My daughter is eight years old, and as I feared, she’s already had her first taste of mean-girl bullshit. Some girl teased her for wearing pigtails and a cat shirt. This little girl made my daughter feel badly about herself simply for wearing her hair in a way that she loves, and wearing a shirt with her favorite animal on it. I knew when I picked my daughter up that day, as I saw her wipe away tears while she buckled her seatbelt, that it was time for the mean girl talk. And in doing so, I had to give my kid some hard truths—the worst of which is that mean girl shit never ends.
I want to tell my little girl that some day, when she’s a mature grownup, the girls who grew up alongside her will also be mature adults. And that all the insecurities of childhood and adolescence will have washed away. That grown women lift each other up, not tear each other down. That her adult girlfriends won’t talk about her behind her back or cut her out if she messes up or isn’t fun enough or doesn’t play the games right or doesn’t like the right girls or dislikes the wrong ones.
I want to tell her all those things, so she has hope for the future, but I can’t. Because from my experience, the same mean-girl crap I faced as a young girl carried into my adult life. And the hard truth I learned (and had to break to my daughter) is that sometimes mean girls grow up to be mean women. And worse, those women then raise mean girls of their own. It’s a vicious cycle.
Years ago, before embarking on my SAHM journey, I showered every morning, wore mascara, and worked in buildings with other grownups. In some of those buildings, my work colleagues became friends. Relationships were healthy, respectful, and supportive. The women who worked alongside me were people I could turn to if I needed anything. They were women I could safely vent to on a hard day and who could trust me to be their safe place as well. They were friends who accepted and loved me for me, and with whom I am still friends to this day, decades later.
Sadly, however, in other places, I did not have the same luck. Other work relationships were not supportive, were not kind, and were, unfortunately, more toxic than anything. In those environments, it was like 7th grade all over again. Only I was in my 30s, with a husband, two college degrees, and a mortgage payment.
One situation stands out to this day as the most prevalent mean-girl scenario. I had just started working at a new job and was eager to make friends again, as I had done previously. However, early in my tenure there, I learned that was not to be the case. I foolishly made the classic “new girl” mistake—I tried to become friends with the wrong person. An outsider. This woman, who was not in the inner circle for reasons that were unknown to me at the time, had invited me to an event. I happily said yes (because yay girlfriends!) and I assumed the other women I worked with would also attend. Except no one did.
And it wasn’t until the following Monday at work that I realized the truth—they all hated her. And they all promptly informed me in not-so-subtle terms that if I wanted in their circle, I had to hate her too. The truth is, this woman had done nothing to me. I barely knew her (just like I barely knew the rest of the women). But I did want inside that circle—the circle that went out for happy hour and hosted book clubs and girls’ movie nights. The circle that, despite being grown-ass adults, I could tell was clearly the “cool club.”
Something had happened a long time ago that caused them to cut her out. But as girls quickly learn (even as young as eight years old), nothing is ever forgotten. Or forgiven. And an incident that actually had nothing to do with me, now had everything to do with me, as I was forced to choose a side and choose who my “friends” would be.
Looking back, I realize that I chose wrong. I chose the popular crowd out of that same childhood desire to be liked and accepted. I played the game. I started acting cold toward the woman I was told to hate, because that was expected of me. She never mistreated me in any way, but I mistreated her the entire time I worked there by refusing her friendship. (Yes, I am ashamed of this.)
And the worst part is, those women I thought would become my friends — as long as I followed the rules—weren’t my friends at all. Not one of these “friends” visited me on my maternity leave, brought me a meal, checked to make sure I was doing okay, or asked to meet my new baby. Throughout the years I worked there, we didn’t visit socially after work and they barely knew anything about me outside of the office. If I was struggling personally, or even professionally, I found myself more likely to contact old friends from other buildings I’d worked in to commiserate, rather than the women who worked right next to me.
The circle of “friends” I chose was catty and negative and talked about anyone and everyone who wasn’t in the room (so I’m damn sure they talked about me). Fellow women were cut down immediately if they dressed wrong, said the wrong thing, or befriended the wrong person. I lived in constant fear of getting the ax, and then having no friends at all. It was stressful and exhausting.
Not surprisingly, once I transferred from that job, I lost touch with all of these women—and what a relief that was.
Now that I’m a mom who has had to comfort her daughter after a mean girl interaction, I ask myself, why do we do this? Why do we force women to choose? Why do we adopt this “you’re either with us or against us” mentality? And how do we raise our girls to be kind and supportive, to lift each other up, when we know that this could be their future—a future of jealousy and cattiness and cut-throat peer pressure?
I guess the best we can do is be honest with our daughters. We need to brace them for the reality that they’ll always encounter mean girls. They’ll be made to choose their whole lives. And they’ll face the fear of ostracism well into adulthood.
But most importantly, by ensuring that we don’t raise mean girls. But rather that we model kindness and support and let our girls see us lift each other up so they know how to do the same when it’s their turn. Unfortunately, a lot of the kids in school who exhibit bullying or unkind behavior are learning it by watching their parents. And worse, sometimes these kids themselves are victims of such mistreatment at home. We can break the mean girl cycle by showing kids some grace when they mess up and then modeling positive and supportive behavior for them to see instead.
So on that day, I pulled my little girl onto my lap. I talked to her about loving herself and not letting anyone make her feel less than. We talked about why she loves wearing her hair in pigtails and why that cat shirt is awesome. We talked about what a real friend looks like and how to find them, how to be them, how to stand up for others and be kind. And we talked about how perfectly amazing and smart and clever and unique she is, and that no one — not an opinionated 2nd grade girl at recess or anyone else — can take that away from her.
Because the world will continue to try and take it—her confidence, her love for herself, her joy. It’s my job to teach her to stand tall, remember who she is, and reply to the mean girls of the world, “I like my hair and shirt.” And hold her head up with pride.
As her mother, it’s my job to teach her to do the right thing, and have the courage that I didn’t always have, when deciding what kind of friend she wants to be.