Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering

by gurumommy on December 7, 2010

in hot topics

I read this article in the NY Times and recognized myself and several friends who are feeling stressed and burnt out this time of year!  Hilary Stout writes that:  ‘Many parents are happy to volunteer uncoerced, and most everyone recognizes the worthiness of the cause. But the heightened need and expectations are coming at a time when many parents have less and less time to give.Around the country there are a number of altruistic, devoted and totally burned-out mothers just like Ms. Lentzner who are becoming emboldened to push back against the relentless requests from their children’s schools for their time. What started out as an admirable civic gesture somehow snowballed into an inability to say no to any committee assignment or project request, and spiraled into night, weekend and after-school commitments, middle-of-the-night e-mail exchanges, as well as frozen dinners, takeout pizza and baby sitters at home.’

IT was last spring, somewhere between overseeing Teacher Appreciation Week and planning the fifth-grade graduation party, when Jamie Lentzner, mother of two in Foster City, Calif., reached her breaking point.

She had already designed the fifth-grade T-shirt, taught art twice monthly to three different classes, and organized movie night, restaurant night and beach night fund-raisers. She was overscheduled and exhausted. She had scant time to help her children with their school projects because — coincidentally — she was always working on projects for their school. “You’ve got to stop,” said her husband, Darin, who worried that the constant stress she seemed to feel was damaging to her health.

Ms. Lentzner realized that she had spiraled out of control. She vowed to put an end to all this volunteering — and to recapture some of the serenity in her family life that had vanished because of nothing more than a well-intentioned desire to pitch in.

Today, more than three months into the school year, Ms. Lentzner is a new woman. She has yet to attend a PTA meeting or decorate so much as a classroom doorknob. When she saw her name listed as chairwoman of the annual Donuts for Dads Day (another event she oversaw last year) on a volunteer sign-up sheet, she whipped out a Sharpie and crossed it out.

“No, I’m not,” she wrote.

Her business — she designs children’s room décor — improved, and at home, the change has been striking. She has time to play Ping-Pong and Wii with the children. She hosted 27 relatives and friends for Thanksgiving last week, and for the first time in years she enjoyed the holiday. “I told my husband, ‘I am not stressed,’ “ she said. “I did not have some event hanging over my head, or a T-shirt design that had to be done. I think I finally have my priorities in the right place.”

Around the country there are a number of altruistic, devoted and totally burned-out mothers just like Ms. Lentzner who are becoming emboldened to push back against the relentless requests from their children’s schools for their time. What started out as an admirable civic gesture somehow snowballed into an inability to say no to any committee assignment or project request, and spiraled into night, weekend and after-school commitments, middle-of-the-night e-mail exchanges, as well as frozen dinners, takeout pizza and baby sitters at home.

With the holidays approaching, the call for parental help at school has reached a fever pitch, but this demand is not just seasonal. As local and state economies continue to struggle, budget cuts to rich and poor school systems are increasing the reliance on unpaid parent help. The need is so great that some school districts, like a couple of specialty schools in Prince William County, Va., have made it mandatory to commit to a small amount of volunteer time, and others are considering it. In San Jose, Calif., one elementary school district has been discussing a proposal that the families of its 13,000 students commit to 30 hours of volunteer work during the year.

Many parents are happy to volunteer uncoerced, and most everyone recognizes the worthiness of the cause. But the heightened need and expectations are coming at a time when many parents have less and less time to give.

“Volunteerism is way down at our school this year,” said Gary Parkes, the PTA president at Carmel Elementary School in Woodstock, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. At the school’s recent annual fall festival some games had to be closed down because of a lack of adult volunteer supervisors.

Economic necessity, Mr. Parkes said, has forced some stay-at-home mothers to go back to work. “People are so busy trying to stay afloat, they just do not have as much time as they would like to give,” Mr. Parkes said, adding that he has heard similar laments in regional PTA meetings. “This seems to be a problem for a lot of schools.”

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