ELLEN ROSNER FEIG – Sep. 3, 2008
Cate P.*, a stay-at-home mom of two from Mount Kisco, got her first taste of the “Mean Girl” syndrome, not from a teenager during her school days, but from the women in her Mommy and Me group. Everyone seemed perfectly polite when she was in class with her 3-year-old, all smiling and chatting with her about their little ones’ accomplishments. Yet, when she saw these same women strolling down Main Street a few weeks after class had ended, they gave her the cold shoulder. “I found it odd that you could be in a music class with someone week after week-even brush their shoulder up against yours in class-and yet, if you saw them on the street, they would avert their gaze so as not to say hello,” she says. “I felt like I was in junior high school all over again, wondering why the ‘cool group’ was ignoring me.”
For Jennifer S.* of Scarsdale, the sting of not belonging occurred when her second-grader repeatedly begged her to make a playdate with a classmate. “I called and called, and the mom never returned my phone calls,” she says. “Honestly? I think it’s because we live in a small house and don’t belong to a private country club, and I think she looks down on us. We’re not in her wealthy demographic and so the lines were drawn from the get-go,” she says. The girls, consequently, never met, and eventually her daughter stopped asking and simply found other playmates. “It was a hard lesson for my daughter to learn,” she says. “But that’s how it is here. The mom cliques run deep, and, eventually, the kids pick up on it.”
In Larchmont, according to Wendy K.*, “the PTA women act like they’re running the White House.” The lines are drawn between those who stay home and have tons of money and those who work. “The PTA is their mission in life, and if you’re not part of it, then you’re just not on their radar screen,” she says.
A petite, stay-at-home mom of three from Rye, who, like all the women in this story, didn’t want to use her real name, summed it up best: “When you’re home, your social life becomes everything-just like high school. There are those whose entire lives revolve around their kids and the school, those who have nannies who handle everything for them, and those frazzled ones who are burning the candle at both ends, trying to balance family and career. And if you want your kids to have friends and playdates, you have to figure out a way to get along with all of them-or at least some of them-otherwise you’ll never fit in.”
Yes, moms, it’s true. Mom cliques exist, even among the “you should know better” middle-aged women of Westchester County. They’re in your face every day-at Gymboree classes, school drop-off, the playground, PTA meetings, and birthday parties. And, in some cases, they’re even crueler than the teenage cliques of our youth, because they not only alienate us but our children, too.
While the situation is not unique to our area, the affluence and accompanying sense of entitlement in the county only serves to create a greater delineation between groups of mothers. Jennifer Jo Brout, Ed.M., Psy.D., a psychologist based in Rye, believes that Westchester, with its clear social class structure, serves to set up a competition among mothers. “For some women, the social competition comes after adolescence and can emanate from any number of insecurities-from social status to physical looks to competitive nature,” she says. The mom clique can create a feeling of isolation, frustration, and intimidation-and can be incredibly tension-filled and judgmental.
So, what if you simply want to have friends-and have your children have friends? Should you bend over backwards for the sake of your kids? Create your own inclusive group? Confront the mom cliques of the world? Or, like some, refuse to be a part of these kind of situations and simply be friends with whom you want and collegial to those you may not? We spoke to women and parenting experts around the county to find out how to navigate these “chick cliques”-and, best of all: how to rise above them.
LINES IN THE SAND
Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D., author of Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters, and director of Scarsdale-based Child Development Associates, believes that competition among parents in Westchester can be fierce, because of the fact that there are a lot of “intense, successful, and competitive people who live here,” he says. “Problems tend to occur when groups of mothers become more exclusive and the members isolate themselves from other mothers. The child-focused ‘playdate world’ we live in tends to exacerbate cliques, as parents jockey to see who’s playing with whom and who is accepting and receiving what invitations.”
Perhaps nothing shows you whether you’re “in” or “out” more than that colorful card that arrives in the mail inviting your little Michael or Sarah to a party. This, says Olita Day, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in White Plains, has become the scarlet letter of how accepted (or not) you are. “When my son wasn’t invited to the cool kid’s bar mitzvah, I felt that it was a clear statement on my outcast-standing,” recalls Alyse T., a single mom living in Chappaqua with her teenage son and preteen daughter. “I was the single parent living in an apartment and they were all living in their big houses on the hill, and they obviously didn’t feel like we fit in. It broke my heart to see him excluded.”
Lisa T.*, a married mother of three in Pelham, who works part-time in a clothing boutique, relates a similar experience. “Last year, my 10-year-old daughter was invited to a birthday party thrown by two of the super-mothers for their extremely popular daughters. These moms actually rented out an expensive restaurant, had a full-course meal, a DJ, and swag bags that were filled with iPod Shuffles. A few weeks later, I threw my daughter a party in our backyard, which, of course, paled in comparison. She-and I-have been ostracized ever since. No one invites her anywhere anymore, and I’m at a loss for how to explain it to her. How am I supposed to say, ‘Sorry, honey. Those ladies are b—–es and you really don’t want to be with them and their little mini-mes'”?
To that end, many schools have made it a policy, when it comes to parties, to either invite everyone or no one, or to do your best to keep it quiet. At The Windward School in White Plains, parents are told on the elementary-school level that exclusion is not tolerated. Schools, including Seely Place in Edgemont, outline in their parent handbooks that party invites should either include all the girls or all the boys in a class. Further, the Solomon Schechter School in Hartsdale delineates a strict policy that the entire grade should be invited to a bar or bat mitzvah. Whether at a private or public school, administrators and teachers are doing their best to keep things fair.
But “policy” or not, it’s hard to enforce. One mom of three who lives in “politically correct Larchmont,” says her first-grade daughter was excluded from every birthday party at The Murray Avenue School this past year. The 7-year-old, who incidentally is struggling with ADHD, was heartbroken. “It’s been a very, very hard year,” says Leslie R*. “I’ve had to work extra hard to get her in different programs around the area to widen her social circle. And, needless to say, I feel very differently about these women who seem to have no regard for how crushing their actions can be for a child.”
Parties are only one indicator of your social standing. As indicated previously, your status as either a working mom or stay-at-home mom also comes into play. “It’s human nature to judge one another and unfortunately that carries over into the working-mother versus stay-at-home mother dynamic,” explains Julie Taylor, managing editor of momlogic.com, a website that focuses on mothers. Just like in high school, judgment calls are made. Maria, a 36-year-old mother of twin 5-year-old girls, who has lived in Sleepy Hollow since their birth, sums it up: “The working mother believes that the stay-at-home mother looks down on their choice to stay in the workforce. The stay-at-home mother believes the working mother thinks they are without intellect, that they spend all their time focused on their child. So, no one wins.” Maria A.*, a stay-at-home mom for six years-and, more recently, a working mom-has experienced both. “Of course, each person’s situation is uniquely her own, and these stereotypes only serve to divide us further.”
Having a nanny or au pair tends to separate the groups even more. Nannies hang out with other nannies, and au pairs with other au pairs. One New Rochelle mom relates how she once had to ask permission to have her nanny bring her then-2-year-old to a Mommy and Me class at a temple in her neighborhood. “I had to work that day,” says the mom of two, who, at the time, worked part-time in the city. “But even asking that question set me apart from the rest of the group. They weren’t even nice to my nanny when she brought my daughter. Quite honestly, I couldn’t wait till the year was over. I never felt like I fit in, and so, subsequently, my daughter didn’t click with anyone either. I wasn’t part of the stay-at-home mom life or of the five-day-a-week working life and, to be honest, I felt a bit shunned as a result.”
Teachers see the effect that mom cliques can have on children. Marlene T.*, a veteran teacher at a preschool in New Rochelle (who, like the parents quoted here, preferred to leave out her last name), has seen many parents and their offspring left out. “The mom clique seems to define who the child will be friends with. A parent would rather their child be with a child of someone they can relate to or someone they feel fits in with their own needs. If you love to play tennis, then you’re going to be with the tennis moms. If your spare time is taken up with shopping, then you’re going to hang out at the mall with the shopping moms.”
So what effect do these cliques have on children? Not to mention on you? And how can we save our children and ourselves from the “drama”? Joel Haber, Ph.D., a psychologist with a private practice in White Plains who is known as The Bully Coach (respect u.com), finds that the growing sense of entitlement in Westchester creates an environment that allows for cliques. The entitlement trend comes from many sources, he explains, including the breakdown of the traditional family, increased competition among adults, a decrease in the amount of time spent with kids, and a change in parenting styles. “Cliques are everywhere, but in areas with greater competition you may see more destructive and exclusive cliques, because of the desire to rise to the top of the social ladder,” he says. In his practice, he’s seen firsthand the effect that a parent’s behavior has on children. “Mom cliques can be a role model of positive behavior, in terms of close friendships, and they can be very beneficial to children. However, cliques that promote exclusivity can lead to the same behavior in children.”
Which is why communication is key. Parents should begin to talk about cliques with their children at an early age, because-whether you want to admit it or not-they are beginning to form even in elementary school, stresses Diana Luik, a licensed social worker with a family practice in Hartsdale. Parents should also model the kind of behavior they want their children to emulate, such as walking away from uncomfortable situations, reaching out to others, or ignoring those who are mean.
Of course, this can be easier said than done-especially because your own emotions tend to get in the way. “Naturally, when a mother sees that her child is being ostracized, it brings up all kinds of feelings-including those that may have occurred in a woman’s own youth,” says Luik. The bottom line, experts say, is to act like the grownup you are and put your own feelings aside. You need to tell your children-in no uncertain terms-that being mean is never OK, that social standing is ultimately a judgment call, and that no one deserves to be ostracized. “If children see their parent being friendly and comfortable in social situations, they’ll feel comfortable, too,” adds Tamar Gordon, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and supervisor of Westchester Jewish Community Services Mental Health Clinic in White Plains. Her top tip for dealing with these kind of situations? “Encourage your children to seek out other children he or she likes and not to worry about the kids they aren’t friendly with,” she says.
Sometimes, though, the best way to protect children is to avoid getting caught in any “girl dramas” to begin with. Dr. Donahue suggests following a few basic rules: “Don’t gossip or speak ill of others; be friendly and kind to all the people in your child’s life; and don’t refuse invitations because a child or his mother is seen as uncool,” he says.
You also need to try and put your own insecurities aside. Beneath it all, no matter how old we are, many moms feel insecure, says Dr. Gordon. “If you think you’re being ostracized, chances are the people ignoring you are acting that way out of shyness, awkwardness, or even simple obliviousness.” Based upon her experience treating both parents and children, she finds that parents who take the first step and introduce themselves to the group they want to be part of are usually welcomed in.
Of course, there’s also the flip slide: Once you’re included, you may find that what you thought you wanted doesn’t look as good, once you’re inside. That’s what recently happened to Dani S.*, after she recently enrolled her children at a private school in Rye and saw how defined the cliques really were. “The first month, when I went to pick up my son from a friend’s house, the friend’s mother said, ‘Welcome to the popular group! It’s not common that a new student and their parent gets in-it usually takes a year or two.'” What makes the entire event that much more remarkable, she says, is that it occurred at a Catholic school, where the concept of tolerance and acceptance is an important part of the curriculum.
Sadly, Olga P.* a mother of two from Ardsley had a similar situation at her temple, where mom cliques from particular synagogues would organize playdates for their children, leaving out those who were not part of the congregations.
TIME FOR SUPPORT
In my own life, I’ve been a member of a “popular group,” and then, seemingly overnight, an outcast. While I considered myself friendly with everyone, the clique turned quickly and vehemently against me after I went through breast cancer and then divorce, in quick succession. My status as the social leper was set in stone when I had to go back to work full-time, insuring that my children would have an uphill battle on the road to popularity. Even after moving my children to a new school, I felt the extreme delineation between myself and those women who were married, lived in the nice homes, wore the right clothes, and drove the right cars.
I’ll never forget when, after a long day working, I drove to school to pick up my daughter after her weeklong class trip. The PTA moms had spent hours decorating the school with balloons and “Welcome home” signs. While the sight was beautiful, it only served to make me feel guilty and subliminally judged for having to work, for not having had the time to decorate. Of course, the first words out of my daughter’s mouth as she descended the bus steps were, “Mom, did you at least help with the decorations, or were you busy at work, as usual?'” (Insert guilt here.)
No matter how you slice it, we’re all trying to be good moms, explains Rachel T.* , a mom of two from Hastings. “I really don’t get why we all just can’t get along. And why some of us feel such a need to be so nasty to others.”
Indeed, if you scratch the surface, this is a feeling many women agree on. “I live in a town of bright, strong women who have so much more to offer than partaking in a clique,” laments Cate, the the Mount Kisco mom ostracized by her Mommy and Me group. “I think if we banded together and channeled our energy into supporting one another, instead of worrying about social status and negativity, we could create the next generation of strong, bright women who will make the notion of a clique a relic of the past,” she says.
So how do we create this mommy nirvana? Psychotherapist Day has some great advice: “Reach out to those people you like and feel a connection with. Stop worrying about everyone else, and teach your child that it’s always best to be friends with those who treat you well and respect you.”
Another tactic, suggests Dr. Brout, is to not let these people intimidate you. “You’re no less important than they are,” she says. “And you need to get that message through to your child.” She also advises getting involved in the community with like-minded women. Leave your comfort zone and reach out to new people by inviting them over for coffee or a playdate. “There’s a bigger world out there, and you can get involved with it.”
You also need to look at the past to see the future. In the not-so-distant past, parents let kids hang out on their own in the parks, backyards, or school playgrounds and didn’t get so involved in their children’s social lives, adds Dr. Donahue. “Adults used to keep their own lives more separate, maintaining their grownup friends, with less worry about what their kids were doing. Maintaining some distance is a better, healthier approach to life.”
You should also try to emit positive vibes by never speaking badly about any other mother, and be cool, calm, and collected in the face of the “mean moms.” The bottom line, suggests Dr. Gordon: “Show your child that you can get along with everyone, even those who may not treat you nicely. Move through your day with a smile on your face and kindness in your heart.”
After a year of feeling miserable, that’s exactly what Katonah resident Michelle R.*, a mom of a 7-year-old, did. She started her own book group by inviting women in her son’s class. “Now, I have a strong support group, and my son gets to see that Mommy has close friends.”
Wendy K.* of Larchmont did a similar thing last fall and had an open-house potluck dinner for women only-no husbands or kids allowed. She invited everyone in her daughter’s class, as well as other women she wanted to get to know better in her community. “It ended up being a really nice night,” she says. “We all had a chance to unwind and talk, without having our kids hang on us. And you know what? We actually had more in common than I originally thought. After all, at the heart of it, we’re all moms struggling with similar issues.” ITW
The original article can be found here: http://archive.lohud.com/article/20080904/CUSTOM02/809040327/Mean-Moms-Clique-Back