After years of dominating the mommy blogger field, which she helped to create in the first place, Heather Armstrong’s latest head-turning project was a journey to Bangladesh with supermodel Christy Turlington to tour the slums depicted in Turlington’s documentary, “No Woman, No Cry.” In a feature on She Posts last week I wrote about Armstrong’s trip, and on Friday I spoke with her by phone. Having been back for a few weeks, she’d had time to get a little perspective, and boy did the blogosphere provide a sharp contrast to the experiences she had while abroad.
Armstrong has been a notable voice on the internet for so long that talking to her on the phone for the first time was like chatting with Rachel from “Friends” – like a person I knew in my head who suddenly became very real. She was warm, articulate, and funny, yet she was straight with me about her experience in Bangladesh – about why she went, how she felt, and how much she is able to sweat. And when a particular memory rendered Armstrong speechless, I could feel her emotion right through the phone.
I asked Armstrong the questions that many readers have been asking – sometimes in critical commentary – for the last several days. Others quoted here contributed their comments via email.
WHY DID YOU GO? WHY EVERY MOTHER COUNTS VS. ANY OTHER CHARITY?
One would think that with the size of her online following, Heather Armstrong would have received countless invitations to work with non-profits for any number of causes by now. Surprisingly, she hasn’t. “I get requests from people to retweet their messages every now and then,” says Armstrong, “but that’s about it.”
Enter Christy Turlington, and a small twist of fate.
Back in April of this year, Turlington was invited to Salt Lake City to screen her documentary “No Woman, No Cry,” which highlights the dismal state of maternal health in four countries around the globe, with a nod to similarly depressing statistics in the United States. “I had read a feature in the New York Times that profiled Heather and her blog Dooce, and when I read that she lived in the area I extended an invitation to come as my guest.”
“I said ‘Of course I wanna come!’” recalls Armstrong, who had researched natural childbirth before delivering her daughter Marlo. “I’ve been known for talking a lot about postpartum depression,” she told me, “But when I was preparing for the delivery of my 2nd child I did a lot of studying about natural childbirth. I learned a lot about maternal mortality rates, which in the US is actually very bad. I wanted to take my experience into my own hands.”
Armstrong was moved by Turlington’s film, and by the cause. “I felt close to it after seeing the film because of what I’d been through,” she said. “I felt at once lucky to be in a country where I have access to good healthcare, and also frustrated. Up until 30 weeks before delivery I was complacent. Birth here is not regarded as the sacred experience it should be.” From the film, Armstrong learned that cost, access to adequate care, and cultural bias are just three factors that affect maternal health in third world countries. “I didn’t realize that women in Bangladesh are encouraged to stay home for birth.”
Shortly after screening the film, Armstrong posted about it on her website:
I had Radiohead playing when Marlo entered the world, I had that ridiculous option, and yet so many women around the world are alone or ill-equipped or too poor to have adequate care when pregnant…Women are routinely dying because of complications during pregnancy, and I got to choose which damn song I wanted to listen to. Hell yes, I’m giving this film every ounce of free publicity I can.
Meanwhile, Turlington was planning to return to Bangladesh. “Since completing the film in the spring of 2010 [I] have been returning to each country where we filmed to screen it for the Maternal, Newborn, Child health communities and our partners on the ground in those countries who helped us as well as with the individuals who participated in the making of the film by sharing their stories on camera,” she said. “Bangladesh was the last country I had an opportunity to return to but it was an exciting time to come back after recent reports that indicate that the Maternal Mortality Rates (MMR) have declined significantly and that the country is making great strides to reduce the number of women and newborns who will die from pregnancy related complications.”
Armstrong’s blog post gave Turlington a new idea. “She really got it,” Turlington said. “Got the issue, how she could contribute and why I was so committed. As soon as I read it, I asked if she’d ever consider coming to Bangladesh and she said yes. We had not invited guests on our previous trips, nor had we intended to on this one but I felt compelled to invite her and then knew when she agreed that we had found a partner in Heather.”
Armstrong didn’t miss a beat. “I have to go,” she recalled saying. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Erin Thornton, Executive Director of Every Mother Counts adds “Our whole mission at Every Mother Counts is to reach new audiences on the issue of maternal health…Who better to reach the moms than someone like Heather? She’s a real person who hasn’t engaged on these issues before but when presented with the facts, was moved enough to want to invest her own time and money in learning about it and finding a way to get involved.”
As she has disclosed publicly, Armstrong paid for the journey out of her own pocket. The biggest expense, she notes, was getting there and back. Once the group arrived in Bangladesh, Every Mother Counts handled meals and other arrangements, like safe road transportation. When asked just how much it cost, Armstrong paused. “It was a lot of money,” she said. “My assistant arranged it all. I remember one day he came to me after lining up all the tickets and said ‘Can you sit down for a second?’”
On top of the expense was the challenge of fitting a cross-world journey into the schedule of a busy family with just a few months of prep time. Dooce readers know how active the Armstrong Media Corporation is already, but Armstrong says “June was the craziest month of our lives. My mom usually is our backup, but she had already scheduled a cruise for their 25th anniversary. My babysitter – my cousin – just got married and was on her honeymoon. Jon had just had gallbladder surgery so he can’t lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk. And we filmed a commercial for two days a few days before I left.”
Still, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE?
ARRIVING IN BANGLADESH
Traveling to Bangladesh took days. As Turlington recounts on Huffington Post:
To give you a sense of just how far away it is, I joined Erin Thornton, the Executive Director of Every Mother Counts, and Heather Armstrong, our first EMC delegation guest, at JFK Thursday evening on June 16th, and it was not until 4am Saturday, June 18 that we arrived in Dhaka.
That’s hours of air travel plus a 12 hour time change. And the group was not there for vacation – they had a packed schedule of touring clinics and slums, through intense city traffic that brought them to a full stop for as much as 5 hours at a time. On that first day, they had “A few hours downtime” and then they were on the go. “I don’t remember ever being at that pace for so long,” she says. “We didn’t get back to the hotel room until 11pm Dhaka time. But they kept us so busy we didn’t have time to think about how tired we were.”
When asked what it’s like in Bangladesh, what it’s really like, Armstrong grew very serious. “You step off the plane in Bangladesh and already you can tell that this is a third world country,” she said. And it’s very very humid. There’s a stench in a lot of the buildings because everything is always wet. The traffic…I don’t think there is worse traffic in the world. They presume to have traffic law but nobody seems to follow it – and there are cows and goats and barefooted children everywhere.” Although one can begin to picture it from her description, Armstrong continued “It is an experience that I cannot articulate. It was visceral. There are people and cars and bikes and rickshaws on every centimeter of land.”
Armstrong said she checked in with her husband, Jon, via Skype when she could. Exhausted and emotionally drained, the first time they connected she tried her best to tell him what her experience in Bangladesh was like. “I said ‘Jon – you don’t – I can’t begin to explain what’s going on. There are no words.’ And he said ‘I can imagine.’ But I said NO, you can’t imagine. It goes on and on – in ways you just can’t imagine.’”
“What kept getting me was the poverty,” she told me. “Every day we drove for two to three hours out of the city, but the poverty never ended. It went on and on and on and on. I compared it to a highway in Mississippi, for example. You pass a poor town, and then you pass a mall! And then you might pass another poor town. That doesn’t happen in Bangladesh – there’s not enough space, and there are too many people.”
Turlington was grateful that Armstrong was “game” for the intense undertaking. “This kind of trip is not for everyone and it is a huge responsibility to invite someone you barely know to journey so far,” she said. “It takes real courage and a level of trust that I don’t take lightly. Heather was game for everything. She listened, she observed and she interacted when it felt right for her to. She was incredibly present in every minute we shared on this journey.”
“It was a little overwhelming at times,” continued Armstrong. “At one point I turned to Christy and asked ‘Don’t you get discouraged? This problem is so huge, how can you make a dent?’ She said ‘Yes, I think everyone feels that way, but then you see programs working and change happening.’”
Indeed, Armstrong witnessed firsthand just how those programs are working. “The big thing is that girls are encouraged to get married young and have children,” she said. “The first two days we were in slums and we were seeing young girls with one or two kids and that’s it for them: they live there and this is gonna be the rest of their life. On the third day we went to clinic where they take the kids and educate them. People are actively trying to help them change it. Change is slow but it is happening. Before, women were giving birth alone. This organization has gone into many slums with midwives who intervene early. They tell the women ‘You must come here to the clinic. You don’t have to die.’”
For the women who live in those slums, pregnancy is not the same kind of experience that it can be for women in the West. Armstrong recalls “Christy said that when she was filming her movie, someone would have a baby and you’d wait for that special moment between the mother and her baby. But it never happened, because they go into childbirth with the idea that they might die or their child might die. This is their reality.”
The delegation on this trip in particular did not witness a live birth in the clinic but did arrive at one location 4 hours after a birth took place. “We were taken to meet the woman and her baby in the slums. She gave birth at the clinic and got involved with the midwives.” At this, she paused.
“It was really intense, you know?”
The coalition of EMC travelers consisted of Turlington, Armstrong, Thornton, and Julie Smolyansky, head of Lifeway Foods. “Julie met Christy at an event last year and wanted to help any way she could,” said Armstrong. Lifeway Foods is now a sponsor of EMC.
“Erin is the executive producer of Every Mother Counts and used to work for ONE. She knows Bono and has done charity work for 10 years. Erin and I had some back and forth – she told me ‘I really appreciate your leap of faith.’ I was like ‘are you kidding? You invited a blogger! I could have been crazy!’”
Of Turlington, Armstrong says “She is one of the most articulate women I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. She can sit with heads of villages and trade ministers. She’s getting a Master’s of Public Health from Columbia. At end of the day at dinner she was an everyday person, laughing and joking and telling stories about her kids.”
“There was also a guy [Josh Estey], an American photographer living in Indonesia. I learned so much from these people and their work and just even watching the photographer and how he would go in and photograph people.”
The intense few days in Bangladesh , traveling around the cities in a van, was a bonding experience among the group. “There was never a silent moment in the van, and we were in the van a lot. I really do feel like we went to camp together and we’re gonna have reunions. At one point Christy made fun of my southern accent, and I felt – ‘Okay, I’ve made it.’”
KEEPING HER CHIN UP
Kidding aside, touring the poverty-stricken slums and meeting the women and children who live there was indeed an intense emotional experience for Armstrong. “Heather showed up to work,” said Thornton. “This was not a vacation- she came to learn and stood patiently through sauna-hot discussions in rural homes, sat cross legged with communities to hear about their efforts and asked thoughtful, genuine questions of people to better understand the barriers but also to get a hold on how she might bring what she saw back to her readers. ”
Through it all, Armstrong tried to keep her own emotions in check. “I felt an obligation to be cheerful,” she said. “I was coming into their villages and homes and already I look strange. So I’d better be as bright and cheery as possible. Also, I work out a lot so my body has developed a talent for sweat. Here I am in long sleeves and pants. I was sweating so much I was literally dripping with sweat, so much that people in villages pointed me out – ‘Somebody go help her.’” In contrast, Armstrong jokes “Not only is Christy gorgeous and beautiful, but she doesn’t sweat.”
To help Armstrong prepare for her experience in Bangladesh, Every Mother Counts had sent a packet in the mail and advised her to visit a travel clinic. “I did research about mosquitoes and weather conditions,” she recalls. “The government recommends you pack DEET. I had to spray all my clothes with bug repellent – my clothes, my suitcase, and everything. I was the only one who took the travel clinic seriously and sprayed my clothes and I was fine. Nobody else sprayed their clothes and THEY were fine. So the last day I said okay, I am gonna wear a t-shirt that I haven’t sprayed…and got eaten alive. Mosquitoes have a thing for me.”
Sweat and mosquitoes were the easy things to deal with in and around Dhaka. “I had to steel myself when we were going into the slums and there were 2-year-olds running around in the rain …everything is seeping into the drainage and they were running around in it,” she recalls. “And they’re adorable and it’s heartbreaking.” During a tour of ICDDR,B which is known as “the Cholera Hospital,” Armstrong and her touring group came face to face with just how hard the living conditions are. While Turlington went into a different room to conduct an interview, Armstrong and the others stayed behind. “The babies came in with diarrhea – they were dehydrated and malnourished – that’s where I saw the 14-month-old who weighed only 12 pounds,” she said. “That’s when we lost it.”
Recalling this moment, Armstrong became silent.
But again, she noted, there is hope. “There wasn’t much conversation. Mostly we listened to the doctor. He said a big cause of death in children in the area is diarrhea, but here we can help them.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE CRITICISM YOUR TRIP HAS ATTRACTED?
If she was tired in Bangladesh, it was nothing compared to readjusting to life in the US. “Coming back was worse than going. Utah is 12 hours behind Bangladesh.” While trying to wrap her head around the experience, Armstrong has already posted a few times on her blog about what she witnessed there. Unlike many blogger/PR relationships, Armstrong didn’t sign up to post a certain number of times or tweet or update her Facebook page. Turlington simply invited her to join the group on their trip. “They never said to me ‘we would like you to post.’ This is all me doing this.” For Armstrong, the trip was just the tip of the iceberg. As she writes:
The truth is that this is just the beginning for me, and I plan to get more involved wherever I can, wherever it is the best place for me to get involved. If a reputable organization wants to use me, I am here for the using.
Unfortunately, just days after she returned, a storm of criticism about Armstrong’s intentions and her “earnestness” swirled online. There were oblique accusations of “poverty tourism” and tweets that smacked of mocking her trip as “sponsored social enlightenment,” she recalled. By now a flurry of reactionary blog posts have shown up all over the web in response. For her part, Armstrong reacted on Twitter and on her blog with unusual fervor as soon as it happened.
She is no stranger to criticism, and doesn’t often address it. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” Armstrong said. “Over the course of that time, mean websites have come and gone dedicated to hating me or women in the community. I generally ignore them. Really, if I were responding to criticism, I would have to do it all the time every day all day. All I have to do is open Twitter and Facebook and I can see it. It takes a lot for me to have a reaction like that.”
“I am not the same person I was before I went on this trip,” she continued. “I really did have an imaginary conversation with the women in Bangladesh. The girls over there, unless someone comes in and says ‘you don’t have to live like this,’ those girls have no power, they have nothing. All they know is that their lives will be subjected to the rule of their mother in law, for the rest of their lives.” Thornton witnessed Armstrong’s education in this area. “Heather has a powerful voice and what she saw in Bangladesh was that many women don’t enjoy that same platform,” she said. In other words, Armstrong feels an obligation to speak up for herself because she can.
And so she responded to the storm of criticism both on Twitter and on her blog, calling out Rowan Davies of the Guardian for inaccuracies, and Anna Viele of ABDPBT for her condescending tone. “Part of [my reaction] is that [Viele] likes to hide behind the guise of doing good. Like somehow by mocking people’s success or projects or good work – she’s exposing some seedy underbelly of mommyblogging.”
Regarding the Twitter showdown, Viele explained that she took issue with some confusion over Armstrong’s sponsored posts. “Whenever I ask a question about the business of blogging, it is because there is something that I don’t understand or that I want more information about,” she said. “My intention was to clarify whether the trip had been sponsored or not.”
After other bloggers wrote their own posts condemning Viele’s choice of words, Armstrong said “I think that we should stand up for each other. All of us have been polite because that is the feminine thing to do – is to be polite. Especially when Liz [of Mom 101] and Tracey [of Sweetney] posted – I thought ‘You know what? We should do this more often. Why are we letting these people silence us?’ I felt a sisterhood with them.”
When asked about the negative backlash and what advice she would give to Armstrong, Thornton explained “The fact is, when you’re working in advocacy, if you want to ask someone to use their voice and credibility to speak about these issues, it’s hard to ask them to do that without understanding it firsthand. Understanding firsthand doesn’t mean you just get your passport stamped and call the media for a photo op. It means that you begin to invest of yourself, you learn, you listen, you meet with not just the policymakers in country but the people you’re setting out to help. That’s what this trip was about.”
SO, NOW WHAT?
Is there a “completion strategy?” Now that her mind is sufficiently blown, what is she going to do next to help the women in Bangladesh? Armstrong said “The main reason I was invited was to give the issue attention, so the first thing is to write about it. I’m keeping in touch with Erin of Every Mother Counts to get some advice as to where I can be best used. She and Christy know the ins and outs and what works and what doesn’t work.” Thornton agreed: “I think in an ideal world, Heather will use her skills as a communicator and as a connector to help us reach more people about these issues.”
Smolyanksy is already grateful for Armstrong’s posts about Bangladesh. “Heather was a bright, energetic, witty, travel mate who often used humor to put people at ease,” she said. “We shared 4 days of intense, life-changing experiences and her blogs have provided an in-depth account of our experience in Bangladesh for any reader who has any interest in maternal health, woman’s issues, global poverty, development issues, travel or just a general curiosity about four women who feel they have some thing to offer to make things better.”
Turlington is hopeful that adding Armstrong’s voice to the effort will make a significant impact. “I truly believe that if you have a voice you must use it because so many do not,” she said. “Heather has a voice. A strong one and one that I think can turn so many others on to some critical global issues. I could see that she understands that she can help make an impact and that she wants to. She feels the connection to her sisters inside as well as far beyond her own community.”
Coincidentally, as she wrote on her blog, Yahoo! recently offered Armstrong a large sum of money to donate to a charity of her choice. She turned to the Dooce community for suggestions, and plans “to consult with Erin about the many, many suggestions I’ve already received.” She will announce the choice soon. In addition, she intends to get involved locally with women’s shelters in the Salt Lake City area.
Turlington added that lasting change requires many voices. “When I became aware of the global statistics, I had to do all I could with what I have,” she said. “Once you know and witness the reality so many girls and women are faced with you cannot be complacent, you have to act. I have a feeling that Heather will do all that she can, too.” Summing up the experience in Bangladesh, Armstrong says “This was my first experience doing something like this. I tried to learn as much as I could. I went in with every intention for it to be life-changing, and it was.”
BONUS: I asked Armstrong this question for readers who have been following for years and may have wondered – “What is a nubbin?” Armstrong laughed. “Something small,” she said. “A little tiny thing. When we moved my website – did the re-design – we were coming up with a tag for a small entry but ‘small entry?’ That didn’t sound right. So Jon said ‘Call it a Nubbin.’” And it stuck.