Anyone who was around in the 1980s might read this title and think that I was about to post a blog on the horrors of teenage (or pre-teenage) drug abuse, the copious quantities of marijuana smoked by teens today, the damage it does to the nervous system. This is your brain on drugs, fried egg and all.
You would be wrong.
Today’s lesson in negativity instead is one focusing on the intense, omnipresent, guilt-inducing request for volunteers in all aspects of my daily life. I have had to learn how to just say no.
Before I had kids, I was desperate to offer my services to further the greater good. I wanted to serve on boards (and I did serve on one, and was even president of that board for a year.) I wanted to run retreats for my synagogue, and feel the satisfaction of a job well done (so I did.) I wanted to be known as someone active and involved in the community, and might even have considered some neighborhood volunteering, leading up and into the wacky world of local politics. I liked the recognition I got for being a volunteer in causes in which I believed.
Then my oldest son was born.
In my new mother haze, I thought vaguely about how nice it would be someday to be called on for some school-related volunteering, stuffing envelopes, (something volunteers did 17 years ago, pre-e-mail) attending a PTA meeting, volunteering to go on a field trip to the zoo. In the soft, fuzzy light of life with a newborn, it all seemed eminently doable.
Not only that, but I had just been asked to join another board of a local organization right before the baby was born. I happily accepted, assuming that once I returned to work after my three-month maternity leave all would resume as usual.
You know what’s coming. That board seat for that needy, small organization? I dropped off after three months. It was the first of many volunteer tasks I have taken on, with the hope and expectation that I would be able to fit it in, that I have had to either actively renege on or simply let slide. And those sweet school-related volunteer projects? Eight years of pre-school, 12 years of elementary school, and now the long trajectory of middle school and high school have taught me that parent volunteers are actually the engine of much of what happens in our schools. This, coupled with the technological advance of the dreaded school list-serve, means that the requests have never stopped coming.
And thus, I am a volunteer drop-out.
Boards? Nope. PTA? I was once given the very wise advice that with the limited hours I would have as a mom who works outside the home, I should always volunteer for jobs at the schools where my kids would see me. So I became a field trip mom, but never a PTA mom. Field trips are also good because they are discrete, one-day activities that don’t take up any bandwidth in my brain. I can just show up and help the teacher.
Synagogue? I have taken on several small volunteer tasks with my synagogue over the years, and in each case, I have failed to give it my all. A friend who is a leader at the synagogue has told me that she has finally stopped asking if I would join the board because she is tired of being turned down.
But for all my glibness about not taking on volunteer tasks, the pressure is enormous. There is both external pressure – in the form of requests for help in my professional field (fundraising) as well as the many, many, many tasks that are left to dedicated, passionate, hard-working volunteers in my kids’ schools, in my synagogue and in the world at large – as well as the internal pressure I place on myself, feeling guilty that I can’t take on more than I already have.
I already feel completely and totally overtaken by my responsibilities. I work almost full time, with an additional slice of my consulting business still in play. I am the primary at-home parent for my three school-age children. And I am trying to maintain some small fraction of time for my own personal pursuits, including writing. Not to mention making sure my marriage, family and friendships are all on track.
I have many friends who juggle all this and more, and still find time and energy to volunteer successfully. I admire their ability and their commitment. But for whatever reason, I am made of different stuff, and when it comes to family, work and volunteer jobs, my volunteerism always seems to be the first to be sacrificed.
My particular neurosis is that every time I seem to have a small space in my life, I think that it needs to be filled. And usually, I think that I’ll try to slot in some needy volunteer project at last. This actually does no one any good, because time after time, I wind up bailing out on something I signed up to do because in fact, that small space of time is usually ephemeral, and disappears as quickly as it arrived.
And the guilt grows.
Last night, a friend from my synagogue called with a request for me to take on a fairly substantial volunteer project. Much as I was tempted (for it was something that I would have liked to do) I told her that I couldn’t, as I had already agreed to help out with some other synagogue task this year. I know that I’m already skirting the edge of what I’m capable of taking on, and taking on this other role, much as it would be good and important and I would be good at it, is just too much. So I said no.
She told me she understood. I think she does. I still feel a little guilty about it, but I can see the next few months unfolding in my work life as being extremely busy and already it isn’t a pretty sight.
As a working mom, I am torn in so many directions. Sometimes the work rises to the top. Sometimes (most times) it’s the kids that take priority. Sometimes something suffers because I am absolutely needed in the other realm. It’s exhausting, and overwhelming, and wonderful. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But when the next volunteer opportunity shows up at my door, I will probably, once again, have to turn it down. My brain really would look like that iconic fried egg if I tried to do even a fraction of the volunteer work asked of me.
A friend with grown children has been assuring me since my kids were babies that there will be time for my volunteer passion to be nurtured again when the nest is cleared. All those instincts to help will still be there, waiting for me to push the button and start the next big project.
In the meantime, I will have to just say no.
Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr