PLAYGROUND POLITICS: Sheffield mum turns negative experiences into novel...

Hambleton Primary Academy. Headteacher Pamela Birch in the playground, which is congested when all the children are playing.
Hambleton Primary Academy. Headteacher Pamela Birch in the playground, which is congested when all the children are playing.
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The playground can be a spiteful place - for mums as well as pupils.

A Sheffield woman found out to her cost, but has turned her experience into a novel...

School run: Mothers huddling at the gates can make you feel like the outsider.

School run: Mothers huddling at the gates can make you feel like the outsider.

THE kids are back at school and are already making new friends.

But what about you? If you’re the lone mum left out of the gang at the school gates, you could be falling victim to playground politics.

Former Sheffield mother of two Judy Bryan was so distressed by her experience, she’s now written a novel about it.

“The playground can be a wonderful place, and I have made great friends through it, but it can also be a cauldron of hormonal women trying to get the better of each other,” says Judy, who grew up in Woodseats and was a pupil at King Ecgbert’s in Dore.

“I wrote the novel after I experienced first hand how nasty some mums can be to each other in the playground and discovering how many other mothers had experienced the same thing,” she says.

“Very few mums admit to it due to embarrassment or the fact that they don’t want to spoil things for the children. I now believe it’s a subject that touches every playground in the country and one lots of mums will connect with.”

In Judy’s novel, Playground Politics, self-published and available on Amazon, Becky Dixon, the single mother of four-year-old twins is looking forward to making new friends when her children start school. But things start to go wrong when Helen - a bad penny from Becky’s past - seems determined to make her life miserable in the playground.

For Judy, who now lives in Berkshire with husband Paul, a fellow Sheffielder, and their two children, Chris, 20, and Katie, 17, it was the one woman she thought she could trust the most - her friend of seven years - who caused her unhappiness.

“I thought our families had the perfect relationship. Caroline and I met when our children were very young. Our sons and toddler daughters were the same age and loved playing together and she and I just clicked,” she recalls.

“We got jobs as teaching assistants at the local school together and both took a diploma in child development at college.”

There was an abrupt change when Judy landed a job with the NHS as a physiotherapist. It got even worse when Judy’s husband bought her a new car.

“She suddenly stopped talking to me. I’d known her seven years; I couldn’t believe it,” says Judy.

“I went over and over my own behaviour to see if I could have upset her. But then I realised she was jealous of me. It was so childish. Why couldn’t someone who was supposed to be my best friend be pleased for me? It wasn’t as if she wanted for anything. Her husband was really well off.”

Caroline stopped the girls’ after-school teas. “She was taking out her frustrations on our two seven-year-old girls,” says Judy.

“Then one day Caroline turned on Katie at the school gates and said some really nasty things. All the anger she felt towards me was directed at my child. Katie was heartbroken.”

Judy called her former friend to try to put things right. “But she said the most horrible things about me, my husband and our children. It was very clear she never wanted to speak to me again and I felt absolutely devastated,” she says.

As days went by, she discovered Caroline had been ‘warning’ other parents about her parenting skills: “She claimed I had allowed our daughters to play unsupervised in nearby woods – and that was why we were no longer friends. She was poisoning people against me.”

Judy didn’t contest the lies; she hoped things would quieten down. They didn’t; Caroline asked the school to part the girls in lessons, claiming Katie was copying her daughter’s work. When school refused, she falsely claimed Judy’s son was bullying hers.

Next, she told people Judy had lied about her qualifications to land her new job. One day a mum Caroline had recently befriended marched up to Judy at the school gates to tell her she was a terrible mother who was neglecting her children.

Some six months later, that same woman approached Judy with a heart-felt apology – and told her Caroline had eventually turned on her, too. “She realised who the poisonous one actually was,” says Judy.

The experience plagued her for a long time: “It got to me. I’d got to the age of 39 without falling out with anyone,” she explains. “I’d lie awake at night going over it all. And I felt so sorry for our girls; the special bond between them had been destroyed. Katie was like a little lost soul. It took her a long time to dare asking another friend for tea.”

The former Sheffield Nat West employee told few people what she was going through.

“I was embarrassed at being bullied in my 30s,” she says. “And I didn’t want this woman to know that I felt sick every time I stepped foot in the playground.”

As a form of therapy, she started to write down her feelings and those of other women she had discovered had experienced something similar.

One, whose son is autistic, poured out the anguished story of being labelled a bad mother by women who didn’t believe he had a condition at all. Another was so upset when her epileptic daughter got shunned by mothers, she began self-harming. Yet another woman who fell foul of playground politics ended up on anti-depressants.

“I was amazed at what I was hearing; stories of women sniping and bitching, picking on one victim seemingly to make themselves feel better,” comments Judy.

The same reasons came up again and again, she says. Women who have had a great career before motherhood feel lost and bitter. Those who have gone back to work look down their noses at the stay-at-homes. The Lycra mums dropping their children off before heading for the gym sneer at the ones who still haven’t lost their pregnancy weight.

Whatever the cause, if you’re the victim, you feel the same misery. And there’s no easy way to get away from it. As Judy says, it’s not a club; you can’t choose not to go. You have to be at the school gates twice a day.

When her daughter left junior school, Judy turned her writing into a novel. She got interest from publishers, but decided to publish it herself, having had her work professionally critiqued and proof-read.

She smiles broadly and concludes: “I’ve now got so much to thank Caroline for. “Because of her I discovered a new talent - I now write full-time. And people who have read the book are thanking me for highlighting an issue that has caused them a great deal of unhappiness.”

Playground Politics is available on Amazon, priced £6.29 in book form or £1.02 for Kindle.

Parents and pupils suffer mean streak

Time for school and the pressure was on.

Claire needed to look just right when she and her daughter arrived at the school gates.

A fashion-conscious yummy mummy out to impress? No. Picking out an old coat and ditching her favourite new leather handbag for an everyday one, Claire was a worried working mother who felt ostracised from the playground pack – and desperately wanted to fit in for the sake of her daughter, Julia.

“We lived in a small village on the outskirts of Sheffield and the local school was tiny. No one talked to me.

“I was the mum you see standing all on her own, while everyone else was inviting each other round for coffee after the morning bell went,” she says.

“But what was worse was that it extended to my daughter. She was never invited to other children’s houses to play. She didn’t get party invites. They didn’t like me and they were being mean to her to get at me.”

At first, Claire thought she was imagining the snubs. She tried again and again to make conversation. But after getting a curt reply, the backs would turn on her.

She tried to analyse why she and Juliet were being excluded. There was only one conclusion.

“It was because I was a working mother. I’d gone back part-time to my career in office management. Two days a week my childminder did the school run and had absolutely no problem from anyone.”

Were the other mothers disapproving of her ‘abandoning’ her child for the sake of her career, or were they simply jealous? Claire never could quite work it out.

“Did they resented the fact that I’d done something they wished they could have done, did they resent the fact that I could afford nice things because of my salary, did they just not like me?

“It was only for a few minutes three times a week, but it got to me. I started worrying about what to wear; I didn’t want to look like I was showing off.”

Eventually, Claire decided the best option was to move Juliet to another school. “It was much bigger and it wasn’t cliquey.

“Juliet settled in and made new friends and I was amazed to find other mothers approaching me and making conversation,” she says. “I still have good friends from that school.”

Claire says she is still troubled by her experience, some four years on and adds: “We are now very aware of bullying at schools and the effect it can have on children. But you don’t expect grown women to behave that way towards each other.”

The names have been changed in these articles.