Wednesday 21 February 2018

Are the schoolgates a hive of meanness for mums?

Irish mothers can face intimidation from other competitive mums who criticise their appearance and insult their children.

A pregnant Claudia Schiffer on the school run.
A pregnant Claudia Schiffer on the school run.
Alpha females: Author Sinead Moriarty believes women should support each other but thinks queen bees can be misunderstood
Gill Hornby who wrote 'The Hive', which has resonated with women familiar with competitive mothers.

Gabrielle Monaghan

As parents resumed the school run earlier this month, many mothers breathed a sigh of relief that they weren't returning to the classroom themselves.

After all, they had long since escaped the tyranny wielded upon them as teenagers by the pretty, popular girls who welcomed them into their clique only to begin excluding them from parties, sniggering at their outfits and spreading ugly rumours about them.

But grown-up women who thought they'd overcome the anxieties triggered by shoddy treatment at the hands of a manipulative 16-year-old queen bee are encountering her again. Only this time she's in the guise of a fellow middle-class mum at the school gate.

She's now a perfectly groomed size-eight figure who drops off her designer-clad children with a shiny SUV, flicking back her glossy hair while she holds court about how little Oisín has been reading since the age of two and has never tasted chocolate. She carries an iPad with his nutrition plan, after-school activities and play-date schedule, which are detailed alongside a litany of PTA committee meetings and coffee mornings. She may not work outside of the home, but she sure as hell runs it –and her family – like a CEO.

The queen bee draws in other mothers with her charm and energy for organising fundraising and social events. However, according to the bestselling book The Hive by Gill Hornby, if you swarm too close to the queen bee, she will sting you with barbs about your children, lack of organisational skills, husband, home and even your waistline.

The Hive, set in an upmarket primary school in England's Home Counties, is a fictional account of the schoolyard politics the narrator observes as a mother of four. It tells the story of a group of mothers raising funds to build a new school library and satirises a world of car-boot sales, table quizzes and endless lunches.

Hornby, now in her 50s, is married to Robert Harris, the author of Enigma and Fatherland, and is sister to Nick Hornby, who wrote High Fidelity and About a Boy. The Hive was subject to a seven-way bidding war before it was even published, and the film rights have been sold to Focus Features, the arthouse division of NBCUniversal.

The metaphorical queen bee of Hornby's novel is the effortlessly glamorous Beatrice, or Bea, who allocates fundraising tasks to the admiring worker bees in her hive. This alpha female is prone to casting out mothers from her social circle and fending off efforts from other mums for the role of leader of the pack.

The Hive appears to have resonated with women familiar with competitive mothers and accustomed to dealing with the conflicts often found in female social groups, Hornby says. She took her inspiration for the novel from the 2004 film Mean Girls, which, in turn, was based on a sociological study of popularity contests among teenage girls.

But is the school-gate culture in bourgeois pockets of Ireland as intimidating as it's portrayed in The Hive?

Few mothers are willing to openly attest to it, for fear of publicly offending the women they meet every day outside their children's schools, according to one mother-of-five. Clare, who didn't want to be identified by her full name, discovered the drama of parenting politics for herself when she moved to a new area and gave up her career to become a full-time mother.

"Women who are at home often miss out on the social aspect of working and miss the company," she says. "Going for coffee with other mothers was fantastic because we could talk about the kids. But the talk soon turned to other parents. It was then I realised that if I wasn't at the coffee morning, they were probably talking about me too. So I took a back seat from it. You nearly revert back to your teenage life.

"It's a big tradition to go in to someone's house for coffee when your children have a play-date together. There can be an awful lot of sniping. The play-dates were usually on Friday afternoons. Your child might not have been quick enough to invite other kids over so now they're all going to the popular girl's house and they're not invited. It's the most dreadful feeling to see all the kids pile into cars on a Friday afternoon and your little bunny has to go home alone with you.

"There is also huge competition among the parents over their children. It starts with 'is your kid brighter than my kid?', 'does your child have more friends?', 'my kid is better at rugby' and goes on right up through Leaving Cert level. Parents will ask how many points your child got whereas the kids themselves wouldn't – they'd just ask each other if they were happy with their results."

Clare is not alone. Mothers on Irish parenting forums often exchange horror stories about being judged on their attire on the school run, fielding thinly-disguised insults about their children, or being left out of cliques. One mother posted on a forum about a woman who would make "digs" about her "husband's work, the house, the holidays and even my child's hair".

Sinead Moriarty, a mother of three and writer of novels including This Child of Mine and The Baby Trail, is working on a "quite unpleasant" queen bee character for the book she's currently writing. In real life, though, Sinead believes that queen bees are merely highly organised women who are misunderstood.

"A lot of high-achieving women give up work when they have children and that energy goes into organising their children's lives and the school," she says. "Schools need women like this – they are a necessity. But maybe some of the younger mums may find their energy intimidating. They are über-mums, but I admire them and I wish I could be more like that.

"I spend most of my life in a tracksuit in front of a computer so it's quite nice to wear something nice for the school run. I think the pressure to look good is pressure people put on themselves. I don't think anyone can blame other people for their own insecurity.

"I think that women should just support each other – we can be our own worst enemies. Everyone at the school gate is just trying to give their child the best life possible."

Irish Independent

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