The Cost of Belonging:: How I Became a Mean Mom

“They are acting like they are in high school!”

This is a phrase I’ve heard uttered more times over the past two years about moms than I care to admit. The thing is, I don’t remember girls in my high school being this two-faced, and I feel, in some ways, inadequate to deal with the dynamics I now find all around me. Instead of dealing with “mean girls” we are dealing with “mean moms.”

And I became one of them.

A sad woman in front of two women gossiping in the background. The concept of “mean girls” was solidified in Rosalind Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, and in the movie Mean Girls, written by Tina Fey. The idea is that there is a Queen Bee {the leader} who controls a clique of sidekicks. A lot of times these groups contain bankers {using gossip as their social currency}, targets {who the gossip is usually about}, wannabes {girls who desperately want to be in the clique, but are usually overlooked unless it can benefit the Queen Bee}, and floaters {who float between social groups with relative ease}.

My Descent into a Mean Mom

To understand my descent into a mean mom, you should know that being mean was never my default. Drama was something in which I never really engaged. During high school and most of my life, I was most definitely a floater. I had a couple of really good friends, but was able to maintain relationships with people from very different backgrounds. Not only was I able to maintain those relationships, I enjoyed the diversity of my friend pool. I don’t remember gossip dominating our conversations. Did it happen from time to time? I’m sure it did, but it definitely did not characterize those friendships.

Then I moved.

I was 37 with a six year old and a three year old in a new city with no friends. The vibe felt different from the moment we arrived. It was my first time living in the suburbs since childhood, and I chalked it up to that change and tried to move forward with a positive attitude. We made neighborhood friends and settled into suburban life.

Little did I know, I was settling into a mine field. There were dynamics at play that I knew nothing about that were most definitely going to blow up in my face. I don’t have the time or space to describe in detail how each of these situations occurred, but here are a few of the highlights. Maybe we should call them lowlights.

– A mom I had become close to never had a conversation with me without badmouthing someone else. At first, I was a little taken aback, but like the frog in water, I slowly became acclimated to the gossip. And then I participated in the gossip. Gossip that provided no benefit other than to verbally tear another person down when they weren’t there to defend themselves.

– School pick up is dominated by the mean moms. They decide who they will talk to {mostly it is just themselves}, never making space for the moms on the fringes. These are the moms who will gladly post about women supporting women on social media platforms, but apparently find it hard to be nice in public. I found myself walking to get my children from school wondering if I was going to be “in” or “out” that day. On the days I found myself “in,” I rarely looked to see how I could bring others with me. I enjoyed the momentary acknowledgement of being seen.

– The catty comments are out of control. These women are supposed to be friends, but the commentary when one of them walks away is astonishing. Did I mention these are things they are saying about their friends? Can you imagine what they are saying about people they don’t like? Or maybe they are too self-absorbed to actually notice people who aren’t in their clique. In any case, I didn’t defend these people.

– Once, when I had a conflict with a woman in the neighborhood, another mom orchestrated a hang out at my house. There were three of us. The sole purpose of them coming over was to make sure the mom with whom I was having an issue felt left out. I tried to pretend it was just friends getting together {deep down I knew better}, until one of them suggested I take a picture and post it to social media. I felt very uncomfortable, but you know what? I did it anyway. That’s grade A mean girl shit right there. I couldn’t deny my mean girl status anymore.

I’m ashamed to admit I was pressured into acting like a mean mom. I always thought when faced with a moral dilemma I would choose the right path. I didn’t.

I don’t know why in my late 30’s I finally succumbed to the mean girl way. I always thought the older I got the less I would care what people thought about me. To a certain extent, that is true, but the older you get, and the more you move, it is also harder to find your people and where you belong. Maybe that is why I participated in such awful behavior. I’m not trying to rationalize it. I’m trying to understand it so I don’t make those same mistakes again.

Including Moms on the Fringes

Three women comforting each other at a table. The pandemic has been helpful for me to take a break from these relationships and examine them and myself. I was able to take a breath and genuinely evaluate my behavior and the behavior around me. I came to the conclusion that I did not need to maintain some of these friendships and others I needed to keep at arm’s length.

My main takeaway from this time of reflection is that being connected in a real, meaningful ways to others who value inclusion and fairness is key to not being a mean mom. When you do not have that connection you are susceptible to feeling like you either have to accept the mean behavior, which then can lead you down the path of acting in a similar ways, or endure being lonely. Lonely is hard, especially in parenting.

Now, as a reformed mean mom, I’m better about looking for moms on the fringes. The ones who stand alone at school pick up. The ones who don’t seem to have anyone to talk to at swim practice. I do my best to create space in groups so people feel comfortable joining us. I’m not perfect in these actions, but I’m back to being a floater and I have to admit, it feels good.

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