The Terrifyingly Nasty, Backstabbing, and Altogether Miserable World of the Suburban Mom
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.”
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.
Suddenly, I could see how easy it was to be lured in by a woman as self-assured, witty, and fun to be around as this. I really liked Melissa. In fact, I wanted to be friends with her. She was rougher around the edges—in a seemingly deliberate way—than the stereotypical profile of a Queen Bee, but my gut told me that when Melissa said, “Jump,” every woman jumped.
Melissa then told me stories of misunderstandings that had resulted in broken friendships—women being inadvertently left out of impromptu lunches, for example—but her innocent take could have easily veiled Queen Bee intentions. When Melissa asked, “I wonder if you talked to my friends, what they would say?” I knew I didn’t need to: I had an inbox full of emails from women spurned by Queen Bees.
So I’d met a real-life Queen Bee, albeit reformed, and walked away unharmed…but not uncharmed. I was beginning to understand why all these smart women were bankrupting themselves financially and morally to be friends with a Queen Bee. It’s actually quite simple. She’s a lot of fun, as long as you stay on her good side.
Of course, there’s a flip side to a Queen Bee’s charm: They often use emotional bribery to keep their minions loyal. They get close very quickly to learn secrets that can be used against people at a later date. “I’ve seen clients in tears talking about how they’d discuss a marital issue with the Queen Bee, and then it would be shared with the group,” Hurowitz says. “Queen Bees believe that they are in charge of disseminating information, and that’s part of how they maintain power.” Had Melissa done that to me? I’ll admit that although I’d walked in with eyes wide open, our conversation got personal fast.
Kelly says that her Queen Bee—Jessica, a thin, pretty, style-conscious matron in Concord with a self-deprecating sense of humor—operated exactly like that. She liked to gossip, but she’d try to present it in a nice way. “She’d say, ‘I feel so bad, but…’” Kelly says. “More appalling was when a friend had a third baby and was having a hard time and talking about her husband not helping. [Jessica] actually said it was the friend’s fault because the husband never wanted the third child.”
When Jessica overheard a neighbor making fun of a friend’s son’s skating skills at a hockey tryout, she decided it was her duty to tell on her. Eventually, Kelly asked Jessica what exactly she’d hoped to gain by sharing this painful piece of gossip. Her Queen Bee shrugged and answered, “She needed to know.” Kelly adds, “Jessica liked to put information out there and then sit back and watch what happened, and then go on damage control. My husband called her the ‘Rocket Launcher.’ So much ugliness surrounded her. I can’t imagine that still being in my life.”
Beyond controlling who knows what, and occasionally sending out a zinger, Queen Bees like Jessica work tirelessly to maintain their clique’s mystique; hence the constant threat of expulsion. And once a Queen Bee exorcises a member, watch your back. Leslie stood by while her Queen Bee banished another member through mean-spirited gossip. “I bought into the [negative things] she was saying about that woman,” Leslie says. “She criticized her parenting—how she chose to feed her children, for instance, or how she babied them.” There was enough truth in her Queen Bee’s asides to believe her, “but in hindsight, she’d blown everything way out of proportion.” When the victim didn’t show up to a group dinner, the Queen Bee would say, “I texted her over and over, and she never responded.” When the victim later said she never got the texts, the Queen Bee would tell the group that she was clearly lying. “I didn’t reach out to help her because it was very clear that it was either her or me,” Leslie says. A month later, “it was me.”
This endless fear of rejection can cause all kinds of anxiety and handwringing. Jennifer, a South Shore mom with two daughters and a master’s in social work, was thrilled when Elizabeth, the do-gooder of her neighborhood—“personable, dressed to the nines, beautiful home”—invited her to join her well-to-do town’s women’s social club. Within two years, she was asked to join the club’s board, and that’s when things went south, fast. Jennifer was already overwhelmed—in the middle of changing jobs and purchasing a ski house with her husband—and after much personal anguish, felt forced to resign from the board. When she revealed her struggle with depression to her friend, Elizabeth said dismissively, “Oh, that’s all? I thought you were dying.” Jennifer was dumbfounded: “She basically told me, ‘I’m glad you’re alive.’ And that was the end of the conversation.”
The fallout was immediate. Jennifer found herself subtly blacklisted from social gatherings and her kids excluded from car pools, play dates, and birthday parties. Elizabeth is “well known, she has cocktail parties and luncheons…. It’s silly, but we get caught up in it,” Jennifer says. “There’s this constant hierarchical undercurrent of ‘How do I fit in?’” Now when Jennifer sees Elizabeth around town, she gets a Mona Lisa smile from her former friend, who hardly pauses to acknowledge her. Jennifer recognizes her car—a Land Cruiser with a Black Dog sticker on the rear—and waves when Elizabeth passes by. “She never waves back,” she says.
Emily, whose ouster from her clique prompted her to move out of town, thinks she was ejected because the Queen Bee felt threatened that she had friends outside the group. They only did things with one another, which began to drive her crazy. “I started to remove myself—I’d meet up with friends from high school or college,” she says. “When I’d see one of [the clique], she’d say, ‘Where have you been?’ It was said in a tone that implied there was more to it. My life didn’t revolve around them.”
Leslie says her Queen Bee booted her because she decided that she “hadn’t behaved in a manner befitting of the group” at a party. “I wasn’t feeling well and had only half a drink,” Leslie explains. But the Queen Bee thought Leslie was drunk—a no-no among these ladies, who seem to think it’s their job to keep the suburbs clean and morally upright. “They’d created this perfect image of themselves, and they wanted everything to exemplify this image,” she says—even as they stabbed each other in the back in their attempts to clamber up the social ladder.
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.”