“Middle School Lunch Room,” by Woodleywonderworks
Recently, my daughter Charlotte had the classic middle school experience. The popular girls she got friendly with in the first few weeks of school decided overnight that she wasn’t cool enough for them and spent the next few lunch periods freezing her out. To justify their cruelty, one of the girls spread rumors that my daughter “had been mean” to her . . . even though my daughter barely knows this girl.
I don’t remember tween dynamics quite like these. Admittedly, some girls at my school were bad-ass. These little vixens had the moxie to drop unequivocal hate bombs: “You look like a piece of shit on toast.” This was an unpleasant thing to hear; however, it was said right to my face. I never had the experience of plunking down my tray at a lunch table filled with girls who had been cultivating their resentment in secret and waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Until recently, that is.
At the ripe age of 54, I was expelled from a mean girl clique. The most ironic part is, the clique was made up of women I met through a support group.
It was an online community that sustained me during the bad months right after Larry announced that he was leaving me. As Larry connected with one after another of our mutual friends, both here and abroad, my world shrunk down to a few mainstays. I relied heavily on the online group to commiserate and gain validation. I became so friendly with some of the other women who posted there that we raised the hackles of the moderator, who felt our bond was making the newer members too shy to comment.
Eventually, I made a private WordPress blog for the core group, and these ladies were my social life for the next two years. I became close to some of them in real life as well, traveling to their homes and even overseas with them. I checked the blog the moment I woke up, and it was the last thing I looked at before I went to sleep at night.
Meanwhile, I was slowly getting back on my feet. I started teaching at the community college. I did some online tutoring. I began writing content for an online writing platform. I also began standing up to my ex. As a matter of fact, I stopped caring what he did and said. He got relegated to the back burner of my life.
I couldn’t help but notice that my online friends seemed increasingly silent. Rather than talk about their lives, dreams, and ambitions, they were only roused to comment by revenge fantasies or some particularly awful thing one of our exes had done. So far out from the split — for some of these ladies, it had been nearly a decade — these scrapes with the ex seemed hardly enough to build a friendship on.
I ventured out into the silence, blathering about the challenges and triumphs of my daily life in much the way I always had, making my lists, planning ahead. I asked about my friends’ lives and tried to draw them into mutually interesting conversations. I reached out to them via email to express my concern that we were growing apart, only to get reassurances that everything was fine.
In the end, they shut me out completely. One of the women told me (with a great deal of satisfaction, I might add) that they’d formed another blog — and were closer than ever. Two of them went so far as to block me on Facebook.
How did such a thing happen? I can only speculate. One thing that did become apparent, as time went on, is these women were so invested in being “good” that they couldn’t look at how their actions may have contributed to the failure of their marriages. They paid lip service to this notion, but when push came to shove, they were always ideal mothers and doting wives.
Their husbands, on the other hand, were complete and total villains. One woman joined her daughters in open derision of her ex, mocking his attempts to see them and coming up with funny nicknames for him, all in the name of “supporting her daughters’ feelings.” She is the one who informed me about their new virtual lunch table, not allowing me the comfort of simply believing that we had grown apart. With great sanctimony, she told me that she treats all people with respect, which was, in fact, her reason for offering this information.
In the words of that immortal sage, Judge Judy, “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.”
This week I purchased a book by Rachel Simmons, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, in an attempt to understand how my 11-year-old was feeling. I did not really expect to find a plausible theory for the mean girl behavior of my middle aged friends, yet there it was, Simmons’ oft-stated thesis: The cultural pressure to be “good” leads girls to seek power in underhanded ways.
One of those ways is to cast someone out without ever copping to the anger and resentment they feel. Maybe, for my online friends, it seemed that it was too easy for me to move on. Maybe I seemed stuck up and self-assured. Maybe I cared about more than being a ex-wife and mother, and that invalidated their priorities.
I sometimes wonder if I’m partly to blame for the problems C is having in school. I am not modeling the right way to be a woman. I eat dinner with my feet up on the table. I am not particularly nice. C is important to me, but she isn’t everything. I want my own life, too.
The truth is, I have no idea how to be an exemplary woman. I’m too busy trying to be a decent person. Ultimately, I hope she’ll follow in my footsteps, however many missteps she makes along the way.
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