School of Thought

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“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.

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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.

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