Do Mean Girls Grow Up to Be Mean Mommies?

Women’s mags tells us that ‘Mean Moms’ are the latest iteration of the Mommy Wars—but do they actually exist?

Marie Claire is trying to make “mean moms” happen.

According to a new 2,500-word feature in the women’s mag, a fresh set of troops have entered the great Mommy War: “Mean moms” are white, they’re privileged, and their tactics are so insidious, writer Anne Roderique-Jones reports, they’re driving droves of others mommies into therapy.

“At mommy-meet-ups across the country, women have stopped playing nice,” Roderique-Jones writes, describing (mostly through a series of anecdotes) “a rise” in entitled, judgmental, aggressive, mom bullies.

After decades of cover stories on the mommy wars, and a rise in mother-specific media to push the hottest and most enduring cat fight in modern times, this advancement in infighting seems hardly surprising. But are “mean moms” even real or are they just the most recent shot fired in a war in which a truce seems unlikely, the latest iteration of straw-moms we need to feel better about our own parenting? Maybe the moms are all right, after all.

The “Mommy Wars” as we know them officially began 30 years ago, and were first documented in a 1989 Jan Jarboe Russell feature for Texas Monthly. Jarboe opens the feature with an experience of her own: the afternoon when a stay-at-home mother, aggrieved by Jarboe’s career status, pelted her with a head of lettuce at the grocery store.

Throughout that seminal piece, Jarboe tells the stories of women on the receiving end of snide remarks at Girl Scouts meetings and on Little League fields; of carpool drivers asserting their worthiness by wearing T-shirts with passive aggressive pro-SAHM mom quips like, “Every mother is a working mother”; and women like Susan Reed, a Texas District Court Judge who reported feeling intimidated by the stay-at-home moms at kids’ parties. “I’d rather face a notorious drug dealer or murderer in my court than have to go to one of those parties,” Reed told Jarboe. “I always go home feeling like a social failure.”

In 1989, the tension between working mothers and stay-at-home moms was “simmering but rarely discussed,” Jarboe wrote. Three decades later, we can’t stop talking about it.

In her 1990 book, Women Together, Women Alone, Anita Shreve wrote about the “deep division” between the two factions. “One group feels exploited and/or dismissed by the other,” she wrote.

Later that year, Newsweek devoted its cover to the conflict. “Tension between mothers is building as they increasingly choose divergent paths,” it said. And the media, eager to sell magazines to mothers—the most coveted of consumers—have been all-too-happy to fan the flames.

A 2002 cover story in New York magazine, declared “working and nonworking mothers are slugging it out in the schoolyard over who's the better parent—and who gets to have a sex life.” By 2005, Newsweek’s cover was selling us on “The Myth of the Perfect Mother.” And in 2012, Time famously (and sarcastically) asked readers if they were “Mom Enough,” to pick sides in the attachment parenting debate, while Anne-Marie Slaughter caused her own uproar with an essay in the Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which quickly became the most-read article in the magazine’s history.

As hostilities between the camps intensified (or coverage of them increased), the battle lines have spread; the conflict is no longer simply working moms vs. stay-at-homes. Now helpful journalists and experts are giving women entering motherhood types from which to choose (and more importantly, sides to defend). You can be an alpha mom, a tiger mom, a free-range mom, a snow-plow mom, an attachment mom, a mindful mom, or most recently, even a “bad mom,” who eschews rules altogether and marches to the beat of her own drum.

And now, thanks in part to Marie Claire, we have a common enemy.

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I first heard the concept of “mean moms” back in 2006, when Rosalind Wiseman, the author of the book that inspired Tina Fey’s quotable movie masterpiece, Mean Girls, was promoting her new self-help title aimed at parents: Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads.

Those picturing a popular girl all grown up who organizes pink-only Wednesdays for playgroup, bars the rest of her clique’s babies from wearing gold hoops, and screams “You can’t sit with us!” at story time, aren’t too far off the mark.

“We don’t leave cliques and peer pressure behind when we grow up or when we become parents, we just graduate to a new level with adults playing the roles,” Wiseman writes.

Wiseman also helpfully brings us chapters full of new archetypes like the Caveman Dad who “sits on his anger” and the Best Friend Mom—she’s not a regular mom, she’s a cool mom!—along with the Queen Bee and Kingpin who sit atop the parenting totem pole and nakedly grab for both PTA clout and “world domination.”

But are these bully moms—the kind whom Wiseman describes as gossiping busybody control freaks, recently fictionalized in HBO’s Big Little Lies—for real?

I found a few examples online. My favorite is from 2013 when a mom from Boca Raton, Florida, discovered that a secret Facebook group for women looking to unload gently-used babywear had turned into an online baby burn book. According to local news reports, mothers would post baby photos from friends and family to the group—including pictures of premature or disabled little ones—and others would viciously comment. “You can absolutely not fix ugly,” one mom wrote under the picture of a pink-bowed toddler standing astride her pink Power Wheels. Another chimed in gleefully: “An ugly baby thread. I have died and gone to heaven. Why can’t you guys live near me so we can do this over cocktails?”

But since mommy journalism seems to rest on the anecdote, I decided to fish for my own, by asking my Facebook contacts to virtually raise their hands if they’d ever been personally victimized by another mother.

A vocal contingent answered in the affirmative. Almost everyone agreed most of the abuse is happening online—the moment a new parenting technique hits the blogosphere, there seem to be mommies ready to scold you for doing it wrong—but some moms had their own IRL mean mom nightmares.

One D.C. mom described what she called the “Playgroup Mafia,” a web of parent groups connected by a mysterious set of rules, procedures, nepotism, and secrecy over admissions. Asking that I not use her name for fear of backlash, this mom said that despite her efforts to join in one of these playgroups, she and her 2-year-old daughter were excluded. Still, she said, she had to face the Queen Bee moms at community events.

“I started to think about what I should wear to my kids’ music class,” she said. “I had flashbacks of middle school when the mean girls were... mean. I wondered if I didn’t look the right way or say the right things. I started talking to the nannies, in Spanish, instead of the other moms because they were more friendly.”

“The struggle is TOO real,” Mollie Gondi, a 37-year-old mother of one in Safety Harbor, Florida, agreed, going on to explain in a phone call the anxiety over finding her place in new social groups once she became a mother.

“I’m an anxious person and I had a really hard time in high school with these people. After 10 years, I had gotten to a really great place where I no longer feared the judgment of others, and now [after becoming a mom] I’m right back there.”

Others weren’t buying the “mean mom” as a phenomenon.

“I just call them assholes,” said Rachael Hebert Pavlik, a 46-year-old Texas mother of two who blogs about mom stuff under the name RachRiot. Others agreed, in less colorful language, that many moms who seem “mean” at first are later understood to be shy, tired, awkward, or anxious themselves.

“I wonder how many other moms think I’m a jerk,” another mom asked.

While “mean moms” as a concept and the mommy wars generally may be more fueled by journalists than rooted in fact, there is kernel of truth beneath it all, which which might explain the mileage such stories like Marie Claire’s get. American parenting—an experience that used to inspire female bonding—may have turned more competitive, according to Paula Fass, a University of California, Berkeley, professor and parenting historian who authored the excellent and comprehensive 2016 book, The End of American Childhood. But “village gossip,” which served as “a way to create norms, keep people in line, and react to insecurity,” has existed since colonial days.

As for “mean moms” Fass calls the portrayal a “worrisome” addition to an already dangerous media narrative.

“The constant harping on the overstressed mother, now this harping on women doing terrible things to each other, the media itself is undermining them. It’s a way of entertaining the public by flailing these women,” she said.

“Making mothers seem like weak sixth graders undermines the idea that women have strength.”