Q. I’ve finally switched to part-time work to spend more time with my kids, and I’d love to volunteer at my fourth-grader’s school. I thought the more active moms were sincere in their calls for help, but maybe they’re shunning me. My attempts to get involved have been met with silence or noncommittal responses like, “We’ll let you know!” They won’t even tell me when they meet! I feel like I’m in middle school, trying to find a lunch seat. How do I handle the Mean Girls clique?
David: Before I respond to your question, I need to acknowledge that this problem traps women more than it does men. Kara and I told our friends that we were responding to your question, and the stories we got were almost exclusively from moms. Many dads choose to be involved, but we don’t face the social and economic challenges that make this the snare that it becomes for moms.
One friend, a working mom in Arlington, told me, “There’s a real friction between working and stay-at-home moms.” She described feeling judged and excluded by the stay-at-home moms, and as mad as it made her, she’s even more resentful that “women are made to feel guilty no matter what choice they make. And we lash out at each other instead of addressing the real problem.”
Kara: So many mothers have told me that they feel marginalized by schools or committees that schedule volunteer meetings smack in the middle of the workday. I hate to turn this into a working-mom versus stay-at-home-mom debate, though, because as one parent put it to me, “There are jerks everywhere.”
That said, ask yourself: Do you genuinely feel like a herd of middle-age teens are keeping you from spending time with your kid? I’m willing to bet that you can still bond at the fourth-grade science fair without being stung by the queen bees, so take heart. It seems like the deeper issue is that you want to blend with the everyday social fabric of your child’s school, and that’s legitimate. Here are some scenarios and solutions to consider.
Insecurity. These parents stake their identities on their presence at the school, and they feel threatened by a perceived interloper. If you suspect so, butter ’em up thusly: “You guys did a phenomenal job organizing the fifth-grade social last year. My kids are still talking about the make-your-own-poutine station. I’d love to get involved this year. Can you share your wisdom with me?” Chances are, they’ll be flattered. Recognize their place in the firmament. Bow down! Indulge their pettiness to fuel your goal, and sure, cackle to yourself all the while.
Cluelessness. These people might not realize they’re icing you. They simply see one another all the time and have fallen into a comfortable pattern. In this case, disarm them with directness. “Hi! I’ve responded three times to your call for volunteers to cook at the Frozen Pizzas of the World competition, but no word. When’s the next meeting?” They might be mortified.
Outright rudeness. Do you really want to spend your newly earned free time jockeying for a perch among snobs? If these two techniques don’t work, it might be time to accept defeat and circumvent them. Carve out your own niche at school or extracurricular activities. Don’t get so caught up in the need to fit in that you lose sight of your true goal: spending more time with your kids.
David: Presuming the worst about them, how exactly do you do that? First, find out if the clique actually has any authority. Are they self-appointed, ad hoc gatekeepers, or do they hold official positions? If it’s the former, just speak with your child’s teacher to find out the school’s volunteer needs.
If their role is an official one, that’s trickier. You may have to kill them with kindness, even though I’m sure you’d prefer to just kill them. Be persistent and friendly, pretending you aren’t checking real estate listings daily with the hope of seeing their houses up for sale. If you learn of a volunteer event, and they didn’t get back to you, just show up. If they shun you, so be it.
As for the social element of all of this, your “middle school” assessment is right. You’re better off without them, and you’re probably not the only one they’ve cast out. Look for the others they’ve excluded. The Mean Girls usually have lousy taste in friends; you may find great friends among their enemies.
Kara: Plus, by modeling persistence, resilience, and inclusivity, you’re setting a good example for your fourth-grader — and cultivating fresh empathy for his or her next step, middle school.
David Mogolov is a dad, a comedian, and a playwright. His parenting comedy is forthcoming as a collection titled “I Should Have Done That Differently.” Kara Baskin is a mom, a journalist, and author of “Size Matters: The Hard Facts About Male Sexuality That Every Woman Should Know.” With a mix of expert insight and first-person reassurance, they tackle your parenting worries and woes.
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