At four in the morning on May 25, 2010, between contractions that would lead to the birth of her first son, Joanna Goddard left a voicemail for her editor at Glamour.com: “I won’t be able to post tomorrow.” Her son was two weeks early, which meant her last day with the Condé Nast website was two weeks early, too. It was sooner than she’d expected to stop working for someone else and make her blog, CupofJo.com, her full-time focus, but life isn’t always perfect. And that’s kind of Joanna Goddard’s brand.
It’s either fate or a small industry that finds me sitting across the table from her in 2017: Cup of Jo was the first blog I ever heard of. A boss of mine, back in my intern days, was obsessed with her ability to engage readers. Meanwhile, I had yet to comprehend the power of the internet as a platform for writers, and for community. So I started reading.
That summer eventually led me to where I am now, writing for a website where it’s technically considered working to procrastinate by hanging out in the comments. It’s also what led me, I suppose, to this sunny room in a shared workspace in Brooklyn, face-to-face with Joanna Goddard, who has just offered me cookies. (I say no then regret it immediately.) We are “email friends” but have never met; she shares our site’s stories, we share hers. This is long overdue. Thankfully, when I pitched her an interview about her career as an early-internet-adopting “mom blogger,” she said yes. Also thankfully: for as kind and charming as she comes across online, in person, she’s even better.
Cup of Jo began in 2007 as a pastime to distract the impulsive swaying of a broken heart. “You should totally start a blog,” Goddard’s brother had encouraged her back in 2005. “It’s a thing.” (Picture this: Twitter, Instagram and blogging were not.) He set up the name on Blogspot as a joke, mostly for the sake of the Jo/Joe pun. Two years later, it had become her hobby, the journal she kept for a small audience on weekends between her full-time job as editor at the quarterly lifestyle magazine, Bene. By 2011, she’d successfully parlayed her blog into a full-time gig, and Forbes named it one of the Top 10 Lifestyle Websites for Women.
Goddard’s path is proof there’s no one straight line. After graduating from University of Michigan and working odd jobs in Ann Arbor to raise money to move to New York, she started her magazine career at Cosmopolitan in 2001, first as an intern, then as a columnist. Her beat? To pose one question a month to “cute guys” on the street. In 2002, after a stint as an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster, she went to NYU law school for a year (“A mistake,” she tells me).
Bene was next, then Glamour, where she launched their website’s sex and relationships blog. During that time she upheld a thriving freelance writing career. Meanwhile, on Cup of Jo, the readership continued to grow, and so did her team.
Growing up and out
Today, Cup of Jo is comprised of four full-time employees: Joanna, plus three others. “For a long time I wondered if we weren’t big enough,” she tells me. “The pressure to grow can be immense sometimes.” She’s since found comfort in her self-described “scrappy” team where each employee wears many hats. On November 28, 2017, Goddard announced Ashley Ford as the site’s newest contributing writer.
With more than five million monthly page views, one million unique monthly visitors and stories that regularly garner hundreds of comments — sometimes cracking over a thousand — Goddard and her team nurture a passionate and dedicated community. Numbers can be nebulous in the world of the internet, but I can tell you this: when Cup of Jo links to Man Repeller, our traffic spikes. It’s like the digital Oprah effect.
“One thing that sets Cup of Jo apart is our readers’ deep engagement with the site,” she tells me of the consistent bump we get on her behalf. “It’s a true community of friends. We put a lot of thought into the products and articles we link to as a result, so when we vouch for a product or a piece of writing on the internet — a huge number of our readers will click on it.”
Amassing a tight-knit community
One of my favorite things about Goddard’s particular brand of internet fame is that, though she gets recognized all over the world, from Mexico to Amsterdam, she’s approached most often in Madewell and the Chelsea Market Anthropologie. I imagine a woman dressed like a hip high school art teacher greeting Goddard over ceramics, opening with the line she frequently gets: “This is so creepy, but…” Then I picture Joanna (they’re instantly on a first-name basis) greeting the stranger with a hug. Turns out that image isn’t too far off. She’s made real-life friends, she tells me, with fans who’ve introduced themselves.
Goddard welcomes these interactions and chalks up the level of familiarity to the tight-knit community her website fosters, which mirrors the cozy intimacy of a best friend’s dinner party. It’s an environment plenty of brands attempt to approximate, but for Goddard, whether it’s her Michigan-Midwestern instinct or some inherent, always-had-it-in-her sense of maternal welcoming, creating a space where women feel comfortable to take off their bras and speak freely about the realities of womanhood is 100% organic.
Cup of Jo is a proper lifestyle blog, and was long before açai bowls were shot with high-def cameras and the word “curated” was used to describe a layout of lattes and avocado toast. What sets her site apart from her competitors, then and now, is the whimsical yet approachable tone, which makes it read more like a bible-forum-diary hybrid. The content is comprised of style, food, design, travel, relationships and mom stuff, but it’s that last category that Cup of Jo seems to command like no one else. Goddard led the motherhood charge, blogging about everything from breastfeeding to her experience with postpartum depression. She’s since expanded the content to include Q&A interviews with experts, personal as-told-to stories and features that shine the spotlight on parenting around the world.
In April 2017 on a post that asked, “Who Would You Want in the Room While Giving Birth?,” Goddard recalls a commenter chiming in that she was in labor at that very moment. “All of these [other] readers wrote back things like, ‘We’re rooting for you! You can do this!’ She commented again a few hours later and said, ‘The baby’s name is Samson Jude.’” It’s hard to imagine such a pivotal life event play out so personally in any other comment section.
A new kind of honesty
“There were people doing it before me, for sure,” Goddard says, when I ask her what it was like to be among the pioneers of the so-called “mom blogger” movement. (She cites Dooce as one of the very first.) Thanks to her early expertise online, Goddard knew the online stage expands for all sorts of mic stands; she was committed to exploring the lows of motherhood as much as the highs on a platform open to all who cared to read it.
“A lot of sites were talking how wonderful pregnancy, giving birth and being a mom was, but I was having such a hard time with my son through the work-life/balance stuff,” she tells me. “I felt depressed, but I couldn’t find anyone talking about it. No one was was talking about the day-to-day realities. I remember walking down the street in the West Village and all these moms carrying their babies were so immaculate with their brows done. I was just like, What is wrong with me? This isn’t just hard for me, it’s getting to be impossible.”
In the blog post where she announced she would begin to talk about those day-to-day realities, she paraphrased a C.G. Jung quote: “Loneliness does not come from being alone, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important.” So communicate she did, and it never stopped. Cup of Jo doesn’t just produce heartfelt content that women — mothers or not — can relate to, it provides a place for those who relate to gather, support, commiserate and encourage. As with Man Repeller, stories on Cup of Jo aren’t limited to the bylined writers; they are told in the comment sections and every vulnerable, honest reader thread.
Maintaining a private life, in public
When I ask if it’s hard to get space when her private life is so woven into the public, she pauses to think, as though she’s never considered her community to be anything less than a close confidant. She references Cup of Jo readers often throughout our conversation, including those who’ve left negative comments — “important, constructive, real-time feedback,” she says — that it’s clear she’s as much a card-carrying member of the community as she is the creator of it. She speaks of them as though they were her funniest friends, refers to them often as “wise,” highlights comments on the site and posts their quotes to Instagram.
“I’m an open book,” she says with a shrug. It’s instinctual for her. “My mom used to always say, in the context of dating, that if you say something honestly, even if you feel lame or pathetic, no one will fault you for it. No one will think anything bad about you because you’ll just be relatable. It’s when you [fail] to say something in an honest way…that’s when it starts feeling weird.”
That doesn’t mean she feels the need to reveal everything, nor does she think keeping parts of her life private means she’s lying or being fake, which I tell her I grapple with sometimes online, where it can feel like you’re only as honest as your last personal essay. “So long as what you are saying is true, whether you only write one story about a single minute in your life or you tell a billion stories about the whole thing, it’s authentic,” she says. For her, sometimes that means waiting a year to share a pivotal event, sometimes that means making the choice to keep an experience close to her chest.
When she does hit publish on sensitive pieces, Goddard says she usually wants to throw up, but never regrets it. “When it finally goes up and all the comments flood in where people say they’ve felt the same way, I realize over and over again that everyone goes through the same stuff.”
The “balance” myth
Cup of Jo was born when Goddard was single, without children, and able to devote all of her spare time to her passion. She worked nights and weekends, well-aware of the financial and career risks that come from starting something out of nothing. But as the site grew so did her life, which expanded to accommodate a husband and two sons. How, then, has she managed to “do it all?” How has she mastered that elusive thing called balance?
The truth is, she tells me, she still hasn’t.
“One of my big regrets is not taking a real maternity leave with either of my children, although it made sense at the time since we needed the income. It was such a hard, dark time in my life,” she tells me candidly, as is the Joanna Goddard way. She believes not taking off work is part of what contributed to her postpartum depression.
Balance, whatever that means, is still a work in progress for her. Although she often works nights, she tries to not work weekends anymore. She says that, for her, it’s about putting her foot down and reminding herself of what a friend once told her: “Take all your vacation days. It’s part of your salary. You’ve earned it.” But having two kids has helped her learn to work quickly and be less of a perfectionist.
“They say if you want something done, give it to a busy person, because they have to get shit done all the time without stopping to think about it. Parenting makes you strive to be more efficient than you ever imagined.”
A job is a job
Goddard’s words are a reminder to me that not everything is as it seems. (You’d think I would have this tattooed on my body after working online for all these years.) Her hours are long, ill-worded comments drain her, she’s responsible for the salary of others, and she and her team are responsible for putting out beautiful, entertaining, daily content. Those in the lifestyle biz experience a very real pressure to make things look effortless — or at least photogenic, be it a complicated recipe or an essay about a truly devastating personal event.
But then again, everyone’s job, no matter what it is, is hard. Goddard said as much when we talk about the public perception of her work. Everyone’s life is messy and complicated. Whether we live our lives out for public consumption or not, don’t most of us put on a brave face? “All those Pinterest quotes are so damaging,” she says, listing off clichés like, “Love what you do and it will never feel like work,” or, “You should want to do your job whether they paid your or not.”
“It’s called work; that’s why they pay you for it. It’s not always fun. If your goal is to be eternally giddy about your dream job, I’m afraid you’ll never find it.” That doesn’t mean she isn’t thankful for all that Cup of Jo has brought her, but there is a difference between gratitude and happiness. Gratitude carries us through rough patches, anxiety-ridden days and full-out downhill slides.
“I try to teach my little boys so many things (kindness, consent, how to eat vegetables), but one life philosophy I really hope they absorb is the concept of happiness versus wholeness. She recalls a quote she read years ago by Hugh MacKay:
We’re kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position — it’s rubbish. Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are. Happiness and victory and fulfillment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don’t teach us much… I’d like just for a year to have a moratorium on the word “happiness” and to replace it with the word “wholeness.” Ask yourself, “is this contributing to my wholeness?” and if you’re having a bad day, it is.
“This idea has been so profound for me,” Goddard continues, “especially in this Instagram era of everyone’s lives seeming so glossy and shiny. But the truth is: Life isn’t easy for anyone. Embrace all the messy experiences, good and bad, and know you’re normal and wonderful and right where you should be.”
Forging her own path
For as much as becoming a mom has informed her work, her work, in turn, has taught her plenty about being a mom. She explains that there are so many polarized opinions surrounding motherhood — natural birth versus epidural, sleep training, attachment theories, breast-feeding — that it can feel as though everyone is at odds, that if you’re not doing it like your neighbor, you’re doing it wrong. “When you’re first becoming a mom, it can feel like, ‘If you don’t get this one organic mattress pad, your baby is going to hate you forever, or die.”
But through editing various articles by her contributing writers and reading comments from readers all around the world, she’s realized you can pick and choose what works for you, that motherhood is personal, that different things work for different people, and ultimately, that “all the babies are happy.”
“There’s this statistic that says the average toddler laughs 400 times a day,” she tells me. “How cute is that?” (It split my heart into two, that’s how cute.)
Her definition of success
As Goddard and I begin to wrap up, I ask her something we’ve asked many women on Man Repeller: What does success look like to her? She tells me that, in addition to continuing to run Cup of Jo as a lucrative business that serves her beloved readers (while also keeping the team small, save for a few more full-time writers), she hopes to one day hold hours that resemble a proper 9-to-5, with lots of outdoor playtime before and after with her kids. It’s a dream I share, and one I often fear may not be possible when working on the internet, the digital city that never sleeps.
“There are so many ways to define success, in New York specifically, that it’s hard not to be affected by how so much of it is about money, status, rank, position,” she says. “It’s around you all the time. People always ask what you do for work, and there are so many people who are at the tippy-top of their industry here, so it’s really, really easy to get caught up in that rat race.”
But she recalls a couple she used to share a workspace with at her old job. They were from Amsterdam, and seemed to have a profoundly anti-New York way of working that stayed with her. “They worked super hard, they were super talented, and they would always knock-off work early. They were always laughing and chit-chatting and sort of making out in the office. [She laughs.] We ended up talking one day about life in general, and they said that in the Netherlands, at least among their crew, success was defined as having control over your own time.”
In the years since, she says that conversation has helped shape her value system when it comes to work. “We could hire a bunch more people, really spin Cup of Jo out and do eight million different projects, but I love the site as it is. I love the tight-knit community that surrounds it. Is making it bigger worth not spending as much time with my kids in this golden age that they’re in right now?”
She is quiet for a bit, which creates a comfortable silence between us — the kind that usually comes with old friendship, rarely in interviews. “So anyway, I’m still trying to define that for myself,” she says. “I’m learning. I don’t really know how to wrap it all up in a bow.”
And thank god she doesn’t. Those untied ribbons continue to give her fans something tangible to grab, something on which to tie their own banners. Something that makes them feel understood.
Photos by Edith Young.