Finding Time to Volunteer

help-686323_640I’ve recently become a stay-at-home-parent (and blogger – see my stuff here!). Briefly, I’ve taken a one-year leave of absence from my paid work as a bank lawyer to spend more time with my children, and re-set the rhythm of our family life. On my blog I talk about  lots of personal things, and argue that the world needs to see stay-at-home work as valuable work, and that we should not bifurcate our view of the parenting function in a gendered way.

In one of my first posts, I responded to an item from a SAHM that got a lot of attention in the mommy blog world when she wrote about why she regretted her choices. One of her issues was that she got “sucked into” a world of volunteering. Though I kept my original response levelheaded, what I really thought was “WTH? If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it!” I linked this piece on how to say no to volunteering and all the issues that go along with saying yes or no. It’s an excellent article, worth reading anytime and especially in the context of the current 4Mothers1blog series.

As I was getting ready to leave paid work for my leave, almost everyone asked me “What are you going to do?” Though I found the question a bit frustrating – hello, didn’t I just say I’m going to be a stay-at-home-parent? – I know what they meant.

What in the world would I do with all that extra time? Ha. I am finding out that, as anyone who’s spent more than one day as a Stay at Home Parent (SAHP) knows, there is actually not a whole lot of extra time. Taking care of the daily activities and to-do’s of running a household take hours every day, and not in one nice chunk that can be carved out. That care is fragmented throughout the day, leaving few opportunities for non-SAHP projects.

And that’s my main point – if you have time, find something you love (as Nathalie wrote earlier in this space this week) and volunteer to your heart’s content.

But first, make sure you have the time! If you plunge ahead and accept too much, you will soon feel squeezed and resentful.

One of the reasons I decided to take a leave of absence and re-set my life with my children was that I found my priorities slipping, every day. The kids could always be “later” while I sent one last email or unloaded the dishwasher. I firmly resolved, before leaving paid work, that I would not take up any new challenges, learning opportunities, projects or personal activities during the year I would be on leave. My work would be my kids and family, and I knew that if I embarked on, say, learning Mandarin, it would quickly take up my time and my energy that I’d dedicated to SAHPing.

I believe being a SAHP means developing a new set of skills, or at least re-deploying old skills in a new way. Transitioning into that will take some time, like developing a new set of muscles. To have the time, the energy for that, means not taking on new items – at least not immediately. Much as I’d like to finally finish decorating my house – new rug here, non-IKEA dresser there – projects like that are firmly on the back burner for now.

Still, I have an exception, and it’s for a perfect volunteering opportunity. I’ve long attended the kids’ school council meetings. For the upcoming school year, I’ll run as co-chair. Before committing, I’ve done my homework – how much time is involved, what’s the nature of the work, how many meetings, what are the typical questions and problems we don’t see in the public meetings? I’m ready. Also, I think this volunteering opportunity dovetails perfectly with my goal for a LOA and SAHPing. I’m looking forward to being involved with my kids’ lives and school especially. I see this as a great way to integrate more into the school culture and community, something I’ve been missing since my oldest started junior kindergarten. For this, I will make time.

Volunteering will fulfill you in so many ways – it’s a way to exercise your brain differently, a way to give back to your community, a way to build your resume if you’re thinking of going back to paid work someday, a way to network, a way to make new friends…if you have the time!


The Many Faces of Giving

hands-683950__180This 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.


A Volunteer

volunteers-601662_640A few weeks ago I had a conversation with my sister-in-law about volunteering.  We concluded that you either are a volunteer or you’re not.  Stay-at-home status versus work-outside the home career, a house-full of children or none; it doesn’t really matter because a volunteer is just something that you are.

And any volunteer will tell you that sometimes they wish they could just say “no!” and shirk the sign-up sheet but like a moth to a flame, it’s impossible.

September is looming.  I feel it.  I have already noted that my summer is half-way over and before I know it the weather will turn, the snack-packs will reclaim their front of the cupboard real-estate and I will sit down with “The Schedule” and shuffle swim times with soccer games and tumble tots.  Somehow everything will fall into place and within a few weeks we’ll run like a well-oiled machine from pool to field to court and back.

Every year when I organize the kids fall activities, I promise myself that this year I will stake those two precious hours from 9 am to 11 am to do whatever I want.  Focus on me.

Groceries be damned!

But those sign-up sheets get me every time!  Like an addict, I scrawl my name under bake-sales and fun fairs, class parent and field trips.

I try to live my life by following this simple rule: what you put in, you will get out.

Great communities don’t just happen.  Great schools just don’t happen.  In fact, very little of anything great “just happens”.

Although it sounds trite, I am happy to do my part because as much as I put in, I get so much more in return.

As this past school year was winding down, my six-year old came home from grade one and announced that he had volunteered to bring a snack tomorrow for his class party.

My head was swimming in the way that only a mother who is “limping across the finish line” knows and as much as I wanted to blurt out, “Why’d you do that!?  Don’t you see how crazy it is this week!?” it made me proud to know that my son is a volunteer.

He’s one of us.

Volunteering: How Much Is Just Right?

hands-543593__180Almost everyone volunteer for something at some time.  And when we become parents, it can seem like the requests multiply like rabbits.  Can you coach the soccer/hockey/ultimate/hula hoop team?  Can you bake for the kids’ events?  Can you donate your services to the fundraiser?  Can you work on parent council?  Can you attend with your child to serve dinner at the local shelter?

How often do you say yes?  And when you do, does it feel great or grating?  When you say no, do you feel satisfied or selfish?  Is volunteering a way to contribute meaningfully to the community in which you belong, or a ruse by which your time is siphoned away from the things most dear to you?

How much is too much, how much is too little, and how much is just right… for you?

Discuss.  4Mothers will be doing just that this week, and hope you’ll join us.

On the PTA Precipice

I’ve done it.  I’ve gone and volunteered for the PTA (equivalent) at my boys’ school (or, as my sister-in-law would say, my school).  Amusingly, I am the Volunteer Coordinator, the second last job to be taken up.  Why did I choose it?  I didn’t really – I just asked where the help was most needed.

My boys attend a public alternative school, and this school’s mandate states upfront that there is a greater expectation of voluntarism among parents than at regular schools.  Still, and maybe inevitably, there are needs that go unmet, and I suppose it would be helpful for someone dedicated to this issue.

I’m more introvert than extrovert, and I don’t relish being the Volunteer Policemom in the soccer field that no one makes eye contact with.  But I’m doing it anyway.  The truth is I’ve been kind of waiting for the opportunity to be more involved in the workings of my boys’ school.  Last year with a newborn and two boys five and three, I couldn’t do it, but now my baby’s sleeping more and so am I.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s still not convenient.  I’m not exactly lolling about in blankets of extra time with three kids six and under.  Volunteering in this way is also kind of expensive:  since my husband works nights, I have to book sitters for the frequent council meetings.  But even so, I’m looking forward to it.

The bottom line is that I’m really grateful for the holistic education this school offers.  I’ve been entirely satisfied with it so far, and since I plan to spend many years here (recall afore-mentioned baby), I’d like to make a more meaningful contribution than the occasional classroom volunteering I’ve done so far.

I’ve heard the stories of never-ending PTA demands and volunteer burnout and maternal guilting.  But I remain optimistic.  I admire the people who desired an alternative for their children’s education, and then had the wherewithal to make it happen.  I want to be part of the body that makes this huge project go, and to be participate in the organization that makes important decisions that directly impact my kids.  And I’d like to get to know other people who feel the same way.

Just wait, you may be saying silently to yourself, she doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into.  I can hardly argue with that, but I’ll soon  find out.  My first meeting’s tomorrow, and there is one thing we can probably all agree on:  I’m in for an education myself.