Why I Gave Up Volunteering

by Christine Burke
pta volunteer
monkeybusinessimages / iStock

When I was in fifth grade, I met Mrs. Tallis. She was my moms’s tough-talking, Southern spitfire friend, and she was the president of our elementary school PTA. When I watched her wield her gavel at their meetings and heard her manhandle a group of moms with her Southern drawl, I knew I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. I wanted to be in charge, the boss of people, and have a presidential title. I admired how poised she was, how in control she seemed, and my 10-year-old self thought she was the most powerful woman in the room. But mostly, I just wanted that gavel.

Thirty years and two kids later, my turn had come. I remember I was positively gleeful when I practically skipped off to my first PTA meeting. We were going to do all the things for the kids! We would plan carnivals! And do crafts! And bring cupcakes into the classroom! I was not only excited about the prospect of seeing my children in their school environment during the day, but I was also looking forward to meeting other moms and dads who shared my love of construction paper and artfully arranged bulletin boards. I arrived at that first meeting beaming. I could practically taste the tater tots that permeated the school hallway. I had finally arrived: I was going to be a school volunteer!

My initial exuberance was dimmed a bit by the tone of that first meeting. The women were no-nonsense, and it was immediately clear that they took their jobs very seriously. The seasoned volunteers seemed tired and a little burned out. One woman was even cranky and rude. However, though their talk of budgets and planning and gossip made me wonder what I was getting into, I was undeterred in my desire to do my civic duty. I was called to be a volunteer, and darn it, I was going to throw myself into the role and do the very best job that I could, glitter glue and all.

And I did just that. For the better part of eight years, I chaired committees. I fundraised. I crafted. I party planned. I was a room mom, field trip chaperone, and lunch room volunteer. Along with a group of core parents, I made myself available to help with anything and everything our little school needed (just ask me about the time I hauled our power washer into the school courtyard to give the sidewalks a spruce up). For the most part, I was happy to do it, because I was with my children. I got to know their teachers well, and I enjoyed the satisfaction of a job well done. Admittedly, though, as the years went by, my joy and excitement over volunteering were slowly replaced with resentment and burnout. I was becoming that cranky woman I encountered at my first meeting.

Then, in my eighth year, I ascended into the role of president of our PTA. That coveted gavel was finally mine, yet as I presided over my first meeting, I discovered that wielding that sucker wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Being in charge of a group of volunteers tested my patience and forced me to examine my priorities. I saw the secret underbelly of volunteering first hand, and believe me, it wasn’t pretty. Parents on power trips, nasty gossip, and the politics of running a nonprofit organization were just the tip of the iceberg. Very real issues with liability, insurance, and financial dealings all became my problem.

As president, I saw the names on the bounced fundraiser checks. I knew who always cancelled last minute. I dealt with over-involved parents who, despite good intentions, refused to take no for an answer. I was forced to referee disputes, manage money mishaps, and ease tensions between administrators and volunteers. Late-night phone calls, constant emails, and being accosted in the grocery store over petty issues took their toll on me emotionally. My marriage even suffered because of my inability to separate my home life from my volunteer responsibilities, and my kids saw me regularly irritated at having to plan or attend yet another school function.

My friendships changed, my physical health suffered, and I was miserable. And, worst of all, I wasn’t getting paid a dime for all the time, effort, and grief I endured while holding that gavel. On one particularly bad day involving a vicious attack on my character and reputation, I sat at my kitchen table and cried for an hour because the stress was so intense. Did tough-talking Mrs. Tallis feel this way too when I watched her with the gavel?

Volunteering had become a job I loathed. That’s when I knew my volunteering days were over.

Since that day in my kitchen, I have hung up my volunteering hat. It was hard, at first, to resist putting my name on a sign-up list or to say no to a field trip, but it was necessary. I realized I had become too involved in my children’s world, and I wasn’t devoting enough time to the things that brought me actual, real joy. Some may call me selfish, but for the first time in eight years, I put me first. And, when my husband looked at me one morning a few months after I retired and said, “I haven’t seen you so relaxed and happy in years,” I knew I made the right choice.

But, if I’m being completely honest, I still kind of miss the satisfying crack of that gavel.