Slings and Arrows

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SEPTEMBER 17, 2008 6:07PM

Parents You Will Meet Along the Way

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 Mean girls

 When Rosalind Wiseman penned her book Queen Bees & Wannabes , which would later become the movie, “Mean Girls,” she started a discussion about cliques, status and how social dynamics operate in America’s schools that was at once a worry and a relief to parents.  A relief because it finally confirmed as real the things we all knew were happening, but somehow lacked the language to talk about.  A worry because our kids are caught up in it, perhaps worse than ever.

When Wiseman took her book on tour, she heard the same thing over and over again from the parents that she spoke with, “If you think the kids are bad, you should see the parents.”  Her next book, Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads, was born.  In it, Wiseman takes apart the types of parents you will see in school – in other words, what happens when the Queen Bees and the wannabes and all the other folks you knew in high school grow up, have kids of their own and start the same madness all over again as parents.

As someone who was never quite like anyone else, never the most popular girl in school, and consequently was often the target of Queen Bee ridicule, Wiseman’s work has always been of interest to me, so I’d read both books, even when I didn’t have kids in school.

My son started preschool last week. Over the course of my son’s brief three-year existence, I have now encountered many, many parents in many different settings:  Playgroups, classes, birthday parties, peer groups, therapy settings and now preschool.  And what I have noticed is that sometimes parents do jockey for position, whether consciously or unconsciously.  If it is a natural instinct to ask oneself, “Where do I stand in this group?” as an adult, it is equally, if not even more of an instinct to do so on behalf of one’s children.

And yes, you do notice types.  It would be a mistake to judge any of the following archetypical parents harshly.  What one does for love is, to some extent, holy and inscrutable.  Nonetheless, here it is, the field guide to Parents You Will Meet Along the Way.  Just so we’re clear here: none of these descriptions are keyed to an actual individual – they are composites of people that have been mercilessly exaggerated for ease of identification and amusement purposes.

The Pusher:  This is the parent who wants to make sure that her child is an acknowledged genius by the time she is five.  The kid has been in every kind of enrichment class imaginable, from birth.  She has to work it in there, at the school presentation, that her kid speaks Spanish, English and Swahili.  She wants to make sure that the teacher and all the rest of the parents are aware that her child already knows how to read.  She wants pointers on CD’s and books she can read to her kid to make her absorb her latin lessons better.  She means well, but one wonders how burned out the kid will be by first grade.  When her kids get older, The Pusher will find her ass glued to the driver’s seat of her minivan as she totes her kids from soccer practice to violin lessons to chess club to French immersion classes to fencing practice. 

The Networker:  This is the parent who is nearly always a fixture at PTA meetings, always the playgroup coordinator, or the “room parent.”  She knows every other mom in the school, and probably has them all worked into a devastatingly efficient phone tree.  She is the first to know about nearly any event, good or bad, that happens in the school and the neighborhood. The Networker comes in two flavors – The Fairy Godmother and The Busybody.  The benign incarnation, Fairy Godmother, will be there with a meal when you’re sick, will produce a successful school fundraiser overnight on demand, and will organize the carpools when the entire first-grade class comes down with food poisoning.  Her evil twin, The Busybody, is the one most likely to organize her phone tree to protest the addition of Harry Potter books to the library, or to inform everyone of the scandal that befell the eighth grade overnight field trip.  Often they are the same person, depending on the day and circumstance.

Helium Hand:  The Networker usually has four or five Helium Hands as the cornerstone of her phone tree.  Helium Hand has never met a volunteer opportunity that she wasn’t ready to jump on.  She is organized, hard-working, and never, ever says “I can’t.”  Again, two flavors here:  The Martyr does what she does because she feels guilty for having too much free time at home, and simply must fill every last second of her day with activities that allegedly benefit others, lest she have a moment’s peace to reflect upon how selfish it might be to actually take five minutes just for her.  The Egoiste, on the other hand, simply does not believe there is anything she cannot do, and wants to make sure that everyone knows that she does everything.

Diva Mom:  Diva Mom shows up at parent-teacher night carrying her Dior handbag and wearing Jimmy Choos.  Her playdates involve letting the kids loose in the basement while “the girls” sit upstairs and drink wine. (There will be no further interaction with the kids unless someone is bleeding.)  Diva Mom is more likely to buy cupcakes from a trendy bakery for the class Halloween party than she is to actually bake them herself.  Diva Mom’s kids are usually the first ones to get the cellphone, the gameboy, and the iPod.  Diva Mom does not always have household staff like cooks and nannies, but they are frequent accessories. When Helium Hand calls Diva Mom to volunteer for things, Diva Mom wants to know if she can write a check instead.  Diva Mom offers the best donation for the silent auction fundraiser, usually something about a cruise or a vacation rental someplace exotic.

Uber Mother:  Uber mother is not just a vegetarian who eats only organic food.  Uber mother does not just use cloth diapers.  Uber mother does not just recycle. Uber mother does not just have a Greenpeace bumper sticker on her car.  No, all of those things alone merely make one admirably socially conscious.  The Uber Mother is inordinately vocal about these things, and proselytizes relentlessly about them, to the point where others become nauseous.  Uber Mother refuses to serve cake at her child’s birthday party unless it is made with organic rice flour.  But Uber Mother does not stop there.  Uber Mother has a subscription to each of the major pediatric medicine journals, which she reads religiously.  She is determined to do everything it the healthiest way possible, no matter how inconvenient it is to her and her spouse, or how unconventional it may appear to others.  She sanitized every toy her child played with as an infant, every single day.  But she is not content to merely assure the extreme health-consciousness of her own brood.  She will quote the studies whenever they are even tangentially relevant to the conversation, and is all too happy to tell you exactly how un-natural and un-conscious, and un-environmentally friendly your parenting is.  After all, it is an Uber Mother’s sacred duty to make sure all children have a brighter tomorrow, no matter who their parents are.

The Slacker:  The Slacker has taken the notion of easygoing parenting to an alarming extreme.  This is the mom whose kid picks up a stick on the playground and begins swinging it around at other kids while the mom plaintively bleats at him to stop.  The kid, of course, never listens, and The Slacker is never inspired to do more to enforce her will.  The Slacker’s idea of nutrition is ordering apple slices with the McDonald’s Happy Meal at lunch every day.  The Slacker has the television on for most of the day, tuned to SpongeBob Squarepants.  Hey, it’s a cartoon, isn’t it?  The Slacker is always late to afternoon pick up, and when it is her turn to bring the class snack she forgets.  She is never on The Networker’s phone tree.  The Slacker may or may not have a reason for her perpetually distracted mode of parenting, which means that you either thank your lucky stars you don’t have her burdens, or curse her for her cluelessness and dread her inclusion in your playgroup.

But here’s the truth….

Looking over all these caricatures of parenthood, I am forced to admit something that should not be surprising.  All of us are all of these mothers at one point or another, to one degree or another.  It’s not that these are archetypes that you encounter external to yourself so much they are guises that at one moment or another you will appear as in your life.  I have had my Pusher moments, my Slacker moments, my Uber Mother moments, etc.  And I am not a bad parent.  I’m shockingly normal, really. 

It’s sort of like the end of nearly every John Hughes movie in the 80’s – when the nerdy guys stand up and remind all the jocks, the Queen Bees, the wannabes, and everyone else that we are all more alike than we are different, and we all really want the same thing.  We all hope to be seen as real people, not as archetypes and caricatures of ourselves who are but cogs in a social machine.

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parenting, moms, mean girls

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It's funny you chose this today. Just last night, my daughter's Girl Scout Troop watched "Mean Girls" as part of their unit about cliques. (They are all 11. We had to sign a permission slip for them to watch it, since it's PG-13) As the girls had their post-movie conversation, the moms gathered in the den, waiting to take them home.

I tried to enter the conversation with the other moms by asking an ice breaker - "What are your girls going to be for Halloween?"

After an awkward silence one of the moms said, "We don't really believe in Halloween."

Allow me to introduce myself, I'm Heathen Mom.
Great post Liz. Happy to be reading your insightful words once again. Reading your descriptions gave me the heebeejeebees and I have to say, I'm glad I'd done with all those mothers. And of course, I was never any of the ones you describe :).
yep, I think there is even some Diva Mom in all of us. Although I have NEVER, EVER worn exposed (or unexposed, for that matter) thong underwear and/or heels to pick up my kids from their coop preschool, as our resident Divas did.

I'm with Jodi - Heathen Mom - as I once argued to the PTA that a Christmas Tree really had no place in the school office of a public school.
Thanks for this handy guide, Liz! I've come across some other types you haven't catalogued yet: The Worry Wart comes to mind. She's always bummed when my daredevil kids show up at the playground or the swimming pool and start giving her poor tentative child crazy ideas, and she always gives me the most harrowing disappointed looks in judgment of my parenting. It always freaks me out a bit, because I'm always convinced she's going to jinx us and one of my kids is going to break on arm while she's looking on. She's been saving up that "I told you so" for so long, you know?
Jodi, it's official, I *heart* you.

Mary, thanks. Yeah, sometimes they are too real to me, too.

lps -- thongs?! I seem to have forgotten to include Slutty Mom.

Colin, you obviously have been in the presence of a Uber Mom who's developed enough decency to keep her opinions to herself, even if she can't hide them on her face. I forget to mention in my field guide that Uber Mom's kids have a nasty tendency to buck the system -- become gluttonous, un-scoially conscious teens with a firm belief that they may abuse themeselves however they wish and live forever. My bad.
Hi,

I think that Coconut Grove in Miami must have been lousy with Pusher parents. I finally gave up talking to other parents on sidelines of first grade soccer games because the #1 topic of conversation was how a particular son/daughter was just right for the gifted and talented program. If everyone is gifted and talented then what do those adjectives mean? And what did that have to do with soccer?
sorry, liz, didn't mean to take us into the gutter. In my experience, Slutty Mom is a subset of Diva Mom. Additional incarnations are Tennis Mom - petite, wearing a tennis skirt, driving a Lexus SUV, and running between "maintenance" appointments and Pretend-Diva (or Social Climber Mom, the B-chick in the Mean Girl).
I want to be Diva mom, but I can't afford the shoes.
Once I went to an Easter party and, as we lined up for the hunt, had a mom elbow me and my daughter out of her and her daughter's way in a manner that actually knocked me down. Instead of apologizing, they ran together in search of their booty of candy and change-filled plastic eggs while I picked my crying daughter off the ground.

That pretty much ruined the Easter egg hunt tradition for us all. Occasionally, we go to church, the hunt we avoid.
Jodi, it could be worse. We took the girls (6 and 3 1/2) to the National Gallery last weekend and played "spot the baby" in the annunciation pictures in the Renaissance section (I know, but it has to be easy to keep the younger one engaged).

Later that day the 6 year old was trying to recall the name of the baby in question, and came up with "Jesus Crikey." I'm just pleased that there were no actual Christians around to hear her confuse Steve Irwin's last words with the Son of God.
Anyway, I suppose that makes her a Pusher Mom and me the pushover. Story of my life.
And I'm afraid I might be Slacker Mom, though not to that extreme.
Amen to this! Then again, I never much liked boxes.

And in side-note--I always mollified myself by saying the John Hughes universe was just some cotton candy movie fantasy land...until I met my husband, who as it turned out grew up in John Hughes universe, Pleasanton, CA. I felt a little gipped.
Hi Dorinda! Yeah, I've never understood how it is that everyone is gifted, either. I really think the school system within a school system that is the G &T program is a bit whack.

Oh yes, Diva Mom has LOTS of subsets....Slutty Mom, Tennis/Gym Mom, Vacation Mom (who takes her kids out of school for weeks at a time so they can go to Paris and Palm Beach for "the season.")

The Pusher will indeed do anything to get at whatever objective her desire for her brood is, Lauren.

Haggis, I have a snow globe collection that comes out at Christmas. In retrospect, it was perhaps a bad idea for my son's first encounter with his Lord and Savior to be a snowglobe. Every morning, the first thing he would say as he came down the stairs was, "I want to shake the baby Jesus!"





Ann, I can't afford Diva' Mom's shoes either.

Lauren, the thing is, we've all been versions of all these moms at one point or another, whether we were conscious of it or not. I've been the Slacker mom when I do my patented Bad Mommy Breakfast. I've been the Diva Mom when I pick up my son right before I head out for work. I've been the Helium Hand aand the Networker. Get me around certain moms and my Uber Mom tendency will come out. Almost no one fits these descriptions exactly, and even when we think they do, if we scratch the surface, we'll find a lot more there than we initially thought.

Kristen, you've seen "Pleasantville," right? ;)
Don't forget Helium Hand's husband, Leash-man, who "volunteers" to lead activities for which Helium Had is insufficiently qualified, such as assistant (it is always assistant) boy scout leader or assistant baseball coach.
ohmigosh - this is too, too funny and so very relevant to me, what with my being at "Back to School Night" just last night. I was trapped next to The Pusher, who was telling me all about how here perfect prodigy wasn't getting enough out of the class because of the awful, ill behaved other children - IN FIRST GRADE.
Thanks for distracting me from the nonstop election, crashing economy wanderings I've been doing.
Rich, Helium Hand's husband comes it two flavors two: either he's, as you say, Leash Man, who is just as bad as she is about making committments, or he is Mr. Volun-told. Mr. Volun-told is haplessly committed to things by his wife, whether he really wants to do them or not. If he is as organized as she is, it turns out all right. If not, she ends up doing all the work for him, being careful to give him the credit so his ego isn't damaged.

And Alisa, glad I could help! Nice to see you here!
Liz, I enjoyed the post, but I didn't see my mom in there. She was the work three jobs, still cook, still clean supermom. There was a litle Uber mom in there: no cable and no candy (but that was probably just as much because of cost). By the time I was old enough to realize that many moms didn't have a single job, let alone 3, the stern, to the point, "I'm disappointed in you," disciplinary tactic worked wonders.

Your list seems to only reflect the middle or upper class suburbian breed of mothers.
I think you belong to the Just Plain Awesome Mom category.
Edgar, I think your mom was The Real Deal.

And you may be right that some of these moms may be more prevalent in white, middle and upper-class communities, but actually, I think even in poorer communities you see versions of these.

And Matt, I *heart* you. Thanks.
Can I say honestly that I have nothing in common with any of those moms listed above. Maybe there's another category of "Sailor Mom" because I'm the one that can't keep the foul words from coming out of my mouth, and if your kid comes home with a new "funny joke" it's probably because my kid taught them.

My eldest started kindergarten last month, and they have a mean girl. WTF? Let's just say Mean Girl X has provided almost-daily teaching moments. I can't believe I have to instruct my five-year-old that physical beauty and nice clothes don't give one license to make others feel like crap about themselves. Shouldn't that be the default worldview?

I must say I haven't even seen Mean Girl X's parents, since she is escorted to kindergarten by her posse of 4th- and 5th-grade friends. They all look terrified and in awe of her even though they are so much older. I can only imagine the mental torture she's visited upon them that would put her in such a position of control.
George Carlin used to talk about "Play Dates." Kids used to do whatever, whenever. Now they need their own organizers. There is no childhood anymore. They will probably start SAT prep at 2 soon. People need to let their kids be kids.
All of these moms are, more often than not, a little put off by stay-at-home dads like my husband. As a former teacher he is a great help with class science projects. They barely tolerated my guest appearances, which were sporadic because of my crazy work hours. (BTW, I am a "Sailor" mom, and not just because I'm in the military!)
Angrymom, I officially dub thee: "Popeye the Sailor Mom" -- she swears like a sailor and runs a pretty tight ship. Your kids, if they hang around with her kids, will learn how to swab the poop deck, and learn a few synonyms for poop that Taro Gomi has never heard of.

jimgalt, I love that Carlin bit about playdates. And he's absolutely right. Kids don't just roam the way we did when we were kids.

We have a number of SAHDs here on OS, and it is interesting to see how some moms react to them on the playground. Personally, I think it's great.
Liz, what do you call the Dad who's kids look like they've just survived a natural disaster after only 5 minutes in his care?
Columbo, I think that one is called "Survivorman" -- the kids are allowed to get into every scrape, mess and potentially lethal situation, not because dad isn't paying attention, but because he doesn't believe in molly-coddling the little tykes. Equip him with a first-aid kit, a safety harness and a homing beacon before allowing him to babysit.
Fine defining there, Liz.

One caveat, though. This particular Dad, this hypothetical Dad, is not necessarily some Darwinian anti-molly-coddler. It's just that when a bunch of screaming kids surround him he goes into a state of catatonic shock.
A friend alerted me to another type: "Invisible Mom"

She, of course, wears an invisibility cloak that somehow instantly consigns her to a status of no consequence or social worth to the Pusher, the Networker, or Diva Mom.
Liz, I hadn't been by this thread in a while and I just caught your compliment of my mom. Thanks! I'll pass it along. Since I moved back to the hometown, she just lives a few miles down the street (and her cooking is still the best... and she still works three jobs).

Oh, and I don't think that movie "Little Children" did anything to help the reputation of SAHDs. Todd Field makes great movies, though.