Parents of the Washington D.C. bastion of educational exclusivity, Sidwell Friends, may recognize some of themselves in a new novel to be published early next month.
“The Mother Daughter Show,”(Fuze Publishing, December) is by a former Sidwell Friends mother who used her experiences there as an inspiration for what she calls a “gentle satire.”
Washington writer Natalie Wexler’s son graduated from Sidwell Friends in 2006 and her daughter in 2009. Her story focuses on three mothers as they try to coordinate a school performance — there actually is a Mother/Daughter show at Sidwell Friends — among a catty and demanding group of mothers during their daughters’ senior year.
Much of the narrative delves into the peculiarities of a Sidwell Friends-like atmosphere: the outsized privilege, expectations and pressure under the guise of a simple Quaker education. Yale early admission is ho hum, Neiman Marcus catalogues are part of the junk mail, a first daughter is classmate.
One scene depicts well-dressed mothers drinking too much wine and breaking out into a fistfight in a mansion, then smashing a priceless vase. Suffice to say none of the “Barton Friends” parents notice the foreclosure crisis.
Still, this is no Nanny Diaries skewering. It’s written not by an enraged outsider, but by a sympathetic insider. Hence the “gentle.” The narrative is as much about the pomp as it is about the more universal experience of parenting a teenager.
Wexler explained to me about her decision to write the book, her thoughts on D.C.’s private school culture and if she worries about insulting anyone in particular. Excerpts from our conversation are below:
Q. What inspired you to write the book?
Wexler: My original inspiration was primarily to gain some perspective on a difficult situation I found myself in — the real Mother/Daughter Show at Sidwell Friends School — and to maintain a sense of humor about it. I’m a novelist, and it just occurred to me that this could be great material for a comic novel. But I also saw the book as an opportunity to write more generally about mother-daughter relationships, which are often so emotionally fraught, especially when the daughters are in high school.
Q. How autobiographical is it?
Wexler: I certainly drew on aspects of my own experience in writing the book, but I wouldn’t call it autobiographical. My main character, Amanda, is, like myself, a lapsed lawyer. And like me, she finds writing song lyrics for the Mother Daughter Show to be so absorbing and engaging that she just can’t stop herself from churning them out. But in most ways, she’s not me at all. For example, she’s Italian, from a working-class background and she went to Catholic school in New York. I’m Jewish, and I went to a private girls’ school in Baltimore.
Q. Are the characters depictions or composites of parents you knew there?
Wexler: No. What I wanted to write about was the situation, not the individual parents who happened to be involved the year I was in the show. Conflicts arise year after year. I’ve spoken to women who were in the show decades ago, and they still roll their eyes and groan at the mere mention of it. So it seemed to me that there was something inherent in the situation that was causing problems, and I wanted to explore what that was.
I also incorporated things I’d heard about that happened in other years, like an actual physical altercation, as well as coming up with disastrous plot twists of my own devising. So, the fictional show ended up being more of a worst-case scenario than a depiction of a particular experience.
Inevitably, there are characters in the book who play a role in the fictional show similar to the roles played by real people in the real show. But it would be a mistake to conclude that those characters are supposed to be the real people who filled those roles. They’re not. And the real-life mothers, fortunately, proved far more rational and mature than my fictional characters.
Q. Were you concerned about insulting anyone? Or about personal repercussions?
Wexler: I sincerely hope that no one is insulted or hurt by this book, but I also think there’s no reason for anyone to feel that way. Again, my characters are not meant to be depictions of actual individuals. Beyond that, while each of the characters are flawed (you can’t write satire about perfect people!) they’re also — I hope — fundamentally sympathetic. And while I’m satirizing a certain milieu, I think it’s a gentle satire. After all, I’ve been very much a part of that milieu, so I was laughing at myself as much as anyone else. I hope readers will take the book in that spirit.
Q. Can you offer some thoughts on the Sidwell culture?
Wexler: In many respects, the Sidwell culture is probably not that different from the culture at other D.C. private schools. But one thing that sets it apart is Quakerism. I do take a few satirical swats at some aspects of that in the novel: the fact that there aren’t that many actual Quakers at the school, the way Parents Association meetings can drag on until you finally reach “consensus,” and the tension between the Quaker value of simplicity and the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by some Sidwell families.
But the fact is that the school does a lot to introduce students to Quaker history and imbue them with Quaker values. The practice of Meeting for Worship is one striking example. I’ve been to a few of those, and I’ve been amazed at the poise of students who have felt moved to stand up in a fairly large crowd and eloquently voice their ideas and perceptions.
Q. How about the Washington private school culture in general?
Wexler: I think it’s no secret that it’s an extremely competitive atmosphere. Kids have to compete to get in, to do well, and ultimately to get into good colleges. It can be tough for students, and in some ways it’s even tougher for parents, who care so deeply about the outcome but who have limited control over the situation. The Mother Daughter Show — both in its real and fictional versions — plays out in the spring of senior year, when it all comes to a head and kids are hearing about college decisions, and I’m sure that adds to the general level of tension.
One hallmark of private school parenting culture, and not, I’m sure, just in DC, is that we all care so much about the success of our kids. Obviously, that can be a good thing. But it also leads us to extremes sometimes -- dragging recalcitrant toddlers to play groups so that they can get “socialized,” obsessively following the advice in parent books, paying exorbitant amounts for possibly unnecessary SAT prep.
Generally speaking, D.C. private school parents are used to being able to control things, and I think there’s an understandable impulse to try to engineer your kids’ happiness. But that’s not always possible, and sometimes your kids aren’t with the program. Sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and hope for the best. And in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, nine times out of 10 everything turns out just fine.