Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Julia Dennison: My role as Executive Editor is just basically overseeing all the editorial content that goes on the website, so on Parents.com, and all the related social media platforms. We’re on all of them, whether it’s Instagram or Facebook, we have a Facebook group, we’re even on TikTok now as long as President Trump allows us to be!
Esther: Are parents on TikTok?!
You know what, you would be so surprised. There is a huge demographic of millennial moms on TikTok just being really real. And I think it’s actually a platform that appeals to parents.
It’s my favourite right now because it’s so honest. And there’s no filter, there’s just talking about what what it really is to be a parent these days, which is very much in line with what we try to do at Parents.
At the moment, obviously huge numbers of parents, yourself included, are having to be both full time workers and full time parents. So as a parenting site, what are you doing to help address this with your audience?
Sure. So it’s really asking the impossible of parents and it still is. We’re talking now months into this pandemic, and schools have been shut, and now summer camps are closed, and it’s not even looking like schools are going to fully open in the fall. And it’s not like this gets any easier for parents.
I always say there’s plenty of studies to point to the fact that we as humans can’t really multitask. You really can’t do two things at once. And this pandemic has been asking parents to do that very thing. Working parents. Work full time and watch your kid full time without help and without your extended village and without all the resources that you normally can lean on as a parent.
So as a site, as Parents.com, it’s never been more important for us to be there for parents as a resource. And we’ve really tried to do that very thing and we’re all living it. I mean, I am a mother of a four year old, and I co-parent with her dad. So when I have Esme, my daughter, it’s 100% on, and I have to take those Zoom calls and I have to do my meetings and I have to do my work while also looking after my daughter.
And it’s still the case now here as I speak to you in July, and schools are only going to go partly back in the fall, then it’s going to be the case for a long time in the foreseeable. And it’s been so, so stressful. That’s what we’re hearing from our audience, we’re working towards this burnout, this feeling of burnout for parents, I think it’s building and building.
And as a site, it’s always been our mission at Parents.com to be a help to parents, to just be that sort of whisper in the ear, that secret recipe, that secret sauce to help you feel just a little bit more in control as a parent.
So through the pandemic, we’ve obviously been there with informative resources on the disease itself, so from the very beginning, when it first started, we had a guide to what parents should expect from COVID and the Coronavirus, and how to protect your kids, and how to get kids to wear masks ,and all that sort of nitty gritty.
And then it transitioned into just parents realising how hard this was and needing to hear that they weren’t alone. So we make sure we publish plenty of content to reassure them and to show them that we’re all in this. So first person essays, reassuring pieces, like ‘You really don’t need to formally homeschool your kids to keep them learning throughout school closures,’ just be easy on yourself, we’re all in this together.
Then once that phase of just like, ‘Holy cow, this is super stressful for parents,’ really hit home throughout April into May, all of a sudden parents were like, ‘Okay, shoot, we need resources to actually support our kids through this,’ and when I say support, I mean give them things to do that isn’t just the iPad or the TV so that parents can actually get work done.
So we started seeing an uptick in traffic to our entertaining and fun pages, whether that was crafts, we had tie-dye crafts started trending, or going into the summertime we did a piece around virtual summer camps, and that started to pick up in traffic, and all these things that we thought weren’t exactly core parenting topics before, they were the nice to have’s, like how to set up a backyard movie night.
These are things that it was like, ‘Oh, okay, if you have the extra time to be that parent, great. Go for it.’ It was icing on the cake. Well, now it is core parenting, right? Because parents are suddenly like, ‘Shoot, I really need the entertainment, these fun resources and this ability to entertain my kids, not because I’m trying to be a great parent. Yes, I’m trying to be a great parent, obviously. But also, I’m trying to take this Zoom call right now, and what can I hand over to my kid that will keep them entertained?’
So we’ve really just tried to be there in all respects for parents. And then now as things start to open up again, it’s a whole new raft of content that’s becoming interesting for parents, and it’s that question of, when is it safe to send my kid to daycare? When is it safe to have a playdate? What do playdates look like during the pandemic or right after as social distancing eases? What will school look like in the fall? What are the worries if school opens, should I even send my kid back to school if there’s no vaccine?
All these myriad of questions that are going through parent’s heads, we are a site that is predominantly based on search traffic, so people are coming in through Google. So we always want to make sure that we’re answering every single question that any parent would ever have ever.
So that means now more than ever, because parents have so many questions, and there aren’t a lot of answers, but we are just constantly updating our content with whatever we do know, and just whatever we can do to support parents.
So do you set the editorial strategy around what search traffic comes in? Or are you being at all proactive in guessing what people might be wanting in the next couple of months?
So it’s a mix. Because things have been changing so much, we keep a really close eye on Google Search trends to make sure that we’re answering any trend that’s related to our audience and our beat and parents, we want to make sure that we’re answering those questions.
So we’re looking at Google Trends. And we’re formulating our content based on what we know people are starting to search and what searches are taking off.
We’re also just looking at what content is doing well for us on search and making sure that we are building out as much content around there as possible, so if we’re seeing those tie dye crafts, for example, if we’re seeing that kind of take off, then we’re going to make sure that we’ve got all the tie dye crafts covered.
We look at our own search trends to see what’s happening and what people are coming through to Parents.com for, we’re also looking at Google Trends.
And then, a lot of us are parents and we’re living this life, right. I’ve just been using this as a great opportunity, every time I scratch my head about wondering how the heck I’m going to make this work, I think, ‘Okay, is there content on Parents that answers that question?’
And so it’s a sort of a three pronged approach there.
And pre pandemic, was that a similar approach that you just kept an eye on what parents were interested in that season or that month?
Yeah, of course. We’re actually not that seasonal of a site because so much of parenting is just really the core parenting questions, or questions you’re going to be asking no matter what the time of year. Obviously, we would make sure that we have content around all the different seasons and how those that would affect parenting, whether it’s allergies or the stress of the holidays.
But for the most part, our content tends to focus a lot around early days of parenthood, so when you’re pregnant, and you’re a first time parent, that tends to be when you have the most questions. So a lot of our search traffic will be around that first year with baby or during pregnancy when people are doing it all for the first time and just wondering how the heck they do it, this crazy parenthood journey.
And so yes, search has always been a priority for us. And because we’re a trusted source and we’re an old brand and people recognise us, we are the kind of brand that someone is going to see in the search results and think, ‘Okay, well, I’ll click on that, because I know Parents and I trust what they have to say.’
And I know a lot of the discourse, especially in the US around the pandemic has been really really polarised and politicised. So, how do you approach that as an editorial team when your audience might have quite strong divergent views on it?
I know it’s really hard. I mean, I’ve always tried to be on the right side of history whether it’s something to do with science or whether it’s something to do with what’s happening in society.
It’s the same thing with the anti-vaxxer debate, in the world of parenting, we do get plenty of people commenting who might consider themselves anti-vaxxers. We don’t give airtime to anti-vaxxers, we are always ensuring that we are a scientifically-backed health site so that all of the content on our site is correct as far as science goes. And that’s what we always maintain.
And I think that this debate around the pandemic, we just still kind of lean on the side of science, but also be sympathetic and explain things in a clear way, in a way that we think people will want to share.
We just did one yesterday, a story yesterday based on a social trend on Facebook, where moms were getting very irritated about the whole mask debate of whether or not you should wear a mask. And our story was ‘Moms clap back on masks debate.’ If we can wear masks during labour, you can wear them shopping.
Of course there’s always going to be other opinions on our site. But those are opinions. And at the end of the day, we are a research-backed website that publishes scientifically-backed content, and that’s what we’ll always maintain, and that’s what we’ll always do.
I think you have to do it in a way that’s not alienating. So we would never shame anybody for thinking something. But we would just continue to tell the true story, and produce the facts, and let the facts speak for themselves, right? That’s what we always try to do.
I notice you’ve got a Diversity of Families section on the website, is that a recent feature in response to the Black Lives Matter protest?
We’ve always prioritised the diversity of families, on Parents.com, it’s always been something that we’ve felt was important, and hence why we’ve actually just launched in June – and I’ll talk about this more – the podcast ‘We are family’ is all about celebrating the beautiful diversity of families today. But that was based on an editorial series that I did two years ago, I think is when we originally launched it, all around celebrating the diversity of families today.
Because we’re such a nationally recognised and internationally recognised parenting brand, we know that whatever we represent as family is what people will take as what family is in the world we live in. So we try to present as many different images of family and what family looks like as we possibly can.
And yeah, absolutely as far as Black Lives Matter, this is a very important cause to us and something that we’ve been behind for a long time.
Back in April actually, we did a spotlight feature, or it was a sort of editorial package of content around maternal mortality in America. And we spoke a lot as part of that on how black mothers and mothers of colour were disproportionately affected by maternal mortality in America and by problematic birth rates and just the very fact that they were bearing the brunt of it. So that was something we actually got a black editor to come in and edit that spotlight for us. And we did a lot of pieces on black women who were dying unnecessarily in childbirth, and through things that were absolutely preventable, and really shined a light on it.
As part of that we’d already taken steps to, for example, on our editorial style guide to capitalise the B in Black, that is something that our writers had requested of us, and it’s something that was easy enough for us to make a change in the style guide. So that’s something you’re seeing a lot of other publications changing now, during the Black Lives Matter movement recently, in the last month or two, but something that we’d already done.
But I also understand that I’m white, and so much about publishing is built on those who look like me and people who look like me benefit from systemic racism. I think it’s a lot about if you’re a white person in publishing, it’s so important to step up and try to make the changes that you can and make room and lift black writers and lift black voices and tell black stories. And that’s been a huge priority of mine, and it’s now more than than ever, and I’m making a very conscious effort to ensure that we are using at least 40% of our writers, black writers of colour, and also our sources.
But more than that, we have to overcompensate for a long history of whitewashing that’s happened in publishing, and I’m very aware of that. As far as our content, this is sort of related to what I was just talking about when you’re dealing with these divisive topics, we found that actually, our content we’ve been publishing related to Black Lives Matter has been doing very well.
But what does best are these explainers. So we did an explainer on how to explain Juneteenth the holiday to your kids, that did really well. Our top story around this topic was ‘Six reasons all lives matter doesn’t work in terms simple enough for a child,’ and that just blew up and got tonnes of traffic and tonnes of shares, and people were really responding to it.
And I think the one thing I noticed through all this is we didn’t lose hardly any Instagram followers. When other brands out there in the world, when they’d made a statement on how they felt about Black Lives Matter and how important it was to support black lives and black voices and tell black stories, you did see some brands losing Instagram followers just because of how politically rife it can get.
Well, we did not. And I think that’s testament to the fact that we’ve already been covering these topics so much. So if you were going to drop out, which it’s like, ‘Good riddance, we don’t need you!’ If you were going to drop out because you didn’t like what you saw at Parents, you would have done it already. So I thought that was really interesting to see.
But we do still get some pushback and comments, we have a great piece on how to be anti racist as a family. And we posted it to Instagram and we had something about checking your white privilege, and well we got a tonne of flack in the comments about white privilege, and how could we say that.
To me that just said, okay, we need to step back and we need to do another explainer piece on what it means when we’re talking about white privilege, and explain this to our audience in a way that hopefully will convince at least a few people in favour of understanding and recognising their white privilege and what that means.
So small steps and I think, just keep doing it. And I just think, if you can convince anybody, that’s a win.
So tell me about the podcast. Why did you decide to launch a podcast in a pandemic?!
Well, we’d already had it planned. And it was funny because we have podcasting recording studios at Meredith, and my co host, Shaun T, who’s the founder of the Insanity workout and he’s got this massive following himself. He was on the cover of Parents magazine back in 2019 with his husband and their two twin boys who they had through surrogacy, and he’s just such an uplifting person and such an awesome human being.
I’d already had this editorial series called ‘We are family,’ which was highlighting just the beautiful diversity of families today and how people become families today. I remember seeing a statistic that said that there were going to be more more non-nuclear “non-traditional” families than the 2.5 nuclear household families as soon as 2020, so there’s just a huge diversity of what it means to be a family in America today, and I thought it was really important for us to tell those stories and show those different families.
And when I was thinking of co-hosts, because Shaun T is such a beautiful, amazing family, as a black dad, as a gay black dad and with his husband, and their cover got such a – speaking of content that we were already out there, the forefront at Parents – of course we got push back on the cover because you know, haters are gonna hate but we got so much more celebration of that cover because it was the first gay dads on the cover.
And everyone was just so happy to see it, and his story is so uplifting that I thought he would make a really great co host with his story, and then my own story. I’m divorced, I co-parent, as I mentioned before with my daughter’s Dad and so I just felt like looking at Instagram, I didn’t always see my family setup reflected back at me. I found myself looking at social media and thinking, feeling guilty, feeling bad. Like, why don’t I have this beautiful nuclear family with everybody in matching outfits on the beach together in harmony is what I’m seeing on Instagram.
Of course, the truth is, that’s what you’re seeing on Instagram, and who knows what’s actually happening behind that. But I realised there wasn’t enough portrayals of different kinds of families out there. And the more you just represent family as family and love as love, and not trying to say anything revolutionary and not trying to say like, ‘Look at this crazy, unique family.’ It’s just, this is another kind of family. This is another way of loving. This is another way people become a family.
And the more you tell those stories, and the more you show them, the better. So we had this opportunity to do a podcast and it felt like podcasting was a really great platform to tell those stories, just to get those voices in there.
And the idea was, we were going to fly Shaun from Arizona to come to New York to do these recording sessions, and of course, then the pandemic hit! And we just had to keep going with it. We just decided we were going to continue as planned and record from our respective closets.
And so even though I can’t be in the same room with Shaun, he’s always texting me, I always text him, we’re very good friends from afar. So we’re about as best of co-hosts this could possibly be, bar just the fact that we’re not able to meet up for margaritas from time to time, which you know, one day we’ll get there, we’ll get there.
I know a while back, you started documenting your own experience as daily videos on YouTube. I think that’s finished now, but how did that go?
Yeah, that went really well. I mean, I just felt that – and it was funny because it started because I’d come back from Europe and so I had been quarantined for 14 days, of course, when this is back in March, and I was like, ‘I’m going to be all by myself and nobody else is going to be quarantining!’
Well of course, that wasn’t true. Everybody else was in the same boat as me and everyone had to quarantine. I wasn’t special, but I did feel that feeling of just being by myself with my daughter in my tiny apartment in Queens also trying to work full time and run the editorial on this national website. And feeling like I couldn’t let anything drop. I had to keep all my plates spinning all the time, it was feeling very overwhelming.
And I thought to myself, well, the best thing I can do for my audience is to show them that they are not alone. I might be the editor of Parents.com, but I am finding this just as hard as they are, and I find parenting, especially through a pandemic, just as hard as they do.
So I just decided to start documenting it and showing them that you know, I was juggling it all and I had the moments where I was just in tears, my daughter had those moments where she was in tears. I had moments where I was taking Zoom calls with my daughter literally sitting on my head, and those moments still happen.
As I am recording this in my closet right now and speaking to you, I can hear at the very back of my head that my daughter is screaming in some other room with her dad. We talk about that at Parents, we call it the mental load, just the very idea that like, no matter what you’re doing as a parent, you might be working full time, but you always have those parenting things in the back of your head. And I think the pandemic just highlighted that.
So I just took my own phone camera and started documenting it just to show everybody that I was going through it, just to make everyone feel a little less alone.
And we got really great feedback. Everyone in the comments just were so grateful and thankful, and I got DMs from moms everywhere, just saying ‘Thank you, thank you for just being so honest.’ And I decided I wouldn’t hide anything, and I would just talk about it. I had moments where I was like, I’m trying to make pancakes for my daughter, and they’re just getting burnt and I’m also trying to Slack at the same time. And let’s be real, my daughter’s watching screens all day, because what else? I need to be able to work, I need to be able to put food on the table.
So I think that just the very fact that I wasn’t doing anything revolutionary, I was just telling everybody what I was doing and sharing my stress. But everyone loved that. And I think people just appreciated that just, even editors of parenting sites don’t know what the heck they’re doing when it comes to being a parent.
You know, I always joke, I say you can be an expert in parenting as a subject, which I think at this point, I would venture to say that I’m at least getting there as the editor of Parents.com, but you can’t be an expert parent. Nobody is. We’re all figuring this out together.
There was a really good TikTok where it was like ‘Parenting hacks. Oh, there are no hacks, there’s no hacks to parenting. You just have to figure it all out.’ And it’s true.
And so the more we can just show everybody what’s really happening and not try to sugarcoat any of it, I think that that helps everybody and certainly that’s seems to be the response I got from that YouTube series. And then eventually I stopped doing it partly because it was one extra plate to spin. It was a lot.
What’s been your proudest moment as Executive Editor of Parents.com so far?
I was thinking about that, it’s really hard to say one proud moment. I think every time that I get a comment from somebody where some content that we’ve done has made a difference, that is my proud moment. And that will just make my month.
We did a video recently, it was a black family who adopted a white child. It talked about how much racism that they were experiencing as a family every day. And this mom has to carry around her adoption papers, just to show that she’s the mother of her own child. I mean, it’s just one piece of the larger puzzle that black people are confronted with in America today when it comes to racism.
And the comments that we got about that were just so reassuring and so lovely. We had one comment that said, ‘Every now and again, there’s a story that makes us feel proud to be human and live in this world.’
Comments like that just make me go, ‘Okay. We’re doing we’re doing the right thing here. We are telling the right stories,’ and by choosing the right stories to tell and getting feedback like that, it just tells me that I’m doing the right thing, even if sometimes you get, like I was talking about before on Instagram, you get people pushing back and saying, ‘How dare you talk about white privilege, my white child is perfectly fine…!’ It can be so disheartening, and it can feel like you don’t always have your whole audience on board. And that can kind of break your heart.
Well, comments like that will just automatically reassure me and remind me that everything we’re doing is the right thing to be doing. So yeah, every time I get comments like that.