Being A Volunteer Does Not Mean You Need To Live At Your Child's School During The Week

by Christine Burke
Igor Sinkov/Shutterstock

When my son hit the halls of elementary school and started kindergarten, I was excited. While I could wait for him to start full-day kindergarten, I had another reason to feel giddy: I was dying to start volunteering in his classroom. Being a stay-at-home parent was isolating at times, and I was eager for the chance to meet new moms and hopefully enjoy some adult conversation as I helped out in the classroom.

At the first PTA meeting, I signed up for as many committees as I could and jumped at the chance to be the room parent. If someone was organizing a bake sale, I made my famous homemade brownies. If another mom needed help with a bulletin board, I showed up, two coffees and a stapler in hand. And I crossed my fingers that my inbox would alert me that I’d been chosen as the field trip chaperone (a highly coveted spot).

At first, I told myself that my volunteering was for the kids. I believe strongly in doing your civic duty, and I was lucky that my job as a substitute nurse left me with a flexible schedule that allowed me to pitch in at a moment’s notice. Teachers are overworked and underpaid, and I know they appreciate when parents have extra time to lend a hand. As I got to know my son’s new school, I started to meet other moms and threw myself into volunteering.

So much so that my entire world revolved around my son’s school day. (It sounds rather pathetic, I know.) As I learned the ropes and got to know the moms in my school, I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only one who spent her days counting Box Tops and organizing popcorn parties for the Math-A-Thon winners. The PTA moms at my son’s school became my social network, and within a few months, I was completely immersed in the goings-on of the suburban moms in my town.

While I appreciated the camaraderie in the beginning, I slowly started to see the underbelly of volunteering too frequently: burnout, hurt feelings, power trips, and worst of all, gossip about moms who didn’t live up to the overachieving moms’ expectations. There’s a pecking order and a hierarchy, and you learn quickly that volunteering for the PTA is no joke. PTA moms take their jobs serious AF, and I did too. Slowly, volunteering lost its luster, and I started to realize that maybe spending my days dedicated to my kids and their school activities (and gossiping about other moms) wasn’t the best use of my time.

As I wrestled with how to disentangle myself from my volunteering schedule, I had a timely conversation with a mom who had much older children than mine. When she heard that I volunteered for the PTA, she smiled and told me she was glad she’d never bothered to get involved in her kids’ schools. When I asked her why, she said words that stopped me and my bulletin-board-decorating skills in my tracks: “Because I knew that my kids would grow up and PTA couldn’t be my social circle forever.”

She went on to tell me that she’d made a choice when her kids were young. She decided to spend her free time doing activities that she could do well after her children were grown. She took up exercising and volunteered for a food pantry because, as she put it, “people will always be hungry.”

I was blown away by her frank assessment of the PTA subculture.

And here’s the kicker: She was right.

In this age of helicopter and lawn mower parenting, it’s too easy to slip into the idea that our lives should revolve around our kids’ activities. We are told that being ever-present in our kids’ lives means we are doing a good job as parents. But real talk: Our kids don’t need us up in their business 24/7. Your kid will survive if you aren’t running the classroom fall party or dealing with your six assigned field-trip kids in the gift shop of the zoo (seriously, does anyone enjoy that?).

And guess what? Being the parent who attends the PTA school carnival rather than planning the whole shebang doesn’t suck. Stepping back from volunteering means that you’ll actually get to play bingo with your kid on Bingo Night instead of racing around making sure there are enough supplies and snacks. You won’t be the one staying late to clean up after the Awards Night social, so you can join the other families for pizza afterward. And when you are curling up with a book on the night the other overachieving moms are squabbling over budget items and who is going to run the upcoming election, you can give yourself a pat on the back for making self-care a priority.

The power of being PTA president isn’t worth trampling over friends and their feelings, or putting aside all of your own hobbies and interests. And if you step over your friends to rule the school, the only thing you’ll have to show for it is a an empty social calendar and a gavel. No one wants to be friends with the PTA mom bitch, trust.

It’s okay to say no to overextending yourself at school events, ladies.

Put the stapler down, and step away from the bulletin boards.

Lower the gavel, and take stock of what’s really important in life.

Simply put, there’s more to life than the PTA.

Volunteering should not monopolize all of your precious free time. Really. I no longer spend every weekday decorating bulletin boards in hallways that smell like tater tots and construction paper, but I’ve learned that stocking shelves at our local food pantry smells just as good, if not better. My kids don’t seem to miss me either. Surprise, surprise.