I was driving to the train station on my way to work the other day and saw a sign hanging on the fence of my town’s middle school: “Join the PTA! Come be a part of the family! Follow us on Facebook!” I shuddered—the kind of reaction you’d expect when you see a giant spider or something icky on the sidewalk, not a cheery sign covered with smiley-face emojis and tied up with pink ribbons. And it hit me: I have PTA PTSD.
It’s been three years since my last PTA meeting, when my youngest child graduated from high school, and 20 years since my first one, when my eldest was in kindergarten. That adds up to 17 years of monthly PTA meetings—often twice a month, since most of the time my kids were in different schools. And all through those years, I felt the same way I did when I stepped into the elementary school library on that first September evening: out of place.
The moms in my suburban town, particularly in those early years, mainly stayed home. I commuted to New York City for a full-time job. They all seemed to know each other from school pick-up and their kids’ playdates and years’ worth of summer days spent at the same beach clubs. They were in and out of the school each day; they were on a first-name basis with the principal and her secretary. There was a self-importance about them that rattled me—and they were important to the culture and functioning of the school. They ran the gift-wrap sales and book sales and garage sales that helped pay for field trips and parties and so many other things. But but but: There was also a smugness, a closed-circle “we’re inside and you’re not” attitude. They knew things that I would never know, and I couldn’t tell if these were things I needed to know. They were the school’s Power Moms, and they held that power close.
Starting at that first meeting, I put my name on whatever volunteer sign-up sheet went around. But often I heard, “Oh, you can’t really do that committee—we have our meetings over lunch while the kids are in school.” Or “Well, you can’t be at the bake sale, so don’t sign up for that—but sure, if you want to bake something, fine.”
It didn’t help when I learned that the PTA officers had decided to hold half of that year’s meetings—every other month—at 10 a.m., rather than the evening, a move that seemed blatantly passive-aggressive to me. “We’re only having morning meetings every two months—you should be able to take at least that much time off work,” the PTA president said to the few of us who questioned this. (Spend a precious morning off at a PTA meeting? As if.) I did take vacation days when there was something important in the classroom—to chaperone a field trip or volunteer at field day or the class Halloween party. And then I was likely to hear “Oh, you’re here.” Or worse: “What are you doing here?” (One mom actually followed that up with, “I’m lucky that my husband makes enough money that I don’t have to work,” managing to diss both me and my husband in one swoop.) I admit it: Maybe I was oversensitive. But there definitely was an adolescent mean-girls vibe going on.
And I’m sorry, but many of the PTA presidents were hella bad at running meetings. I work at a high-paced job with lots of deadlines, and our meetings are efficient by necessity. Sit down, get it done, with not a lot of blah-blah-blah. I’d find that my foot started tapping and my brain twitching as, month after month, that year’s president let someone hijack her agenda and drone on and on about an issue that could have been handled in 10 minutes. “Take back your meeting!” I shrieked in my head.
So why did I go, month after month, year after year? Because as a working mom, it was one of my only ways to find stuff out. It was a chance to hear what was on the principal’s mind, to talk to other moms and learn, say, that if you didn’t sign up your high-schooler for driver’s ed the nanosecond the schedule went up, you’d be stuck driving them to the 6 a.m. class. It was also a chance to give back, and try to participate in the life of the school. It felt like a grim duty, but a critical one.
I still haven’t shaken those mean moms, who seemed to take pleasure in making the working moms feel like The Others, shaming us for not having their level of schedule flexibility or enthusiasm for meetings that often presented problems with no solutions. When I try to take the mental high road, I wonder how much of their power grab came out of defensiveness about the choices they’d made, a chance to feel significant in a world that stupidly doesn’t much value mom’s work. But as I drive by that sign on the fence each morning, I also think: Too bad they couldn’t have elevated themselves without downgrading the rest of us. And praise be that I won’t be sitting on a fold-out chair tonight, listening to an endless argument about whether the T-shirt sale and the sweatshirt sale should be combined into one, while my brain screeches, “IT DOESN’T MATTER! MOVE ON!”