It Wasn’t Easy to Say No to Volunteering

It Wasn’t Easy to Say No to Volunteering

IMG_9243I’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).

The Mommy Wars Come to the Classroom

The Mommy Wars Come to the Classroom

KarenDempseyI am crouched down in the hallway outside my son Brennan’s third-grade classroom, counting cash to stuff into the teachers’ holiday cards and silently excoriating myself for being so disorganized, when another parent—a friend—walks up and stands over me.

She smirks. “Are you a room parent?”

“Shhh! Don’t tell anyone,” I joke, and then add, “You know, somebody has to do it.”

“I know,” she says. “I just didn’t think you were the type.”

Another friend says, on the subject of chaperoning field trips, “Just say no. End of discussion.” I think maybe she means that she doesn’t have it in her to untangle gum from the hair of a crying child hair in a crowded public restroom. But then she adds, “Leave it to the people who have nothing better to do.”

I resist the urge to pursue the conversation. Because I like my friend, and I’m not sure I want to explore what she’s saying. And I suddenly have that pinched feeling I get when arguments erupt over breast versus bottle, or sleep training versus family bed.

On the other hand. Rewind a year or two, to a wholly unnecessary meeting of parent volunteers where someone brings a formal, printed agenda and strikes up an impassioned debate about binders. I groan and pull at my hair. We are caricatures of ourselves.  When there’s talk of a follow-up meeting I suggest we continue the conversation by email, and then get chastised by a fellow mom who starts off by saying, “I realize you may be too busy with work—.”

These scenes are aberrations, I hope. Not reflective of a bigger thing: Say, the toxic and difficult debate about the balance of working and parenting. Right? Because it would be really silly and self-defeating to bring the mommy wars into the classroom in such a way.

I get that, in the mix of parents at school, there are people who are difficult and domineering. In any work or life situation, there’s someone looking for power in the wrong places.  But it’s also true that somebody needs to help raise money for field trips and make sure there are enough snacks to go around, and tissues, and number two pencils. Those may seem like small things. But they are important. And in too many classrooms, I suspect, it’s the teachers themselves who have to spend time worrying about them.

You know what else? NOT volunteering doesn’t mean a mom cares any less about her kids, or mine. I remember that dismissive “busy with work” remark so vividly because it was bruising. And maybe it was the experience of encountering a similar attitude, spoken or unspoken, that leads my friends to give me grief about helping out at school.

When I was registering my son for kindergarten six years ago, I asked my friend and neighbor Alison about our school’s reputation for parent involvement, and over-involvement. It happens, she said. But she added, wisely, and generously, “I don’t have the time or inclination to get deeply involved in everything that happens at school. But I’m grateful there are people who do.”

Helping out at school has been both powerfully rewarding and unbearably tedious, kind of the way I think of my own experience of school as a child. One of the things I appreciate is that the wall of every classroom has a handwritten list of rules the kids come up with themselves at the beginning of the year. Brennan’s classroom rules include this one:  “Support others and make them feel safe.” Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. But it’s definitely one worth working on.

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