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The Mommy Wars Come to the Classroom

KarenDempseyI am crouched down in the hallway outside my son Brennan’s third-grade classroom, counting cash to stuff into the teachers’ holiday cards and silently excoriating myself for being so disorganized, when another parent—a friend—walks up and stands over me.

She smirks. “Are you a room parent?”

“Shhh! Don’t tell anyone,” I joke, and then add, “You know, somebody has to do it.”

“I know,” she says. “I just didn’t think you were the type.”

Another friend says, on the subject of chaperoning field trips, “Just say no. End of discussion.” I think maybe she means that she doesn’t have it in her to untangle gum from the hair of a crying child hair in a crowded public restroom. But then she adds, “Leave it to the people who have nothing better to do.”

I resist the urge to pursue the conversation. Because I like my friend, and I’m not sure I want to explore what she’s saying. And I suddenly have that pinched feeling I get when arguments erupt over breast versus bottle, or sleep training versus family bed.

On the other hand. Rewind a year or two, to a wholly unnecessary meeting of parent volunteers where someone brings a formal, printed agenda and strikes up an impassioned debate about binders. I groan and pull at my hair. We are caricatures of ourselves.  When there’s talk of a follow-up meeting I suggest we continue the conversation by email, and then get chastised by a fellow mom who starts off by saying, “I realize you may be too busy with work—.”

These scenes are aberrations, I hope. Not reflective of a bigger thing: Say, the toxic and difficult debate about the balance of working and parenting. Right? Because it would be really silly and self-defeating to bring the mommy wars into the classroom in such a way.

I get that, in the mix of parents at school, there are people who are difficult and domineering. In any work or life situation, there’s someone looking for power in the wrong places.  But it’s also true that somebody needs to help raise money for field trips and make sure there are enough snacks to go around, and tissues, and number two pencils. Those may seem like small things. But they are important. And in too many classrooms, I suspect, it’s the teachers themselves who have to spend time worrying about them.

You know what else? NOT volunteering doesn’t mean a mom cares any less about her kids, or mine. I remember that dismissive “busy with work” remark so vividly because it was bruising. And maybe it was the experience of encountering a similar attitude, spoken or unspoken, that leads my friends to give me grief about helping out at school.

When I was registering my son for kindergarten six years ago, I asked my friend and neighbor Alison about our school’s reputation for parent involvement, and over-involvement. It happens, she said. But she added, wisely, and generously, “I don’t have the time or inclination to get deeply involved in everything that happens at school. But I’m grateful there are people who do.”

Helping out at school has been both powerfully rewarding and unbearably tedious, kind of the way I think of my own experience of school as a child. One of the things I appreciate is that the wall of every classroom has a handwritten list of rules the kids come up with themselves at the beginning of the year. Brennan’s classroom rules include this one:  “Support others and make them feel safe.” Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. But it’s definitely one worth working on.

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This entry was written by Karen Dempsey

About the author: Karen Dempsey has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at www.kdempseycreative.com. or follow her @karenedempsey.

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