Fitting In With The School Gate Moms… Or Not
If you, like many of us, spent your youth developing your personality – your Muchness, Alice – it may have been time wasted. All that effort creating a persona so grunge it would make Eddie Vedder look like Jimmy Fallon? That sailor’s vocabulary you inherited from your mother? That fauxtraged attitude that had men in high-pitched giggles and women bellowing guffaws?
Well. Get knocked up and just a few, quick years later, while waiting to pick up your kids from school with ShinyDiscoMom, MarksAndSpencerMom and CorporateSariMom, you realise ‘standing out from the crowd’ is just two poorly understood jokes away from being lynched by the mob.
I like talking to people. Being self-deprecating and mildly outrageous for cheap laughs has always been a fail-safe social survival strategy. So, when I see a 3:45 pm coiffure and blue eyeshadow I cannot resist offering a personal grooming tip: “I find if I don’t comb my hair, you can’t see I haven’t waxed my moustache.” I expect a laugh. I receive discombobulation.
“No, no, not your moustache,” I sputter, “my moustache … Not that I can see your moustache… wait…”
Or, I start a fun, judge-y conversation about something silly, like Tiger Moms or Mommy Rage. People back away slowly. A cold wind blows in the growing space between us.
Apparently, you can’t just talk about any old thing at The School Gate; you have to present with a reassuring amount of conformity.
This usually ends badly for me. Because the first rule of Conformity Club is that you talk about your domestic staff in Conformity Club. If you don’t have domestic staff, you talk about your mothers-in-law. No? Okay, handbags, diamonds, different ways to make a cheese sandwich, Chetan Bhagat (good), school uniforms (bad), how to not exercise but still be thin (never eat). Extra classes? No? Okay, do you at least have Facebook?
I’ve learned this the hard way: Deviate from the above topics, and there could be trouble.
The second rule of Conformity Club is: what you see isn’t always what you get. The mum with the massive, thorny rosebush tattooed on her back may not be a fan of heavy metal music. The bleary-eyed mum didn’t spend all night finishing a project, she just woke up from her afternoon nap. And years later, you will meet the tiniest, quietest, most timid Gate-mommy at the airport in Delhi on her way back from a series of meetings necessitated by her massive export company. (She won’t recognise you at first because, that day, you’d had your hair professionally dealt with.)
Not all the mums try. Codename NinjaMum times her entries and exits with such precision that we now only recognize the back of her head. PeroxideMum smiles broadly at everything anyone says, a glazed look in her eyes. GymMum wears a deflective force field of sunglasses and headphones, all the time. I am GrungeMom, fated to years of bad hair days, dressing like a ‘spot-boy,’ and a yen for discomfiting conversation. It should have been enough to take the easy way out, to avoid the sterile and superficial School Gate socialization completely, like these women. Except… I think I have a deep craving for human mommy connection, even as I weary of failing at the means.
This means I take what I can get with minimal conformity and effort. Finally-5 used to go to a lovely preschool where no one talked to him on the inside and no one talked to me on the outside. I was nonplussed until I realized, halfway through the year, that the wall by my usual waiting place was decorated with graffiti – of a 5-foot-tall, erect penis in blue glittery spray paint. I moved, but it was too late; I was already NotScaredOfPenisGraffitiMom. Only an old Maharashtrian grandfather made occasional conversation with me. At the height of our friendship, he remarked on the gaggle of women disparagingly, “Look at them, always talking about their maids.” Then, he asked if I got my muscles doing my own housework. In that moment of camaraderie, I considered starting a rival kitty comprising just the two of us. I imagined us sashaying past these ladies, engrossed in intelligent conversation about crop failures, the police force, comparing deltoids earned from carrying our own babies rather than designer handbags. But I couldn’t muster the nerve.
Or the energy. It could be an age thing. The intersection in the Venn Diagram of Them and Us have grown progressively smaller with each child. I am still reasonably safe for up to 10 minutes of unrestrained conversation with most of the parents of the eldest’s peers. With most in the 10-year-old’s set, it’s usually laugh, laugh, festive-season-excess joke, someone saying “My husband told me to lose weight,” before I snort enthusiastically, “The nerve! Ask him how he gets on his high horse with those thighs?” Then … silence. A cold wind begins to blow around my hand, raised for a high-five that is never meant to be. “What horse was she even talking about?” someone will say under their breath as the circle closes, leaving me out.
The School Gate is a social phenomenon. For 10 years per child, you see the same people very regularly for an amount of time, though inconsequential in span, significant in constancy. I will recklessly say I may have even forged a few real friendships over the years. Okay, two real friendships. That’s about it.
Finally-5 is at a new school now, that seems to love him as much as he loves it. He goes in beaming every day. But outside, the mothers are all at least a decade younger than I am. Today, after months of polite smiles and hiding behind my phone, one of them, YoungPrettyMom, enthusiastically grabs my arm and frog-marches me to “our class” group.
“Don’t look so shy,” she beams at me.
She has totally misread my reticence. I smile, wearily looking down the barrel of another 10 years of socialization at a brand new school gate. I can foresee the misunderstood humour, the familiar taste of my foot in my mouth, that old, cold wind. It’s been almost 25 years since Pearl Jam’s first album, Ten. I’m going to have to explain to them what Grunge is.
It might be easier to buy a new wardrobe. And a hair iron.