September is the season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and Back to School, as everyone knows. Across the States, where I have lived for the past eighteen years, it is also the month for Back to School night – a delightful annual tradition, whereby school-age children get revenge on their parents by sending them to school for the evening, to meet their precious offspring’s teachers and engage in the kind of Type A parental one upmanship that would make Tiger Mom blush. Imagine what it feels like to find yourself surrounded by hundreds of impossibly old-looking people, then realize you are one of them, and have to engage in conversation with people whose name you can’t remember, about their fabulous child (whose name you also can’t remember), and you’ve pretty much got the picture. Crystal Walker, a DC-based lawyer, wife, and mother of four, with best friend and co-writer Phoebe Thompson knows exactly what it takes to win at your upcoming Back to School night. Below is Phoebe’s account about this annual cultural contest and what it takes for hot shot moms to win:
No wonder I so often have to drink before attending school functions. I almost always need to drink after them too.
As an expat Brit with seventeen years of parenting in the US under my belt, I’m here to warn you that this is one American school tradition, unlike Prom night, that you almost certainly don’t want to import. Actually, I wish the Brits had never started to import the tradition of Prom night, with all the potential for romantic rejection and social exclusion that entails, but I speak as a chubby former teen, and besides, that ship has already sailed, or so I understand.
In Washington DC, the trauma of Back to School night is compounded by the fact that
DC boasts the highest number of residents with advanced degrees in the US, which makes the whole competitive Type A parenting experience even more stressful for those of us who only have an MA from the University of Life. Simply put, you haven’t truly witnessed helicopter parenting until you have bumped into an acquaintance from your child’s pre-school and listened to them rattle off from memory the name of every single teacher their son or daughter has this year and which period they teach – before the sixteen year old kid in question has even stepped foot in class. Nor have you encountered a real snowplough parent until you get cc-ed on an email from one to the school play director, demanding their precious child (and yours) get starring roles, because you and Snowplough Mom just so happen to be volunteer parent play producers. This phenomena is much less prevalent in London. Or used to be anyway.
A healthier way to let off steam, perhaps, is to write about these experiences, which is what my writing partner, Crystal Walker and I have done in our novel, Desperate in DC, which is a comedy of money, marriage and manners set in the nation’s capital. Crystal originally hails from the midwest, but as a lawyer by training herself, she brings a healthy dose of cynicism and wit to her observations about our fellow Washingtonians.
Indeed, one of our favorite pastimes as outsiders is to forward one of the many unintentionally hilarious texts, emails and Facebook postings we receive from DC parents, boasting about little Savannah’s first independent bowel movement, perhaps, or display a video of George Jr. doing the ice-bucket challenge on the top of Mount Everest.
More troubling,though, are encounters that make you feel genuinely insecure about your own parenting, as when you learn that your neighbor’s sixteen year old daughter spent the summer volunteering in a Thai orphanage, while your own spent her time watching the complete first and second season of Orange is the New Black on her laptop, in bed. (Especially after you truly admired her ability to master both plot and character development). Or when you learn that literally every single one of your teenager’s friends is a straight A student with a higher Grade Point Average than yours, while the only ‘A’ your own teen achieved this year was making her way onto the A-list in the Kim Kardashian game, which, B.T. dubs, is not an easy task.
In DC, at least, it can sometimes feel like literally everyone you meet is smarter, more successful and wealthier than you, and that they have Tigermom-ed these attributes into their children while you made the mistake of giving your own children choices. Either that, or (more likely) were too busy sipping a cocktail and watching RHONY (Real Housewives of New York).
At times like this, it’s important to remember that those super-achieving children will grow up to be adults with issues, just like everyone else. They will feel like nothing they do is ever good enough, or that they don’t know how to relax, or that their spouse and children secretly loathe them for being right all the time – and for letting them know it. It is also important to remember what matters to you, as a parent, and to find a friend, or group of friends, who can reassure you that no-one else truly has life figured out, either for themselves or their children.
With this in mind, and in case Back to School night ever does make its dreaded but perhaps inevitable appearance on the UK school calendar, Crystal and I have come up with a brief list of Dos and Don’ts to help you negotiate those tricky first day back conversations at the bus-stop or outside the school gates, and also on the night itself.
Do’s for one-uping your fellow parents:
Show up at the bus-stop or school gate on the first day sporting full make-up and your highest pair of heels (for moms), even if you only intend to go straight back to bed after kissing little Johnny goodbye. Extra points for showing off new boobs, belly button rings, or tattoos in apparent wardrobe malfunctions worthy of Rihanna. Caveat: No need to acknowledge said boobs (or teeth, or nose) as new in places like DC, however, as East Coasters like to pretend they are naturally abundant in all the right assets
- Do encourage your significant other to show up wearing a t-shirt that shows off their biceps honed by water skiing, and claim that any scar they happen to be displaying is the product of an encounter with a barracuda in the Bahamas, even if they actually acquired it scraping it against the protruding nail in the stair rail that you have been nagging them to fix all year
- Do brag about your family’s week-long idyll in a fourteenth century villa in Tuscany, or family compound in Cape Cod. Extra points if you were invited by friends. And if you happened to spend the summer staycationing in your back garden surrounded by mosquitoes, do boast about this too, by claiming you wanted to instill simple, non-materialistic values in your children (even if they spent the summer whining that they were bored because all their friends were out of town)
- Do casually drop your teens’ many and varied summer camp activities into the conversation, assuming they did any. Your thirteen year-old spent two weeks at surf camp in Costa Rica, you say? Awesome. Too bad your Timothy was busy doing an invitation-only course in astrophysics at Oxford those same weeks. You say you chartered a yacht and sailed around the Galapagos islands, just so your little darlings could experience evolution in action? Well, my twins did Parcours in Paris, so they too experienced Darwinism (of a kind) at first hand. What, you wasted an entire month on your own private island in the Maldives without internet, TV or mobile phone reception, not to mention access to the mainland? We chose to spend a month at Stanford family camp (open to alumni families only, of course), which means our offspring stand a better chance of getting in – or at least mating with someone who did. Personally, I can’t think of a worse way to spend my precious free time but, then again, actually enjoying one’s life is hardly the point of Winning the Back to School Bragging Wars, is it?
- Do counter a story about some family’s trip to save the rainforest/cure cancer/build a house for an El Salvadoran family with a story about the fabulous, fun trip you took to Hawaii with just your husband. If necessary, mention casually how much sex you and your husband had, and how your new-found connection has inspired you to re-take your vows. Again, it hardly matters that you actually spent the summer barely speaking through gritted teeth to one another, and wonder how you chose the one man who could be certain to make none of your dreams come true
- Don’t believe a word of it when your friend tells you how much the Inca people appreciated their teen’s help moving a bunch of rocks for them in Cuzco. Crystal’s daughter did this for two weeks one summer, only to witness the locals carefully move all the rocks back at the end of her (rather expensive) trip. Naturally, she believes her daughter is better for it, if only to have learned, rather starkly, that the developing world patronizes us and not, as we so often believe, vice versa.
Above all, do remember it’s very, very important to schedule drinks after any evening school function with a few of your genuine fellow parent friends. That way, you actually have something to look forward to as you negotiate the sea of faces that look familiar, but whose name you can’t quite remember, and for when you get lost leading a group confidently to B hallway, fourth floor, classroom 111, (no wonder your daughter is obsessed with Orange is the New Black!), and end up leading everyone into the cleaning closet. If you play your cards right, pretty soon, every night can be Back to School Night, or at least a Very Important PTA meeting that no self-respecting helicopter parent should miss.
About the Authors:
Crystal Walker is a DC-based lawyer, wife, and mother of four, who arrived from the glorious midwest. When she’s not busy juggling her work and children, her favorite pastime is gleefully skewering the privileged and powerful DC elites with her BFF, Phoebe Thompson. Phoebe Thompson hails from Mother England, but enjoys DC in particular, especially the politics, prestige and pisco sours. She is mother to two girls, wife to darling husband “old ball and chain” Brad In her previous life (before marriage and children), she was an accomplished journalist, and now she is an extremely busy PAHM (part-time at home mother) working in journalism, a sacrifice she made in order to ensure her girls have the best possible support system as they grow. Join both these authors on their wickedly funny adventures navigating money, motherhood, and manners in the nation’s capital.