At my son's school there is a woman who waylays other parents as they enter the play-ground. We all know her. And her type. She is the Mad Mother, dreaded by parents and staff alike, and she will belabour anyone who passes with her view of the school's iniquities.
Some Mad Mothers hate the head teacher, others the deputy or class teacher. Mad Mothers feel a sense of grievance against the school that has driven them beyond all reasonable restraint.
Until recently, I couldn't understand them and would have found it difficult to imagine that they had ever been happy, sane members of the Parents' Association. But within the last year my wife has hovered on the very brink of becoming a Mad Mother. Only her own realisation that it would do no good held her back.
It all started when my son was proving unco-operative during his first year at school. We had various meetings with his class teacher who was new to teaching and over keen to reassure us all that she was coping. Eventually it became clear that she wasn't and when matters reached the headmaster we suddenly realised that we were in a crisis. Our son's teacher was telling us that it wasn't possible to control him. At one point she even told us he was "just bad". We were shocked by this but the head, who was a man of some maturity, decided that the situation might be helped if he brought in a specialist support teacher in whom he had a lot of confidence.
I shall call this woman Mrs Black. She dressed in black, had long finger nails and long coiled hair. In fact, she looked remarkably like a witch, a fact that didn't help us in our subsequent dealings with her. Mrs Black specialised in behavioural difficulties and we agreed to meet her after she had spent some time observing our son. When we reconvened some weeks later I remember Mrs Black speaking with an air of concern that was almost theatrical in its intensity.
"I have observed your son and this is the hardest thing someone like me ever has to say to a parent .. ." she began. Already we were alarmed. "I do think we ought to consider involving the social services ..."
Mrs Black was keen that we should not consider ourselves under suspicion. Was there, perhaps, someone who had looked after our son who had older children in the house? We were asked to consider whether he might have been interfered with while in the house of the childminder, a nice old lady down the road. For me, as the father and as a potential malefactor, these suggestions were disturbing. But on my wife I could see the effect was drastic. Although we discussed calmly whether it was possible for abuse to have occurred I could see that she was deeply distressed at the idea.
Fortunately my wife recovered her wits sufficiently to ask what evidence Mrs Black had for making this suggestion. Solemnly she crouched down on the floor and demonstrated to us how, in the middle of talking to people, our son would get on all fours and lift his bottom in the air. At this point I was able to remind everyone that he suffered from constipation and often did this when he needed to go to the lavatory.
We went home telling each other that Mrs Black had been talking nonsense and wrote to her employers, the pupil support team, to rebut the suggestion of sexual abuse. We received a letter back insisting that no such suggestion had ever been made. Nevertheless we were both worried, worried by the fact that our son's school continued to have so much faith in this woman.
The after-effects on us as a family grew. I found that I withdrew somewhat from our son. I couldn't help wanting to avoid bath times or any horseplay with him. My wife, on the other hand, became angrily determined that Mrs Black was a bad influence. She wanted this woman to be kept away from her child at all costs. She talked to me incessantly about her. Mrs Black became the focus for all our woes and anxieties. My wife would lie awake in bed at night desolate at the thought that such a dangerous person was having an influence over our son.
Fortunately, because my wife is basically sane and well-educated, she quickly realised there was no point getting herself written off as yet another Mad Mother. Instead she concentrated on finding out what our son's problems really were and consulted expert after expert to see how he could be helped.
Inevitably our own relationship began to feel the strain. My wife's obsessiveness meant that nothing got done around the house while she talked endlessly about how wrong Mrs Black was.
I soon realised that if I wanted a conversation about anything I was doing I had to find someone else to talk to. Our sex life spiralled downwards as my wife grew depressed. At times she said she wanted to take our son away from the school. At others she would say (only half-jokingly) that Mrs Black was a witch and wished she could be burned at the stake.
Ironically, all this was beneficial because we did discover there was a medical cause for our son's problems, and were able to do something for him, but that year was very bad. What alarmed me was how quickly everything fell apart. One month we were a reasonably happy family with a son who hadn't settled properly at school. Within a few months I seemed to be married to a woman who glared at the teaching staff and told strangers of her hatred for the school.
Eventually my wife and I began to work together on this problem and the headmaster, sensing our lack of faith in Mrs Black, quietly removed her from the case. Something closer to normal life returned. I won't forget, however, that it takes very little to turn a concerned mother into an angry, vengeful, mad woman. The Mad Mother in the playground could be any mother who feels her child is under threat.
The writer is a parent and journalist and has chosen to remain anonymous