HipMama's HeadMama on staying true to yourself
by Lynn Siprelle
'll make a full disclosure right now: I have a business relationship with Ariel Gore, if you want to call it that since money doesn't change hands. I am the TechMama at HipMama Online; I twiddle configuration files, juggle logs and generally help keep the technical side of things happy. But other than that, Ariel and I had never met until I dropped by her new home in Southeast Portland (just a few blocks from TNH Central) not long after the publication of her book "The Mother Trip."
More than a business relationship, though, Ariel and I seem to have some kinda karmic thing going on. HipMama was one of the direct inspirations for TNH. When HipMama Online nearly went off the air, I answered the call to help keep it alive and was put in touch with the woman who was running the rescue effort. She turned out to be an old acquaintance who I hadn't seen in some time, now a good friend, Bee Lavender--who also, weirdly, lived here in Portland. (Bee's now the editor/publisher of HipMama Online and lives in Seattle.)
And Diary fans know that I've been very influenced lately by Ariel's new book, The Mother Trip; in fact, as it happened, when I went to see Ariel I was wearing the infamous Hawaiian shoes that helped me find my way back to myself. (Coincidentally, we drank green tea and discovered we share the same odd taste for Japanese bean paste-filled mochi sweets. Nummy.)
Lynn: I bought these shoes, and it's your fault. (laughing)
Ariel: (laughing) Oh no! Those are cool shoes.
L: In "The Mother Trip," you say the trick in motherhood is holding on to your personality. How do we do that? What are the ways we can do that and yet still be true to our children and give them what they need?
Ariel Gore and her 10-year-old daughter, Maia
A: Holding on to your personality is being true to your children. I don't think there's anything intrinsic in mothering that requires that we lose ourselves. I think most of that is actually just what we're taught to believe about motherhood.
L: Where is that coming from?
A: It's been perpetrated by the mainstream parenting press, by what we learned from our mothers, what they learned from their mothers. We've had all this progress in feminism in the past 20-30 years, and it's gotten to the point where you can be yourself for maybe your twenties or your teens and there are all these choices. But somehow that only goes up to when you have kids, your real confidence in that, and then it's back to like the '50s. And you have to be a certain kind of person, whatever you call it--be a grownup, or be more mainstream, or whatever--just not be yourself.
And part of it is just wanting the best for your kids and if you're not truly confident in yourself then you sort of naturally move back to maybe a more socially acceptable way to be because it seems safer. Like, say your value system is anarchy/punk and you didn't grow up that way, that's who you've become. When you have a kid you may start to get more conservative because if you're not totally confident in those values--you know what I mean?
A: And then it comes from...you know, our reproductive freedoms are not guaranteed, that we have the right to raise our kids the way we want to, so it comes from that sort of fear of not wanting to stand out and draw attention to your family in a negative way.
L: You've gone through that, you've gone through the system, had negative attention.
A: Yeah, definitely, from the family court system. And while what they can do to you is pretty bad, I think some of our fears about it are--I don't know if I should say that our fears are exaggerated. Sometimes they are. But what they ended up being able to do to me was nothing, except for harass me. They couldn't actually threaten my family. But they can some people's.
A: Yeah, there was no consistency in terms of what they wanted.
L: Which comes down to "Don't believe the experts." Because they don't know what they want.
A: Totally. Yeah, and the same people would even say those things back and forth--oh, you're hysterical. Oh, you're an ice queen and you have no emotions. It's like, uh, okay, first of all, what business is my emotional state of yours, you know? But it was all this conflicting info about who I was and what I should be doing and what's the best family life for my kid.
L: Is there any agenda apart from just self-perpetuation for these experts?
A: Well, I presume that it starts with a desire to help people.
L: But in the translation that seems to get twisted. Because a lot of the time helping people is not the end result.
A: No, it's not. I mean, I don't really get it. It depends. People write these self-help books, "Ten Easy Steps for Blah-Blah," that are the most fascist kind of regimes--they must think it's going to help someone.
L: I have to confess that one of my guilty pleasures is reading Woman's Day. If you look at the cover of any Woman's Day, it's always "Five Steps to X," you know, "65 Easy-to-Do Projects for Z," and always something about getting organized. I think we want those easy steps.
A: Oh totally. I do.
L: When I was a teenager, I thought that people who were, like, 21, KNEW. If you asked me what they knew, I would have said, you know, EVERYTHING.
A: The Ten Easy Steps!
L: Right! They had the clue, somebody clued them in, they've got the idea. They know what they should be doing. Now that I'm 39, I still haven't got the cluebook. I'm still waiting for someone to fill me in. Interestingly enough you don't give Ten Easy Steps, the steps you give are pretty hard.
"Every word to do with staying home with your kids has a conservative or weird connotation: homemaker, housewife. All those words got taken away in the '70s."
L: Well, because they're simple and because they require you to be truthful and honest. And that's always the very hardest thing to do. One thing I saw on the website was your essay about if the only thing you can do in the morning is get out of bed, just get out of bed. And I read that at a time when I really needed to hear that. Because like a lot of moms, I struggle with depression, and like a lot of stay-at-home moms, I'm isolated. And my daughter's going through the terrible twos. And there were some days where that was about the best I could do. "I'm up."
A: That's One Easy Step, and that's plenty for a day.
L: At the very beginnings of TNH, I wrote an essay called Martha Stewart Vs. the Earth Mother, about the two extremes of perfectionism in American cultural life, Martha Stewart, and the Earth Mother who does everything more naturally than you. In "The Mother Trip" you brought it up too that there's no role model any more for stay-at-homes, because we're all looking for the clue, and it helps to have someone who at least looks like they have the clue that's out there, and there's nobody, not even another stay-at-home a lot of the time. So we're out there making it up as we go along--kinda the whole point of TNH. So who do we look to? Is it just you and the mirror any more?
A: Pretty much. I haven't found any role models for that. One thing that I sort of find helpful as a parent instead of parenting books is to read biographies and memoirs about family life that aren't necessarily...I find them sort of inspirational because you realise that everyone's family is so wacked and that most of the family stresses that you have aren't the things that scar your kids. Being yourself and your family having its own traditions and trips are what makes life and childhood interesting.
And other than that there really aren't mommmy heroes in terms of child heroes. I mean you hear about women with children, and the heroic thing they're doing is something else, and it's like, oh and they have children. You know? Which is cool. But it doesn't help much if you're looking at how-to parenting. I haven't read the Martha Stewart-Earth Mother piece, but I will because that's so right-on. There's like the total fascist attachment parenting thing or there's the total just plain fascist thing.
L: I confess to being on the outskirts of the fascists in the attachment parenting crowd. Not quite saluting, but I'm there. (laughs)
A: Well, I mean, you know--especially the attachment parenting stuff, it's great that there's so much information out there, but then it becomes this thing where if you step out of line on one little thing--I mean you start to feel you can't buy pre-baked bread. That's not right. What works for you is right.
L: It seems we set ourselves up for failure. I mean on the one hand there's Martha--
A: --Whose kid is grown, okay?
L: People always say, what's the difference between you and Martha Stewart and I always say, "Staff." She's got like 200 people.
A: No little kid and 200 helpers.
L: Yeah, I'm like I could be Martha Stewart too if I had staff--anybody could. Well, not anybody. Martha's got terrific taste, you can't fault her for that. So do you have any models that you've come to look to?
A: I guess I think about people in my own family, my mom and her mom, and the stuff they fell for in their time, what they were supposed to do, and the times when they were like, forget it, I'm going to do this my own way. And how brave that seems to me in retrospect. They were just doing their own thing and probably didn't differentiate every day between "This is a brave thing" and whatever.
L: They just DID.
A: Yeah. And they were women of their times. My mom was in the '70s, which was a time to be experimental. And her mom was parenting in the '50s, which was harder, I think. Because it was the beginnings of mass-produced motherhood, you know, color TV--total mass-produced motherhood. And she struggled with that. And before that obviously we had pretty strict models, but before mass media it was a little easier to not quite know what the model was.
L: I don't think anyone's ever had a clue, it just wasn't as important that you didn't have a clue.
A: If you don't know what's expected of you, you're a step ahead of people who do know what's expected of them. Because you don't have to fail.
L: I get such odd reactions at TNH. People assume I'm this neo-conservative fundamentalist right-wing "barefoot and pregnant" type and that is so not what the site's about. A lot of the women who show up at the site really feel that the best thing they can do for themselves and their families is to stay home but they're opposed at almost every step. Whereas in the '50s it was considered quite singular if you left home, now it's considered quite singular if you stay home.
A: Yeah, we haven't quite come to terms with all this as a culture. Every word to do with staying home with your kids has a conservative or weird connotation--homemaker, housewife. All those words got taken away in the '70s. And I remember growing up in the '70s that was the worst thing you could say about someone is that they were going to grow up to be a housewife. Like, "You scum." And I'm a Cancer, that's my sun sign, and things would always say "You love your home and you're a good homemaker," and I'd be, aarggh! I have the worst sign!
It's sort of pathetic that culturally we can't seem to allow women to make choices unless it's considered universally the best choice to make. It's great like all these studies have come out that working outside the home doesn't ruin your kids' lives--you know, the "kids are all right" studies have come out. But it just can't be okay to make your choice, it has to be well, then, it's the better choice. I guess the pendulum will have to swing for a while before it settles down. You do what's best for your family, what works for you and for your kids. And truth be told, most of us will probably be home for part of our kids' childhoods and will be working outside the home for part of them.
"It's hard to pull together a support network, but it doesn't have to be vast. It just has to be enough."
L: You and I both work at home.
A: And that's the safest ground to be on. They can't get you either way because you're at home and you still work at something other than raising kids. But if you work outside the home people are just ragging on you constantly, and if you don't have a business and you don't have an outside job people are ragging on you constantly.
It's just motherhood. If you're too much discipline mama then you're busted, and if you're too permissive mama then you're busted. It starts when you're pregnant and everyone touches your belly. Like when you have kids, suddenly everything about you is everyone's business. And it's just "Oh, well, we're just interested for the sake of the children, you know." Whereas before you have kids you have more privacy and if you're undisciplined in your own life people might not want to be your friend but they're not going to rag on you about it as much because, "well, you're only hurting yourself."
And some of that is healthy because we need to watch out for each other. If kids are actually being abused the community needs to be keeping an eye out. But somehow most communities take that so much further and are up in your business. You just have to not only respect yourself but work really hard to get a strong supportive community whether that's an online community or an in-person communtiy so we're not so isolated and not so susceptible to unsupportive voices. Even online, for me anyway, that support--it can't be just virtual, but it's so helpful. And then if you just have two or three friends that are close by, or family or whatever, it's enough. It's hard to pull together a support network, but it doesn't have to be vast. It just has to be enough.