It Wasn’t Easy to Say No to Volunteering

IMG_9243I’ve been that mom, the one who volunteers in big ways, like run the school’s development committee, including the annual phone-a-thon with a glass ceiling of ten callers. I’ve been the aggrieved organizer of that phone-a-thon, because it would seem that two hours wasn’t a lot to ask of more than ten parents, especially ones that received the scholarship dollars we raised during that two hours. Although I am not that mom any longer, I’ve thought a great deal about the equation and the motivation behind my parent volunteerism.

We parent volunteers put the time in, our skills or our willingness to do relatively unskilled tasks like the shopping for the preschool snacks or the collating of the first graders’ poetry anthologies, because we love our kids and because we respect our kids’ teachers and because we want to be involved in some way in the life of the school and just because. I have put loads of time in, hours upon hours. I’ve felt impassioned and put upon and satisfied and frustrated. I’ve felt part of the machine that is my kids’ school, whether it’s because I’ve chaperoned or baked for the high school musical. Also, I’ve wondered whether there would ever be a world for me beyond the duties parenthood opened me up to performing.

We parent volunteers jump in with ideas big and small. Over the years, I’ve raised questions about diversity, sustainability (as in, saving the earth), snacks (as in, why so much sugar at parties and why no guidelines—a provocative effort that earned me an unofficial title as “Sugar Czar” for a couple of years), homework (less, please) and high school start time (later, please—or take head, bang it against wall and still many years later it starts at 7:30 AM). Pretty much each one of these ideas came with the non-dollar price tag of hours donated in pursuit of the idea. I wrote letters, raised monies, and even attended School Committee meetings. Of the last one, I’d have to say if ever I doubted the efficacy of democracy, doubt rose alarmingly high, like a river about to flood, on nights at the School Committee meetings.

We parent volunteers tend to be team player types with a pretty big dose of “should” in our makeup. Need I say more about that?

It’s been pointed out forty bazillion times that when it comes to schools and volunteers, it’s a pretty mom-driven operation almost wherever you go. Like so much other caretaking, this unsung, unpaid and often not so terribly well respected work falls to women. I’ve read—on blogs, in articles and books—about how deserved respect is (heck, yes) and how schools everywhere would tumble into bits without this nearly invisible workforce. Let’s face it, parent work hours—whether on a PTO, for a parent cooperative-run school or to create the staff appreciation lunch or book fair or provide refreshments at what would seem like hundreds of events each year—represent work done and efforts made.

At certain points, my sense of self, my identity, had a lot to do with my parent volunteerism. It was almost a part of coming to know myself as a parent, to put the time in and the effort, to cozy up to administration and teachers by being if not indispensible then very helpful, and to join a corps of worker bee parents. At other times, it wasn’t all that satisfactory. I felt… bad or bore a chip on my shoulder or just felt disrespected and at the end of the day, I’d given myself, in the form of my time and energies, away.

That’s the point I realized maybe on some macro-level I was done.

As K.J. Dell’Antonia pointed out in a long ago Motherlode column: “No is a complete sentence.” I remember reading that and nodding and at the same time wondering how I’d ever actually say no like that. Sure, she was busy with work. Sure, other parents were busy with work or coffee dates or whatever. Her point was that she didn’t have to explain. She channeled a little inner Nancy Reagan and just said, “No.”

“No” is a hard word for me. However, I have practiced and I’ve prioritized and I’ve worked on the simple “No” that involves no explanation or apology. I’m not quite there (yet) but it is my intention to become that mom, the one who doesn’t volunteer (much).

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This entry was written by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

About the author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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  • Ellen

    So much of what you say here resonates for me, but one comment struck a painful nerve: “…because it would seem that two hours wasn’t a lot to ask of more than ten parents, especially ones that received the scholarship dollars we raised during that two hours.” My kids have been the beneficiaries of significant financial aid dollars over the years, but please keep in mind that for some families who receive financial aid, it’s almost impossible to spare those two hours. I’ve lost count of the number of times where I had to weight whether I could afford the 2-3 hours of baby-sitter time or lost wages. And it’s rare that a parent who is so financially strapped would actually share with you exactly why they couldn’t help out, most especially parents who are receiving such significant amounts of financial aid at a private school. I’ve always hoped that my kids add something special to their schools, even if I’m not in the position to “pay back” their financial aid awards with volunteer hours.

    • rockandrollsccs


  • super volunteer

    Thank you for putting a word to my feelings toward volunteering of late: disrespect.
    I am currently pondering how people like us, who have the large dose of “should, who work tirelessly for the common good, become disrespected by others who only grow a larger sense of entitlement?
    I feel that at this turning point it is time to respect ourselves and our wisdom that these volunteer efforts are not working and just stop. It is acceptable and appropriate. The wheels will keep moving and maybe then somebody else will appreciate our efforts…. but, most likely not….
    And, I also recognize that I probably won’t stop cold turkey, as you humorously allude, yet maybe now in doing just a few select things, the feelings will be more positive than negative.
    Good luck and thanks for helping me realize that I am not alone in this.
    My new mantra: SUV – Stop Unnecessary Volunteering!

  • rockandrollsccs

    Sarah, this is a pretty offensive phrase: “because it would seem that two hours wasn’t a lot to ask of more than ten parents, especially ones that received the scholarship dollars we raised during that two hours.”
    So, the scholarship parents owe more time than the regular parents? Even though maybe the reason a family is on scholarship is, oh, I don’t know, because it’s led by a single mother (or father) who actually doesn’t HAVE two hours of free time? Or maybe does have two hours, but only two hours, to spend with her or his child?
    I didn’t realize scholarship help a) makes me obligated to make 10 phone calls for the school when actually I am already volunteering for in other ways and b) put me in a position where others would know my family was getting financial assistance.

  • GJW

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article. I’ve been on both sides of the volunteering issue. I was very involved in my oldest son’s first school, and was one of the room parents for his kindergarten class. When we moved to a more affluent community (my son has special needs and we needed to get into a school district that could meet his needs), the amount of time I spent school volunteering dropped significantly. Sure, I’m a room parent from time to time, and help hand out hot lunches once in awhile, but I’m not a “regular.” There are many reasons for this, but one is that the “regulars” in my school district aren’t particularly welcoming to those of us who aren’t part of their social circles. It’s no fun to hand out hot lunches and be utterly ignored the entire time, while the cliquey moms chat and gossip. I have heard this complaint from many other parents in my district, so it’s not just me. There are certain people who control the PTA, and they decide who gets to serve on what committees. Those of us who aren’t committee members are on the lowest rung of the food chain, have not amassed any social currency, and are therefore ignored. I also think that at times — not always, but sometimes — people get off on doing more than others, and are proud of their martyr status. Every once in awhile some urgent email goes out that if more people don’t sign up for hot lunch volunteering — gasp! — the hot lunch program may end. If that happens, I’ll accept my share of the responsibility and start making my kids’ lunches every day. Big deal. I’ve found other ways to get involved, such as help out in my first grader’s classroom. But I’d rather circumvent the mommy politics. I am by no means implying anything about you or anyone else who may respond, just commenting on what I have observed and experienced in my own school district. Thanks for the essay.

  • kerry eady

    I provide free childcare to parent volunteers, parents doing workshares and I volunteer a lot. I dunno, we instituted a policy at our school that puts a financial value on required volunteer hours – you can pay the money, or do the time :-) Being part of our community is a choice and most families put in way more volunteer hours than are required – I have noticed that my partner and a few other dads are definitely in the minority as far as the volunteer corps go. I think schools need to recognize and allay volunteer burn out by spreading the load more evenly I just haven’t figured out how we engage the ones who we never see except at drop off and pick up – because we do burn out and when it isn’t spread out that is felt acutely – the goal should be that if one volunteer -any volunteer – drops out for awhile to deal with other things their work should be easily picked up by others. I just don’t see it as unneccessary volunteering though – my school’s goal is to be an independent – financially accessible – community school. It can’t be all those without community involvement..

    • Dawn

      I completely agree and love your school’s idea about putting a dollar amount on volunteer hours that allows people who are not interested or lack time to opt out, (guilt-free!) for a fee. I have been on the receiving end of financial aid for my kids and in the crunch of not having time/ childcare to make PTO meetings/ no funds to contribute to the drives, but what I DO have are skills and the ability to do things behind the scenes and on my own time (not that I am drowning in this) to help contribute to the school’s bottom line/ to pay off my “debt.” Of course it isn’t officially mandatory, but to me, it is. Just because my kids are a joy to teach doesn’t make the teachers’ salaries or the school’s expenses any lower.

      One thing that makes me sad about this article is that if everyone opts out, then what? I do totally get the burn out and I have been there, but the reason why I have been there is because of extremely low volunteer turnout at our school, because it it private and therefore people feel like they pay their tuition and they’re done. If there’s no fundraising, everyone’s tuition will go up, though, and we have a large population receiving aid (myself included, and I have no clue who the others are, only that it’s a big percentage.) and we need to work together.

  • Julie Wong

    You have to give solely for the joy of giving. The second you start noticing who isn’t doing it or expecting to be noticed for volunteering, you are sunk. Do it because you want to, not because you’ll be appreciated for it. And that will probably mean you’ll do one or two things, not 5-10.

    I just read an article in Harper’s to the effect that very little parent volunteering results in benefits to your kids. So if you think that volunteering in the school library is going to make your child value school more, think again. Do it if you want to do it, because it needs to be done or you think kids’ books are cool. But don’t expect it to lead to anything else.


  • Nina

    I also love this point about saying no WITHOUT the long explanation attached. I’m good at saying no for the most part, but I often add a long song and dance after that simple word.

  • Sharon

    Maybe because I worked in education and nonprofits for many years and didn’t become a mom until age 40, I’ve found saying no to volunteering easy. I’ve spent my career giving to causes I believe in, and an awful lot of the school volunteering felt like “make work” to me, especially in the K-3 years. I had no desire to sit around cutting or collating stuff, or to make fruit kabobs and yogurt dip for an entire kindergarten class (a task I was asked to do, and declined.) I picked one or two things to work on that I felt were important: yard duty (because that’s how you find out what’s REALLY going on at school, and nobody wants to do it) and the school’s anti-bullying campaign. I enjoyed those tasks, and you only have to say no to the stuff you don’t want to do a few times before people stop asking.

  • jzzy55

    When I had a small child at home and wasn’t working (or working from home) I did some volunteering to get out of the house and be with adults talking about adult issues — so I served on some nonprofit boards that met at night. I’ve been doing volunteer work since I was a child but now in retirement I only do things that are fun or where I can see an immediate benefit to someone. So, I tutor children in reading (at a local public school) and I sort/prep/price items at a charity thrift shop. I genuinely enjoy both of these volunteer gigs and look forward to them. To get to this point I tried out probably half a dozen other volunteer jobs. School volunteering was something I did with my teeth gritted, and again I tried to do things that seemed beneficial (eg shelving books in the school library). It did used to gall me that some parents (moms and dads) never volunteered to do anything the entire time their child was in private school nor did they donate money to the annual campaigns (perhaps they did so anonymously, but I doubt it). I think after four kids and nearly 20 years of volunteering as a mom you are more than entitled to pass the volunteering baton to new parents.