Sunday, September 26, 2010

Working Mom's Latest Fear: Will I Be Sucked Into The School Volunteer Vortex?

There are 43 committees at my kids' school's parent booster club.

Is it just me, or does that sound like school volunteer overkill? 

Since my kids have been in kindergarten -- two weeks -- I have filled out dozens of forms from the club, not to mention the kids' teachers, all to do with what activities I can volunteer to be a part of, in the classroom and outside of it, ranging from re-shelving library books to driving kids to and from field trips to helping to organize and run any of the myriad of fund-raising events and activities that occur throughout the year. I've been told of mandatory commitments per child at the school, e.g., every family has to work one traffic safety shift, at pickup or drop-off, per child, during the year. I have been invited to no less than four volunteer events, and I've already missed two of those. I've been asked to contribute the "suggested" amount per child -- and nothing that you can pay in ten installments is cheap --  because, though a public education is free, a great one is not -- especially nowadays.  Every day brings more mail in the kids' backpacks, offering additional ways to get involved.

If I get another piece of paper from the parent association, it's quite possible my head is going to explode.

I know the parent booster club is well-meaning. I know a good deal of this parental involvement is necessary, and at the very least, important, given the sorry state of public school funding in my home state. At the school my kids attend, funds raised by the parent association pay for art, music, physical education, an aide in every classroom at least part of the school day, a librarian,classroom computers and other equipment and maintenance, building and grounds improvement, and even additional teachers to keep class sizes from ballooning even further than they already have.

But please, well-meaning parent associations all over America, acknowledge this: a lot of us, moms and dads in the same household, have to work.

I was at a kids' birthday party this past weekend, chatting mostly with parents I know from the private preschool my kids attended (where, I might add, parent volunteering was gently encouraged, but no one was made to feel guilty if their schedules didn't allow for it). All of us have kids who've just entered elementary school, or have done so within the past two years.  The four other moms I commiserated with there are all working moms, and among the five of us, our kids attend five different public schools. Here's what some of them had to say (I'm paraphrasing and relying on an imperfect memory, but you'll get the gist): "The guilt about having to volunteer is unbelievable." This from a psychotherapist. "They had me making these booklets, I had to punch out these shapes and fit them all together; it was really complicated and it took so long just to make one." This from a doctor. Another said, "I'm going in every other week to my kids' classroom --  my husband's going to go the times I can't.  I did it the first time last week -- yes, it was fun -- but I was exhausted before I even got in to work!" 

One mom, whose youngest just started at the school her older daughter already attends, confided, "A friend of mine volunteered to do a classroom project. It was a nightmare." Her friend had been sucked into the school volunteer vortex. The project wound up taking huge amounts of time. She worked really hard.  And yet there was no pleasing anyone. Perhaps that's why this mom concluded with this advice: "Don't do it. Don't volunteer."

If only I had her guts. But the peer pressure is enormous, not to mention the self-generated pressure: what a horrible person I'll be if I don't help my kids' school. I feel as if I'll be hurting not just my kids, but their deserving, adorable little classmates. And, of course, volunteering can be rewarding.  (Well, except for the times when there's no pleasing anyone.)

But the other thing is, there are all these Uber Volunteer Moms (UVMs) at my kids' school, and at the schools of these other moms' kids -- moms who once had high-powered careers, but have chosen to give them up -- or can afford to have given them up -- to be high-powered moms. God bless them, they can head up these committees and organize and fund raise in all their spare time -- time that I and many of my working mom peers simply don't have. What with my full time job, I feel like I don't see my kids enough as it is.  I like to spend the time my kids are not in school and I'm not working, um, WITH MY KIDS. And what precious little "me" time I have left over, when my spouse gives me a breather by watching them for a few hours on Sunday, or they're actually asleep, is for keeping myself sane with blogging; a book project that I need to pursue for fulfillment I don't always get from working, mothering, and being a wife; exercising, what little I can; cooking a meal or two ahead; vegging out to a half hour of FOOD TV or "The Daily Show;" taking an occasional bath; having a once-in-a-blue-moon long distance phone conversation with a college friend/fellow working mom on the other coast, when the stars align and we can actually chat without interruption by kids or spouses for maybe twenty minutes; oh, and did I mention actually taking a nap?  A forty-minute weekend afternoon nap -- man, it doesn't get much better than that. These things keep me sane. And a sane mommy is a better mommy.

Adding to the long list of mom/work/wife responsibilities with school volunteering means sacrificing time I'd like to have doing all those other things -- some admittedly trivial, but necessary to stress relief. As it is, I haven't been to one meeting yet, and I'm already nursing a bad case of reflux just contemplating it.

Yet later this week, I'm scheduled to perform my first volunteer activities at the school. I'm sure I'll feel virtuous for having done so, or at least, a smidgen less guilty. No doubt I will enjoy meeting other parents, some of whom, like me, may have to rush off to "real jobs" as soon as our volunteer session is done. And yes, in some small way, it will probably help the school, which after all is a community to which my family now belongs, and to which I am in some way obligated to contribute.

But I feel like I'd better bring some wolfsbane with me, maybe some garlic, a silver bullet. Anything I need to ward off the UVMs, and their guilt-inducing pleas for more, more, more precious hours of my time. If you've ever been sucked into the school volunteer vortex, you know what I'm talking about. Or maybe, as that gutsy mom advised me at the party, I will find the strength, at least some of the time, to JUST SAY NO.


William V. Madison said...

I'm reminded of a chapter title in my first-year French textbook: "Volontaire ou victime?" (Volunteer or victim) To the best of my recollection, there was no definitive answer to this question.

William V. Madison said...

Now another friend has been blogging about the Volunteer Mania in Los Angeles -- you are all scaring me. I always thought the whole point of L.A. was not having to do stuff! Where's a lotus-eater to find peace?

Unknown said...

I connected to your blog via Motherload and was wondering if we could post part of your post on the "Volunteer Vortex" on our website: The Sloan Work and Family Research Network ( You may have coined a phrase and it would be an interesting topic to include in our blog.

late blooming mom said...

@maryculew: yes you can post my blog post on the wfnetwork site.
All workplaces should be made more family friendly. Best, Late Blooming Mom

KCmomof2 said...

Amen sister! I friend just pointed me to your blog post because she has heard me lament about this time and time again. My kids are 1st and 2nd grade. We started public school last year and after a year of it I am still struggling to find the right work/volunteer/parenting/life balance. Like you we attended a private pre-school which was pretty expensive by comparison to other local options so while volunteering was offered for 3 or 4 class parties per year it wasn't mandated. Public school has been a big eye opener. They need mom's to make copies, moms to stuff folders, moms to run fundraising auctions to raise enough funds to pay salaries of the school nurse, counselor and teachers aides! Our school would have no counselor and only a few hours a day of nurse time if not for our PTA sponsored 501C3 that pays their salaries! Our recent auction raised $36K towards this cost for next year. I chaired the committee to ask for donations from local businesses to be auctioned and raffled off. It was tremendously time consuming but as the mother of a son with ADD the school counselor was instrumental last year in helping him transition from a Montessori classroom to a traditional classroom so I felt a responsibility to help save her 3 day a week job!
I am lucky that I telecommute so my hours are pretty flexible. I can often volunteer for end of the day and after school activities since many of my co-workers are in Europe so the time zone difference works to my advantage but I also get up at 4 or 5am to attend team conference calls a few times a week.
Like you I struggle to find ways to volunteer that still allow me time with my kids. This year it has worked out that both my kids have library check out day on Wednesday afternoons. So I go to the school at 1:30pm and stay through the end of the day. I get to spend time with both my kids during their class time in the library. I find I have learned a lot about their classmates as well. You can tell a lot about the 6-8 year old set by what they choose to read!
We have UVM at our school too. I don't try and compete with that. I do try to use my career skills (I am a Director of Sales and Marketing for a software company) to leverage where I can. Chairing the auction donation committee was right up my alley because I could reach out to business contacts I already had. Also if the auction is a success then that means less cookie dough, wrapping paper, worthless junk fundraisers we have to have which is what I really HATE!

A.Marie said...

OH wow...I found your blog quite by accident, and I read with great interest this article on volunteering. Let me tell you what...I feel your pain! My children are now 19 and 16, and my volunteering years are quickly coming to an end. My 16 year old will be a Senior next year, and I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I remember when my daughter started kindergarten. My children have gone to public school since they started (there really is no other option in my small town) and it was a tremendous eye-opener to realize the time and commitment that volunteering was going to require. I will have to say that their grade school years were where I spent the bulk of my volunteering. As they moved on up to the Upper Elementary, then Jr. High, then finally High School, yes, there is still volunteering opportunities and time commitments to put in, but nothing like those grade school years. Oh my...I get exhausted just thinking about all of the work I did. Some weeks, it was the equivalent of a un-paid part time job!!

Anonymous said...

How sad. Most volunteers I know are happy to get into their children's classroom. They are looking for opportunities to engage. Children love when their parents are in their classrooms.