The kids are about to head back to school, and I can already see the Instagram updates of smiling kids with fresh backpacks off to a new year of learning. Then, the paperwork arrives.
There’s the PTA who wants your time and, of course, you’ll need to duke it out if your children are small to get the coveted title of Room Parent, and then there’s the book fair, library, lunch duty, party planning, staff appreciation, Halloween, on and on it goes. And that’s just the school. There’s snack coordinating and team parties for sports, scouts, recitals. If something involves your child beyond you parenting them, it’s expected that you’ll pony up your time--free of charge--and volunteer. This year instead of signing up, I say pass it along. Volunteer less. The only thing worse than not volunteering is being a resentful volunteer mom.
I know this because I’ve met many women who shouldn’t have volunteered their time, but signed the form, smiled, hated it and were downright jerks about the whole thing. Last year, for instance, my family moved to not only a new school district, but a new state. For whatever reason, my email address never made the grade’s distribution list for information. Before arriving in our new state and my daughter in her new school, I signed up for the school’s PTA e-newsletter. My daughter’s teacher had my email and we communicated. I thought everything I needed to know, I knew. I was wrong.
Fifth grade celebrations have become mini-graduations as the students rise to sixth grade. I anticipated this, but information never arrived. A friend tipped me off that the school puts together a slideshow of pictures set to music that includes a baby picture and a current picture of each student. This kind of send off, while sweet, led to a downright nasty email exchange between me and a volunteer mom I’d never met. Fearing that my daughter wouldn’t be included because I never received an email about when to hand in pictures, I found the celebration coordinator’s email, sent the pictures and was told I was too late. The presentation was finished.
So I went to the school to ask questions. Without knowing how the celebration worked, I wanted to know if there was someone else who would take my pictures, if I could do the work myself, if anyone was willing to not let one student be left out. With only sixty students, the class wasn’t large. And who, in their right mind, would want one of them left out?
Someone who shouldn’t have volunteered, that’s who.
After I hit the school with my questions and the coordinator was forced to rework her presentation, she sent me an email:
"I am a school volunteer, I work a full-time job, and I have three kids at three different schools. I already spend 5 hours every week preparing the weekly email blast sent to [the school]. I understand a discussion about the slideshow reached the schoolhouse, and I am not pleased to have been painted in any sort of negative light given all of the hours I have already spent and the fact that I purposely started this effort 3 weeks ago in order to avoid having to do what I am doing now, staying up late 2 days before the celebration."
By my standards there was absolutely nothing negative about asking for a student not to be left out of a presentation no one thought to make sure she was included in. And, for that matter, I thought, calm the hell down. No one cares how many children you have and what schools your kids attend because it’s not about YOU.
After my questions, the school realized more children were left out. But this is classic Resentful Volunteer Syndrome behavior. We’re all busy, we all have commitments, but every school will survive if we don’t sign up to volunteer. It’s okay, really. I’ve done my time, I’ve over-extended myself, too, but it was my choice and therefore I never took it out on anyone other than me. Were there parents who demanded special treatment? All the time. Was I overwhelmed? You betcha. Try handling 300 Girl Scouts, their parents, leaders and cookie orders. I did that. But now I don’t.
Time is a precious thing, it’s finite resource that we constantly undervalue. I respect the countless hours other women--and it’s almost always other mothers--have donated to make my child’s experience more valuable. Yet, I also respect the women who know their own limitations and own them by not smugly condescending to the rest of us that their time -- their same 24-hours -- are more valuable. Absolutely not.
If there is a bit of hesitation when your child’s paperwork comes home pleading with you that they need you - ask yourself, what do I need? If it’s a break, take it. If it’s store bought cookies, buy them. If it’s a check, write it. Because who wants another bad day? Which is exactly how I responded to the email I received: It sounds like you’re having a very bad day.
And I left it at that.
Liz Henry is a contributor to The Good Mother Myth available from Seal Press. Follow her on Twitter.
(photo: Ollyy/ Shutterstock)