The Terrifyingly Nasty, Backstabbing, and Altogether Miserable World of the Suburban Mom
And sometimes, because a woman thinks or acts differently, she never even finds a way in. Consider Laura, a spirited, strawberry-blond Wayland physician who thought she’d figured it out. “I knew I sat on the opposite side of the table on many issues they found to be important, but I laid low and didn’t shove my opinions down their throats,” she says. “But I felt the more they found out about me, the more I began to feel different. The choices you make affect how we fit in and why.” Laura still remembers being excluded from a neighbor’s chicken-pox party (a social gathering during which deliberately unvaccinated children are exposed to the virus) nearly a decade ago. Her notable absence eventually led to an exclusion from all gatherings, even the neighborhood book club. Ironically, one of the moms confessed to Laura years later that she’d actually had her kids vaccinated, but didn’t tell anyone so she could still be part of the group. “Her husband said [not vaccinating their children] was not an option,” Laura says.
None of these women recognized the signals until she got the ax. One day Leslie was in; the next day, she was out. The silence was deafening. Leslie was sad and hurt, but “mostly angry. I went over in my head a million times what I had done wrong.” Eventually she came to realize she hadn’t done anything—that the Queen Bee was, “in the truest sense, a cold, bitter, unhappy woman.” She’s still hoping her Queen Bee gets her comeuppance, but she’s not holding her breath. “Women like this are very good about masking who they are to anyone that they perceive as important,” Leslie says. She’ll simply find another victim.
If you’re Emily, you go through the range of emotions detailed above—and then you pack up your belongings and move. She and her husband and three kids are now safely ensconced in a bigger Boston suburb, where there’s more diversity, a healthier mix of working and nonworking parents, and “the sophistication of living closer to the city. It’s much less cliquey,” Emily says with audible relief.
The truth is that there have always been cliques. Not everyone was invited to play bridge or attend the neighborhood Tupperware party—then again, they didn’t have to see it splashed all over Facebook the next day. “Social media has amplified [the mean-mom behavior] unimaginably,” Leslie says. That’s how she discovered that her tight-knit group of friends from her son’s preschool had planned a girls’ weekend to Las Vegas without her. She saw pictures of her friends partying on the Strip. And if that wasn’t enough, the comments on Facebook were full of inside jokes! emoticons!! multiple exclamation points!!! to let everyone else know how much fun they’d missed. A North Shore mom who sees countless photos of women enjoying evenings out on their boats explains, “It’s important to some people to seem like they’re in the middle of the right social circles.”
So I call my mother, hoping she can tell me why this behavior seems so much worse than when she was raising my sister and me 30 years ago. She agrees that technology has exacerbated the situation, then adds, “But honey, you also have to understand that my generation of women, for the most part, got married younger and knew that once we had children, our ‘job’ was to stay home and take care of them. Maybe our expectations were lower? I feel like you girls expect it to be fun, fun, fun all the time. My friends and I just wanted to get through each day.”
What do you mean by “fun, fun, fun?” I ask.
“Well, we certainly didn’t host cocktail parties every other weekend, and go on spa getaways, or couples’ trips to Mexico,” she replies.
So you think disposable income plays a factor?
“To a certain degree, yes,” she says. “But I think it’s more that you and all your girlfriends went to college and graduated school and had successful careers before you had children—more so than we did. So when you stopped working, you had all this pent-up energy and ambition, and you had to direct it somewhere.”
Toward raising our kids? I ask hopefully. Or volunteering?
“Or managing your social lives,” my mom adds dryly.
After spending this winter knee-deep in mean-girl antics, I’m drained. Clearly I’ve hit a nerve. Women have sought me out at parties, Starbucks, my boys’ basketball practice—even the elementary school pickup line—to whisper their stories. Everybody seems to know somebody who’s had a run-in with a Queen Bee or her minions—or she’s had one herself. I feel lucky to have made it through my first eight years in the ’burbs unscathed. The trick, I think, is to take a cue from your kid’s kindergarten teacher: If you’re going to bring cake, make sure you have enough for everybody. Indeed, following this edict can be a bit cumbersome. For instance, last fall it meant I ended up inviting 85 friends from my town to my birthday bash. And in retrospect, having this many friends probably means that I never committed to one group. Which may just be the reason I’ve survived out here in the ’burbs. As Melissa told me, “The nature of any group is to insulate its members from others—because that feeds the members’ continued participation.” It’s suffocating, and, inevitably, it implodes. The lucky ones come away with a sliver of their self-esteem still intact. Collectively, they vow, I will never let myself get so enmeshed in a friendship again.
Close friends of ours who are considering a move from the South End with their one-year-old daughter are understandably hesitant after hearing the topic of this article. “I already see hints of that in my neighborhood,” Jenn says. “Do I really want to deal with it in the suburbs?” I assure her that the majority of women I know are not like that. And really, aren’t we going to outgrow such juvenile behavior anyway? I’ve taken comfort in that thought…or at least I did until a few weeks ago, when a friend sent me a New York Times article titled, “Mean Girls in Assisted Living.”