A comment on The Spike from Mills last week has been on my mind. She said that she had read Christine Armstrong’s brilliant book “The Mother of All Jobs” and she had been left a little troubled by the recommendation in the book to have a lot of mum friends and be very involved in the school right from the start.
Just for background, Mother of all Jobs is a book about the challenges of combining work and parenting, with special focus on mothers.
I, too, have been thinking about this a lot recently as the admin required by my children, (who are at different schools, one relaxed, one very strict), seems to have doubled-down this year and I have to be extremely on it to make sure that not only has everything been done, but everything is planned for.
Yes, I am slowly transferring more responsibility onto my children to do things for themselves, but they cannot read the emails, sign the consent forms, order extra football socks from that one place that stocks my son’s school uniform and also tap through the three dozen questions on the NHS app in order to get some antibiotic cream for Kitty’s infected cuticle.
I really wonder, a lot, how women with full-time jobs get it all done. It’s just not something that you can outsource very satisfactorily because with so much of these things you need to be able to see the bigger picture. Or maybe I’m making it all too complicated.
Sorry, I’m getting off topic – Armstrong argues that it is important to be very IN at the school gates metaphorically if you cannot be there much physically. An awful lot gets done, decided, negotiated and sorted out at the daily pick-up and drop-off and if you’re not there, rubbing shoulders and smiling and remembering names, you and therefore your child will get left out of certain things. You will not be in the loop.
I mean, yes sort of. I know women who simply refuse to engage in any aspect of school life. Some of them are my dear friends, some of them are not. They pick up and drop off in silence, if they could wear blinkers they would, they despise the ones who show up in gym wear, they never ever say a word in the class WhatsApp. This is a perfectly okay way to go through school life if you are confident you will never need a favour, that you will never need goodwill personally or goodwill for your child. If you are confident that you and your child will sail through school life with your child never – I don’t know, just off the top of my head – sending a picture of her and five of her friends flipping the bird to an emotionally fragile classmate over WhatsApp.
Put in the very bluntest most brutal terms, putting your time in at the metaphorical school gates isn’t about right now, it’s an insurance policy.
But that doesn’t mean you have to snog everyone at the pickup line and know the health of the school secretary’s mother. Again, you can do that if you like, but it’s not necessary.
Your only goal as you land, blinking at the Reception classroom door – the smell of poster paint and fuzzy carpeting high in your nostrils – ought to be striking a balance between what you want to do and doing your basic duty.
If you are a full time working mother it must be very easy to assume that non-working mothers judge you and are just waiting for you to drop the ball. I haven’t found this. I think it’s true to say non-working mothers don’t particularly like full time working mothers who behave like the school gates is the Bog of Eternal Stench, but are happy to lean on non-working mothers when they find they need to.
But most of the time, non-working mothers appreciate the fight working mothers have on their hands. A good portion of them will have quit their jobs because they looked at what it takes, the sacrifices you have to make and went: “No thanks.” But if you do absolutely nothing for the school or the class and act, even out of fright and shyness, like you’re too good for the place, you may find your panicked request to the WhatsApp group goes unanswered.
The effort required from working mothers is minimal. One appearance at a parents’ social, the occasional useful comment on the class WhatsApp – do someone a favour if you possibly can, donate something to the raffle. You know it’s a token, everyone else knows it’s a token but it is appreciated nevertheless.
As for general socialising, as in getting one or two mates for yourself, the advice is the same as upon entering any institution and that is: keep cool and be yourself, even if it feels wrong, even if that means not getting to know anyone for years. School is not NCT, it’s not nursery – it’s the long haul. You’re going to be there for years. Your children will make the friends that they are going to make and nothing on Earth will be able to stop them, who you choose to be friends with will certainly have zero influence on who they are friends with.
Sod’s Law says they will end up best mates with the mother you couldn’t stand on sight from day one.
But, look, no-one said this was easy.
How about you? How are you finding the Gates this year? I know everyone will have a lot to say about this. Let’s talk.
Cover photo by Trung Pham Quoc on Unsplash
I found this really interesting. When my children started school (over a decade ago), I wasn’t working. I then went back to work full time for a number of years and am now part time, so I feel I’ve done the lot. I always liked to feel connected to school and to know what was going on- it made life feel more integrated, in a way.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think non-working mums judge working mums *at all*. I always felt a mixture of envy (they were off to spend a day with adults, doing important things and wearing Proper Shoes) and inadequacy (how can they keep all those balls in the air while I’m struggling to do half as much?) Likewise when I was working I never judged stay-at-home mothers. I think perhaps we’re all guilty of mistaking our own insecurities for other people’s judgements.
I think this kind of engagement at the school gates and with fellow mums is important. It’s what keeps the wheels on a family/ school/ community/ society. But then, I’m Chair of the pta and Full disclosure, I did the years as a ‘proper’ working mum, nearly collapsed after baby 2 and packed it in to freelance. I would say that, wouldn’t I?
The bit I find interesting is the sex imbalance. It’s still women doing the relationship building work and men, broadly, not.
Expanding on the topic slightly-
Recently my husband was leading the general arrangements of private tutoring for our eldest. Not the kind of task he’s ever been involved in. After he complained about poor communication and lack of specific detail about our daughter from the tutors I suggested he make them his new BFs and, in the nicest, friendliest, politest way, be very sharp elbowed and pushy about calling and getting what he wanted from them for our girl. It’s about the relationship you have with the teacher I said. He sighed tragically and said “ugh I’m just so rubbish at that stuff”.
So yeah, relationships. Invest in them.
I so agree about the sex imbalance. My other half doesn’t have any idea of the amount of time and mental energy involved in building relationships at school, dealing with the admin, the general keeping on top of who is doing what and when, and I find I tend to do all that plus act as a sort of intermediary between him and the children so that he’s always freshly informed of what’s been going on that day and can ask them appropriate questions etc etc.
Obviously an option would be for me not to do all this but I don’t think he would step up- he simply doesn’t see it as stuff that needs to be done- and so everyone’s lives would become a little bit shitter.
Oh thank you for this and for all the amazing (as usual) comments. The working mums versus non-working mums divide: god how sad I feel about that. I hate the vibe that working women own feminism. I’m a working mum and consider non-working parents at the coal face of equality. A good parent is a leader. It is a tough, uncompromising and valuable job that deserves upmost respect and any version of feminism that diminishes that is not feminism IMO. Women have bloody proved they can work. Men haven’t proved they can be non-working dads. Somehow, women need to step back from child duties and men need to step up (and fail if need be). I think the kids will be fine? There are no class reps in Australian/NZ schools but everything seems to run smoothly…
Elaine Woodbridge says
Oh the admin!!! I only have 1 child and am fortunate to work part time but the planning required to remember PE days, music lesson days, is it a school dinner or packed lunch day? Then throw in play dates, birthday parties, non uniform days and all the other ad hoc stuff and I often feel more like my son’s PA!
I am finding this tricky this year as youngest has moved to a new school and I have gone from being the mum who knows everything and everyone to the new mum who has no clue what I’m doing and doesn’t know a soul. I used to love my school gate time – a nice twice-daily ten minute chat with my friends that I looked forward to every day. Now I’m the newbie standing on the edge of the crowd with no mates. It’s so hard to insert yourself into an established group. My daughter is finding the same thing in the classroom as I am in the school yard outside. Although at least for my daughter there is someone assigned to show her the ropes. They should do this for new mums too.
Same for me. Such a hard choice to move schools on behalf of a child (esp when happy with their pals). Moving in the Covid epoch last year surely hasn’t helped. I’ve put out all the friendly vibes and organised a park meet but met with nothing. Dead eyed fish. I dread my kids new school pick up!
Thanks for writing this. My eldest has just gone into year 1 (second year at primary) but because of Covid, it’s the first time parents have been allowed into the playground so it all feels brand new. I work full-time in a very busy job and decided recently give that up to go part time because I just felt like I wasn’t keeping on top of the school stuff. This was after a nursery that had long days and asked very little of parents (although I still managed to send him in with a Harry Potter mark on his head the day after World Book Day…) I’m interested to read the Mother of All Jobs, but worry it might stress me out… And yes, this is something my friends and I talk about a lot, but I don’t get the impression it’s as much on fathers’ minds. Perhaps that’s unfair these days.
Esther, I’m so pleased to have you back. Please can you fix the alerts so everyone knows you’re posting? I love your writing, but also have really missed the comments and I don’t think people know there are new pieces on here.
I am so sorry you had to go part time to manage school. The school system is archaic and hasn’t changed at all to accommodate the massive movement of women into the workforce. It expects us to be 1940s housewife and work full time. We also found a big change moving from a (council) nursery to a (council) school. If nursery can support working parents, surely so can school? My husband is responsible for all things school in our house and six months in he said (quote): “You can’t possibly expect me to do this. It’s too complex.” So I help too but we mostly let a LOT of things slide. (A LOT.) We would probably win some kind of crap parent award, if there was one. I cling to the hope it might encourage independence in our children?
I once heard that your kid starting school is exactly like YOU starting school again and it’s so true. I was working full time when my son started school and the mums were already on their second child and had their mates. I felt very out of the loop and not able to do my bit and judged. I had one friend only because our sons were friends and she was super helpful. She wasn’t my type of buddy at all but god I needed her and I always returned favors at weekends etc. By the time my daughter went to school 4 years later, I was part time. I met great buddies – by throwing myself in mums’ class drinks etc. It was so worth it. You will find a tribe eventually. I agree that the onus is on women to do this which enrages me. Bring class rep, remembering tomboys, decorating fucking jazzy jars etc. My son is now 15 and my daughter walks to school so I no longer have to have anything to do with the gates. It is a daunting and often lonely place. My tips – do the favor first. Help out at the Xmas fair. Buy the ready made fairy cakes in waitrose and ice them to look homemade, MUCK IN. It buys you get out of jail free cards when you are stuck on a work call and need your kid collected. Who knows you may make a friend and find someone who admits struggling with motherhood too. Someone who makes a mean martini on a school night. There is a way to be IN and yet avoid the politics/Boden evenings. I find the quickest way to bonding it to be honest about one’s failings. Then you attract those who are happy to admit they don’t know what they are doing either. What a relief eh?
Crummmumbles, ‘doing the favour first’ sounds like sage advice for most elements of life! I think you might have cracked it….
Meant to add – especially ‘and being honest about one’s failings’. 🙄
I too found this to be very interesting as I have struggled with ‘the gates’, I really have. I thought I would make friends but I haven’t. I thought I would like all the other mums and they would be a bit like me but they’re not. Every time I make a joke it feels as if it hasn’t landed. The competitive nature of the WhatsApp group makes me feel a little sad. Nobody would EVER ask for any help so I mainly opt out. My husband takes our little boy to the parties. I now have a strategy that I walk onto the playground smiling. I don’t really engage with people but keep the smile on all the time and just row my own boat.
On a much more positive note the bag of shite is a true revelation!! Why did I resist this all last year?? The slippy coat, the bookbag, the water bottle all seem manageable and yes, although I feel slightly old lady walking out of school carrying an empty bag I can live with that because hey, I row my own boat now 🙂
Kate I’m sorry to hear this. You have clearly not struck it lucky at your school, sometimes that happens. I felt the same way at university, somehow I had landed in slightly the wrong place at slightly the wrong time and my jokes didn’t land and everyone thought I was kind of dreadful. So I hear you. Luckily it’s only one part of life and thank the Lord for the Bag O Shite
Heather A says
I understand exactly where Kate is coming from that was my experience of primary school parenting. The few mum friends I did make moved away and it was just me. I thought initially it was because of my northern humour didn’t work in South East London. Once I gave up worrying about it I was much happier.
The good news is that primary school doesn’t last forever, now my girls are in secondary school and I don’t have to go near the playground. Keep going Kate and don’t change who you are x
Wondering when the fathers will finally get involved.
Hi! It’s me! I’m Mills! It’s taken me a while to respond as I’m still not sure what I think about this whole school malarkey. I’m pretty good at making friends but I do feel a lot of pressure to ‘nail’ the social side. This is complicated by the fact that my summer born boy isn’t really interested in having play dates or hanging round the school gates, he just wants to go home in peace. I worry he’ll be missing out though, and I should be forcing the socialisation. I’m also currently on maternity leave so I try and be around at school pick up a few times but I also have 4 month old twins and a nanny so that’s not always possible either and it causes carnage if I rock up and disappear afterwards. I have no idea how I’ll manage the admin once I go back to work. Even the WhatsApp load is immense. I guess I just feel like I’m doing it wrong and it shouldn’t be this hard and my child will suffer as a result. My husband thinks I’m insane. Any advice?
Mills you’re certainly not insane but you strike me as being in quite a hypervigilant postpartum state, which I’m sure is heightened if you have twins. It’s tempting when you’re in that state to find problems to solve before they event present themselves. Because you spend your whole day just putting out fires, it’s almost like you start to see fires where there aren’t any. Men don’t get that hormonal surge post-baby (though I’m sure they experience other hormonal changes) so he will not understand your looking for problems.
Your son is also experiencing a major life-change now that he has two extra siblings, plus the huge input from a new school. I’d count your lucky stars that he doesn’t want a load of playdates, and anyway he gets plenty of socialising time at school. The admin will feel less overwhelming when you’re at work and have some mental space to spend 20 mins nailing it, rather than when you’re doing it between feeds, vibrating at a high frequency with new-baby over-stimulation.
This hadn’t even occurred to me, but obviously makes an awful lot of sense now I think about it. Confusing not to be able to rely on your instincts (of course I can’t rely on my instincts when they’re fuelled by no sleep and simple carbs) but there we go. I will hold my nerve and try not to worry about being quite so unqualified.
Oh God yes! This didn’t even occur to me until you pointed it out. Probably not helped by the lack of sleep and mainlining sugar. But what to do about it? Probably hold my nerve and wait for it to pass, I suppose.
Do no harm and take no shit is the way to go I find.
I work full time so (rightly or wrongly) don’t feel responsible for doing the ‘class jobs’ such as presents for teachers and organising get togethers but am always very happy and vocally grateful when others do!