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.