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.