The Terrifyingly Nasty, Backstabbing, and Altogether Miserable World of the Suburban Mom
Before we have kids, we make thousands of choices: which house to buy, whom to marry, what profession to pursue. When we become parents, those choices continue—will you breastfeed? circumcise? practice attachment parenting?—but they suddenly define us in new, unexpected, and very public ways. That’s why the minute our children are born, we begin to search for like-minded women, a journey that binds some moms together and isolates those who can’t keep up. “When you have a kid, it’s like going back to high school,” says Deborah Hurowitz, a social worker who leads support groups for parents in Greater Boston. “Everybody is scrambling to figure out who they are, how they’ll fit in, and who they want to be friends with.”
I remember driving by Wayland Creative Preschool before my daughter was born and seeing the flock of moms gabbing in the parking lot every morning after drop-off. They’d stand in the warm sun with their iced lattes and catch up, looking like they had all the time in the world. This didn’t happen at my twins’ more academically focused preschool: It was purely “drop and go.” One of my friends even joked that Creative was the “cool preschool.” What did she mean? “Oh, it’s all the moms I want to hang out with,” she said. I waved off her comment, but secretly, I agreed.
So when it came time to choose my daughter’s preschool, Creative was at the top of the list. Did I choose it for the moms? Absolutely not. I was looking for a play-based preschool this time around with more kids from Wayland, and Creative fit the bill. But am I one of those moms lingering in the parking lot now? You betcha. That a large number of Creative moms, past and present, happen to be board members of the PTO, the Wayland Public Schools Foundation, the Wayland Swim & Tennis Club, and the Wayland Children & Parents Association—that’s a happy coincidence. So really, I figured, there was nothing wrong with finding a posse of like-minded women.
But a weird thing happens among women in the ’burbs. The mom group’s self-appointed leader—the Queen Bee, if you will—often has a potent sting. Sure, there are plenty of women who reign through goodwill, but there are also those who take pleasure in isolating and controlling their flock. It’s not easy telling the two apart, but one telltale sign is how carefully the Queen Bee picks her minions. Leslie, a nurse and mother of two west of Boston, says her Queen Bee sought women who were friendly, attractive, smart (“but not too smart as to make the Queen Bee feel stupid”), socially connected, fit, and financially secure enough to dine out and occasionally pick up the tab. Most of the women Leslie’s leader chose had children she deemed “appropriate and desirable.” They attended the right schools, played the right sports—lacrosse, soccer, and football—and had the right friends. “Children are something of an accessory in certain cliques,” Leslie observes.
Leslie was thrilled to be among the chosen ones. As Hurowitz says, “[Queen Bees] aren’t necessarily the nicest women, or the ones with the most friends, but somehow they have this cachet.” And for the women they single out, “it’s like, ‘Wow, they like me.’” But soon Leslie found herself spending way more money than she wanted trying to keep up with her friends, who never wore the same outfit twice, regularly treated themselves to manicures and massages, enrolled their kids in pricey gymnastics programs, and planned lavish getaways to the Florida Keys, where they’d spend $300 a person on a meal. (They even posted photos of their menus on Facebook.) “I love a girls’ weekend, but for something that’s so expensive, I’d like to spend time with my husband,” Leslie says.
Ironically, Leslie suspects her Queen Bee, whose husband is in sales, doesn’t have that kind of money to lay out. “She puts a lot of effort into looking like she’s got more than she does”—shopping on eBay for designer brands, carrying a Whole Foods reusable bag but shopping at Market Basket, and doing her nails at home—“yet ‘checking in’ from a salon on Facebook,” Leslie says incredulously. She always put herself in charge of the check at dinner, and “she’d put in less than everybody else—after ordering more drinks and expensive food,” Leslie adds.
“When it was just the two of us, she really was a different person,” Leslie says, explaining how she got sucked into her Queen Bee’s duplicity. “Now that I’m able to see her behavior clearly, I’m horrified I was ever associated with her…. I’m horrified that I allowed her to shape who I became close to, when there were other people who I really liked being around more.”
Listening to Leslie’s tales of anguish, I began to wonder whether, given the opportunity, I too could fall for a Queen Bee’s charms. To find out, I reached out to Melissa, a woman I’d met briefly before who used to head up a mothers’ group in her town northwest of Boston. In an introductory email, I asked her if she had any thoughts on the social hierarchy of moms in the suburbs—the premise being that when we have kids and move out of the city, it can feel like we’re back in high school. Melissa’s response was immediate: “Happy to weigh in…I will give you an earful!” We worked around her gym schedule and picked a time to meet.
Wearing a carefully chosen clique-bait outfit—a pair of Prada flats, black Denim & Supply jeans, and a pink batwing cashmere sweater—I drove to meet Melissa, passing by the elementary school in the town where Emily had once thrived. Each grade had only 80 kids, and Emily told me the running joke was “So, who’s your kid going to date?” At the time, Emily says that “we laughed about it, but really it just shows there’s so few adults there to be friends with.” Over the years, Emily ended up socializing with the same 30 couples at every gathering. “It was very comfortable because of how similar everyone’s backgrounds were,” she says—but admittedly, “homogenous.”
I continued past the town library, its parking lot chockablock with Range Rovers and BMW X5s with oversand vehicle permits and oval ACK stickers slapped on their bumpers. Meanwhile, a warning from Emily’s mother rang in my ears: “Nobody has anything else to talk about here. You need to go somewhere where people have a life.”
I pulled up to a sandwich shop and headed inside to meet Melissa. I picked her out right away: In her mid-forties, she was supremely confident, attractive, and fit in a Lululemon zip-front and black yoga pants. She waved and said, “Hi, Jules” with a familiarity that instantly warmed me to her. We’d met only a few times, but she had me at hello. We sat down at a booth, chatting like old friends, and didn’t get up for the next hour and a half.
A bleep censor would have a field day with Melissa: She’s not afraid to drop the f-bomb, and she playfully refers to her friends as “bitches.” I found her candor refreshing and strangely endearing. She’s no Stepford wife. She told me she has an MBA, but quit her finance job when her youngest daughter was two. Early on, she struggled “to find my identity as a nonworking mom.” She eventually got involved in the community, and her small group of friends grew to seven. She was “the fun one,” hosting ice-skating parties at her backyard rink, and organizing Christmas caroling, egg-decorating, pumpkin-carving, cookie swaps, and family getaways to her beach house. She was also incredibly giving, the type who’d send flowers on Mother’s Day to a friend whose mom had recently passed away, or clear a neighbor’s driveway after a snowstorm. “I like to do nice things for people,” she said.
But over time, Melissa started to question whether her friends “were supportive of me and my kids.” After a series of incidents that proved otherwise—including the time one of her friends invited Melissa’s kids to her daughter’s birthday party with the caveat that if Melissa’s high-energy daughter disrupted the party, she would be asked to leave—Melissa removed herself. “I created the group—I put a lot of money, time, and effort into these friendships—and then I walked away,” she said.
This caught me off-guard. “Wait. Did you consider yourself the head of the group?” I asked tentatively, stopping short of saying “Queen Bee.”
“Yes, I was the ringleader,” she replied.