Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 9/8/2008 8:25:04 AM ET 2008-09-08T12:25:04

As a new mom hoping to feel less isolated in suburban Los Angeles, writer Helaine Olen joined a playgroup with her infant son. But instead of finding the support she craved, she was stunned to encounter junior-high-style gossip, cruelty and cliquishness.

“Women don’t suddenly become nice just because we’ve had kids,” observes Olen, 43, now the mother of two sons and living in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. “If you get a group of 10 women together, chances are there’s going to be one bad seed, and that’s all it takes to destroy the group.”

Of course, many new moms find that playgroups are an invaluable source of comfort during their initiation to the often-overwhelming world of modern motherhood. After all, where else could you find people willing to sit through two hours dissecting breast-feeding schedules or interpreting the meaning of baby bowel discolorations?

Yet stories abound of playgroups that descend into madness. There are fights over whether a special-needs or non-vaccinated child should be included . Disputes over the etiquette of bringing a sick child. Playgroups that disband after one toddler bites another. Women who get “fired” from their playgroups.

(In comparison, the main source of drama some at-home dads report is the frosty welcome they receive when trying to infiltrate, er, join a moms-only playgroup.)

Beyond the playgroup, moms often find that petty behavior can continue right through nursery and elementary school, with exclusionary e-mail messages for a moms’ night out or vicious playground rumors that one wealthy mother had hired a wet nurse for her newborn.

Like going ‘back to high school’
Carren Joye, author of “A Stay-at-Home Mom’s Complete Guide to Playgroups” and a mother in Millbrook, Ala., says what most often brings out playgroup clashes is failure to discipline an unruly child. “When a mom feels her child has been slighted in some way — for example, when a child hurts another child, or takes away his toy — she turns into that mama lion, and her first impulse is to protect her cub.”

Emily Lewis, 29, a mom of two who lives near Petersburg, Va., once received an e-mail threatening suspension from her playgroup organizer because her son had reportedly been pushing another small child. “I know he did no such thing,” she says. “It caused me a lot of anxiety. I always had to be on guard for what someone might say so we wouldn’t get kicked out.”

Lewis eventually dropped out, and she’s vowed to avoid any more formally organized playgroups in her new town. “It takes the civility out of it. Rather than just talking to each other about their problems, people take their problems to the club officers. It just ends in suspicion and hurt feelings.”

Others find playgroup dramas tend to be simple cases of personality clashes.

“It was exactly like back to high school,” recalls Stacey Devendorf, 33, a real estate agent in Lynn, Mass., who never fully clicked with her daughter’s playgroup. “If you worked, had political views, even music tastes that differed, you were ostracized. The women that deviated left the group or didn’t feel welcome.”

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Devendorf thinks it’s a fallacy to believe that having kids is enough of a basis to form a friendship. “It’s like going up to a random stranger and forcing yourselves to be friends,” she says. “You either click with people or you don’t.”

Olen, who just published a piece about her playgroup meltdown called “Mean Moms” in the new anthology “The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change,” offers an intriguing theory for what’s really behind much of the drama.

She suspects most new moms who reach out to a playgroup tend to be lonely and feeling the loss of societal status that can come with motherhood. But instead of addressing the issues they now share — like the need for quality day care and flexible work schedules — they claw at each other, diverting themselves with petty squabbles.

“People were confronting each other about little things, like who’s being asked into this music class,” she recalls. “But nobody was asking the hard questions, like why are we here, and what brought us to be in this room. …

“When we feel powerless, we turn on each other,” she adds. “In our desperation to get a leg up, we moms bring one another down.”

Today, Olen has accepted that she doesn’t have to befriend every parent just because their children become pals. “I’ve given up on the idea that I’m going to make friends with all my kids’ friends’ parents. It’s not going to happen.”

Ground rules can minimize conflicts
But experts say there are some ways to encourage moms to play nice. One is setting up playgroup ground rules at the beginning, says Sandra Wallace, co-founder of the Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS), a non-profit in Seattle that organizes volunteer-led playgroups for new mothers.

“Have some guidelines,” Wallace says. “What are the boundaries? What will we do if someone bites or pushes? Can another mother discipline a child?”

It’s also helpful to have realistic expectations of what is developmentally appropriate. “Parents often have unrealistic expectations of what a child can do,” she says. “Two-year-olds don’t share.” They do, however, have tantrums.

“The best way to avoid conflicts is to set the group up in a way that encourages success,” agrees Cathy Ward, playgroup organizer for the Durham Mothers Club, a moms’ group in Durham, N.C. Her guidelines: mixing children under age 3 within three months of one another, first-time moms with first-time moms and working moms with working moms, and making sure drive times aren’t longer than about 15 minutes.

Ward also suggests initially signing up for several playgroups to find the one that is the best fit for each individual. “The personality clashes work themselves out naturally,” she says. “Those with strong opinions drive moms to join other playgroups.”

But if another mother is really grating your nerves, should you bolt? Confront her?

“My advice when you don’t agree on a topic is that you should always tell someone their point of view is interesting, that you will seriously consider what they said, and then switch the topic of conversation gently,” says Kay Doyle, 38, a Norfolk, Mass., mom of two who founded the Saturday Club, which runs weekend playgroups aimed at working mothers around Boston. “Getting into a pitched battle in front of preschoolers is never a good idea.”

But sometimes, she says, even someone with good intentions can drop a clunker.

For instance, one mom posted on the parenting Web site YouBeMom about the tactless working mom in her playgroup who, while debating whether or not to leave her job, told a group of stay-at-home moms, “I can’t imagine staying at home and not using my brain.” What followed: “Awkward silence.”

And Ward tells of a playgroup that almost fell apart when one Asian mother called another mom’s bi-racial baby “chinky,” a term intended affectionately but taken as a racial slur by the other dumbstruck moms.

“I always suggest giving someone the benefit of the doubt in those situations,” Doyle says. “Most of the time, they didn’t mean to insult and have no idea what the impact of the comment was. If someone really is out to rattle your cage, just cheerfully suggest to your child that you both go play with something on the other side of the room.”

“Many conflicts result from a lack of understanding,” says Debbie Cole, a regional coordinator for the International MOMS Club, a group for at-home moms with more than 2,000 chapters. “Once people talk, many times it will work itself out.”

Should I stay or should I go?
If someone is causing extreme strife, delegate one tactful person in the group to speak with her about the matter gently.

Joye was once asked to talk to a new member whose laid-back style didn’t fit in. “She came into playgroup, slipped off her shoes, curled up with her feet on the sofa and never prepared her children’s snacks,” Joye says. She also didn’t want to take her turn hosting, a playgroup rule that Joye used to hint that the playgroup wasn’t for her and encourage her to quit. “It was a way for us both to save face, so to speak.”

Of course, if you’re truly miserable, it’s perfectly fine to cut and run. You can always blame a change in schedules or nap time.  But Wallace points out that staying can often be a good life lesson. “Your child is going to go to school with all different kinds of people. The goal is to learn to respect differences in people.”

Melissa Schorr is a Boston-based freelancer who has written for The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe Magazine, Reuters Health, Working Mother, Self, GQ and People. She is the author of the young adult novel “Goy Crazy.”

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