Survival of the Hippest
My sister, ever on the cutting edge of pop culture, gave me a copy of the zine Hip Mama when it first came out, five years ago. I, ever on the edge of a nervous breakdown, with nary a moment to kick my feet up for leisure reading, didn't look at it until a few years later, when I took this job editing a parenting magazine. Suddenly, I had the excuse and the motivation to read and read and read. Once I finally read Hip Mama, I never stopped reading it. Few voices out there are as fresh, unafraid, and entertaining as that of Hip Mama's founder and editor Ariel Gore, and the writers who fill up her zine are often just as honest, edgy, and melodic.
This month, Ariel is in town to promote her first book, The Hip Mama Survival Guide (Hyperion, 1998), and to join Minnesota Parent and the producer of KFAI's The MOM-bo Show to celebrate our shared passion for exploring parenthood in all its splendor and pain. (event on October 4, see details in the calendar on page 53).
I spent some time chatting with Ariel before she left her Oakland, California home for what will be her first-ever trip to the Midwest. She was in her kitchen, washing dishes and brewing up some java from the two-pound container of coffee beans a Hip Mama reader sent in lieu of subscription money. Ariel was fine with the swap. "It's cool, as long as I know it hasn't been opened, so Newt Gingrich hasn't tampered with it, or anything . . ."
It's true that Ariel is untamably leftist, unstoppably anti-right, and this, some liberal friends have told me, can get a little overworked in her zine. "I mean, I'm a Democrat, I can't stand Newt Gingrich, but after a while, I'd just as soon hear about something else," said one mom about Hip Mama on a parenting emailing list. The subtitle of Ariel's book reads: "Advice From the Trenches on Pregnancy, Childbirth, Cool Names, Clueless Doctors, Potty Training, Toddler Avengers, Domestic Mayhem, Support Groups, Right-Wing Losers, Work, Day Care, Family Law, The Evil Patriarchy, Collection Agents, Nervous Breakdowns, and WAY More." So while her book reaches a much wider audience than Hip Mama--which has a subscriber base of about 1,500 to 2,000 and a newsstand circulation of about 3,000--Ariel concedes that, based on the subtitle's nod toward "right-wing losers," her book is probably not going to attract a bunch of readers entirely unsympathetic to her cause, which has been to give a voice to her experience as a nineteen-year-old single mom on welfare and in college.
Ariel, who created the first issue of Hip Mama as her senior project at Mills College in Oakland, where she was completing a degree in communications and economics, says there seemed little else for her to do or become: "I'd been a single mom on welfare and in school that whole time since Maia was six months old . . . what else was I gonna do? I was planning to be a journalist/writer person at that time, I was writing a lot of the kinds of stuff that we print [in the zine], but there wasn't really an outlet for it."
Ariel explains that she chose parenthood as a writing topic for external and internal reasons. Externally, she says, the birth of Hip Mama "coincided with the whole family-values campaign that was going on, so wherever I looked, the focus was on single moms and welfare moms." Internally, "I had my own child at nineteen, so that was my adult life experience. I talk to a lot of moms who have had their kids later in life, and they go through this whole thing of redefining themselves, whereas I was becoming an adult at the exact same time I was becoming a mom, so that's really how I defined my life. It might have struck me differently later on, because I may have had other things going on at that time and have been more defined by other things than this role."
Ariel also attributes her focus on motherhood to her experiences as a young mother in school. "College is cool because you spend so much time thinking about your life, and I was surrounded by people who didn't have kids. I wanted to explain what I was going through to those who were not going through it, and also, I didn't have time for anything else. I wanted to integrate my life. Instead of doing my thesis on Shakespeare, I wanted to do it on what I was thinking about, which was Maia."
Ariel says she no longer feels the prejudice against young mothers so acutely: "As you start to get gray hair and look like you've been through it, people stop looking at you so harshly. It's such a class thing, how old you are when you have your kid. I get a lot of confused responses to my whole self, I'm kind of young, was on welfare, and also in college, which is another whole kind of class thing . . . people get confused when you don't follow one singular path."
A feminist worldview influences Ariel's work and her writing. "Obviously there have been a few major works on motherhood and feminism like Adrienne Rich's stuff, but there hasn't been a lot of stuff about motherhood being a valuable experience as well as something that's been used to oppress," she says. "Instead there have been two extremes: the 'Institution of Motherhood as Oppression' and then a lot of mainstream cheese, obviously used to sell minivans, but what I was missing were accounts of the day-to-day details of what you go through in a real way. But not using those as proof of why we shouldn't be mothers, but more as a way to counteract the surprising isolation of motherhood."
Hip Mama doesn't provide a livable income, but book advances have paid the bills since Ariel finished graduate school. (Her second book, forthcoming from Hyperion next May, is called An Hour Alone: Reflections on Motherhood in a Distracted World.) But Ariel is quick to point out her zine's indirect contribution to her livelihood: "I get a lot of my other writing work off of being 'Hip Mama,' it's a tryout place for many ideas that turn out to be a part of books or other projects. And the web site [hipmama.com] is a place where I kick around ideas with people directly."
And while Ariel Gore's personal circumstances have evolved considerably since the founding of Hip Mama, political fury continues to provide her main inspiration. With that established, I couldn't resist asking about her views on the Clinton scandal. "I just wrote a column about that," Ariel laughs. "It's called, 'Why I don't give a rat's ass what happens to the president.' But I don't know if you can say that." I assure her I can say it. "Good," she continues. "I mean, I'm on the side of the Democrats, so I kind of tried to care about what happened to Clinton, I thought maybe I should write about it, or harangue my congress person, but in the end, I realized I just don't care what happens to him. He signed the welfare reform bill, he signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and you should know as a politician that if the family values people come for me in the morning, they're going to come for you at night."
Ariel's blend of personal and political rage flows from her belief that " . . . most of the things that make it difficult to be a mom in this society are not organic things . . . they're cultural things. We need affordable child care, guaranteed child support, so there's no question of whether you can feed your kids. And not just for low-income moms--I think societal changes could take a lot of stress out of middle-income motherhood, too." For the last two years, says Ariel, she has brought in middle-income earnings, but still she maintains that societal safety nets should be in place to eliminate low-grade fear of complete catastrophe in the face of an unexpected financial setback. But in the meantime, she wishes every mother could have a strong support system of other moms to fill in the gaps. "Even if it's just four or five other families that you know, that you could rest assured would be there for you, and you would be there for them," she says.
Hip Mama can't provide the meaningful, structural supports that could transform family life, but it does "do some of the emotional stuff in the discussion area of the Web site. I consider the chat forums the main part of the site. You can just go online and post a question, and there will be twenty replies almost immediately. I go there all the time."
And the views expressed in Hip Mama and on the Web site are refreshingly eclectic--from parents with experiences, philosophies, and income levels across the board. "I guess when I first started the zine, I thought it would attract people in situations more similar to my own," says Ariel. "But that's not really what happened. When you start to tell the truth about your life, then people start to tell the truth about their lives, whatever their lives may be."
Jeannine Ouellette Howitz is editor of Minnesota Parent.
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