Mean mums: when it comes to playground politics, are parents worse than children?

Bullying tactics can involve an offended parent leaving out the other's child from play dates, birthday parties and car lifts

“You’re not invited to my party.” Once a comment associated with childish squabbles, this sentiment of social exclusion and bullying is now spilling into the parental sphere, with mums partaking in the kind of playground intimidation tactics we normally associate with primary school.

Being uninvited to a party is an all-too-familiar scenario for mum-of-two Emily Russo. “It started when I texted a mum from Ava’s school to ask for the details of her daughter’s party as we’d only had a save the date,” she says. “She didn’t reply for ages and then asked if she could speak to me in person. At drop-off the next day, she said it would be better if Ava didn’t come as her daughter claimed that Ava had been mean to her. I’ve been in tears ever since; Ava was so excited about going and all her friends have been invited, so I can’t exactly hide it from her. I’m sure this mum’s been telling everyone about it: every time I go to school, I feel like all the other mothers are judging me.”

A mum friend started ignoring me after our daughters had a fight ... she spent a year turning her head every time I walked past and made all her friends do the same
Fiona McCann, Irish expat living in Copenhagen

Russo is not alone in feeling this way. Six out of 10 mums reported feeling judged by another parent in a survey by the University of Michigan, while a report by American magazine Marie Claire found that 80 per cent of millennial mums felt they’d been shamed about their parenting by another mum.

Having spent three years in Dubai, forming amazing friendships with mothers both similar and different to me, I had not experienced being shamed until I moved to Perth, Australia, where my parenting rubbed some other mothers up the wrong way.

At first, the mums in my 8-year-old daughter’s class were welcoming and inclusive. But problems arose when the daughter of the class mum reported my child wouldn’t share the swing. When I suggested they work out the problem themselves, her mother was furious, although she didn’t say anything at the time. Instead, all invitations and communications dried up.

A week later, she threw a Halloween party and invited all my daughter’s friends, except for her. When I suggested we have coffee to discuss it, she told me my parenting made her feel uncomfortable and shouted that the class had been fine until my daughter joined. We left the school shortly afterwards.

Sharing my story with others, I was overwhelmed by the response. Whether it was about watching another parent exclude their child or being excluded themselves, messages came in from around the world.

“One mum friend of mine started ignoring me after our daughters had a fight,” says Fiona McCann, an Irishwoman who was living in Copenhagen at the time before returning to Dublin. “She spent a year turning her head every time I walked past so she didn’t have to acknowledge me. She made all her friends do the same.”

Dragging children into an adult's mess

A Briton living in Denmark got in touch to tell me how her daughter had been left out of a weekly car-lift share, with the only explanation being a text message out of the blue, saying: “I wanted to let you know I’ve formed a group lift to ballet with the girls from the school class, but I’ve left your daughter out of it.” When asked, the child had no idea what she’d done wrong.

“Most of the time the bullying is about the adult,” says clinical psychologist Dr Rose Logan. “However, the child may get packaged up and referenced in comments or bullying that is being directed at the parent.”

Sometimes, the very online communities set up to help us deal with parenting woes can be the source of the conflict.

“I made the mistake of posting on a popular British parenting Facebook group about antihistamine because my daughter Belle had a terrible cold and I wanted her to be able to get some sleep on a flight home,” says former Dubai resident Hannah Armitage. “I was inundated with messages from other mothers telling me how awful I was for wanting to drug my child. I ended up leaving the group.”

Online bullying and trolling is as unpleasant as bullying in real life and in some ways harder to escape "as it intrudes into your personal life and home”, says Logan.

Even celebrities aren’t immune to online abuse. Last year, David Beckham was rounded on for posting a picture of him kissing his daughter Harper on the lips, while Chrissy Teigen and Hilary Duff have also come under fire online for their parenting styles.

But Logan is quick to point out that the problems didn’t begin with social media. “I suspect as long as there have been parents and children, there has been rivalry and bullying between parents.”

With increased parental involvement in schools, it’s clear the problem is on the rise. “When a parent’s self-worth or esteem is tied up with their children, the stakes are higher and the potential for bullying will likely go up with them,” says Logan.

Even teachers are starting to take notice. The teacher at the school in Perth my daughter left expressed her frustration at the dominance of the class mum and tabled a motion to stop individuals holding the position for more than a year (the mother in question had held the position for four years and has subsequently become the head of the PTA), but ultimately her hands were tied.

“It’s not something I’ve seen personally, but teacher friends of mine in the UK have told me some horror stories about the infighting that goes on between the mums in their classes,” says Dubai primary schoolteacher Rachel Pain. “In Dubai, the parents tend to be a bit more accepting.”

The multicultural nature of the UAE and its residents may be a saving grace. “I think many people who choose to live and raise children in Dubai want to live in an environment where there are many different types of people,” says Joanne Jewell, Mindful Parenting founder, and child, adolescent and family consultant.

For those who are unlucky enough to stumble across those less accepting, Jewell has this advice: “Be kind to yourself. Remember if someone is bullying you, you haven’t done anything to deserve it. It isn’t your fault.”

Don’t give in to bullies

Psychologist Dr Rose Logan, of the Genesis Healthcare Centre in Dubai, shares her tips for parents who feel they’re being bullied by another parent:

  • Talk it through with a trusted friend or family member. They may help you see things you could not see before or point out if your own narratives are at play.
  • Focus on friendships that make you feel safe and valued.
  • Ignore the bully where possible and try not to react or show too much emotion in front of them.
  • If your child feels upset about being excluded, talk to them about how they’re feeling and help them to focus on other friendships.
  • Create your own mum gang who will support you and remind you that what you do is enough.

Polly Phillips is the author of My Best Friend’s Murder, a thriller about toxic friendships, which won the Montegrappa Writing Prize at the Emirates Literature Festival in 2019

Updated: November 10th 2021, 3:58 AM