These days my inbox is inundated with back-to-school emails that are putting a major buzz kill on my glorious, all-too-short summer. There’s the school administrator with her 2011/12 calendar and supply list (supplies! In July!). There’s the potential carpool mom (can I do Wednesdays and alternate Fridays?). And there are the endless back-to-school promotions from Old Navy, Staples, Groupon. Plus, now’s the time when parents are starting to put in their high-maintenance requests to the principal (please place little Suzy with Jennifer L. but not with with Jennifer B. and possibly with that new kid Ryder).
It’s a harsh reminder that pretty soon we’ll be getting back into a “normal” routine (no more extra-long weekends and 9 p.m. ice-cream runs). And it brings me back to my own days as a student. In fact, I can still remember picking out my first-day-of-school outfit for seventh grade: denim miniskirt, Naf Naf short-sleeve button down and white leather Keds (don’t judge, it was 1986!). I was focused on my outfit but deep down it was about something much deeper: Would I fit in at this new school? Make new friends? Survive?
Twenty-five years later and I still feel that same sense of anxiety as we approach the new school year. Of course, this time it’s my son who’ll be entering first grade, but there’s something about new beginnings – at least those having to do with a fresh school year – that brings out the insecure teenage girl in so many moms, no matter how cool or accomplished or down-to-earth.
Danielle Johnson is one such mom. When she picks up her two-year-old son from camp each day, she’s reminded of 12th grade and what it felt like to be left out and intimated. “All these other moms are best friends, they drive together to pick their kids. They’re all made up and they show no interest in me,” she says. “In the beginning I tried to say hi but all they could muster up was a smirk. There was zero warmth – and so I gave up.”
Johnson, 32, is more concerned with her son being happy, which he is, but being faced with these “mean girls” each day still gets to her. Granted, she says she’s “over it” at this point, but the experience has made her secretly nervous for September, when her son will begin a new preschool in the same neighbrhood. “I’m not worried about the social aspect for my son because he’s so young,” she says. “But I’m not looking forward to standing in line every afternoon and dealing with the same type of moms. I’m very afraid!”
It’s ironic, really, as Johnson is one of those grounded, funny, tell-it-like-it-is moms with a huge network of friends and an active social life. And, yet, there’s something about these other women that causes her to break out in hives and question why she’s not included (despite not wanting to be affiliated with them).
It’s a feeling many moms can relate to but are reluctant to admit. I know that when I go to certain ‘urban hipster’ parks in my city, I do get intimated by all the parents who seem to know each other so well, who laugh and drink designer coffee together while their kids run free. It’s in these precise moments, as I’m trying to inch my way in with a silently rehearsed opening line, that one of my kids will inevitably have a major meltdown (you know, the kind where everyone stares).
Natasha Carver is a 40-year-old working mom of two children, ages 10 and 6. Every morning last school year, after she walked her kids to their classrooms and said her goodbyes, a group of eight or so mothers from her little girl’s class would convene in the front hall and cross the street together to grab a coffee and chat at their local Starbucks.
At first, Carver was happy to see so much female bonding. But then it got to the point where she’d think, Don’t these women have jobs? Or lives? How can they afford to meet like this every single morning? What are they talking about and why are they so damn cliquey? She’d vacillate between judgement and envy.
“Either way, I needed to run to work straight from drop-off,” she tells me. “But it would be nice to be included.” Carver knows that she could join in if she truly wanted to, but the whole thing makes her feel like she’s back in grade school where people were actually labeled popular or unpopular. She feels silly even talking about it but it is clearly something that affects her – and she’s dreading another school year and more hurt feelings.
What’s interesting is that we as women are powerful enough to create new life, care for another being and manage a crazy juggling. We are nurturing and supportive and value our girlfriends like never before (“It takes a village…” is our mantra). And yet so many of us are faced with these feelings of anxiety and dread as the new school year approaches. It reminds us of being young and vulnerable. Amazingly, our kids do just fine.