I was sitting with Jake in front of Connecticut Muffin on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope when a petite, coiffed young mother wheeling a double-wide emerged from the store. “So, are you going to the park tomorrow?” another, more frazzled-looking mother asked her.
“I’m working tomorrow, but my sitter is,” the woman answered, in a bored, Fran Drescher–esque squawk. “Do you want to go with her?”
The mousier mom waved her hand no, seemingly disappointed, and said, “But I might call you later anyway.”
“Whatever,” answered the Über-mom. As I watched her amble down the street, her hips swaying confidently, I feared for my future. I am seven months pregnant with my first child, and what worries me most, more than a C-section, stretch marks, or a bad episiotomy, is the prospect of reentering a social universe more stratified and competitive than a tenth-grade cafeteria.
Rebecca Odes and Ceridwen Morris are two new moms whose frustration with the high-school politics they encountered in the playground led them to launch a Website, thenewmom.com, and an upcoming book, From the Hips: The 21st Century Guide to Having a Baby, to provide non-judgmental help. “New-momhood is a time of huge insecurity,” says Morris. “It’s a lot like adolescence, and people tend to revert back to their adolescent defense mechanisms: competition, exclusion, cliquishness.”
One of the biggest dividing lines on the playground is parenting philosophy: Moms with similar styles stick together and judge the others. Sometimes these dividing lines parallel the lines between stay-at-home and working mothers. Stay-at-home moms are more plugged into school politics and playground gossip, while the working moms struggle just to remember everyone’s names. “When you’re not working,” says Lucy, 36, a writer and mother of two in Boerum Hill, “your social life is really important, like in high school. You have ringleaders, organizers, and a lot of gossip.”
Over the years, she has had some bad run-ins with a queen-bee type whose “whole life revolves around her children” and who is active in the PTA.
A few weeks ago, the queen bee invited Lucy’s 6-year-old son for a playdate. “I took him to her house,” Lucy recalls, “and she said, ‘We’re going to go to a park and I’ll bring him back at 5:30.’ After they came back she said, ‘We had so much fun. Kevin and his mother were there, and Aidan and his mother. They just had a great time.’ She had asked these other mothers to come along but not me. It was like high school. She was trying to hurt me, because it gave her a sense of power. That’s the only thing she has.”
Even within a group of common-minded moms, women can feel excluded or left out. Last spring, Danielle, a German 36-year-old stay-at-home mom in Fort Greene, joined a group of German moms who are raising bilingual kids. “It was a small group that met once a week, but I didn’t go every time. Then summer came and I was away for a couple of months. When I came back, I asked one of the women, ‘Are you still meeting?’ She said the group had gotten too big, so they closed it. I wasn’t in the inner circle.”
With the exclusion and inclusion, social awkwardness and courting rituals, the playground scene can be a lot like dating. Rachel, 30, a mom and fashion-design student on the Upper West Side, says she feels like she’s coming on to women when she tries to make a new friend. She and her family recently relocated from the West Coast, and it wasn’t easy to meet new people. “You see a kid and mom you think are cool, but you can’t be that obvious, so you say, ‘Your kid’s outfit is so cute,’ ” she says. “Either she tells you where she got it or she blows you off. You feel totally lame, like you do when you’re dating.”
Eventually she met another mom, and as they chatted the woman barraged her with personal questions. “She said, ‘Where does your husband work? Where do you live? What do you do? Do you own or rent?’ It was freaky. I must have fit into the artsy-fartsy-intellectual box because she said, ‘You should join this book group for really intelligent moms.’”
This kind of background-consciousness can create tension and jealousy in the playground, where kids wear their parents’ class on their sleeves. “In high school you notice who has the designer jeans,” says Danielle, the stay-at-home mom in Fort Greene. “With mothers, it’s who has the expensive equipment. My upstairs neighbor has a son the same age as mine, and we bought the same things but always got different brands. She got the Peg Pérego stroller, I got the Maclaren, and I use others I found on the street. I have Brio train sets and she has Thomas trains, which are really pricey. I think it’s ridiculous to spend that kind of money.”
Rachel, Lucy, and Danielle have all found circles of other moms they like, so none is complaining of friendlessness. But there are some women who find parenting politics so unappealing, it makes them reluctant to bear more children. “I met a woman at yoga who has one daughter and isn’t having more,” says Lucy. “She wouldn’t mind more children but she said, ‘I just can’t go through the playground scene again. It’s too much for me to handle.’”