Sunday, 31 August 2014

Playground pick up? It's just like being back at school

I hated school.  Hated it.  26th May 1995 was the day that I left and I still count it as right up there with my wedding day as one of the happiest days of my life.  Schools have a kind of prison-like quality to them, with their high fences and heavy metal gates; strictly monitored and locked between the hours of 9:30 a.m and 3 p.m.   And even if you were to somehow work out the code to open the gate, you still have to master the locked door, complete with buzzer, and be admitted by the gestapo on the front desk.  And no one is entering or leaving that building without scribbling their name and mission on the signing in book.
This is all very reassuring for us parents of course, for we want to know that the dearest things in the world to us are as safe as can be, but I can never shake from my mind the fact that while the school is undoubtedly concerned about locking the bad guys out, they are equally determined to lock the children IN.
Years later I can still conjure up the unpleasant feeling of being deposited at the school and left behind a sealed glass door at the end of a labyrinthine network of corridors that I could never have hoped to find my way out of alone.  To make matters worse you're incarcerated in a room full of people who you don't know and would never have met at all except for the fact that they too were born in the same nine month time span as you.  In my case, the person who was supposed to be in loco parentis, my reception teacher, was clearly Peri-menopausal, hated children and had all the kindness and patience of Cruella Deville.  And what the hell was that smell? A combination of rubbery floors, wet coats and soup.

Group dynamics

As you grow and become accustomed to the school environment (read: institutionalised), the focus shifts, inevitably, to your fellow inmates. Sorry, classmates.  Very early on factions and cliques develop and the pressure to belong to one of them is intense.  Like minded individuals tend to recognise similar personality traits and therefore gravitate towards one another.  Once a person is a member of a particular group, it is nigh on impossible to switch allegiance, although with girls at least, there appears to be a certain amount of toing and froing during the primary phase until the cliques become pretty much fixed in secondary school.
Before my eldest child started school, I naively supposed that I'd left all this behind me on 26th May 1995.  Just one term of standing on the playground at drop off and pick up time was enough to disavow me of that particular notion.
I was back on the school yard.  And so were the cliques.

Feeling cliquey

There's the Older Mums, who don't feel that they relate to the younger mums; the Young Mums who don't feel they relate to the older ones; the Working Mums, who are instantly recognisable by the high heels and tailored clothes, and the fact they are always rushing because they have to start before 9:15; the Earth Mothers, who usually come complete with at least one child strapped to their chest and always wear Birkensocks (for some reason these mums have a boy called Felix and they never cut his hair. Why? Why?) and the Yummy Mummies, who rock up to school every single day with a face full of slap, hair dried and straightened, looking immaculate.  
Even outside of these broad groupings there are minor, less stable cliques, based upon nothing more than the fact that we have children who are the same age.  We may have never spoken to one another except on that playground, yet we are thrust together every morning and every afternoon for at least five minutes until the kids come spewing out, arms waving, coats trailing, pony-tails skew-whiff.  

Not fitting in

Does any of this sound familiar? Try this anecdote for size:
It's quarter past three on the playground.  I hover at the perimeter; not because I'm too timid to walk straight into the centre, but because I have my dog with me and all canines are banned from the school yard.  As usual I'm red faced and a bit sweaty, having had to run part of the way because my time-keeping is appalling.  Because today I can't go onto the school yard, I'm forced to stand next to the Dog Owner Mums, a clique that I am most definitely NOT a member of.  They all have children in a higher year than my daughter, and this is the parental equivalent of looking down on lower school when you're in upper: They gave birth two years before me, and therefore are far more experienced and know far more than me.  To add insult to injury, their dogs are all well-behaved, and mine is, quite frankly, an embarrassment.  My two year old cocker spaniel is beside herself with excitement to be at school; a place teeming with people, new 
smells, and three new doggy friends nearby! One of them, a beautiful, dignified looking Husky, takes one step towards my dog to have a curious sniff.  
'Down,'  her owner snaps.  The Husky drops to the floor at once.  My dog is now choking herself - very audibly - in her desperation to get to the Husky, who is eyeing her with a look that blatantly says, 'you are a disgrace to the entire Dog Nation.'  The owner turns to give me a look that I believe carries a similar sentiment.
I spend the remaining five minutes until chuck-out time pondering the situation whilst pulling my dog away from each and every passer-by.  These are the conclusions I came to:
The school playground can be a place of hostility, unbridled bitchiness and rampant competitiveness.  But it can also be a place of great kindness, huge camaraderie and massive comfort during times of worry.  I have met some lovely, inspiring people during the past four years; people who I absolutely would never have met if it weren't for the random fact that our children were born in the same academic year.

We are all mothers

So what about the cliques then? thirty-five I'm certainly too old to be a young mum, but tooyoung to be considered amongst the ranks of the more mature mothers.  Being a full-time mum/homemaker/housewife/unemployed person (pick whichever phrase is most pleasing to you), I most definitely can't belong to the Working Mums, although maximum respect goes to them for getting it together day after day, when it's sometimes a challenge for me to do the breakfast dishes before I leave the house in the morning.  I really would love to be a Yummy Mummy of course, but such dedication is beyond me.  I consider it a result if I manage to get in the shower before I leave in the morning.  Which I suppose leaves me as an Earth Mother, for no other reason than that I actually do own a pair of Birkenstocks...


  1. I wrote the above post more than two years ago and have decided to resurrect it in honour of school restarting again on Tuesday. I have edited some of the particulars. Please pray (or spare a thought if praying isn't your thing) for all the little children, and the not so little ones, who are starting school this September. May they have fun, make friends, and

  2. ...not miss their mums too much!