It's back to school time and there are more than a few butterflies in tummies. And it's not just the children's. The school gate can be a source of angst for parents. If you believe certain clothing websites, you need the right clothes so that you pass the Yummy Mummy test.
Parenting forums are full of posts from mums asking, "What do you wear for the School Run?" Then there are those cliques to infiltrate, life-long friendships to make, not to mention coming up with a fresh excuse for not wanting to help out with the PTA. Whoever thought that 10 minute drop-off could be so stressful?
There's often a huge expectation that friendships are forged at the school gate. Sometimes they can be, though I was a dismal failure. Call it sod's law but, one by one, every mum I clicked with relocated to the other end of the country. There is no doubt at all that cliques exist. Sometimes it's the dress code that dictates; Rose told me, "If I turn up wearing a posh frock after I've been to a meeting, it is certainly noticed."
Like it or not, parents do tend to congregate in the same places, chatting to the same people each day. Once you are in one group it can be hard to infiltrate another. Jenny told me, "By the time Fleur was in year 6, many mums didn't bother to pick up. I felt I didn't know anyone, or the ones who I did meet were not my type. I used to sit on a seat well away from everyone."
But other mums like Vicky have found the school gate a source of close friendships. "Maybe I'm just lucky as I don't find other mums cliquey at all. Or maybe I am in a little clique so don't realise! It's been a really positive experience meeting the other mums. We have lovely nights out every term - the like minded ones of us go and those who don't fancy it don't but there's no bitchiness about them."
Having something in common is always a good start, as Vicky explained, "I met one of them at one of the settling-in sessions. We realised we have exactly the same job so we automatically had something in common. It's great as we can swap notes and have a bit of a work-related whinge at the school gate!"
Some mums don't even try to make friends. Rose has decided, "I don't want to be part of a clique, or make friends with the mums. My son goes to a small independent school and few parents live on the doorstep. He has to go there every day and if there are rows or a fall out, I don't want to be part of it."
Other mums feel social outcasts or worse. Lynsey described how, "I was once accosted by a teacher who wanted to know who I was! Okay, I hadn't been there for months and had dyed my hair. As a single mum who works full time, my appearances at the school gate are extremely rare. It's a small, rural school, most of the mums don't work."
Lynsey feels like "an alien when I turn up. I feel other mums either think I am a terrible mum who relies on other people for child care, or if I do turn up I am on the receiving end of sarcastic comments."
It's not just cliques that can be a problem; sometimes tempers fly. One mum at my children's former primary school was verbally and physically attacked on the village green - think chocolate box cottages and middle England - when word got out that she was living in a relative's home - with the right post code- to secure a secondary school place.
Linda recounted how she was hit by another mum. "At my child's school parents wait in or beside their car to pick up, then drive round a one-way system. I was waiting by my car when another mum, annoyed that the line of cars wasn't moving, came up and started pushing and hitting me, telling me to move on."
If you are a school gate dad, it can be just as hard. Alan recalls how, "I was viewed with suspicion and the only people who talked to me were other Dads."
So what's the best way to handle the school gate? It depends on what you want. If you are like Rose, and are not interested in making friends with other parents, that's fine; but if you want to make new friends, how do you avoid the pitfalls?
Based on her own experiences, Jenny advises: "Avoid those parents who simply see the school gate as an opportunity to whinge about the teachers and school policy, or you can become caught up in the negativity of it all."
My own experiences have taught me that it's good to spread yourself about; it is so easy to gravitate towards familiar faces during the first weeks of term at a new school, but it becomes harder to talk to other parents once established groups form.
Life at the school gate is very much like life itself: it's what you make of it. What do you want from it?
Tell us your experiences of school gates - cliques, camaraderie or really quite dull?