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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Laugh, Fight, Stay Married: Shaping Identity Through Marriage Confessions

With the advent of social media the world has begun to change. No longer do computer engineers who know HTML, Java, and other programming languages and transitioned into the hands of everyday people control the Internet. Through sites such as facebook.com, myspace.com, blogger.com, twitter.com, and youtube.com millions of ordinary people from around the world communicate digitally to people who they have never met. In fact, a fourth of young adults in America have a personal blog and about half of them read blogs (Mazur and Kozarian 125). These blogs connect people through the use of blog readers and networks. These connections are making the world smaller, with more cross-connected groups. The new leaders of the Internet come from an endless supply of backgrounds and cultures. Everyday they must make the decision of how they want to present themselves to the world. What words will they use? What pictures? Quotes? Songs? Movies? There are endless ways to present oneself in the digital world. These questions are compounded when a family decides that it will represent themselves as a group online. Will there be one primary writer? How will the individuals identify with the group? How will children participate? What will be said about others in the family? These are only a few questions that must be answered in order to represent a family in the digital age.

1. Structuring the Blog: Structuring Identity

One site has tackled these problems in the form of a blog. Katie Brown started her website “Marriage Confessions” in March of 2008. The websites tagline has become a mantra to not only the Brown family, but also each of 1,624 fans on Facebook.com (as of December 2010) and its many other readers who chose not to subscribe. The mantra states simply, “Laugh, Fight, Stay Married” (K. Brown, Confessions). This site began with one page, but now contains five distinct pages. First, the oldest and the most popular, is “Marriage Confessions”. According to the page’s author, Katie, the page’s goal is to “refine the art of being a wife and redefine what makes a marriage successful” (K. Brown, Confessions). It chronicles everything from vacations, to education, to employment, to disagreements within the family, to marital relationship, to dealing with children, to daycares, and everything else in-between. Second is “The Man Cave”. This is Chris’s personal sanctuary. Here he has the opportunity to rebuttal the portrayal of his identity as presented on Katie’s page, present the marriage from his perspective, and include details from big events in his life. Third is “The Growing Bean”. On this page Katie attempts to show the world from her son, Michael, most often called “Bean” on the site. Fourth is a reviews page where Katie reviews and recommends products. Finally, there is a “Question and Answer” page where the Browns answer questions from their readers. Through exploration of the medium, structure, and content of her blog Katie Brown reveals how mommy blogging can reveal, shape, and create a group identity, while maintaining individuality.

Each of the pages shows a different facet of the Brown family’s identities. On the main page Katie says of herself, “Don’t be fooled by my fancy-pants website. I’m not a marriage expert. I’m not the best example of motherhood. But I live and learn and then spill my guts about it here in my own little corner of Cyber Land. I may not have all the answers, I may not make all the right decisions, but I’ll share every step of my journey with you so we can learn and grow together” (K. Brown, Confessions).

This attitude is prevalent among the women who blog about their families or the so called “mommy bloggers” (Lopez, 734). In the 2005 conference for the Blogher network (of which Marriage Confessions is a part of) Lori Lopez “observed a speaker “[announce] that if women ‘stopped blogging about themselves they could change the world’” (730) These women felt attacked. Essentially this speaker was announcing that mommy blogs were pointless, self-absorbed trash. In response Alice Bradley, writer of the blog Finslippy, stated, “mommy blogging is a radical act” (Bradley, “Blogher, Blogme”). This quote spread virally through the blogosphere. Mommy bloggers were speaking up. Lopez goes on to say, “Motherhood is impossible to perform perfectly, it is all-consuming” (Lopez, 731). It is impossible to perform motherhood perfectly. That is the blogging background that Katie Brown grew up in. The idea, like Lopez states, that mommy bloggers “Instead of the vision of the loving mother, we see women who are frazzled by the demands of their newborn baby, who have no clue what to do when their child gets sick” (732). Katie is a real woman. She doesn’t try to fool her readers into thinking that she is a perfect mom. Her identity is rooted in motherhood, sometimes sloppy and chalked full of mistakes, but motherhood nonetheless.

Chris, on the other hand, provides a unique perspective to the discussion on mommy blogging because, as obvious as it is, he is not a mommy. This difference in gender affects his portion of the blog greatly. On Chris’s “About Me” page it states that he “is the father of Bean”. This proclamation is typical of his involvement in the site. He is first and foremost a father. Often, Katie writes about Chris as a father. It is the central part of his identity. When he’s away from home he wants to be there. He proclaims his love for his wife on every post (C. Brown, The Man Cave). The most obvious difference between the two sections of the blog is the frequency in which they post. In the past six months Chris has only posted only a handful of times, far less than Katie and most of his posts begin with something like “Katie told me to post”. On a surface level it may seem like he is ambivalent or uninterested in the blog. However, on a deeper observation, however, readers can see many of Katie’s most recent posts commenting “But my evil, cruel husband said that I HAD to blog tonight because I am being ‘irresponsible with my blog’” (K. Brown, “I Don’t Wanna). Chris pushes for the maintenance of the blog even if he does not participate as much in the dialogue on the family. His identity is a quiet observer in the digital world. He gently pushes and encourages, but posts infrequently. Katie authors The Growing Bean. It, however, is not about Katie’s life with Bean. It rather is about Bean’s life with Katie. She reflects on how her choices and actions affect her son. There are a few important decisions on this section of the blog. First it is chalked full of pictures of Bean. These pictures allow readers to see Bean in action. He is a child that is constantly on the move. These images attempt to capture the active nature of Bean. There is also a lot to say about the nickname, Bean. This nickname is, as far as can be inferred from the blog, not an online persona, but an actual nickname that Chris and Katie call Bean in the physical space. In Bean’s “About Me” page it states, “His name is Michael, but the world knows him as Bean” (K. Brown, Confessions). The Growing Bean reflects the relationship that Katie and Chris have with their son. By including this section of the blog Katie is “transforming [her personal narrative] of struggle and challenge into [an interactive conversation] with other mothers, and in so doing, are beginning to expand [the] notion of motherhood” (Lopez, 744). However, this does not limit her identity to just “mommy blogger”. She reinforces the fact that “the title of ‘mommy blogger’ is clearly a misnomer” and that she “is not bounded by the confines of such a title” (739). She is an “award winning” writer, “contributing Relationship Expert to Southern Weddings Magazine, a nominee for Web log of the year (K. Brown, Confessions). She is also a teacher, wife, daughter, writer, and many other titles. She has a master’s degree. Is educated and spiritual. Most importantly she is a “[mother who writes about her child], and so the identity that has been created is one that largely includes motherhood” (Lopez, 738).

2. Revealing Identity through Trends

Ethics are a critical part in any blog (or in life for that matter). In a study researching what bloggers categorize as essentials in a blog ethics four key points were presented: “truth telling, accountability, minimizing harm and attribution” (Cenite, Detenber, et. al., 579). Katie deploys each of these values in her own blog, therefore making her blog easier to for readers to follow and lessening the chance that something she says will offend her readers. She avoids topics such as religion or politics so that she doesn’t harm her audience. She always cites her sources, often providing hyperlinks to pages, products, or blog posts she talks about. She strives to provide an honest and truthful portrayal of her marriage. Even if there is a fight or disagreement in their marriage she turns to the cyber world as a counselor or perhaps as a friend. She is accountable to her readers, who “feel a tremendous closeness and loyalty to the blog’s author, as if they are reading the words of a close friend instead of stranger” (Lopez, 734). Quite often she refers to her readers as her “imaginary friends”. In this way her identity is revealed through the connections she makes with people outside of her close sphere. She acknowledges that her readers are often more knowledgeable about marital concerns and will ask them for help on problems she presents on her blog. These communications shape her individual identity because she adapts and changes through the advice that is given her.

Another influence of Katie’s identity can be seen through specific trends found on her blog. When performing a search for “Bean” (or any variations on the nickname) through the posts written in a six-week period (October 11-Nov 23 2010) it was found that she used it 249 times. The word “son” was used 84 times. The words “mother”, “mom”, “mommy”, etc. were used 64 times. Chris was used 157 times. This is just in about 50 posts. That means on average Katie and Chris reference their son approximately 6.6 times per post while they only mention each other 4.4 times per post (K. Brown, Confessions). According to Google Reader Marriage Confessions is updated nearly every day. This means that every day there are over ten direct references to family on this blog. Is it any wonder what the blog is about? This blog is not just about the events and people in the Brown family’s life. It is about their relationships with other members of the family.

This framework shapes identity. It molds who Katie, Chris, and Bean are. Through this blog the Browns show that “the psychology of the Internet is very much a sense of the one and the many, the individual and the collective” (Gurak and Antonijevic, 61). Identities are formed through individual choices in a group dynamic. In Katie’s world her group dynamic is focused on family, especially her husband and son. Through her relationships she develops a greater sense of her identity.

3. Mediated Marital Relationships: Shaping The “Us” Identity

In Katie’s own words, Chris is “my main squeeze, my heartbeat, my best friend, my everything since I was fifteen years old... but [sometimes] he is the most annoying person I know” (K. Brown, Seriously). They “laugh”. They “fight”. Most of all, they “stay married”. There have been numerous stresses on their family relationship in the past six months. Their house was broken into and their property damaged and stolen. Katie was out of a job. They move. As soon as she gets hired on at a Middle School she discovers that she is pregnant with her second child. All of these stressors lead her into a bout of depression that left her unable to do even the fundamental tasks she used to performed before the stress began (K. Brown, Confessions). Chris, however, stood by her the whole time, picking up where she left off. These stressors help both Katie and her readers to discover aspects of both their individual identities and their shared identity.

Both Katie and Chris addressed one of these trials on their blog: the pregnancy. It was in no way planned. “You think you are surprised,” Katie wrote when she was eleven weeks pregnant, “you should have seen me and Chris.” She had only found out two weeks before (K. Brown, “Under the Weather”). Almost immediately her health began to decline. Less than a month later she posts, “I don’t really want to do much of anything really... When I talk too much, I throw up. When I sit down, I throw up. When I stand up, I throw up” (K. Brown, “I Don’t Wanna”). Her life became, “overwhelming and exhausting, hilarious and exuberant, dirty and disruptive, all at once” (Lopez, 744). This put tremendous tension on her relationship with her husband. In response Chris states, “Sure, Kate has to grow a baby... Grow a baby means come home from work, take a nap, wake up for dinner, take a nap, wake up to throw up...” and the pattern continues (C. Brown, “Grow a Baby”). They had obvious disagreements as to how the pregnancy should affect the family. Their identities were clashing. It became unclear what their future might hold. Could they support another child with all of the stresses in their lives?
However, true to the mantra, “Laugh, Fight, Stay Married” they pulled through. Through a series of conversations that were only implied on the site Katie’s parents and Chris talked with her about her feelings. The strongest* indication before she admitted she needed help was a video blog. In this vlog the Browns recreate a conversation that happened the night before. Chris states, “I think you are depressed.” This sparks a discussion about the similarities between pregnancy and depression. The topic is almost immediately dismissed by not only Katie, but by the comments on the post* (K. Brown and C. Brown, “Bellycast”). However, after some more time and discussion with her husband and family she was ready to accept that her identity was changing. She was changing.

For a long time this was not reveled to her audience. Then again, according to Katie, “I have tried everything I can to pass off what’s been going on as just being a pregnant, full-time working mother of a toddler, the whole truth is that it is much deeper than that” (K. Brown, “Climbing”). She couldn’t admit to herself that there was a problem. She, like many other mommy bloggers (and people in general), resists the urge to be completely open and honest about their identity. “It is no wonder that women are afraid to embrace the identity of mother – the entire concept of being a mother is overwhelming and imbued with failure” (Lopez, 732). No matter how much work a mother puts into her family she will come up short. The identity of the modern mother is contradictory. She has to support a home, raise a family, work, be educated and crafty, and balance all of it with a smile on her face. It is impossible. It is only when Katie makes this realization, with the help of her husband and family, that she can admit, “Chris has been right. I’m struggling a bit with depression, or rather anxiety, at the moment.” (K. Brown, “Climbing”). Through the relationship with her husband and family Katie was able to accept the shift in her identity. She “[embraces] the “identity of mother” on a more complete level, not the perfect traditional media mother, but the new media mother, the “radical” mother that embraces reality. The mother that tries her hardest and still falls short, but is okay with that.

4. The New Guy: Creating an Identity

Along with embracing the fact that she needs help to overcome this slump she found herself in, Katie admitted one other thing, “I have had real trouble getting excited about this pregnancy” (K. Brown, “Girl’s Weekend”). With all the stress from work, home, financially, and from within herself she was too down to get excited about this baby. Plus, according to her, her doctor was less than helpful in helping her get motivated. By the time she was done with these appointments she was stressed and lonely. Upon coming out about her feelings of depression she opened up to her family about her lack of enthusiasm toward the “new guy”. Her family then planned an appointment with a 3D ultrasound company so that she could get to know her child. This did the trick. She was able to embrace the identity of her unborn child. For the next few weeks (up to the present date) her posts are full of how excited she is about her new daughter (K. Brown, Confessions). Her attitude changed. She posted more often (sometimes posting twice a day). According to her, “I’ve got a happy little boy and now I’ll have a beautiful little girl. Can a momma get any luckier than that” (K. Brown, Girl’s Weekend)? The ability to spend a few moments with her new child made all the difference in accepting her daughter’s identity. Katie saw her, not only as another problem in their life, but as a daughter who would bring as much joy into their life as their son does each day.

This new identity began to take shaped. Up until the 3D ultrasound Chris and Katie called the baby “the new guy” or “peanut” searching for the nickname that would stick, like Bean. “New Guy was a nice little name place holder... but now that we know it’s a little girl, that nickname obviously won’t do” (K. Brown, “She Shall). For Bean this nickname became a persona an identity that could be summed up in one word. “The world knows him as Bean.” He is “Bean. Or Bean Man. Or Beaner Wiener. Or Bean Bag. Or Beanie. Or Bean Bean” (K. Brown, Confessions). The new guy needed a persona, something for the world to relate to her by, something that would develop into her identity. “But nothing seemed to fit. Nothing felt natural (K. Brown, “She Shall”). This name would become much like screen names are to people on-line. In many ways it would be her first online identity. It would become a mediated form of self-expression (Subrahmanyam, Garcia, Harsono, et. al., 223). With the ability to see her unborn child a sense of individuality began to swell in Katie’s mind. The child needed to be called something. She couldn’t “call her something like Spud Head. She was too... perfectly feminine for me to call by any other name besides her own...She just didn’t fit with a nickname.” So they cut through the nicknames and gave her a real one. Caroline Grace, or Gracie for short (K. Brown, “She Shall”). She isn’t going to get a nickname for an identity. She is not “spud head” to the world and Gracie to her family. She is going to have one identity.

Through the use of their blog the Brown family both represents their identity and facilitates identity growth. The structure provides individual identities that represent the family as a collected entity. Through the events that they share on the blog Katie and Chris make realizations and grow closer together. Through these discoveries they began to shape the identity of their unborn child, giving her a name, the basic structure of an identity.

Works Cited

Bradley, Alice. “Blogher, Blogme.” Web log post. Finslippy. 4 Aug 2005. Web.


Brown, Chris. “Growing a Baby, Pa-lease!” Marriage Confessions. 18 Oct. 2010. Web.

Brown, Katie, and Chris Brown. “Bellycast: Pregnancy v. Depression.” Video blog post.
Marriage Confessions. 22 Oct. 2010. Web.

Brown, Katie, and Chris Brown. "Marriage Confessions | Laugh. Fight. Stay Married."
Marriage Confessions | Laugh. Fight. Stay Married. Web.

Brown, Katie. “A She Shall be Called.” Web log post. Marriage Confessions. 07 Dec.
2010. Web.

Brown, Katie. “Climbing Out of the Hole.” Web log post. Marriage Confessions. 09
Nov. 2010. Web.

Brown, Katie. “Girl’s Weekend.” Web log post. Marriage Confessions. 15 Nov. 2010. Web.

Brown, Katie. “I Don’t Wanna.” Web log post. Marriage Confessions. 07 Oct. 2010.
Web.

Brown, Katie. “Under the Weather and Over the Moon.” Marriage Confessions. 13 Sept.
2010. Web.

Brown, Katie. “You Drive Me Crazy. Seriously”. Web log post. Marriage Confessions.
05 Nov. 2010. Web.

Cenite, M., B. H. Detenber, A. W.K. Koh, and A. L.H. Lim. "Doing the Right Thing Online: a Survey of Bloggers' Ethical Beliefs and Practices." New Media & Society 11.4 (2009): 575-97. Print.

Gurak, L. J., and S. Antonijevic. "The Psychology of Blogging: You, Me, and Everyone in Between." American Behavioral Scientist 52.1 (2008): 60-68. Print.

Lüders, Marika, Lin Prøitz, and Terje Rasmussen Rasmussen. "Emerging Personal Media Genres." New Media & Society 12.6 (2010): 947-63. Print.

Lopez, Lori K. "The Radical Act of 'mommy Blogging': Redefining Motherhood through the Blogosphere." New Media Society 11 (2009): 729-47. Print.

Mauzer, Elizabeth, and Lauri Kozarian. ". Self-Presentation and Interaction in Blogs of Adolescents and Young Emerging Adults." Journal of Adolescent Research 25.124 (2010): 125-45. Print.

Subrahmanyam, Kaveri, Eddie C. M. Garcia, Lidwina Stella Harsono, Janice S. Li, and Lawrence Lipana. "In Their Words: Connecting On-line Web logs to Developmental Processes." British Journal of Developmental Psychology 27.1 (2009): 219-45. Print.

2 comments:

  1. Loved this. I wrote a bit about mommy blogging a little while back that garnered several emails from readers. women have such strong feelings about it.

    http://ardentlyone.blogspot.com/2011/07/mommy-blogging-part-3-jealousy-and.html

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  2. Thanks paige, Isn't that Lopez article fantastic? I loved the part on engagement and how blogging is making motherhood matter again. It's given me a lot to think about.

    ReplyDelete