school

A beginner's guide to school gate politics.

So your little one starts kindy in the new year, huh? It’s an exciting time with lots of new things to think about; lunchboxes, uniforms, making friends, homework, setting the alarm to go off at dawn and then leaving it there for the rest of your foreseeable life.

You spend months preparing your child for the changes ahead. At the mere hint of wobbliness, you leap straight into crazy cruise director mode; Big school’s great! Wait till you see all the fun things you’ll get up to! You’re gonna love it!, all the while sending up a silent prayer of thanks that you never have to go through all that crap again yourself.

Because the cliques, the gossiping, the judginess, the playground politics, they’re all behind you now, right?

Wrong.

The mean girls, the cool girls, the sporty girls - they didn’t go away, they just got bigger. And now they’re back.

Fact is, the minute your child steps foot inside that classroom, with big ol’ deer in headlights eyes and a wobbly smile that you can just about make out over the top of the gargantuan bag strapped to his back that threatens to swallow him whole (why WHY do they make them so big?), you officially start school too.

Only this time, none of the action takes place in the classroom, it all happens at the school gate.

The school mums. You already know them, you’ve met them all before. The mean girls, the cool girls, the sporty girls - they didn’t go away, they just got bigger. And now they’re back.

Like the proverbial watering hole, at approximately 3.05pm every afternoon they gather outside every school gate of every primary school across the country, pushing aside their natural instinct to kill each other (or at the very least, remain as far apart as humanly possible) united in one shared purpose…to collect their tired, hot and cranky young and deliver them back to the lair.

Which means, in the minutes between 3.05pm and about 3.15pm, you’re open prey.

My kids have moved around a bit so we’ve seen our fair share of school gate action. Some things are different, some things are always the same.

There are the fit mums, pimped out in their lycra activewear, fitbits gleaming from their wrists. Having kids is no excuse to let yourself go! their whole demeanor cries. In fact, most of them have dropped a couple of sizes since giving birth. They love nothing more than giving you a blow-by-blow account of how training’s going for their next half, full or triple marathon. It’s riveting stuff. Anyone still carrying a bit of baby weight or a wobbly self-esteem is best advised to give this group a wide berth.

Picking up the kids in my activewear. Image via iStock.
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Then there are the cool mums, who breeze in all blonde highlights and denim cut-offs and pristine Supegra sneakers, effortlessly nailing that chic-yet-comfy-enough-to-mess-around-with-the-kids vibe to perfection. They very often go braless, cos, you know, saggy post-breastfeeding boobs didn’t really happen to them, which is just another reason to hate them. More often than not they’ll run some stylish little sideline in interior design or hand printed children’s t-shirts, which they post about on Instagram in between school drop off and pick-up. The lessers, like me, gravitate towards them like bees to a honeypot, hoping a bit of that cool will rub off. It never works.

The mummy pros are hard to miss; their hair is a mess, their legs are unshaven and their clothes usually sport a few splashes of the spag bol they threw into the slow cooker that morning. But they exude a kind of confidence and knowingness that makes the rest of us sigh. They practically run the school single-handed, and somehow seem to get everything right, whether it’s whipping up a diorama from a few old toilet rolls and a wire coat hanger, getting all their kids library books back on time, or remembering the teacher’s birthday. My advice? Proceed with extreme caution or you’ll find yourself manning the second hand uniform stall or in charge of working bee roster for the next six years.

At this point, if you cast your eye around the fringes of the school gate, you might spot that most elusive of creatures, the stay-at-home dad. There he is, lurking behind the agapanthus, eyes glued to his iPhone as he deals with very important business matters (i.e - next level of Clash of Clans), looking like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world but here. Wouldn’t we all.

The cool mum.

But one of my personal favourites has to be the teacher stalker, a mum who seems no shame in hovering on the top step outside their child’s classroom every day, ready to pounce on the poor, unsuspecting teacher (although, to be fair, surely she must have come to expect her by now), demanding to know why little Johnnie is still getting his readers from the yellow box when he’s clearly more than ready for fuchsia, or why Genevieve hasn’t been picked for the gifted and talented class when she could so benefit from the extra stimulation. Jokes aside, watch out – more than once I’ve found this type rifling through my child’s bag so she can find out where he’s at with his spelling.

Then there are the angry mums, the ones who are constantly moaning about everything from the who their kid is seated next to in class (‘he’s only there to be a positive influence on the ADD boy. Why is he being punished for his goodness?’ I overhead one such mum to cry) to the proclivity of refined sugars in the birthday treats (because, really, what could be more celebratory than a bit of hummus and a handful of carrot sticks?) All that bitching is really quite exhausting, and she’s generally far too busy to actually do anything to help the teacher out.

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You may not see much of the working parents, but you’ll know who they are – they’re the ones just pulling up as the rest of you are about to drive off, 10 minutes late and flying down the street, leaving a trail of sweat and stress and guilt in their wake. Once in a while you’ll spot them trying to conceal a box of shop-bought birthday cupcakes beneath their Country Road suit jacket, and you’ll hope and pray their kid isn’t in angry mum’s class.

My advice? Choose your tribe with care. For once you have shown your solidarity to one group – and, more importantly, been accepted by it – it’s near-on impossible to move to another. And not to add to the pressure, but where you stand and who you talk to can dictate your child’s entire social future. Do you really want them to get stuck with the peanut allergy kid or the one who spends all his free time blasting small furry animals on XBox?

Georgia Madden is the author of Confessions Of A Once Fashionable Mum. Image supplied.

The pressure can be overwhelming. So you hover around the sidelines, trying to look like you belong/ know what you’re doing while thinking how the hell you’re ever going to find a kindred spirit among this motley group. You seriously consider home schooling for about a minute or whether you’ll be reported to DOCS if you just get your kid to meet you at the car every day.

‘It’s all in your head,’ my mum used to say when I was at school and struggling to find my place in the playground. ‘You wait – by the end of the year, most of them will be your best friends.’ While she wasn’t completely right about the ‘best’ part, she was bang on about the rest of it. Twenty-odd years on, her words still ring in my ears.

Because somewhere in that first year, things change. Lines become blurred. Your sameness suddenly becomes more important than your differences. Because while your cars, your outfits and your attitudes may be miles apart, you’re all on the same journey: to get your kids through the primary school years as happily, as healthily, as possible.

These crazy mums, the ones you can’t ever imagine having a single thing in common with, will become your friends. They’ll be the ones you’ll turn to - for advice, a shoulder to cry on, an emergency pick up when you’re stuck in traffic or, ahem, trying on swimwear in the David Jones changing room, over and over and over again. They’ll have your back, and you’ll have theirs. Don’t believe me? Just wait and see. Big school’s great! You’re gonna love it!

Are you involved in school gate politics at your child's school?

Georgia Madden’s first novel, Confessions of a Once Fashionable Mum, is out now.