The Mommy Wars Come to the Classroom

KarenDempseyI am crouched down in the hallway outside my son Brennan’s third-grade classroom, counting cash to stuff into the teachers’ holiday cards and silently excoriating myself for being so disorganized, when another parent—a friend—walks up and stands over me.

She smirks. “Are you a room parent?”

“Shhh! Don’t tell anyone,” I joke, and then add, “You know, somebody has to do it.”

“I know,” she says. “I just didn’t think you were the type.”

Another friend says, on the subject of chaperoning field trips, “Just say no. End of discussion.” I think maybe she means that she doesn’t have it in her to untangle gum from the hair of a crying child hair in a crowded public restroom. But then she adds, “Leave it to the people who have nothing better to do.”

I resist the urge to pursue the conversation. Because I like my friend, and I’m not sure I want to explore what she’s saying. And I suddenly have that pinched feeling I get when arguments erupt over breast versus bottle, or sleep training versus family bed.

On the other hand. Rewind a year or two, to a wholly unnecessary meeting of parent volunteers where someone brings a formal, printed agenda and strikes up an impassioned debate about binders. I groan and pull at my hair. We are caricatures of ourselves.  When there’s talk of a follow-up meeting I suggest we continue the conversation by email, and then get chastised by a fellow mom who starts off by saying, “I realize you may be too busy with work—.”

These scenes are aberrations, I hope. Not reflective of a bigger thing: Say, the toxic and difficult debate about the balance of working and parenting. Right? Because it would be really silly and self-defeating to bring the mommy wars into the classroom in such a way.

I get that, in the mix of parents at school, there are people who are difficult and domineering. In any work or life situation, there’s someone looking for power in the wrong places.  But it’s also true that somebody needs to help raise money for field trips and make sure there are enough snacks to go around, and tissues, and number two pencils. Those may seem like small things. But they are important. And in too many classrooms, I suspect, it’s the teachers themselves who have to spend time worrying about them.

You know what else? NOT volunteering doesn’t mean a mom cares any less about her kids, or mine. I remember that dismissive “busy with work” remark so vividly because it was bruising. And maybe it was the experience of encountering a similar attitude, spoken or unspoken, that leads my friends to give me grief about helping out at school.

When I was registering my son for kindergarten six years ago, I asked my friend and neighbor Alison about our school’s reputation for parent involvement, and over-involvement. It happens, she said. But she added, wisely, and generously, “I don’t have the time or inclination to get deeply involved in everything that happens at school. But I’m grateful there are people who do.”

Helping out at school has been both powerfully rewarding and unbearably tedious, kind of the way I think of my own experience of school as a child. One of the things I appreciate is that the wall of every classroom has a handwritten list of rules the kids come up with themselves at the beginning of the year. Brennan’s classroom rules include this one:  “Support others and make them feel safe.” Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. But it’s definitely one worth working on.

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This entry was written by Karen Dempsey

About the author: Karen Dempsey has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her @karenedempsey.

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  • Lisa

    “Helping out at school has been both powerfully rewarding and unbearably tedious…”

    Yes. As is everything, every. last. thing. about parenting. And life, really.

    This is the second article about volunteering at school that I’ve seen come through my Twitter feed this year, and I’m really surprised by the topic. The other article was ridiculous: complaining that all school volunteers were affluent parents who didn’t work and had no idea what the life of regular parents was like. Her article only proved that she failed to understand the phrase “sample size of 1″ and that she’s really good at making wildly inaccurate statements about literally millions of people.

    If we could all take a few deep breaths and express gratitude rather than taking offense at every little thing, the world would be a much better place. Yes, sometimes people say stuff they shouldn’t–on both sides–but I will also say that I’m a lot more disgusted with the parents who complain about the work that volunteers do while making up excuses about why they can’t be bothered. (Yes, volunteers shouldn’t complain about people who don’t or make snarky comments, though I’m going to bet money on the fact that the ones complaining and making comments are the people who do that about everything in their lives. It has nothing to do with being volunteers or being at home during the day.)

    There is a weird political influence that isn’t being discussed but I’m guessing is an undercurrent. I’ve seen some comments about how parents who don’t volunteer aren’t any less (and why would they be?), but I wonder if the larger discussion about “parent involvement” in schools is fueling that. My take is this: there are some politicians (mostly conservative) who are convinced that if we can just get more people (mostly women) to volunteer for jobs that used to be paid, we can cut school budgets (and taxes) even more. We used to have more administration-but a lot of that was secretaries who made copies, extra paraprofessionals to help in the classroom, etc. Shrinking budgets meant budget cuts, but it didn’t mean less work. We rely on volunteers to make up the difference, and those who want to keep every less tax dollar for themselves are shrouding their greed in a vague conversation about “more parental involvement.” Note that the phrase is rarely defined so parents will feel guilted and then turn against each other. Does “parental involvement” mean checking that your fourth grader has done her homework and helping with something that’s confusing them, or does it mean chairing the silent auction fundraiser? I’d argue that it should and mostly does mean the former, but I suspect that middle-class women are likely to hear it as the latter.

  • David in Alaska

    Mostly, I see parents doing 1) very needed work that frees up staff from getting the newsletter out, filing, xeroxing, etc; 2) providing one-on-one help (like reading with a child who is struggling) for OTHER PEOPLE’S kids (because any parent who goes in to read with a first grader was doing that at home at age 2 and 3 so their own kid is independently reading chapter books in first grade); and 3) providing more challenging, extra-curricular academic offerings like Mind-a-Mazes, Lego Robotics, Mathematics Olympiad, Spelling Bee, Battle of the Books, Future Problem Solving, MathCounts, etc.

    I hear about the Mommy Wars more in metropolitan areas. High housing prices make for long work weeks and many two-income couples. There can be resentment in both directions for “the road not taken”. In rural areas, where land is cheap, I see many more professionals with flexible work schedules volunteering their time in the schools. My wife’s partners (internists) help grade schoolers dissect cow eyeballs, assemble electronic circuits, and prep for Battle of the Books. I (an engineer) coach competitive math in grade-, middle- and high school. And while professionals have the luxury of higher incomes, the parent with the most volunteer hours (>1000 per year) worked at gas-station convenience store.

    Which segues to my next thought, “What do you want to model for your children?” Is education important enough to you that you will supervise your child’s homework? Great. Is it important enough to you that you also volunteer your time in the schools? Even better. Sure, single working parents have little time in their week. But don’t tell me you can’t find the time to volunteer while updating me on the most recent reality show or sitcom episode.

  • jill

    Well said, Karen. My oldest is in 8th grade and I’m still feeling the push/pull from other parents about volunteering and not volunteering…made more tricky by the fact that my 8th grader has asked me repeatedly NOT to volunteer at school EVER. But regardless whether I am able to volunteer or not, my hats are off to those who so generously donate their time and energy for the good of all our children.

  • Esther
    • Karen Dempsey

      Great points in here – thank you, Esther, for continuing the conversation.

  • Robin H

    Just because you volunteer doesn’t mean you do everything. I have been on the board of our elementary and middle school PTO’s, chaired many additional committees, but I will not be a trip chaperon. I don’t enjoy that aspect of it. I like my kids, I don’t necessarily like other people’s kids! I do what suits me and I hope other parents do that too. If you’re not a baker, don’t volunteer to chair the bake sale. We had a disaster of a Teacher Appreciation lunch because the mom running it had no idea how much food we needed. We ran out after the first set of teachers went through. I have been blessed to be able to stay at home with my kids so I consider the time I volunteer my job. I always appreciated any amount of time that someone contributed. We also made sure there were things that the working moms could do to help us. If you try to include everyone there is less of the snide comments. We didn’t have PTO meetings in the middle of the day, and tried to plan the activities late enough that the working parents could get there.