The Parent Club: Once you have kids, the cliques of your youth come back to haunt You (if you let them)

Washington Post, March 2019

“The Breakfast Club” will, perhaps shocking to many of you, turn 35 next year.

Some of us who are parents now were the same age as the characters then, navigating middle and high school cliques similar to that on the screen: nerds in Docksiders, punks with Flock of Seagulls hair, princesses in puffy prom dresses, stoners in boots with untied laces, like little rebels shaking their arms in protest of exerting effort of any kind.

Some of us straddled the cliques in minor ways, maybe leaving the tongues of our high-tops untethered, adopting a palate for alternative music and indie films from the artsy kids. But mostly we knew where we belonged.

In college, the whole clique thing mellowed out. Everyone was too busy studying or partying to really care.

In the 20s, you’re working a lot, maybe still drinking a lot, and you know who you are. You tie your laces pretty much all the time or even start wearing pumps with stockings and suits.

Then you start a family, and a new sort of clique-iness creeps back in. It’s subtle at first. There’s the coterie of women in childbirth class who are all for an epidural and top doctor and those who believe nature and a midwife know best. You’ve had your differences of opinions with people before, but now the stakes are higher, because it’s about your kid.

Then the Mommy and Me classes, where parents start comparing months breast-feeding and potty milestones. (“It’s crazy: At 18 months, Edison just trained himself!”) The Lululemon wardrobe is vaguely reminiscent of middle school, where it was all about who had the tightest Jordache jeans. A subtle divide begins to form.

You pick a preschool, probably somewhat based on avoiding the guy in Gymboree class whose kid learned the alphabet by age 2.

Hopefully you find your people, and little Arlo does too.

But now it’s time for elementary school and a ramped-up extracurricular schedule. Is your kid sporty? Better get her into soccer and see. Along the sidelines you will find the jocks (or failed jocks) living out all their unfulfilled dreams through their 3-foot-tall wingbacks. A father puffs up his chest when his tiny striker nudges the ball into the unmanned mini goal. My husband, a high school athlete who could have creamed Emilio Estevez in any sport (sorry, Emilio — I mean your “Breakfast Club” character, Andrew), grimaced as our oldest son spent most of his time on the kindergarten soccer field doing cartwheels.

Ends up that kid loved the stage, particularly when it came to dance. Specifically, ballet.

With four kids, we have a mix of performers and athletes and a couple who do both. We have to straddle the sporty and artsy cliques, which leaves me fumbling for the right lingo in the baseball bleachers and my husband off-center with the dance moms. The parent-child baseball game takes me right back to being picked last in gym class. I refuse to go up to bat and risk the ridicule of the eye-hand coordination club — I’m quite sure everyone on the field is a member. I decode the unwritten rules of clique-dom; my place is in center orchestra.

I feel like judgment is everywhere. So we surround ourselves with our people and try to avoid those who give us the evil eye like that bully in junior high used to. I’m sure there’s someone snickering about our kid-activity choices around every corner, the fashionistas are scrutinizing my matronly Dansko clogs, and the exclusive PTA moms seem like they must be the same girls who got those secret society roses in high school.

But then I begin to notice some weird things happening, like that family of linebackers I’d assumed had no appreciation for the arts coming to my teen’s musical and showing genuine awe at what the kids onstage could do. The PTA clique proves to have compassionate members who fight for my kids even after theirs have graduated. And the woman with the best Lululemon bod and suspiciously creaseless forehead turns out to be genuinely nice.

Maybe there are cliques, and I gravitated toward the ones where I felt like I fit in. But what I’ve discovered in 15 years of parenting is that sometimes I was imagining walls where there really were just little fences that are easy to step over. Much like those kids at detention on a Saturday morning, I’ve learned that opportunities to connect are everywhere. Although I’m still not willing to risk the bat not connecting with the ball at the parent-kid game, I realize that the potential mockery if it didn’t is all in my head.

So, new parents who were mere babes 35 years ago when Molly Ringwald and Co. were shooting a film that broke down the clique caste system for my generation, don’t worry too much about labels. In case you didn’t get the message: “Each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.” And sometimes parenthood is something like hanging out in the same Saturday morning detention, all unique, all together.

Jill Johnson is a writer and mom of four living in Connecticut. Jill (@modelingmentor on Instagram and Facebook and shares stage-mom stories and scouts for models.