This week’s At Issue topic on volunteering came about one evening when I had my fellow 3 mothers over one evening. I mentioned that I had volunteered quite heavily at my boys’ school this year, both on the parent council and on creating an outdoor kindergarten classroom. I had thoroughly enjoyed it and had no regrets, but it had taken a lot of time and energy, and my home life reflected the diversion of my attentions away from it. So I had mixed feelings when a few people at school hinted that maybe I could chair the (intensely active) parent council next year, which would be a greater commitment by far.
It’s hard to negotiate that line, the tension between working to better the lives of our children and how that work often detracts from the time and attention needed to spend quality time with those same kids. I think I would enjoy the work of chairing council, and I really believe in learning new things with new people and opening oneself up to opportunity. It’s tempting. But I’ve also taken an unpaid leave of absence from lawyering to have more time and to spend it mindfully with my kids, and this decision brings very concrete and, for our family, significant financial consequences. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend this period doing (at least full-time) unpaid work that would take me away from my kids equally well as the paid work that I was forgoing, no matter how fulfilling it might be.
One of my roles at the school this past year was Volunteer Coordinator, and in this capacity I received lots of feedback on volunteering. Most of it was positive, but there was also the frustration of volunteers who were burned out and giving more than they wanted to. I want to steer clear of this if I can and pace myself. My children are still very young and I’ll be investing in the school for at least a decade – I feel like there’s lots of time for giving in different ways that will work at different points of time.
Also there’s a chronic need for volunteers at schools, and I want to avoid what can happen when the over-burdened heavy lifters start to look around and wonder what the other parents are doing, partly because I’m finally realizing what some of them are doing. To my knowledge, my mother did not volunteer one minute of her time to any school or community event involving my two siblings and me. She was a single working mother, recently immigrated, and very busy, and this was probably reason enough for a volunteer exemption for people who knew of her circumstances, but most people wouldn’t have known. But beyond what other people might have thought, I think for a long time I overlooked the giving that my mother did do and continues to do.
She’s often the person who quietly brings food to friends who need it, or who talks to them every night on the phone when their spouses are sick. She’s the one who gave what amounted to gobs of hard-won money to relatives in our enormous family (I have 17 aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins, some of whom I don’t even know), even though she knew she’d never see that money again. Now, in her seventies, my mom comes over to my place once a week to love my kids, bring groceries, prepare meals, do laundry and the cleaning. And at least twice a week (but almost always more) she visits and helps out my siblings and their kids. My “non-volunteer” mother is heavyweight giver in her own right, supporting a large and complicated extended family, accepting as her responsibility a network of people that would rival a small school.
My mom still doesn’t “volunteer”: she isn’t going to ladle soup into bowls every other Sunday, or cross your name off a list and hand you a voting slip near election day. But she gives all the time: it’s just not called volunteering when it happens within family. But the giving is equally real and needed, and it’s in part a direct consequence of that giving that I do have the time and privilege to volunteer at the kids’ school.
So when I make my choices about volunteering, I want to be sure that it doesn’t make me prize certain kinds of more visible giving over other quieter kinds, and that I continue to be able to give generously at home too. I can ride out the inevitable windows of busy-ness and imbalance that comes with other commitments, but I’ve decided what my priorities are, and they’re sleeping in their beds while I write this.
Come fall, I’m passing on the chair position – maybe some other September. I’ll still make significant volunteer contributions at the school, especially on the days my mother visits and takes care of my kids. It’s going to be a great year.