From boasts about homemade costumes to gunning for teachers, the class messaging group can be a huge source of stress for some parents
It was the Halloween thread that finally did it for — let’s call her Helen (ALL names have been changed in this piece) — “the back and forth about homemade costumes: ‘does anyone have a cloak they can lend for a Polonius costume?’ ‘I’ve made a doublet out of old culottes’, followed by crying-laughing emojis.
“I had no idea what they were on about. My daughter had to explain — it was a Hamlet-themed Halloween, because that’s what the class were reading in school. I haven’t read Hamlet. I had no idea who Polonius was, and the idea that I was going to make a costume…”
Helen runs her own company in a particularly fast-moving industry. She has never, she says, been an “at-home mother”. “I’m usually the one trying to find out what’s needed for the week ahead on a Sunday night. Because of that, the WhatsApp group has saved my life many number of times. But it is also a constant reminder of all the ways in which I am not as involved in my daughter’s education and school life.”
She doesn’t, she says, have time to contribute to bake sales, book sales, volunteer for library or yard duty, do lifts to hockey matches. “I knew this is what my daughter’s school experience would be like,” she says. “I always knew I wouldn’t be one of those school-gate mums who knows every detail of what goes on in the school. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad when I see yet another activity I’ve missed.”
She can’t mute the group because it carries useful information, but tries to manage her engagement with it. “If I spend too long looking at it, it gets me down.”
Eventually, she realised she wasn’t the only one. “At first, I kind of thought it was just me who wasn’t sewing and baking and micro-managing, but once I looked closely, I realised that out of a group of over 30 people, the bulk of the messaging is coming from the same five or six. They are the ones endlessly posting ‘don’t forget …’ messages about every little thing, and answering each other and generally conducting their social lives through the group.”
By this she means references to things that happened at, say, hockey practice, or other activities that most parents won’t have been at; in-jokes about, say, a particular teacher or implied familiarity with a child — posts like ‘No point asking Johnny for the details, you know what he’s like…!’ followed by more crying-laughing emojis.
“It’s a lot of noise,” Helen says, “but it’s also, in moments where I’m stressed or feeling especially guilty, proof of a whole world of which my daughter is part and I’m not. And I’m sure there are mothers who work and are still active on the group, but I’m just not one of those. I can’t do everything, and I have had to choose — I can keep up with the academic side of my daughter’s school, but I cannot be dealing with taking on extras like homemade costumes and who can take part in decorating the hall for Communion.”
Helen is an example of someone who chooses to stay out of the group, but what about those parents who feel they can’t get involved? An obvious one is dads.
My husband has been part of my daughter’s class WhatsApp group for five years. In that time, he has posted maybe twice — both times looking for homework details. He doesn’t feel isolated — indeed, looks baffled when I ask him if he does — but then, he’s not a single parent. His need for the group is strictly logistical: specific information, at times when I am unavailable to source it. As such, the group has a limited role in his life. But that’s because he knows that I do the social stuff (a certain amount of it anyway): the bake sales, volunteering for various things, the odd night out — and therefore maintain relationships.
How would he feel if he was parenting solo? Or indeed was a dad sharing custody, possibly on the same WhatsApp group as his former partner? I know of one such, and his take is: “I am equally involved in my son’s life, but you wouldn’t know it from the WhatsApp interactions. I never post anything. My ex does, and I just feel like I can’t. So the group is there to provide context to my son’s schooling, but I don’t feel I can engage with it.”
Worse, perhaps, is the parent who is deliberately shut out of the group. “My ex and I were never married and our custody arrangements of our daughter are informal,” one man tells me. “I have tried for greater access, but I haven’t succeeded. My ex deliberately shuts me out of aspects of our daughter’s life, and the WhatsApp group is one of the things she limits. I am not part of it. This means that I have to ask my daughter about what’s happening in school, if I’m to have any idea. And then I only get her version, or what she can be bothered to tell me. It puts you in a strange position,” he says. “I feel excluded from her school life and friendships. I don’t know any of the other parents. My daughter is older now, almost finished school, and so it doesn’t matter as much. But it used to. A lot.”
Another parent who is also a primary school teacher at a school not her daughter’s has a different perspective on the WhatsApp groups. “They can be lethal,” she tells me. “A bunch of parents — actually, often just two or three parents — decide that a particular teacher isn’t up to scratch, and they start posting on the group: ‘Has anyone else heard that the class haven’t been doing maths for the last two weeks?’ ‘Does anyone else’s kid say the teacher leaves them unsupervised while he/she goes to the staff room?’ It doesn’t take much for a lynch mob to whip up, and often most of the so-called ‘information’ is hearsay from a few children who are never very reliable. It can get out of hand very quickly.”
She has seen this happen on her son’s class group, driven by a very few parents, but quickly gathering pace when others chipped in with agreement. “Until there began to be demands for action and confrontation. All based on the word of a few children. If parents have an issue with a teacher, this is emphatically not the way to go about voicing it.”
In this particular case, this parent removed herself from the group, first explaining politely why. She later heard that after her departure, the tone of the witch hunt calmed down considerably.
Then there are those who simply don’t understand the cultural norms that we are so steeped in that we are effectively blind to them. A Polish friend recently asked me, in all seriousness, “What is it about First Holy Communion? In Poland”, she said, “we have First Communion, and it’s an important event in a child’s life, but here it is so much more…” She talked about the jokes flying around the class WhatsApp — people claiming to be cleaning their attics, spending a fortune in Woodies on a ready-made garden, and then ‘The Take.’ “What’s the Take?” she wanted to know. It’s how much a child makes. “How much what?” Money.
Yes, I felt a little embarrassed explaining. It seemed like in Poland, the Communion was more of a purely religious day than the competitive social engagement it is here. The thing is though, we all understand the subtext here — it’s not that we really care about the house being perfect for the Communion, so much as we use it as an excuse to finally make ourselves do the many household jobs we’ve been putting off. That The Take is mortifying, but also a rite of passage and is essentially unchanged from the days when it meant a fiver and a Holy picture, even though now it is likely to be several hundred euro and some very bling jewellery. It’s a Thing. A custom. It doesn’t actually mean our children are mercenary heathens and we ourselves morally derelict parents.
All that, from a few WhatsApp messages… It’s complicated. And an example of the ways in which these groups can serve to highlight difference, even while ostensibly bringing us all together in a joint effort to create, say, the perfect Nativity play. Because ultimately, the very existence of any group depends on who it includes — and who it excludes.
I wonder if those actively posting parents (mothers, let’s face it) — the ones recommending “really fun” maths apps and checking that everyone has subscribed to a present for the substitute teacher — have any idea that these groups, which clearly function brilliantly in their lives, are a source of unhappiness and stress in the lives of others? Undoubtedly not. And if they did, would they — should they? — moderate their engagement?
No, is the answer. Because yes, for all that the WhatsApp groups are often irritating — nine ‘sorry, haven’t seen it,’ in response to a question about Niall’s missing maths book? — and occasionally smug (‘the bake sale cookies are all made from organic flour and sugar, and free-range eggs *smiling-winking emoji*’) — they are also a kind of real-time playing out of our children’s school lives. A way to feel immensely connected to what goes on there. Not to mention damn useful when you have no idea what needs to be brought in for sports day.
But a little bit of awareness would be no bad thing. The odd acknowledgement that not everyone is able to commit to heavy-duty management of their children’s school lives. That not everyone is coming at this from the same cultural and domestic background. And many fewer unnecessary ‘no sorry I haven’t seen…’ responses.