Not long ago, on the Facebook page of a moms’ group I won’t name (but ladies, we know who we are), there was a lively discussion — oh hell, let’s be honest, it was an all-out-attack — on the high energy, Type-A, uber-moms who tend to serve in leadership positions in PTA-type organizations, and how “they” make the rest of our lives miserable.
I admit, I piled on, the way lots of others did, with my own story of having to accommodate these pushy broads who can, at first glance, seem to have some traits in common with Mussolini: they’re imperious and dictatorial, but you can be damn sure they make the trains run on time. Okay, there are no trains at school, but you get the idea: they make sure the big fundraisers and other school events that have to happen, happen. And in these days of budget cutbacks, these events really do have to happen.
As the chain of negative comments on the Facebook page grew among the aggrieved moms, me included, tempered by the occasional “let’s give these women a break, they’re not really that bad” sentiment, I pondered why there’s so much tension between those moms who take on these leadership roles at our schools, and those of us who just show up and lend a hand when we can. Is it because, as my husband always says, life is high school played out over and over, only now people have a little (or a lot) more money? Sure, there are cliques, and there are grown-up mean girls. But do these sort of immature social dynamics really explain the tension between moms at the same school, or is there something else going on?
I found myself thinking of a successful media company executive who years ago told me he could never work in non-profits. When people aren’t getting a salary for their work, he explained, the politics and infighting are much worse than they are in the corporate world. People think because they’re donating their time (and/or money) that everyone has to listen to them, that they’re right, and that no one had better question them because after all, they’re doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.
It’s easy to imagine how this sort of self-justification can be exaggerated when everything’s being done in the name of our children. “I’m just here for the kids,” the uber-PTA moms rationalize. In this way, a lot of bad behavior can be justified.
For those of us who are not uber-PTA moms, but tend to show up when we can and say, “give me something to do,” it’s not surprising that when another mom volunteer high-handledly orders us around, we imagine that she’s given up some high-powered career to be a mom and as a result, she has sublimated her ambitions and the PTA is now the only outlet for them. We see her as someone who feels compelled to exercise way too much control over how the cupcakes are arranged on the bake sale table.
But who’s to say we’re right about her? We should probably give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she’s got some good ideas about how to Martha Stewart-ize the display of the baked goods that’ll actually maximize sales. Maybe she still works, or works part-time, and is damn good at her job… but she just doesn’t realize she needs to shut off the “boss” switch at the bake sale. Or maybe she DID give up her career to raise her Mini-Me. That’s her choice, and she’s entitled to it (even if some of us gripe that we could never afford to make her choice, and thus resent her for that, too).
Whatever the reason she’s a little insane with the control issues, one thing should not be in dispute. She’s taking the school duties far too seriously. She needs to be told to lighten up before driving the rest of us crazy. But here’s the thing: telling her that takes guts, or at least really good interpersonal skills, and it’s so much easier to kvetch about her with other moms, behind her back. So that’s typically what the rest of us do. “Can you believe she ….” the sentence always begins when we pull a mom friend aside to gossip. You can use your imagination to fill in what comes next. And suddenly we’re the mean girls.
I say, let’s take a moment to appreciate the Uber-PTA mom for filling the Bake Sale Chairwoman committee job we’re too busy or too exhausted to do ourselves. Yes, it’s true, sometimes some of these women are off-putting to the rest of us, and even make us reluctant to get more involved. But the PTAs of the world don’t run themselves. People with energy and time on their hands are needed to run them, and these people tend to be bossy. The schools need them; our kids need them. It doesn’t mean we have to like them.
As a dad friend of mine once said when asked to volunteer at his kids’ school, “Don’t make me be your friend. Just tell me how much to make out the check for.”
When I can, I try to do more than write a check. I plan to keep showing up at my kids’ school events when work and life permit, even though it means putting up with uber-PTA moms. I’ll try not to let them diminish my enthusiasm for pitching in. And I’ll probably still find myself thinking the occasional snarky thought about them. But it’ll be tempered with some appreciation for what they do.
If they want to run the show, so be it, because I can’t. I’m just there to sell some cupcakes.
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