Mom Groups Continue To Exclude People Like It's Their Job

Why Some Women Wield Exclusion Like A Superpower

Woman Whispering in Friend’s Ear
Scary Mommy and Bettmann/Getty

It’s 2011. My three-year-old daughter Molly* and I venture to our first organized mom group get-together in the United States.

“Hello,” the head mom says when she opens the door to her home. “Welcome.” Laughter drifts down the hall. Hope bubbles. We’ve just repatriated from China, and the process has been long and exhausting. I need friends, giggles, camaraderie, a sounding board. So does Molly.

As we enter the playroom, six or seven moms and their littles turn. The moms’ eyes do that “I’m assessing you” flutter with which all women are familiar. Up and down, back and forth. Their lips jitter through a variety of expressions—pucker, turn up, suck in, purse, turn down, twitch, retract. The final retraction is more snarl than smile.

I clear my throat and deliver my elevator pitch—new to town, repatriated to the U.S. after five years in Shanghai, one kid, writer.

Although no one actually yells, “Be gone! You are not one of us!” I hear it loud and clear. So does my daughter. Within ten seconds, we are staring at the backs of the moms and their littles.

“They don’t like us,” Molly whispers. She reads people’s energy better than most adults.

“It’s okay,” I say, bending to pick up a ball that has rolled to a stop at my feet.

“Why don’t they like us?” she whispers.

“Sweetie, I have no idea,” I say.

But that’s a big fat lie. There’s nary a woman alive who, in that moment, wouldn’t know that the moms’ immediate and aggressive disdain for us has absolutely nothing to do with us. Not a damn thing.

MoMo Productions/Getty

It is, in fact, an emotional throwback to the days of cave people when women had to clobber their competition for procreation opportunities, a stash of ripe berries, the hottest woolly mammoth miniskirts, and life itself.

But how do you explain all this to a three-year-old? How do you explain women’s collective refusal to grow beyond their ancient DNA? How do you tell her that when women feel threatened, they close ranks and exclude? How do you help her make sense of the primitive logic behind “exclude before you’re excluded”?

“Kindness to all,” Molly says, her tone a little snarky. She’s got her mad face on now. If I were these moms and their littles, I’d be very afraid.

I take a breath. This is the first time Molly has used my parenting mantra to point out the unkind behavior of others. Having grown up in Pittsburgh, Mister Rogers is my touchstone for all things parenting. His mantra is mine: “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind, the second way is to be kind, and the third way is to be kind.”

But if people aren’t kind to us—if adults aren’t modeling kindness to children—how can I expect my daughter to be kind to all?

As embarrassment, shame, confusion, and anger jockey for position in my heart, I summon my reserve of self-control and resist hurling the ball at the head mom’s noggin.

Kindness to all.

Cue 2020. Molly is twelve years old. The coronavirus pandemic is raging, and the world has gone slightly mad. Our family has been social distancing for ten months, we wear our masks, and my kids (two of them now) are remote schooling. Despite all precautions, my husband spent three days in the hospital with COVID-19. My son and I now have it, too. At the beginning of September, I took a leave of absence from my day job to manage this new reality.

In the midst of it all, I launched a new novel.

It’s a lot.

Yet, still, I’m committed to kindness.

Not surprisingly, my mom groups—all online now—do not share this commitment. While kindness in these groups has reached unprecedented highs throughout the pandemic, it has also reached shocking lows. Fear and panic about this deadly virus have driven moms to shame one another, sling insults, judge each other’s choices, dangle privilege, and, as always, exclude.

Sometimes arguments begin passively. “Moms, I just saw a group of teens riding bikes together in the high school parking lot. No masks. Please talk to your children.”

Often, they’re more aggressive. “WTF, Moms? Whose idiot kid is tooling around with this maskless band?” This approach is usually accompanied by a photo.

With so much of my daughter’s life now online as well, I witness budding teens wielding the same power of inclusion and exclusion in girl groups. It breaks my heart. While Molly has a strong group of friends, some attempts to break into new territory have ended the same way our first adventure into a mom group did in 2011.

One evening, she joins me on the couch with her mad face on.

“They don’t like me,” she says.

“It’s okay,” I say.

“Why don’t they like me?” she says.

At this point, I’ve stopped saying, “Sweetie, I have no idea.” I’ve stopped telling the big, fat lie. Instead, I share big, ugly truth. Many women wield exclusion like a superpower. I talk about cave people, ancient DNA, woolly mammoth miniskirts, and the fact that unless there’s a second Big Bang, this is something she’ll be dealing with the rest of her life.

“But it’s not kind,” she says.

“No, it is not,” I say. “But you can be.” I realize the magnitude of this ask.

After some tears, Molly wanders off to play another game of Bloxburg and I take my Mister Rogers magnetic dress-up doll from a drawer. He is wearing his purple cardigan.

“I’d like to tear the heads off those girls being mean to my kid,” I say.

Mister Rogers is smiling, as always, and I settle into the peaceful feeling I got every time I watched his show as a kid. I take a few deep breaths, then say, “I’m with you, Mister Rogers. As hard as it is, I’m with you.”

Kindness to all.

*name changed for privacy