Your school days are firmly behind you. Sharing a dorm is a distant memory. You couldn’t give a hoot about mean girls because you’re not a girl anymore. You’re a woman. And women support other women, right?
There's another tribe of meanies in town. Mean mums.
If you haven’t met them in real life, you’ve definitely seen them on TV. They’re ever present on Netflix in Workin’ Moms and The Let Down, BBC’s hilarious Motherland and New Zealand’s popular sitcom aptly titled, Mean Mums. They’re pretty two-dimensional characters; outspoken, judgemental, patronising and bitchy, full of self-importance, and a great tool to make the audience laugh, cringe and mightily root for the self-deprecating protagonist (usually, a struggling mum). Then again, the protagonist is representing, well, all mums, right? Her flaws, her anxieties, her paranoia, her stress, her honesty; that’s being a real mum. So who - WHO - are the real life mean mums?
Sadly, they do exist. And not only in comedy satire. When I was the only kid in the group left out of a party invite, my mum asked why, wondering if it had been a mistake; these things happen. But this birthday girl’s mother brazenly said, “Because I’m sick of your daughter’s name!” I’d recently won a medal in a dancing competition. Not an Oscar. Or a flipping Emmy. Just plastic gold on a ribbon, awarded for doing a few gallops in pantaloons and a straw hat. This had somehow struck a nerve with this particular mother and her child, who had talked about me winning this “medal” so much that I was no longer worthy of attending her fifth birthday shindig. I get that a line needs to be drawn at the number of attendees, but wow, that was just mean. It was said to make my own mother feel bad about herself, like she’d done something wrong, but really, it must have come from a place of deep insecurity.
The competitiveness of after-school activities can be a cesspit for mean mums. Fights breaking out beside the football pitch, not between the kids, but between the parents. The pushiness beside the pool at swimming lessons. And an entertaining dance festival can bring out the worst in some women. Even back in the 90s, I can recall sitting in the audience watching the Tap section, awaiting my turn, and hearing one mother turn to another and say, referring to the 10 year-old on stage, “I can’t stand this kid’s face.” Harsh.
A brand new mum is terrified of the mean mums, even before she’s had an unfortunate encounter with them. The sheer thought of them makes her frazzled, sleep-deprived and battered body avoid attending baby groups. What if I look a mess and my hair is a greaseball? What if my newborn won’t latch? Will I be judged for giving my baby a bottle? Will I be ridiculed, at the very least behind my back? Inevitably - desperate - the new mum bravely goes to the baby group regardless. With huge relief (and probably some meaty tears) she realises that everybody is actually lovely, supportive and - thank God - in the exact same boat. Drowning. Oh, everybody…almost. Because there’s always one mum who just has her act together. Looks down her nose. Gives the backhanded compliments. Passes judgement disguised as “friendly" advice. She’s mean.
And it’s a never-ending part of parenthood.
Mean mum pops up at playgroup - while other mums are offloading similar stories to one another about their personal parenting fails, nodding in solidarity over homemade brownies - and makes a comment that turns Peter Rabbit into Chucky.
“Yikes. Is that your third brownie?”
“Oh, was that your baby having the mighty meltdown?”
“Is she not potty trained yet?”
“We never used a dummy. We never needed it.”
Then, mean mum multiplies when the school years kick in. They’re the ones who not only volunteer for everything, but go on wild-caffeinated missions to whip other lazy parents into helping-for-free. They bundle together and whisper into each other’s ears. They aren’t afraid to eye-roll or scoff at small children behaving normally/irrationally, and dammit, they’re generally well-presented with an air of affluence shining on their head like a halo…
Until you catch them out.
Break ‘em down.
In fact, talk to them.
Okay, okay, okay…the world is not a Disney movie. It’s true that yep, there really are mean mums (and people) out there. But most of the time, it’s not that cut and dry. Generally speaking, people aren’t fundamentally cruel. Their meanness is a misunderstood sense of humour, a crossed wire, a tactless moment, a mistake. It could be their way of building a wall, afraid of letting their guard down. Perhaps it’s the result of the most horrendous morning with their own kids, which has left a permanent scowl on their face, that just looks like it’s directed at you. Mean mums are easy to see, at face value. But try to see the human behind the mask and you might find they’re actually the ones struggling. They’re not mean at all…or, maybe just a tad mean.
Because, aren’t we all?
I’ve done the school run literally running, yelling the whole time to “hurry up, we’re gonna be late,” and dragging my kids through the gate feeling hot and bothered, only to see other mums walking leisurely in the opposite direction, having made it to school right on time. They laugh. Chatter. They look like they don’t have a care (or sweaty brow) in the world. And in that moment, ugh, I forget to be nice…I bet their precious child ate their porridge this morning without spilling it on the floor…I bet she’s going off to get her nails done, AGAIN…Why is she always so smug?? Why?!And just like that, I’ve created a divide; Me vs Them. When really, we’re an us. Mums. Doing the best we can. And I’m aware there are days when I’m super chatty, relieved to get to school before the bell without any major hiccups along the way. I might - might - have even washed my hair! Ugh. Little ol’ smug me! To the mum having a morning from hell, I look sooo sorted, she probably wants to poke me in the eye with the dirty stick her six year old just poked his baby brother with.
Now, look. This isn’t to say mean dads don’t exist. They must. Although, wherever you’re hiding, don’t bother coming out. Good vibes only, please. But statistically, dads don’t put themselves out there enough to find themselves caught out at being mean. The mental load ie. the endless admin of family life, is still commonly managed by the woman. Therefore, she is more likely to be put in a position of feeling judged by other parents, or feeling somewhat worthy to encompass a judgmental nature herself. Think about the school run; what’s the ratio of men to women dropping their kids off? You’ll often see a choppy sea of mums with The Chatty Dad, The Really-Tall-Shy Dad, The Tattoo Dad and The Dad-Always-Wearing-Shorts-Even-When-Its-Cold bobbing about.
According to US statistics by Gender & Society, in 2016 only 14% of stay-at-home parents were fathers to children under the age of 5, and less than 2% for school age children. Although the pandemic saw a rise in men either working from home or contributing to more childcare, the post-Covid figure rose to just 15% for stay-at-home fathers to under fives, and remains at under 2% for fathers of those in school. Even during lockdown when schools switched to online learning, 70% of mothers committed to homeschooling whilst continuing with their jobs or reducing their hours. Radical change is not yet happening. Traditional ideas about gender and parenting and divisions of labour are still going strong. Arielle Kuperberg, Professor of Gender Studies says that, “Until these ideas change, and the stigma of men voluntarily staying home with children is reduced, few men will be willing to take on this role, preventing advancement towards full gender equality in work and family roles.”
So, no wonder mums are the ones who experience the mean mums.
Or, all mums being mean.
At some point.
Because in short, mums are EXHAUSTED.
Of course, in a world where we can be anything, be kind. But let’s be honest. How often have you had a really bad day, then had a blow-out which might have included a rant about a certain person who was winding you up for whatever reason, and ahhhh, you just felt that teensy bit better afterwards? Better out than in, right? Perhaps there is a mean mum in us all. Some just seriously need to learn how to redirect that meanness elsewhere…
So when you meet a mean mum, remember, they might simply wish they were you.
Because let’s face it, you’re smashing it.
No, honestly. You are.