Motherhood, insanity and everyday life.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Recently, I received an e-mail from a friend:

“I remember you used me for a reference when you applied to be a Girl Scout leader. Do you mind if I use you for a Cub Scout application? I can't believe I was talked into doing this! It's for ONE YEAR AND ONE YEAR ONLY. I swear.”

As I sent her a taunting message welcoming her to the black hole that is Volunteering, I thought back to the many volunteer jobs I’ve had since my kids were young. To be perfectly honest, few of them were something that I’d put on my list titled “Things That I Enjoyed.”

I was a Girl Scout Leader for about four years. I have to say, often, it was hell. In fact, my family, including my daughter who was in the troop, came to hate the days we had Girl Scout meetings because it meant that Mom would be very, very crabby and would later require a large glass of wine.

I liked my co-leaders. They were all fun, extremely intelligent career women. By day they were Controllers and Occupational Therapists and Federal Judges. By late afternoon, we all turned into glorified babysitters yelling at girls to listen and stop picking at each others’ hair. I signed on because I felt the tug of guilt knowing that people were volunteering for my child’s benefit and I probably could also make time to help out. Some, like me, answer the call of that guilt. Others, perhaps more wisely, choose to ignore it and sign on only when begged. Their sanity is probably still intact, but that may be at the expense of their community social standing.

If you’re new to parenthood, here’s what you need to know about volunteering. It’s the initiation rite of parents. It’s also the primary line of information and communication regarding your child and their experience at school and/or extra-curricular activities. That is to say, if you’re not volunteering, you are out of the proverbial loop. You haven’t met the parents that run the school, the dance studio, the team – you, and your child, will be one step behind. Sure, the teachers and administrators are giving out grades and the coaches are creating the game day lineups, but the fact that you are around – making phone calls, preparing snacks, chaperoning field trips, ordering supplies – gives you first-hand knowledge behind the scenes. And as we learn in the business world, knowledge is power.

It’s a slippery slope, however, because the old adage “if you want something done, give it to someone busy,” is so true, it’s scary. Although there are lots of activities for which you can volunteer, there are relatively few people volunteering. You’ll find that you see the same faces at hot lunch, at cub scouts, at rehearsals. This is both good and bad. It’s good if you don’t wish to volunteer, but it’s bad because if you don’t, you are now at the whim of those that do. One of the great things about being a Girl Scout Leader is that I could influence the number of times that we camped (blessedly few) and length of our troop meetings (often short). Parents were always extremely grateful for the time that I put in and I felt like I was paying my dues but my secret agenda was always to have some control over things.

The bonus was that I made a lot of great friends by volunteering, so in that way, it was SO worthwhile. The time I spent collating newsletters at school was my time to vent and share issues that I couldn’t solve on my own. It was effective therapy with the only cost being elbow grease and a willingness to surrender some free time.

What I should probably tell my friend is that volunteering is like eating potato chips. You can’t sign up for (or eat) just one. Once word gets out that you’re nice, competent and not insane, you’ll be a target for several committees. And if you’re fun, it’s even worse. Everyone will want you. It’s a great ego booster and a gigantic time-sucker. The choice is up to you, but I do recommend that once in a while you exercise your right to say “no.” After all, you shouldn’t be having all the fun.


At 12:46 PM , Anonymous Anne Glamore said...

So true. Half a day in the health room can fill you in on all the happenings in every grade!

At 1:06 PM , Blogger Jess Riley said...

It's a fine line, and you have to balance. :)

My mom made me quit the Girl Scouts because we lived in the boonies and I'd caused one too many carpool-snafus from miscommunication or forgetting to tell her things. Ooopsie! (Thank goodness I still had 4-H.)

At 4:05 PM , Blogger kenju said...

You said a mouthful! I went through all of that when my children were in school, and one of the best things about it was meeting so many nice people.

At 1:12 AM , Blogger Swishy said...

I don't have any kids. I volunteer anyway so as not to be a leech on society, but ohhh my goodness, are you right! I stopped answering my home phone because for a while it was just people wanting to ask me to help out with something else.

At 9:49 PM , Blogger Marisa said...

Nice metaphor, and so true. I remember my parents getting sucked in to so many things and each time we moved to a new parish they'd swear not to get involved. Yeah, that didn't last!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours Karen! Enjoy this beautiful weather.

At 8:46 AM , Blogger Zephra said...

I am exercising my right to say no by quiting PTA. Volunteering for that organization was one of the biggest mistakes of my life and I wont make that mistake again.

At 2:52 PM , Anonymous Two Sirius said...

SO well put! I'm fresh meat on the volunteer circuit (my son's in 1st grade and I volunteer once a week in his classroom as well as being active in his Cub Scouts pack). I'm also in the periphery of the PTA (not hugely active, but I try to make meetings, and I think that's exactly where I want to be with it). I volunteer both to be able to have a say in how things are run and to keep up to date on what's going on in S's world.

I so agree...the number one thing you have to learn to do right away is to say no when you need to!


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