It Wasn’t Easy to Say No to Volunteering
I’ve been that mom, the one who volunteers in big ways, like run the school’s development committee, including the annual phone-a-thon with a glass ceiling of ten callers. I’ve been the aggrieved organizer of that phone-a-thon, because it would seem that two hours wasn’t a lot to ask of more than ten parents, especially ones that received the scholarship dollars we raised during that two hours. Although I am not that mom any longer, I’ve thought a great deal about the equation and the motivation behind my parent volunteerism.
We parent volunteers put the time in, our skills or our willingness to do relatively unskilled tasks like the shopping for the preschool snacks or the collating of the first graders’ poetry anthologies, because we love our kids and because we respect our kids’ teachers and because we want to be involved in some way in the life of the school and just because. I have put loads of time in, hours upon hours. I’ve felt impassioned and put upon and satisfied and frustrated. I’ve felt part of the machine that is my kids’ school, whether it’s because I’ve chaperoned or baked for the high school musical. Also, I’ve wondered whether there would ever be a world for me beyond the duties parenthood opened me up to performing.
We parent volunteers jump in with ideas big and small. Over the years, I’ve raised questions about diversity, sustainability (as in, saving the earth), snacks (as in, why so much sugar at parties and why no guidelines—a provocative effort that earned me an unofficial title as “Sugar Czar” for a couple of years), homework (less, please) and high school start time (later, please—or take head, bang it against wall and still many years later it starts at 7:30 AM). Pretty much each one of these ideas came with the non-dollar price tag of hours donated in pursuit of the idea. I wrote letters, raised monies, and even attended School Committee meetings. Of the last one, I’d have to say if ever I doubted the efficacy of democracy, doubt rose alarmingly high, like a river about to flood, on nights at the School Committee meetings.
We parent volunteers tend to be team player types with a pretty big dose of “should” in our makeup. Need I say more about that?
It’s been pointed out forty bazillion times that when it comes to schools and volunteers, it’s a pretty mom-driven operation almost wherever you go. Like so much other caretaking, this unsung, unpaid and often not so terribly well respected work falls to women. I’ve read—on blogs, in articles and books—about how deserved respect is (heck, yes) and how schools everywhere would tumble into bits without this nearly invisible workforce. Let’s face it, parent work hours—whether on a PTO, for a parent cooperative-run school or to create the staff appreciation lunch or book fair or provide refreshments at what would seem like hundreds of events each year—represent work done and efforts made.
At certain points, my sense of self, my identity, had a lot to do with my parent volunteerism. It was almost a part of coming to know myself as a parent, to put the time in and the effort, to cozy up to administration and teachers by being if not indispensible then very helpful, and to join a corps of worker bee parents. At other times, it wasn’t all that satisfactory. I felt… bad or bore a chip on my shoulder or just felt disrespected and at the end of the day, I’d given myself, in the form of my time and energies, away.
That’s the point I realized maybe on some macro-level I was done.
As K.J. Dell’Antonia pointed out in a long ago Motherlode column: “No is a complete sentence.” I remember reading that and nodding and at the same time wondering how I’d ever actually say no like that. Sure, she was busy with work. Sure, other parents were busy with work or coffee dates or whatever. Her point was that she didn’t have to explain. She channeled a little inner Nancy Reagan and just said, “No.”
“No” is a hard word for me. However, I have practiced and I’ve prioritized and I’ve worked on the simple “No” that involves no explanation or apology. I’m not quite there (yet) but it is my intention to become that mom, the one who doesn’t volunteer (much).