Volunteering Again: The Definition of My Insanity

On my fridge, I have a magnet with the picture of a housewife saying “Stop me before I volunteer again.”

A wise-ass friend mailed it to me after one particularly long gripe about how much I hated parent volunteer meetings. And every year I think this magnet is hysterically funny – after the fact. By the time I remember it, I’ve lost my marbles trying to do everything for everyone.

This is my oath before the start of every school year: “This year, I will focus on developing a business/career, getting home renovations done and getting in the best physical shape of my life.” Two months later, I’m cutting out Frankenstein heads for Halloween bingo at a school party, manically humming the Monster Mash.

My daughter’s school has a high percentage of reduced lunches (Read: economically challenged, overworked parents and understaffed classrooms). My guilt about working part-time from home means volunteer recruiters love me. I rarely say no. We’re made for each other.

So here I am again, chairing a fundraiser and preparing to organize classrooms of Halloween parties. I’m presenting art lessons in the spring, doing admin work in the classroom and chauffeuring field trips in between.  It doesn’t earn me a paycheck, provide me a network of career contacts or even give me much in the way of personal kudos. Multitasking is second nature. Saying “no” is apparently third or fourth.

Six years ago, Montessori daycare moved my two year old into a chaotic toddler room. The transition coincided with a time when my less-than-stellar people skills had gotten me into hot water at work. I talked it over with my husband and we decided to change our family plan. We wouldn’t carpool to our downtown jobs together anymore. He’d bus and I’d stay home with our daughter. We withdrew her from daycare. I resigned from my job.

For the first six months I wallowed. I cried a lot. I skipped showers on occasion. I got into fights with my husband about little things. I was frustrated and depressed, feeling like dead weight. And while people go on and on about the most important job in the world being a parent, most of us are more than the custodians of our progeny. I was watching bits and pieces of my identity disappear. I’d worked at one job or another since I was 10 – and full time employment since becoming an adult.

In a fortunate turn of events, my former employers asked for help transitioning between managers and eventually hired me part-time in my old job. This has allowed me to work from a home office, which I’ve been doing for the last five years. I’ve tried to turn this time into an opportunity to pursue writing, since that seems like such a solid long term career. I just can’t seem to wrap my head around a plan. In its absence, I say “yes” to whatever comes my way.

It isn’t that volunteering doesn’t have value, it’s just never been part of my values, since I was always working. It is really not in my skill set. Usually my goal is to not alienate people when I volunteer alongside them. That means no eye-rolling, swear words, snorting in contempt or using my drill sergeant voice to get things done. “Come on, you bunch of blabbering cupcakes, get a move on with the juice boxes!”

When I’m feeling soft and cuddly (usually for about 15 minutes on Tuesdays or during the full moon), I am glad that I have the time and luxury of being able to help at my daughter’s school. Eventually she’ll  pretend she doesn’t know me when I see her at school. Now, she’s delighted when I go on field trips and come to her classroom. Her classmates holler happy hellos to me in the hallways and her teachers are always appreciative. It’s the only performance review I get these days.

If balance is key to contentment, I haven’t found it yet. Perhaps I hope that if I juggle a job, volunteering, working out and writing, that somehow in the end, it will all even out. Until then, put me on the list. I’m sure I’m available.

15 Comments on “Volunteering Again: The Definition of My Insanity

  1. Hm. I know how hard it is to say ‘no’ to anything; that’s how I ended up being chairperson of so many things. I finally learned how to say ‘no’ and I also learned that I didn’t have to give a reason. I still sometimes catch myself about to volunteer for something. Honestly, I don’t mind as long as it’s something I enjoy doing.

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    • I still feel like I’d have to justify a “no” because of my flexible schedule and I suppose at some point, I’ll need to get over that. Especially if I do intend on developing a career in writing, since it will certainly take more time than what I’m putting in now. I feel incredibly fortunate in a time when many people are struggling and it makes me feel stingy/petty not to help out.

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  2. Oh, totally with ya on the lack of volunteering skills (for the same reasons). I give a lot of money to charity to assuage my guilt. And I don’t have kids, so the school thing doesn’t vie for my time (that would be hard for me to say “no” to as well… church was the same when I was going).

    I don’t know that balance is the key to contentment. Actually, I’m pretty sure there is no one key that fits all locks. I think maybe it has to do with accepting yourself as who you are. Happiness comes and goes for me, but through most of it I have been content, I think. You have some great skills and (by all accounts) a great family… do you feel there is a missing piece? If you do and can identify it, perhaps there’s a path to follow towards contentment.

    Ah, sudden thought: perhaps, like happiness, contentment is the journey, not a destination. The trick is finding the path to walk.

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    • I’ve always suspected that if I got totally comfortable with who I am, I’d be a Ho-Ho eating, chain smoking misanthropic old lady wielding a shotgun, scaring kiddies off my lawn. Trying not to go there, hence the struggle to achieve balance or perhaps a ballast to keep me upright. Am very grateful for my husband and daughter – but keep expecting them to give me up for adoption any day now. They’re much nicer people than I.
      My guess for happiness/contentment is what you’ve hinted at – learning how to enjoy the journey.

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      • This is presumptuous of me to say, but it sounds like you haven’t learned how to be loved yet. It’s a bit like how some people have a hard time accepting a compliment. It’s hard to trust that it’s real.

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  3. Busy people make the best volunteers. They always manage to get things done.

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    • You sound like either an experienced volunteer or a volunteer coordinator. Quick – everybody hide!
      I think one of the aspects of volunteering that is tough, is trying to move social hour along, so something actually gets done!

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  4. ” I was watching bits and pieces of my identity disappear. ” You are so right and I am so with you on this. Last year was my transition and yes, it was so difficult. You’re lucky your old job hired you back on your terms.

    Balance — this is so elusive so I have shifted to being more responsive than going crazy over attaining the elusive balance of parenthood and self.

    I loved reading this, thanks!

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    • It is a huge challenge to find balance. And when I say balance, I guess I mean that at the end of the day, your exhaustion is the happy kind. Not the resentful kind. For each person that may mean something different, since what we value, what gives us a boost, is different. I haven’t quite figured that out myself. I am reminded of an Albert Einstein quote: ““Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” Thanks so much for reading my post!

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    • Wow – that’s so lovely to read this morning. Thank you!

      If I were completely honest with myself, I used to loathe performance reviews, but they were never as nice as yours! Am I brown nosing? Some job skills never leave…..

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