“Belonging is not fitting in. In fact, fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it’s showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are.”
Dr. Brene Brown.
For many of us, finding ourselves back at the primary school gates again, thirty-odd years after our own first days can bring a whole host of memories rushing back, some of which are more welcome than others.
My own school memories are not really the greatest, particularly in high school. Underneath it all, I usually felt I was on the outside looking in. It seemed like there was a secret instruction manual of how to be cool and my copy had got lost in the post. I used to look enviously at the blonde girls with the Naf-Naf bomber jackets and swishy hair which seemed to sway in slow-motion before falling perfectly back in to place. I don’t know what kind of aura I gave off but it certainly wasn’t one of effortless cool. I remember exactly what invisible felt like.
This obviously played a big part in my own anxieties about Monkey starting big school last week. The thought of him feeling left out or excluded from things was enough to induce several weeks of horrible anxiety dreams. I was so busy stressing (completely unnecessarily, as it turns out) that I didn’t really give any thought to my own experiences at the school gates with the other parents until I got there.
Fortunately for me, so far the other parents have been lovely and this morning the school held a coffee morning for the parents to meet one another. I don’t see evidence of cliques forming yet, although it is early days I suppose.
However, my friend Laura* shared this online yesterday:
“This morning I realised I feel like I am 11 again……. all the well-dressed blonde mummies were standing in groups moaning about the school and I was invisible. I can’t decide if I am being over sensitive but where are the normal mummies?”.
Understandably Laura received lots of messages of support and encouragement. She is a mum of three children under five, including a newborn and in my view deserves a gold star from the teacher on a daily basis for making it out of the house.
However, one of the replies really disturbed me, for a number of reasons:
“Mums that have time to look that good spend less time doing things they ought to be with their children. I like to sit at the breakfast table and discuss the day ahead and have a giggle with my children rather than have them sitting in front of the telly whilst I cement my face. Please don’t let them make you feel insecure, they probably wouldn’t be nice people to be around anyway.”
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I try very hard not to judge. It’s a work in progress for me. I try to see different sides of arguments and remember that the opposite of what I know is also true.
But this particular comment has buzzed around my head for almost twenty-four hours now.
It was intended to make Laura feel better and it’s coming from a place of kindness, I hope. But it’s also making huge, sweeping generalisations and judgements, literally saying that women who wear make-up are worse mothers than those who don’t. It’s perpetuating exactly the type of us-and-them mentality which drives wedges between women, wherever and whatever their circumstances.
I’ll share my reply too, for some context.
“I worried about the other mums too before we started last week. I actually made a conscious choice not to let myself feel like that, strange as it might sound. I think that the older I get, the clearer it becomes that anyone who doesn’t like me how I am is unlikely to become a friend that I need in my life. I did enough jumping through those hoops in my own school days. Anyone at the school gates will be lucky to count you as a friend. In the meantime, I also try to remember that the make-up and blonde highlights etc can also be part of someone’s armour. I bet they have their own issues going on too. You’re are doing an incredible job with your three gorgeous babies and your business. The rest will eventually fall in to place.”
Now, I may occasionally go almost a week without washing my hair, but I will always apply at least a smudge of make-up in the morning. It’s like my armour. I’d also argue that it’s for the benefit of all mankind, really, as they’re the ones who have to look at me. It makes me feel better about facing the world and prevents concerned glances from friends and neighbours. (I’m not kidding. Last time I left the house au-naturale my close friend and neighbour genuinely thought I was poorly. I was tempted to go along with it to elicit some homemade soup). But this isn’t the point.
We have to stop comparing ourselves with others. Whether we’re doing it to make ourselves feel inadequate or to prove to ourselves that we’re better than someone else. Either way, comparison is a dangerous pastime. Good rarely comes from it.
I did a quick online poll to get an idea of how some of my readers are finding things at the school gates. As you’d expect their experiences so far have varied. I’ve heard stories about both children and parents being left out from play dates and parties because the parents aren’t part of the right clique. I’ve been told or parents who couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about playground politics. There are others who are simply too busy to notice or to care. For some, the playground parents are their only source of adult conversation all day.
Interestingly, one reader viewed the image situation differently:
“Some mums are friendly, some keep themselves to themselves and others are in little groups… I am quite sensitive although I may not appear that way. I have highlights and wear make-up so worry about the image I give off. School was a struggle for me growing up and brought back a lot of memories not all good. Had my cries last week!!! Trying to be stronger.”
Everyone’s experiences are valid. They all matter.
Some would say that if you don’t notice a clique, it means you’re in one. Outside of school, my closest group of friends are a circle of seven other mums and we have fourteen children between us. None of them are at the same school as my son.
When we all get together at a children’s party or somewhere, perhaps we do seem cliquey. We don’t get together as often as we’d like and we try to make the most of our time together. But at the same time, each of us would be horrified to think that we’d left someone out, or caused anyone to feel excluded.
The main reason this is so important to me, as I’ve said before, is that I want my children to be the ones looking out for others. To take the new kid under their wing and certainly to never feel left out themselves.
The only way I can think of to teach them this is to lead by example.
I don’t want my children to be the target of any playground cruelty, either deliberate or otherwise. Schools grounds should not a place for popularity contests, for parents or their children. We need to model the kind of behaviour we’d like to see them exhibit, and that means being kind, friendly and welcoming to everyone. Whether they look and dress like you, parent like you or not.
First impressions can be deceptive.
Defence mechanisms like shyness can make somebody seem dismissive or rude. At the same time, I’ve said it before and will undoubtedly say it again, we don’t know what’s going on behind even the most perfectly made up, smiling face. I, for one, turned up at pre-school made-up and smiling each day through some of my darkest days. It’s taught me not to pigeon-hole a woman who seems distant or sulky. She may well have her own struggles going on and be fighting her way through each day and it’s not about me. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt as a result.
It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child and I think it takes different types of people to make a society. As parents we can nurture an environment which embraces children, parents and human beings in general from of all walks of life.
We will miss out on so much if we limit our (and our children’s) friendships based on whether someone fits-in to a preconceived ideal of what we feel a friend should look like. You or your child may or may not meet life-long friends in the school playground. But in any case, you’ll be spending several years there and, as Oscar Wilde said, you can only really be yourself… Everyone else is taken.
You can find the Mummy Kindness Facebook page here.
This is such a timely comment. One of my parent friends was told she was brave for doing the school run in jeans and trainers. Thankfully our school doesn’t seem the type where people are judged for what they’re wearing. You also don’t know whether someone’s been to work and had to dress up. I used to admire the glamorous Mummies at nursery because I never looked that smart even when I did work in an office. Then one of my friends said I always looked amazing – I was shocked because I thought I looked a mess.
I am terrible for judging and comparing. Mostly I’m trying to justify my own parenting decisions because I feel like a terrible parent most of the time, but it’s a definite bad habit I’ve inherited from my parents. I’m the shy one, too, that everyone probably thinks it a stuck up cow, so I should definitely make more effort. Anyway, sorry for the ramble. I worried about fitting in at school and I still worry.
Another great blog, Rach. I definitely felt all of this in the first term of the first year and got twinges when I thought my son wasn’t being invited on as many play dates as other kids. But you know what – I realised that you get out what you put in. My shyness and the fact that I already knew a few mums probably made me look as though I didn’t need to make new friends. And the fact that I wasn’t the first to initiate play dates, meant that it took a while before others suggested them to me. Now I am more confident and I am genuinely happy to see smiley, friendly faces at the school gate and refreshed to find out they are all as ‘normal’ as me!
Wise words, and I so enjoyed reading them. It’s a pretty rare person who grows enough to feel comfortable in her own skin no matter where she is or how she looks. I know I’m still working on it. Being on the low income end of an extremely affluent suburb, I’m very familiar with being intimidated by the “highlights and manicures” crowd. But I also know that a good many in that crowd are fighting their own demons just like the rest of us – you just can’t see it from the outside. So in the end I’d rather be me in my old car and comfy hoodie. 🙂
-Amy at http://www.momgoeson.wordpress.com
Hi, love reading your blog and this is a lovely post. When my daughter started nursery around 3 years ago I didn’t know a single mum, and now I’m lucky enough to count some of the school mums as my closest friends. I’ve just always tried to be as friendly as possible… I think that too much emphasis is put on the idea of “cliques”, without looking at the bigger picture. Some people have known each other for longer, they’re friends, family, neighbours… It’s natural for people to gravitate into like-minded groups, without being accused of being cliquey. I’ve really enjoyed getting involved (PTA, school governor), and although it takes time, I now feel really involved in the school community… Friendship is about time and effort, not instant gratification. Anyhow, hope your little one loves school, and I’m sure you (and they) will make some great friends. Katie x
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I love this post! So much truth and wisdom here. Mothers need to stick together more, we get pitted against each other too often by the press etc. Like you say everyone’s experiences are valid and important.
One of the joys of being an older mum is not giving too hoots about what other people think. We have our fair share of pettiness at the school gates but I ignore it and talk to mums who are mature enough to know how to strike up a conversation and are receptive to friendly approaches. I would never stop my kids from mixing with other kids because I didn’t like the parents obviously, but in terms of friendships, I can’t be doing with parents whose behaviour is as childish as some of the reception kids – whether they have issues or not.
I have spotted some cliques at my sons school.- these are separated into cultures more than normal cliques However a bit like at secondary school I don’t care if I belong or not. I dont have masses of friends either and sometimes they are the only adult contact I will have. I am one of the blonde made up mummies however I get up earlier than my children for a coffee breakfast in peace and make up as I watch the news -its my favourite time of the day. I have wondered especially more recently whether I myself intimidate others at the school gate.Lots have said I look amazing can’t believe I’m out and about etc given I had a 3 week old at the start of term as well as my 16 month old. You are correct its my own personal armour. Personally I try and smile nod politely to regulars and sons friends
Thanks for linking this up to the Starting School Parenting Tips linky – an interesting angle to take – some tips for the mums, about other mums here, and some very thought provoking comments as well. I do think that sometimes we worry far too much about what others think…an I know I have been guilty of this in the past..now though, I seem to have decided that what is right for someone else may not be right for me – something that applies so well in most parts of life. For the school gate, and for the mornings, I do what works for us – and that’s what matters! My kids arrive on time – usually one of the last – but on time, and typically with all there stuff. Me on the other hand, I usually haven’t had breakfast, and shower when I get home – you take me as you find me! 😉
This is such an interesting subject and I really sympathise with your friend. I wrote a poem about this situation once – http://www.vevivos.com/2013/03/28/titlecompetitive-mum-prose-for-thought-link/ Since then I have decided just to be myself because if people can’t take me for who I am then they are not my kind of people! Thank you for linking to PoCoLo x