The Terrifyingly Nasty, Backstabbing, and Altogether Miserable World of the Suburban Mom

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Photograph by Stacy Newgent

My husband and I moved to Wayland (population 13,000) from Jamaica Plain eight years ago. I’d been a magazine editor but had to stop working when my twin boys were born five weeks premature. I didn’t know anyone in town, and my efforts to meet new friends were impeded by February snowstorms and twin infants with severe reflux and colic. And then I heard rumors of a social clique called the Wayland Yacht Club, an exclusive group of couples who hosted elaborate gatherings at one another’s manses every month. At first I was appalled. Aside from the fact that Wayland isn’t on the water (it’s about as landlocked as you can get in the Boston suburbs), it just felt so, well, middle school to form a clique—and to give it a hoity-toity name to underscore its exclusivity. Who does that? Weren’t we beyond such pettiness? And then an unbidden thought flitted through my mind: Wait, why wasn’t I invited?

Here I’d thought all moms were in this muddle together—one big happy family, for better or for worse—when actually, just the opposite is true. It turns out that suburban life is dictated by the kind of tribal behavior I thought we’d grown out of: popular girls and their obsequious minions willing to do anything to fit in. But this time, with kids, money, and jobs on the line, the stakes are even higher. And so you have countless grown women cowering behind their beautifully trimmed hedges in bucolic towns around Boston, trying to avoid getting “fired” from their friend circle while simultaneously hating every minute they have to spend with those ladies who lunch. It’s a mom-eat-mom world out there, and I was pretty sure the Wayland Yacht Club was just the tip of the iceberg in this particular suburban nightmare.

It’s not like we women weren’t warned: Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg told us to keep working after we had kids—that it is possible to achieve an enjoyable work-family balance. Yet 5 million of us nationwide have stepped away from our successful careers to raise our progeny. And in her new book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, journalist Jennifer Senior details how having children can profoundly strain our psychology, our marriage, and our soul. Now I’m jumping into the conversation. I’ve found that the ennui new mothers feel when they quit their jobs and move out of the city can cause even the most confident of women to regress emotionally. Case in point: While many women were all too happy to share their stories with me, they were so afraid of mean-mom repercussions that they insisted I change their names and some of the details of their lives.

Like many women I interviewed, I’d always had an idyllic vision of myself perkily pushing a pram to the neighborhood tot lot alongside fellow moms. The reality of suburbia, with its expansive yards and lack of sidewalks, found me hefting my Bugaboo into the trunk of my Honda Pilot and driving across town to a playground, hoping to find a friendly face before the babies had to feed again. Living like this can exacerbate the isolation many moms feel.

That’s why, when you finally do meet someone to connect with, you latch on perhaps a little tighter than you would have in your old life. If the new friend comes with a built-in support system in the form of a gaggle of other moms, even better. Within a few years, you may discover that the only thing you all have in common is the age of your children, but by that time, it’s too late—you’ve shed your previous life and that random group of women has become the nexus of a tangled web of social obligations and expectations. Until, that is, you get voted off the island by the very people who were once your salvation. Then you can find yourself profoundly alone.

That’s how Emily’s life played out. When she and her husband, Tim, had their first child, they followed the migratory path of nearly every other couple they knew: They sold their condo in the South End and decamped to a suburb with good schools. But it wasn’t long before Emily, who’d quit a full-time teaching job to care for their newborn, found herself desperate for company in their tiny town of 5,000 west of Boston. Desperate, that is, until she met Veronica.

Attractive and outgoing, Veronica came with a posse of seven new moms who provided instant structure for Emily’s suburban life. Soon, the nine of them did everything together: play dates, cookouts, girls’ getaways to the Berkshires while their husbands played golf. “We were all the same age, had gone to the same schools, had kids at the same time, and went to the same church,” Emily says. Life was beautiful.

And then one Saturday afternoon a few years later, Emily went out to play tennis with college friends while Tim took the kids to their soccer game. All the guys were there, but the wives weren’t—turns out Veronica was hosting all of them at her Little Compton beach house. Everyone, that is, except Emily. Confused that his wife had been left out, Tim turned to Veronica’s husband and asked, “But what did Emily do?” His answer: “Oh, I’m sure nothing.” Later, Veronica explained to Emily that there simply hadn’t been enough room for everyone. “But,” Emily tells me, “I’d been to her house before—I knew that wasn’t true.”

Veronica’s betrayal signaled more than the end of a few friendships. In their small town, Emily couldn’t avoid the group of women Veronica commandeered, and their attendant thin-lipped smiles. They served as room parents for her three sons’ classrooms, they were on the board of the parent-teacher association, they volunteered at the library. Emily saw them at the market, church, Cub Scout meetings. Veronica was even the emergency contact for Emily’s kids (perhaps the highest compliment you can pay to a mother friend). “It was the hugest slap in the face,” says Emily, who adds that she was “completely blindsided” by her expulsion. Finally, emotionally exhausted, Emily told her husband, “We need to move.”