Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
“Ask the Matriarchy” is a four-part advice series running on Thursdays.
For many reasons, we enrolled our daughter in private school. The school is small and a good school, and my daughter loves it and has a lot of friends. The school moms, on the other hand, have been straight up rude. I’ve been openly criticized for not volunteering in the school enough (I work full time); one mom loves to jokingly comment how my outfits don’t meet dress code; during the fundraiser one mom berated me in front of the others for how I laid out the baked goods on the table. I handled that by just silently finishing my shift and walking out. They have coffee in the middle of the day and make no effort to invite me. One mom sent me a Facebook message telling me she thought my Facebook posts were “too angry.” I could go on and on with the thousand tiny, petty things.
I have good friends but I feel like I need to make an effort here for my kid, but this is making me feel like high school all over again.
Done with the Bullshit
Dear Done with the Bullshit,
Recently, I invited one of my daughter’s friends over on a playdate. The mother accompanied her daughter and spent the entire play date criticizing my Halloween decorations as “too spooky.” Three days later, she sent me a follow up text telling me I should have cancelled the play date because I had the beginnings of a small cold. (I actually didn’t.)
Another time, I asked a cool school mom out on a coffee date and she said she was “busy” but that she would “get back to me.” Eight months later, at the school open house, she saw me and said, “Oh, remember when you were looking for friends? Well, I found someone for you.” And then introduced me to her sister.
When she walked away, my husband said, “That was brutal.”
In sum, Hell is other parents.
And parents are the worst kind of hell because they combine all the normal human garbage of idiocy, jealousy, subterfuge, but with the righteous fervor of someone thinking that they are doing it for the children.
The biggest lie our parents told us was that high school drama ends. It doesn’t. People don’t just suddenly grow up and get less petty—most people just get petty in different ways. But what happens is that your world gets larger. You can more easily find your people. And in that way the bullshit ends, because, to a certain extent, you get to run away from it.
But when you have a kid, your world gets smaller again, because you are stuck in a social circle not of your choosing. And weird things happen. Moms you like hanging out with sometimes have awful kids. Or maybe the kids are fantastic, but the mom is weird, so you are stuck at birthday parties gripping your lukewarm lemonade, while everyone eagerly discusses baby-led weaning or how they don’t like Beyoncé and you wonder if you can bash your head into the piñata and rid yourself of this pain forever. And you can’t just give the other parents all the finger, pull a Heathers, or unleash your telekinetic powers and burn these parents to the ground because, well, we have to think about the children and arson is illegal.
One of the hardest parts of parenting is that walking through childhood again forces you to relive so many of your old fears, but now you are expected to have the answers. And you don’t. I definitely don’t. I spent a lot of my high school days writing Communist slogans on my jeans and hiding in the bathroom during lunch reading Story Girl because I had no one to eat with. Being on the outside all over again makes me afraid that I’ll curse my daughter with whatever antisocial genes I have and she too will be miserable and it will be all my fault. But the reality is, as parents, we will always screw up, but it will never be how we expect.
As a kid, I used to get sick a lot. And I remember spending one Thanksgiving sick with the flu and stuck in my room with a broken TV. No one checked on me for hours—I just lay there in my half fever sleep listening to everyone having fun. A few years ago, my daughter got sick on Thanksgiving and I was so worried that I would scar her in the same way. I drove myself crazy running up to check on her and then dealing with the guests and the food. At one point, a friend came downstairs and said, “Your daughter needs you, I guess she was yelling and you didn’t hear her.” I cried myself to sleep that night.
A few days later, I overheard my daughter telling her grandmother how she had the best Thanksgiving ever because she got to play on the iPad and sleep in her mom and dad’s bed. I realized I could have had two more cocktails in the time I spent fussing.
The point is: Our kids look like us and act like us, but they are not us. They can look like us, act like us, but they are not us. Our traumas are not theirs. Our fears are not for us to pass down to them. And, their friendships don’t depend on their parents’ friendships. You don’t have to hang out with other parents. You don’t have to exist in that artificial world of whatever has brought you together—school, sports, dance, or any other of the manifold social horrors you find yourself in. I like to think of other parents in my kids’ life as co-workers. I will like some, I will despise others. But we all have a job to do—raise our kids in this town. But we don’t have to be friends.
As women, we feel this intense pressure to conform and fill our children’s lives in every way. Because our children often begin as part of us, separating their lives from ours is a difficult untangling. It’s hard sometimes to see where they begin and we end. And maybe that’s what these other moms are feeling. I’m not gonna do some emotional heavy lifting for them; they know what they did. But what I do know is that when our worlds are small, we shrink. But when our lives expand, the more full they become. I’m sure this is just a small group of parents acting like this. There are others not playing this game. So, do your work, see your friends, live your life. Your child’s life doesn’t have to be yours.
Sure, you have to show up to school events and maybe you have to volunteer, but you can also tell your partner to take over some of your shifts. Take the pressure off yourself. Bring a book and read it so you don’t feel awkward when they ice you out at sporting events. Or text your own friends. Make plans to go out with these real friends afterward.
There are also some passive aggressive things you can do to cope: Like host playdates and play nothing but Beyoncé in the background and then ask all the girls what laws they’d change when they are president. Or, when it’s your turn for the birthday party, encourage parents to do the birthday party “drop off” (which is an amazing thing). Keep booze in the fridge for the parents who stay. Dye your hair blue. None of these things will fix the problem, but they will help you cope.
Nothing you can do can stop people from being horrible, but you can learn how to stop playing their games. You can live a life that is outside of whatever world they are trying so desperately to control. You can also subtweet them.
Separating yourself from the pettiness is a powerful lesson to your own children. It shows them how to live in a world without being crushed by it.