You’ve labeled everything from sports kits to socks, packed the perfect snack box and managed to hold it together through the emotional goodbye as your little one heads off for their first day at school. So far, so good. But there is another hurdle you still have to face and for some mums it’s far trickier to navigate than any other aspect of their child starting school: the ‘school gate mums’.
If you’re new to the morning drop off then you may scoff at the thought of any difficulty dealing with a group of other mothers at 8.30 every morning. How ridiculous, you may think, that issues should arise when you are all grown up women simply taking your kids to their classroom.
But ask any experienced veteran of the school run and they will tell you that playground politics are very real and can make or break a mother’s experience of her child’s time at school.
Here Mama Editor and mother of three Morag Turner shares her top tips for surviving the bitchiness of the school gates and how to seek out the mum friends you’ll have for life.
Remember you’re not the pupil
Some women want to re-live their own school days and some want to reinvent them. It’s amazing how many revert back to the role they played 20 years prior. If they were the popular Queen Bee, they expect to have the same status second time around. Or if they felt excluded from the ‘in’ crowd they may go out of their way to ensure that doesn’t happen again, desperately seeking the popularity they always longed for. One way or the other, the present is almost always linked to the past. Which you may think is odd when you are all now adults, but it is nevertheless the case.
If someone wants to be Queen Bee, then let them. The title is not a favourable one: it doesn’t mean you are popular and well liked, it means you are controlling and need to influence others to feel validated. It’s not a position to be envied.
Avoid these women like the plague. Chat when you are forced to, but don’t get sucked into a parallel universe where what happens in the playground matters more than what’s going on in the real world. Who the hell cares who baked the brownies for the cake sale and who bought them from Waitrose at the last minute? Repeat the mantra in your head, ‘these are not the kind of things I need to worry about’.
Any parent who feels the need to tell you how amazing their child is is clearly trying to prove something to the world, and that generally indicates insecurity. I once had a mother tell me her child was ‘truly gifted’ and could read independently before they started reception, while my son was still sounding out his phonics.
Another told me her son was a shoe-in for a headmaster’s award despite having nothing to base this on other than her own opinion of him.
While these children may well be outstanding little individuals, and if they are I’m genuinely happy for them, their mothers’ need to show off to that extent shows not only a distinct lack of self awareness, but also insecurity. It’s a shame they feel they have to live vicariously through their children and boast so blatantly. So feel sorry for them, nod and smile and then walk away. Do not be tempted to engage in any competition with them as this will only escalate the situation as they attempt to further out do you.
Focus on how well your own child is doing and try to block out any comments about others’ achievements. What matters is that your little one is flourishing and progressing at their own pace. You don’t have to share that with the world. Remember there is nothing naffer than one-upmanship with one’s children.
Don’t overthink situations
Did they ignore you when you waved from your car? Were you really left off that email list by mistake? Maybe or maybe not, but the point is you can drive yourself crazy wondering. Sometimes people are busy, they have other things on their minds. They genuinely just didn’t see you wave or copied and pasted an old list that you weren’t on. These things happen, and they don’t mean you are being shunned.
Try to give other mothers the benefit of the doubt. I remember once receiving an email from a disgruntled mum who wrote to the entire year outlining how rude she thought another parent had been because she turned her back on her in the playground. It transpired that the other mum was in a rush and didn’t for a second intend to offend anyone. Don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions. If it happens persistently then you have cause to question, but don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.
Wear whatever you like
At the school gates, as in life generally, there will always be women who look immaculate. Then there will the rest of us who realise we have a toothpaste stain on our sweaters as we arrive at the classroom door. Then there are others who wear their pyjamas to drop off and pray to God they don’t have to get out of the car.
How we dress for the school run should not really be different to how we view our wardrobes in any other situation. Do not dress up or down. Be yourself. If you’re heading off to the office afterwards and need to be in a sharp trouser suit, great. Or maybe you’re in your gym kit, and that’s fine too.
However be wary of those permanently in athleisure wear. It’s a favourite getup of the super competitive mum who likes to show the world she drags her toned backside to the gym every day. Good for her. Now avoid her and ask the mum in her PJs if she’d like to have a cuppa sometime – once she’s dressed. She’ll be much better company.
Get involved but not too involved
You’re new to the school. You want to meet other mums and show willingness to help out, but think for a second before you sign up to the PTA, the cake sale and the school trip all at once.
It’s great to volunteer, but it’s often a time consuming and thankless task. If you have hours to spend organising the school ball then go for it, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t.
These positions also tend to attract the Queen Bee types who want to bask in the glory of their success while you are left to manage the raffle or wash up the glasses.
Be selective about what you put your hand up for. And never, ever agree to be form rep unless you want to receive endless emails from other parents complaining about everything from the amount of homework set (“can you please write a letter to the head”) to where the Christmas do is being held (“the prosecco isn’t a good enough quality”). It’s a truly thankless task and you must have the patience of a saint to take it on. I have the greatest respect for those who can face it.
Keep the kids out of it
If there is one nightmare woman who you really can’t stand, you can be sure your child will decide to be best friends with her son or daughter. It’s sods law. As tempting as it is to discourage the friendship, don’t. Kids should never be drawn into playground politics and need to make their own friends. Say yes to the playdates and don’t ever let your thoughts be known (kids repeat things). This doesn’t mean you suddenly have to become bosom buddies with the mother you dislike, but for the sake of your child, not to mention keeping the peace in the playground, be civil and polite.
Get ready to make some great mates
Some of the most wonderful friends I have are mums I met at the school gate. They are funny, kind, self-depreciating women who are much more likely to regale their parenting mishaps than they are to drone on about their child prodigies. We share pickups, lend sports kits, and are always up for a night out and a bottle of wine.
They realise that motherhood is not a competition. We are all on this journey together and it’s so important to support each other – and have a laugh as we go along.
It might take time for you to find these friends in the sea of new faces in the playground. But they are out there: mums just like you who are juggling it all and just trying to do their best for their kids, while also wanting mates to share the ups and downs of school life.
There will always be the Queen Bees and the bitchy women at the school gates, but for every one of them there are just as many nice, genuine mums who are waiting to be your friend.