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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Motherhood mafia

I just finished reading the book Momzillas. And let me tell you that if any of the people who reviewed the book on Amazon had ever experienced something similar to what the main character experienced, their ratings would have been much higher.

I have been there - heck, I still am.

Traveling and moving around can be a lot of fun. Or a real pain.

People get either very excited or kind of freaked out when I tell them we moved here from Switzerland. They always ask why, where else have we lived, and so on - and invariably they end with "You are so lucky". Probably true. I am happy to have the opportunity to travel and live in different places, and while I didn't just trip on it (but rather went seeking for it) I am thankful to be able to do it, because I love it. Most of the time.

The first year after we moved here, I didn't feel so lucky. I had been back in Europe for 8 years - and even when I was in the US, I lived on the West Coast, in LA. I also didn't have any children then. Of course I didn't expect it to be the same: as any expat will tell you, it's never the same. Besides, I was a mom now and it was the opposite coast anyway. I "knew" the East Coast was different, but I thought I knew what to expect, and I was willing to find out and experience the rest. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

Because of the short duration of our assignment it was important to us that the girls keep their mother language fresh - so it was decided early on that Sarah would have to attend an International School of some sort, one equipped to deal with children who spoke little English and who were planning to eventually move back to their country of origin. That of course spells "private school". We located a school in the general vicinity (of where dh was going to be working) and it was approved by the company. Everything else was arranged based on the fact that Sarah was going to attend this school, including the area where we were going to live (which narrowed it down quite a bit).

Skip ahead to Sarah actually starting school. We had an initial honeymoon period, when everything seemed to be going smooth and working out just fine, but it quickly came to an abrupt halt. The teacher who had seemed so friendly, so used to easing in the children who moved mid-year turned out to be actually very strict and set in her ways.
The girls who were at first so excited to have a "new girl" joining the class started showing that not only they had a snobbish side but they were also not above bullying.
My suggestion to temporarily use one of the 2 mandatory (???) hours of religion with practice time for Sarah to catch up with the rest of the class because of the difference in curriculum was met with a solid NO (and no other option offered). And... I started meeting the other moms in the class (cue scary music).

Meet Hannah, the main character in Momzillas: she moved from San Francisco to Manhattan - the Upper East Side, to be precise - because of her husband's work. I found the portrayal of the weird unwritten rules and expectations and cliques that Hannah finds in her new home remarkably accurate. Of course, I don't live on the UES, but I found much of the same things up here in Westchester.

When I first arrived, I started attending some "class breakfasts" as they called them, where all the moms met at someone's house and brought food (sort of a gourmet potluck) and then complained about stuff, gossiped, discussed "important issues" (such as the teacher's Christmas gift). Luckily I wasn't the only new mom, but the QueenBee managed to grill me anyway: by the time I left I had been questioned on our designated town of residence, my husband's job, my family, my schooling, what car we drove and other "social markers". Nice talking to you!

Having a baby and no car made it difficult to participate to all the brunches and coffees and mom's nights out. I didn't worry too much, until I noticed that Sarah was still not doing well socially at school, after several months in the class. She never had this problem before, she was non-confrontational and friendly, so she made friends quite easily. Like moms tend to do, I blamed myself, convinced it was my fault for pushing the move, for not hosting enough playdates (I was barely keeping up with MY children!), for not hanging out with the other moms more.

At one point in the book, Hannah opens up to another mom: "It's just hard. I feel so clueless so much of the time. I feel like a Martian." Boy, I hear you Hannah.

Despite the fact that I've never been one to feel the pressure to "fit in" I tried very hard, mostly because I thought it would help with Sarah's socializing at school and making new friends.

Then we hosted Sarah's birthday party with some girls from her class. Among other things, the following things happened:
- a couple of the guests openly criticized the Hello Kitty theme (picked by the birthday girl) saying that it was "stupid" and "tacky".
- we overheard a conversation where everybody was sharing the exact title of their father's executive position in the company he worked for - while eating. Sarah didn't know her dad's exact title, she had never asked.
- a kind of spooky exchange between two girls discussing the merits of having a man vs. a woman guitar teacher and how "not all men are nice" (they were 8 years old! 8!!).
- the categorical refusal to participate in most of the games and activities my husband had carefully picked and organized for the party (I finally pulled out an "in case of emergency" kit with beads, ribbons and the like for everyone to make bracelets).
By the time everyone left, my husband was actually the one saying "I'm not sure I want Sarah hanging out with those girls. They are snobbish little divas." without an ounce of irony. My sweet, patient, tolerant husband, who never pronounces an ill word about anyone, never gossips, never openly criticizes (I know, he's such a goody two shoes).

But it was the beginning of a new school year I vowed I'd try harder. So I organized a playdate with the QueenBee's daughter and another girl from the class. Sarah was so excited! She was trying sooo hard to please them. All afternoon she let them pick what they wanted to play with, didn't object to their critics and their mean jokes. And I watched them criticize and look down on everything that Sarah loved: "No way we are playing Barbies! Barbies are stupid! The only dolls we play with are from American Girl" "THIS is your room???? It's so small!!" "This is the most boring playdate!" and after looking at Sarah's extensive board game collection: "You have nothing good to play with" after which I pulled out the dance mat and the game console and put on the DDR Mario Mix (this was our pre-Wii period). And that kept them busy. They didn't exactly play nicely, but at least it keep them distracted enough to tone down the "better than you" attitude.

That's when I decided that it wasn't a game I wanted to play. Because my daughter, like me, picks her friends based on how well she gets along with them, not how expensive their clothes are of how big their house is. Because I am ok with her being a bit goofy at her age and not a snobbish, critical little diva. Because she has NEVER, ever had problems socializing until she started at that school - other parents and teachers alike had always loved her because she was so friendly and uncomplicated - and if that is viewed as "simple", so be it.

I'm not saying my daughter is perfect - she makes mistakes and has her obnoxious moments. I also understand we can't all be friends because we are all different people. But I am not ok with someone making her feel like she isn't good enough because of things that have nothing to do with her character, especially if they are superficial.

There were also issues with her adjusting to the difference in curriculum so we decided to move her to another class. And that turned out to be a blessing.
She found a lovely teacher who encouraged children to help each other and fostered camaraderie, not competition.
Sarah received a warm welcome, and she wasn't abandoned once she became "old news", like in the previous class.
Most of the children turned out to be less of the diva variety and more of the goofy, funny variety like her.
And I found that not all moms in the school were snobbish, cliquey primadonnas. Most of the moms in the new class welcomed me in and didn't raise an eyebrow because I wasn't fluent in German, they didn't ask if Sarah takes piano lessons or plays soccer, they didn't object to me bringing my toddler to brunches - in fact a few of them brought theirs over too. Thank goodness there are normal people here. And I have let go of the idea that I have to fit in with anybody or anything. If I dress less conservatively, if I don't wear pearls and I sit on the floor to play with my toddler sometimes - it's all good, because that's how I want to do it. And that is why I am no longer a Martian. And neither is Sarah.


Sam said...

I'm tagging you in a meme dear. Please forgive me!

P.S...those moms are shit. None of that stuff matters in the end. We all know that. :-)


Hip Mom's Guide said...

I clicked back here from your post today and have to say that this one breaks my heart. I'm so sad to hear that Sarah had to deal with all of that. I moved frequently as a child, and I know firsthand how tough that can be. But I find it disheartening that even NOW, in 2008, grown women are still encouraging and propagating this kind of behavior.

I was so glad to read the end, and hope that the new teacher, kids, and parents have continued to be a better, kinder fit.

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