I was doing the Taxi Run of Mum job which is normal most weekends – Middle Son was at a birthday party and I had already rescued stranded Eldest Son from the railway station (at the age of 14 he has discovered train travel – but alas not the intricacies of the Sunday Train Timetable)- and decided to stop in for a cup of tea at a friend’s house. This woman runs her own successful business, has a house in which you could eat your dinner off the floor (unlike mine – unless you have a penchant for grey fluff) and a permanently optimistic view on life (I know, you hate her already). We sat and chatted for a bit, and I said how I was looking forward to de-Christmassing the house and packing the kids off in their daily routine that is school. She let out a sigh. On enquiry, I found that she was not upset at the imminent thought of getting up for the school run, screeching at the kids to get into the car, racing towards the closing school gates,and finding that the swimming kit/school bag/lunch money (substitute what you will) had been left behind – oh no, she was getting worked up by something entirely different. It was, she explained, having to deal with the other mums.
Now before your (or is it just mine?) imagination leaps forward to the images of the Mummies of Surrey and Hampshire hiding behind the school fences ready to leap out at my unsuspecting friend brandishing their Kath Kidson fold up umbrellas and yelling at the tops of their voices, she allayed any fears by saying morosely ‘It’s not that they are nasty, they all mean well, but they are just so full on – and this makes me feel inept.’ You see, my friend had got caught up in what I like to call the Ma-fia. The Ma-fia are present in every society, every country and every community. They comprise, very simply, mums with a Common Purpose. They can be in the PTA, they can be in the Girl Guides groups, they can be on the soccer pitch, or the yoga class, or even the local library. If you have a child, the chances are, whatever your circumstances, you have run into the Ma-fia at some point.
The Ma-fia are kind to their members, travel in packs, swap handy hints and tips – subject related , and socialize together with great hilarity and with a common enjoyment – again, subject related. The Ma of the Ma-fia, though, is not such an easy pushover. She is, as Constance Van Flandern coined all those years ago, an ‘Alpha Mom’. She is the leader, the one who decides who is in and who is out – who sets the initiation tasks, no matter how subtle (‘Oh, you take your tea with sugar? You’re very brave, considering your lovely curvaceous figure…’) and who sets the direction of her Ma-fia group. Unlike the rest of the group, who begrudge any new people joining, and indeed are very resistant to change, Ma fully embraces the new and will advance, amoeba like into new territories, gathering people under her wing as she goes, spitting out those who she no longer needs, and the group simply follow behind. This was where my friend came in. Torn between the human urge to run with the crowd, the very real desire to be friends with the mothers of her daughters’ friends, and the feeling that she would somehow lose her sense of choice, she had escaped during the holidays by turning down every well meaning invitation to meet up. But now term time was looming again, and she was worrying.
‘I am’, she exclaimed, dunking a biscuit in her tea and not noticing the soggy crumbs defiling the perfect polish of her granite work surfaces, ‘Blaming Grease, all the way…’
Now this was not a reflection on her diet, or indeed the can of WD40 that I noticed by the oven, but rather the seminal film of hers and my era – Grease, starring a very handsome John Travolta and an innocent young Olivia Newton John. It was also the start of a whole load of ‘Teen Angst- Don’t belong to Groups- Trials of Individuality- Now belong to Groups’ type of films that we regularly used to go and watch and then discuss in detail whilst forking out for a coke and a bag of chips on the way home. It seemed that the desire to belong to the In Crowd overrode all common sense. Thus Sandy, who tagged along with the Pink Ladies, and Danny, who headed up the T-Birds in their black leathers, were caught up in circles of their own making. One of the reasons that the film was so successful was the transformation of Sandy at the end into black leathers – her initiation and acceptance to and from the Pink Ladies complete, and therefore she was a worthy contender for the cool Danny (who never really convinced us with the Preppy look that he briefly adopted for Sandy’s benefit).
I turned to my friend. She sat there morosely, bemoaning the fact that if she turned down more than three coffee or dining out invitations in the next couple of months then she would be ostracized by the Ma-fia, and her daughter would be tarred with the same brush. This was a sensible, sane woman, who was not thinking sensibly or with any degree of sanity… ‘Just say NO’ I said. Actually, my advice was a little more sanguine than that. Frankly, the Ma-fia only succeeds on the fear factor – the fear of failure or being segregated or being ousted. It is relatively easy to walk away from the group, but only without fear of remonstration. This can be achieved in many ways – the excuse of busyness, the joining of another Ma-fia group, participating in the odd activity to keep the peace, or even setting up your own group (in which case you take on the mantle of Ma and all the Alpha problems that that entails). She smiled at me ruefully.
I have no idea what path she will take. And indeed, if in climbing out of one situation she heads off into another. And it is very difficult to try not to belong. One thing I did urge her to do was to watch that old film again.
Sandy’s transformation from innocent schoolgirl to leather clad vamp was actually not an attempt to join the Pink Ladies. In fact, throughout the film, and most importantly at the end, she never wore their jacket. Instead, at the very moment that she was accepted by them (and us), she had opted to wear a black leather jacket, reminiscent of the T-Birds. She had transcended one group and become the Ma of an all male group.
Grease really is the word…