I think it’s time somebody blew open that of which we all know but of which we do not speak: The Secret Hierarchy of Mothers, a heretofore concealed social structure in which each of us knows her place and patronises or genuflects accordingly. Our place on the scale is based on two things: the age of our oldest child, and the number of children we have. Actually, it could well be the Secret Hierarchy of Parents but I don’t think I’ve personally experienced the Hierarchy except with other mothers. Also the Secret Hierarchy of Mothers reads more like a Daily Mail headline and therefore seems more scandalous and interesting.
When you’re pregnant for the first time, it’s basically open patronising season for mothers of children of any age. They will say things like, ‘if you think you’re tired now, wait until the baby comes,’ and ‘well of course your second pregnancy is different because you can’t be so precious with yourself if you have to lug a toddler round with you all day’. They will give unwanted advice on all topics, simply because they can (and, though you may not know it yet, they are higher up the SHOM than you are).
I should probably be charitable and say that perhaps people do this in a vain attempt to prepare mothers for the fallen-down-the-rabbit-hole sensation of the first few weeks of a newborn’s life, when you suddenly realise that Life As You Know It is over and the lovely, rewarding parts of having children haven’t made themselves known yet. This is when it feels like all those mothers who have more and older children are scrutinizing your every novice move and finding it wanting. Actually they are too busy cleaning up poo/ fending off tantrums/ finding cash for the tooth fairy to notice how anyone else is parenting and that disapproving look they are giving you is actually just a blank stare, or possibly silent counting to ten to prevent perpetrating physical violence upon their own offspring. Anyway, during the newborn phase, those mothers with a higher SHOM status than you say things like ‘it gets better when they smile,’ and ‘it gets better at 6 weeks,’ and then at 6 weeks they say ‘it really gets easier at 12 weeks’ and so on until about 6 months when things really do get significantly easier (though some people, I’m told, enjoy younger babies because they’re so snuggly. Each to her own, I say).
Sometimes I’ll meet a mother with children of a similar age gap but who are older than my two at the playground. They always say slightly patronising but encouraging things about how it was very difficult at first but now their kids are best mates. If I meet somebody who is pregnant with their second baby I always lie in a patronising way about how it’s easier than it really is (though I wonder if my wild eyes and feral hairstyle belie my words). I am able to give casually annoying advice such as ‘that’s a tired cry’ and how to avoid tantrums in toddlers (DISCLAIMER: I did this when I thought what Ziggler was having were tantrums. Later it proved they were not. If anyone can really avoid proper tantrums I am open to advice patronising or otherwise). I recently found myself pulling SHOM rank with a very dear and very far away friend who’s just had a baby and telling her how to get newborns to sleep (sorry, Shoolagh).
The school holidays are always interesting because the parks and museums fill up with mothers of school-age children. They are not ragged of hair or temper, but relaxed and shiny-haired and carrying a teeny handbag. They laugh in a carefree way with their children, as if to say ‘ah ha ha ha! Isn’t having children easy! I don’t know why I made such a fuss when they were small’. They take a rug to the park and they sit on it and they read their books while their children play. I’m sure they are not doing all this to be deliberately provocative. There is every chance they are just getting on with their own lives. But I often catch myself staring wistfully at these mothers, wishing I were them (and in the meantime Ziggler has often brained herself falling off the roundabout).
At playgroups and the like, I try to chat to everyone (assuming I’ve had any sleep and am capable of doing anything other than playdough and staring), but I particularly try to strike up a bit of camaraderie with mothers of the same age kids as mine. This is partly in case our children want to play together and partly so that we can swap experiences of how rubbish everything is. There is one woman in particular who has a baby and a toddler and has always seemed a bit ambivalent about chatting or commiserating and, being a bit paranoid in general, I always assumed I’d done something to offend her or I hadn’t told Ziggler or Pickle off for hitting/shouting at/trying to eat one of her children. However, today at the park, as I was carting a screaming Pickle away from the duck pond to have some lunch, I saw a willowy, shiny-haired and relaxed woman laughing with her kids and with a baby on her hip. It was playgroup lady with her two pre-schoolers and, I realised, two more children of school age. I am outranked. Deservedly, frankly, as I can’t imagine managing four kids with or without shiny hair.
So there we are. The Hierarchy. Luckily I know and have met a lot of women who behave as if the Hierarchy is nothing. We can talk without giving each other advice and shockingly sometimes even about things that are not our (different in age and number) children. I’m sure this is the same for most mothers and in fact most people. You might do some chest-beating for status with your professional acquaintances, but you don’t need to bother with your friends.