Saturday, December 04, 2010

Volunteer mums push back

A story in The New York Times, bizarrely in the Homes and Garden section, about volunteer mums burning out and dropping out.

Schools in the states seem to have more school functions and fundraisers than we have here, but the politics of volunteering is the same. A small group of people are called upon to do too much. Some quotes:

Around the country there are a number of altruistic, devoted and totally burned-out mothers just like Ms. Lentzner who are becoming emboldened to push back against the relentless requests from their children’s schools for their time. What started out as an admirable civic gesture somehow snowballed into an inability to say no to any committee assignment or project request, and spiraled into night, weekend and after-school commitments, middle-of-the-night e-mail exchanges, as well as frozen dinners, takeout pizza and baby sitters at home. ...

Other forces are at work besides the lack of free time. The growing world of mom blogging has provided ample forums for exposing the darker feelings of motherhood, and a number of women have taken to cyberspace to gripe about school volunteer work. Some complain that the system preys on maternal guilt and that it creates a sense that a mother’s worthiness is measured in how many hours she puts in at her children’s schools. Under the headline “Just Say NO to Volunteering,” Sarah Auerswald, a former PTA president in Los Angeles, wrote in June, “What I am about to say is not very PC, so get ready: Moms, stop volunteering so much.”

Ms. Auerswald, who estimated that she had sat through 1,000 meetings over the last 10 years as a volunteer, said all her work for the schools had left her “a run-down, crabby, resentful wreck.” Worse, she said in an interview, “My kids got really resentful.” When she would leave them with yet another baby sitter, or drag them along for yet another Saturday Clean-up Day at school, they implored, “Why is it always you who has to do everything, Mom?”

Ms. Auerswald emphasized that her children’s school had a very real need for parents’ volunteer work. But she said she has learned that parents need to set realistic expectations about what they can accomplish and how much of themselves they can give. ...

That is what most parents assume — that school volunteer work is in the best interests of their children. But some veterans are skeptical. Jen Christensen’s epiphany came on her 41st birthday in May 2009. She was presiding over Teacher Appreciation Week at her children’s school in San Mateo, Calif., and getting up daily at 4 a.m. to work on the school auction. She was so overcommitted, she said, that she could not find time to celebrate.

What hit harder still was that she had given up working when she had children to be home with them — and now she was continually leaving them with baby sitters because she had to attend a meeting at school.

The next fall, Ms. Christensen declared herself off-limits to all school volunteer requests. “I said: ‘I’m done. I quit. Don’t call. Don’t e-mail.’ I said I have given so much of myself. I’m spending 50 hours a week working on a volunteer position. Where does it end? You want some blood? I wouldn’t even let my husband write a check.”

Ms. Christensen added: “It felt fabulous. I took a step back and was able to see what was wrong and appreciate the opportunity I have. I don’t have to work, and being able to spend time with my kids is what my job really should be.” ...

Some of the push-back stems from just plain irritation over the way volunteer requests are made, often involving large numbers of increasingly desperate-sounding e-mails. A few years ago, Karen Bantuveris was on a plane on a business trip. “I looked down and literally saw my BlackBerry fill up with reply-all e-mails about whose turn it is to help at recess and to bring snacks,” she said. “The more I talked to working moms, the more I heard: ‘I can’t volunteer anymore. This is ridiculous.’ ”

Ms. Bantuveris put her training as a management consultant to work. She invented an online system — similar to the popular Evite invitation service — that sends a calendar of volunteer opportunities and allows parents to sign up for those of their choosing without multiple e-mail exchanges. She now runs a company called VolunteerSpot that markets the system, coordinating 460,000 volunteers, 75 percent of them parents in schools. ...

Sounds very tempting. I know a few school mums who volunteer in a number of ways, at the Community Centre, sports clubs, preschool, playgroups, and at schools. There is always a need for volunteers at schools. At our school there is a core group that does lots, and many more parents who do what they can. I would go so far as to say that most parents volunteer their time in some way. The core group does discuss burn-out. We do postpone events because we are exhausted.

Do my kids like me helping out at school? Yes they do. Do they want me to attend meetings at night? No they don't. Still working on getting that balance right.


Jenny said...

I like the idea of a calendar of opportunities - I think having a clear sense of the time commitment involved when I volunteer for something makes it much easier for me to say 'no' before I get involved if it looks like too much. I'm trying to develop this concept for fund raising at preschool - if lots of people take on a small job each it is so much less overwhelming than having 3 people who do everything.

Sarah Auerswald said...

Thanks for mentioning the article! I really do encourage people not to over-commit.