenting newsletter,” Doree says. “There will not be tips on how to deal with toddler tantrums or starting solids or how to deal with bullying on the playground. There are plenty of other places where people with actual qualifications talk about this stuff! Now We’re Talking is a place for us to talk about ourselves as people, to discuss questions of identity that we might not have even realized we had.”
I’m not a parent, but I read it because the way we think and talk about parenthood matters to all of us. And as you’ll see below, I also think Doree understands exactly what so many of us miss and crave from contemporary media aimed at women in general and moms in particular — and doing it in a space that is not Facebook. My best friend, who has never met her but is a religious listener to her podcast, tells me all the time: I just love Doree. Read more and you’ll see why so many others feel the same.
I want to talk about your newsletter but I also want to talk about how the landscape of writing directed at adult women has changed over the last ten, fifteen years. I think this line of thinking was sparked by visiting Cup of Jo the other day, which used to feel like a very BLOGGY personal blog, and now it would be difficult to distinguish it (at least aesthetically, but maybe also content-wise) from something out of Hearst. Please follow this weird line of thought wherever it leads you.
I think that, over the years, magazines have gotten “bloggier” and blogs have gotten more magazine-y, and I put newsletters in that category too. Like the magazines realized that what adult women actually wanted was something that was smart and funny and had a point of view and didn’t assume this posture of, like, I Am A Haughty Magazine Editor And I Know What’s Best.
The challenge to the hegemony of women’s magazines really started with the launch of Jezebel in 2007, I think, but it’s also important to remember that at the time Jezebel was mostly targeting an audience of women in their 20s and (early) 30s. Since then, obviously the landscape has changed a ton. I think the personal blogs have mostly become newsletters and they’ve broadened their scope quite a bit and also professionalized. There aren’t a ton of people who are doing newsletters in a personal blog kind of way anymore — one of the only ones who does it, and does it extremely well, is Emily Gould. (AHP note: I *love* Emily’s bloggy newsletter)
The other thing that I think is happening/has happened is that the bloggers who were in their 20s in the aughts and pioneering this new kind of voice-y content have all grown up and are now in their late 30s to late 40s, whereas the women who were in their late 30s and 40s during the golden age of blogs were all running print magazines and, for the most part and with a couple of notable exceptions, still seem a little uncomfortable with the democratization of media and have clung to the hierarchies and processes of print….or on the total flip side they understood the democratization of media perhaps TOO well (see: xoJane).
My point here is that those of us, like myself, who came up through digital media and not print media are still writing in a much more relatable or “voice-y” or whatever you want to call it way than our predecessors, and so there is just a lot more available to adult women who are over 40 than there used to be. There’s also not the same fear of aging that there used to be. I mean, if you opened up an issue of Jane (R.I.P.) or Lucky (R.I.P.) no one looked like they were over 25. It was like the second you turned 35 you did not matter at all to women’s media, and I think that has really changed a lot. A publication that, to me, feels like the perfect balance between blog and magazine, and also does a great job speaking to adult women in a non-condescending way, is The Cut.
How do podcasts fit into this entire equation? I feel like your podcast, Forever 35 — which you co-host with Kate Spencer — is like a woman’s magazine in audio form, but without the toxicity and self-loathing.
Well, thanks! We’re trying. It’s been fun to think about a lot of these topics from the lens of two women who are now well into their 40s (I’m 45; Kate is 43) who grew up with so much of the toxic messaging around beauty and body image and eating and dating that teen and women’s magazines fed us in the 1990s and 2000s. When we launched our podcast in 2018, there were not a ton of podcasts hosted by women in their late 30s and early 40s that were explicitly talking about the experience of being a middle-aged woman. I think that’s partly why we found an audience so quickly — because for the first time a lot of people really felt seen.
You can see my train of thought here, but after you became a mom, how did you feel about the content directed at you? What was ubiquitous, what was suffocating, what was comforting, what did you want more of?
Well, let me back up for a moment — when I was pregnant, I would spend hours on Instagram scrolling through momfluencer pregnancy and nursery content. I got pregnant in August 2018, and so mom content had not yet migrated over to TikTok, and I was awash in earth-toned nurseries and ethereal, long-haired pregnant women in Dôen dresses. Everyone seemed like they were 26 and gorgeous, and I was 41 and puking my brains out. So there wasn’t a ton of pregnancy content I felt I could relate to, especially as an older mom and someone who had dealt with infertility treatments.
Then I discovered the world of parenting (but let’s be honest, mostly mom) Facebook groups. I became rather fixated on safe sleep and joined this very intense safe sleep Facebook group in the months leading up to giving birth and I think that it initially was helpful in terms of teaching me the basics of safe sleep, but then I stayed in it and I think it ended up just massively increasing my anxiety because moms whose babies had died of SIDS or from unsafe sleep practices would post as kind of cautionary tales and it would send me spiraling.
That said, I also joined a couple other Facebook groups that were helpful and really started showing me the power of the mom community — any question I had had either already been answered in the group or was answered immediately once I posted. The other media directed at moms has been really interesting to watch change over the three years since I had Henry. I think we’ve moved away from a lot of the “wine mom” vibes of, like, ten years ago — for awhile there was a tendency in so-called “mommy blogging” to sort of talk about what a crap mom you were — and now there are a few outlets doing some really great parenting content, like Romper, the Cut, and the New York Times’ Parenting section. *And* there are some really really great newsletters that are for and about moms, like Claire Zulkey’s Evil Witches, Kathryn Jezer-Morton’s Brooding, and Sara Petersen’s In Pursuit of Clean Countertops, and there are also people like Dr. Becky who are very much experts and are there to give you, explicitly, parenting advice — which certainly has its place, but can sometimes feel a little exhausting, to just constantly be parsing, like, every little thing you say to your kids!
All that said, secretly I think what what I really longed for was an old-school message board, like the (in)famous DC Urban Moms which (to my knowledge) is the only one of these still really going strong. There are some good communities on Reddit that scratched that itch a bit, but man, what I wouldn’t give for alt.parenting right now!
The tagline for your newsletter is “navigating life as a human and a mom.” What are the goals — and a few months in, how is it going? What’s your favorite part? What’s hard?
One of the things I was really going for in launching this newsletter was to have a community where people could interact and talk about ~mom stuff~ that was NOT Facebook. I also wanted to talk about the reality that many moms feel like they’re struggling with their identities after having kids — like, so many of the things that made you you before kids are suddenly no longer applicable or even possible, so who are you now? Are you just supposed to subsume your entire identity to this small creature that you’re trying to keep alive? And I was also interested in getting into the details of what moms’ everyday lives were like, which is where the Day in the Life feature came from. Those have been so eye-opening and wonderful to read.
Overall, it’s going well. My open rate is really high, which tells me that the people who are subscribing like what they are reading, and we’ve gotten to have some truly substantive discussions in the discussion threads. We had our first live event a couple of weeks ago, with the author Angela Garbes, that went incredibly well, and we’ll be doing those monthly. I think in the next few months I need to think about whether I want to expand the community to another platform, like Discord, so that people can have conversations amongst themselves that don’t require me to start a thread. I don’t know if we’re quite there yet, but that’s a goal. I think one of the hard things, for me, just comes down to the limitations of the Substack platform — I wish they had a Discord integration, or had a way where people could kind of talk amongst themselves more easily.
I find myself reading the “Day in the Life” chronicles obsessively, even though I don’t have kids — sort of the same way I would read the columns on Cup of Jo about parenting in different countries. Why are these mundane details so soothing and addictive?
OMG, right? I kind of talked about this above, but I’m so glad that the Days in the Life are resonating. I think part of it is because moms so rarely really break down exactly what it is they do each day, and seeing it all down there in black and white really highlights just how much of the day is such a juggling act, whether or not you’re employed outside the home. There’s the actual labor and the emotional labor and I think it’s been really comforting for people to see that they’re not alone in their struggles but also the little daily joys of their lives.
What part of parenting do you wish everyone — including non-parents, including yourself and your readers — talked about more?
I was really struck by something that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote in response to the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade. She wrote: “While we can’t change the world in a day, we CAN and do have the power to make our own world within our four walls, or our own blocks. We can grow from there with the faith that somewhere out there, everywhere, others are doing the same. And we will come together. That’s why if you’re a parent, how you parent matters. If you’re a neighbor, how you’re a neighbor matters. Many of our biggest problems are results of massively scaled up isolation from others. That means many of our solutions can be found in creating community.”
And in my talk with Angela Garbes a couple of weeks ago, one of the things she said that I’m still thinking about is how she wants more of the community that she felt with another family — she called them her co-family — during lockdown, and I think given the huge cracks that the pandemic has revealed in the social safety net, I wish people were talking more about the power of community and also seeking out ways to create community IRL, and I wish our society was set up better for this to happen. Given what’s happening in our government right now, it’s more urgent than ever.
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