Why I'm Declining Your Request To Volunteer
We need volunteers for this committee, can you help?
Could you be the room mom?
Would you consider a board position?
Are you interested in being a group leader?
Yes, yes, yes! A thousand times yes!
I’ll do it all. I love to help. I love to be involved. I love to be useful. (And as a firstborn child, I’m naturally qualified to be in charge of stuff).
Oh, wait. Shoot. I’m sorry. No, I can’t. I want to, but I can’t.
Well, because as a mom of little kids, there are days when I still don’t have time to shower. Because even if it’s written on my calendar, I’ll forget. Because I still regularly lose really important things, like my patience and my wallet.
I know there are legions of parents — stay-at-home and working — with big and little kids, who get things done. They have titles, go to meetings, and have legit responsibilities. People they didn’t give birth to or marry rely on them. This high-functioning bunch is capable of follow-through on a daily basis.
They do not, for example, forget the dentist appointment at 10 a.m. that they saw on the calendar at 7 a.m. on the same day.
These people usually shower and dress in actual (non-comfy) clothing on any given day — for no apparent reason. These people produce, execute, accomplish, finish. These people remember birthdays of their sibling’s kids and call them. They even send gifts — on time!
I am not one of these people.
Accepting my limits came the hard way. I dropped too many balls, disappointed too many children (usually my own), and felt flushing embarrassment too many times as I scrambled to do whatever I agreed to do at the very last minute or not at all.
All of this could have been avoided with just one little word: No.
No, I can’t.
No, I’m sorry.
No, not ever!
No, not now.
I’d like to volunteer for this, but until all of my people can get themselves dressed, pour their own milk, wipe the parts of their own bodies that need wiping, and do not regularly want to be held sweetly in my arms, I’m not going to be able to help you out.
Our first summer in our new neighborhood, the summer before my oldest started kindergarten, I wore the baby and tried to corral my big (but still pretty little) kids to leave the neighborhood swim meet. Baby bumping up front, enormous swim bag swaying with each stride on my left, my right hand struggling with my jumping spider monkey 4-year-old boy, and telepathically thanking my daughter for walking nicely, I lumbered into the parking lot in a head-to-toe sweat.
I was passing one of the very involved swim moms (her youngest was 9 at the time), and I confessed, “I wish I could help, but I just can’t.”
And her reply?
“Oh, we know, and you will! Just not yet. We were all in your shoes a few years ago. Don’t even worry about it.”
Without even trying, she changed my life. I didn’t feel judged. I didn’t feel like I was letting anyone down. I felt relief. I felt grateful. She gave me the permission I didn’t even realize I was looking for to take my time and join in when I can — which will be later.
I’m looking forward to volunteering more, but until “helping mommy” means something like “do independently” rather than what it is now — a prolonged exercise in patience and re-washing every formerly clean, but now licked utensil coming out of the dishwasher — I can’t.
Until “clean your room” looks more like actual cleaning than little kids scooping up armfuls of barely worn clothes and placing them in neat little lumps in a corner.
Until “I’m hungry” isn’t cried every 90 minutes or looks like wearing a bite of each food eaten, which creates even more (though legitimate) laundry.
So, thank you moms of older kids who understand that some of us are just struggling to get through the bare minimum. Thank you for doing the things that need to be done right now. We look forward to helping you and learning from you, and when our little ones are a bit older, taking the reins.
And to you, momma of little ones, don’t feel bad about saying “no,” or even about dropping a few balls when you try on a “yes.” We’ve all been there. Be patient with yourself because finding a balance with your kids and your abilities can take time. Saying “yes” will come.
Maybe instead of one word, we need five:
Yes, in about four years.
This article was originally published on