Becoming a mother is like walking into a middle school cafeteria. The crunchy moms at one table, the Christian moms at another, the punk moms at another, and in the middle of it all, those ubiquitous yet elusive popular moms all decked out in lululemon and surrounded by designer strollers. Walk into any playground, parent’s group, or mommy-and-me class and you’re likely to see other moms standing in a circle, discreetly sizing you up. Every decision you make will come with a label attached. Everything from what brand of stroller you use (or whether or not you use a stroller at all) to what kind of clothes you wear to what neighborhood you live in will be used to define who you are and what your status is in the hierarchy.
There are a lot of reasons why this happens. The fear, uncertainty, and insecurity that comes with being a new parent, so similar to the uncertainty of adolescence, is a huge factor, and the media hype surrounding the mommy wars doesn’t help. But I think what it all comes down to is that our biological drive to fit into the group, and not only to fit in but to be at the top of it, is at it’s strongest at two points in our lives: in our early teenage years, and when we become parents. In the first case it is to ensure our own survival and reproductive success; in the second it is to ensure the survival and success of our children.
This drive forms the subconscious basis for so much of what we do during those tumultous times. When all the other girls at school are rocking the name-brand jeans, you’d better be too, because as far as your hindbrain is concerned if you’re shunned from the group you’re sabre-toothed tiger meat. If the most popular guy at school likes one of your friends it’s your biological directive to gossip and backstab your way to the top and eliminate the competition. Likewise, when we seek out other sling-wearing moms, we are instinctively looking for the security of our tribe. When all the other moms are in yoga gear and you stand nearby with your toddler in your faded Led Zeppelin t-shirt and they get all quiet and start whispering about you, they are, without realizing it, protecting themselves and their children from your eccentricity and other-ness . When that group of upper-middle class moms with Coach diaper bags at Gymboree and their children band together and give the cold shoulder to the mom with the Wal-Mart brand stroller, they are instinctively keeping their children from mingling and eventually mating with someone of a lower status. It’s like our brains are stuck not just in middle school, but in the stone age.
Because this behavior is so deeply ingrained in our DNA, and so subtle, it is hard to change. But I believe that people are deeper and more complex than this. I believe in transcendence, in our ability to change and be better. It is my hope that one day we parents can lift each other up instead of tearing each other down. In the meantime, I don’t worry so much anymore about fitting in or about what the others think. I do what I think is right. I walk onto the playground to watch my little boy play, not to size up the other moms. I don’t focus on trying to make new mom friends, I just appreciate the few but wonderful people I already know, all a little bit quirky in some way and all understanding an accepting. I left middle school years ago, and I’m not going back.