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Volunteer? No Way!

To Hell With ALL That |


| The Pediatricians Are In

May 08, 2006

Volunteer? No Way!

Anne Tergesen

Working parenthood is famous for its conflicts. As the school year winds down, the no-win dilemmas really pile up. Sports day, the class picnic, the year-end recital, the championship game—no parent wants to miss them. But when they conflict with meetings and deadlines, well, let’s just say you’re screwed no matter what you do.

Still, there’s a silver lining to being a working parent. When it comes to requests to volunteer for these and other events, I use my work as an excuse-—sort of like having a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Hardly a day goes by without a friendly email from the class mother of one of my sons’ classes. They’re full of requests for my time: Can I spare a half hour on Monday morning to stuff envelopes for a school mailing? Do I have a few hours to work at the multi-cultural fair? Can I clean up after the fund-raiser? Can I bring cookies to the class party? To each email, my response is swift and ruthless: “delete,” “delete,” “delete,” “delete.” It’s not that I don’t want to do some of these things. In fact, I would love to make cookies for the class party. But quite often, I’m overwhelmed enough by what I have to do just to meet my deadlines and keep my kids in clean clothes that optional activities feel like luxuries I just can’t afford.

Another way to say this, of course, is that I take advantage of others who have more time, generosity, and energy—-or who just aren’t as skilled at saying no as I am. I plead guilty. Still, I’m not a complete slacker/free-rider. I am the class mom for my youngest son’s nursery school class. I fell into the job in part because no one else volunteered. But I also took it on because I figured it was a good way to meet the other parents and get involved when school is at its most fun—-before the homework and tests kick in.

My hope is that once all three of my sons are in school full-time, I’ll have a little more time and energy to devote to volunteering. Once I’m able to see a request as something more than a burden, I’ll stop hiding behind my working parent status. Until then, though, I’ll continue to “delete,” “delete,” “delete.”

09:38 AM


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In the past for me, the exchange for not volunteering has been cold, hard cash. No time to bake 2 dozen brownies? How about a $10 donation? Kidding aside, as a full time working mother of 4- my rule on volunteering is it always has to be something face to face with the kids- like you're doing in your son's nursery school. I learned that lesson years ago, spending hours past the kids' bedtime balancing the checks in the class Scholastic book order. I know it's hard, but I do believe working parents should do all they can to put in at least some volunteer hours. Usually all it takes is some advance planning. It also helps to have fun- I have one child who loves to act and as a theater lover, I relish my time backstage during performances.

Posted by: Martha Feingold at May 8, 2006 04:24 PM

Oh dear oh dear, the same old myth: things will get easier when the kids are older. Don't fall for it!! They will never get easier than they are now. Right now, other people can pitch it as acceptable substitutes. In a few years, no one but you will do. In a few years, there will be mountains of homework and parties and playtime and juggling your kid's schedule will make yours look easy. You will wake up to discover that, after all these years, he never actually learned long division but it is in the exams. You will discover that your daughter doesn't really know what a verb is or how to conjugate the Spanish ones. Forget about your future in volunteering. Just remember that your being a dead beat mom is what makes the other moms feel so great about themselvs. Being a working parent is what gives non-working parents their glow. Don't take it away from them -- and don't think it's going to get easier.

Posted by: Margaret Heffernan at May 9, 2006 09:11 AM

Deleting "need your help" e-mails is a workable way to ignore requests, but at some point you'll bump into the sender and then what do you say? Whether face-to-face or over the Internet, you might say, "I'm on overload right now," or something like it. Whether you're saying no to friends, family, or co-workers, even to your children, keep it simple and avoid explanations (Lengthy explanations leave lots of wiggle room for the asker to come back at you). Take a look at

for more easy ways to lighten the pressure without offending and without feeling so terribly guilty.

Posted by: Susan Newman at May 10, 2006 08:45 AM

I agree with Susan Newman. Take a moment to respond to email requests and explain and apologize. You can even cut and paste a boilerplate explanation. Also, if you explain you will start getting fewer "please volunteer" emails because they know you're working mom.

Posted by: Charles Warner at May 10, 2006 07:24 PM

As a room mom I felt I needed to comment on this, even though it is an old article. It is parents like you that make it hard on those of us who are trying to give our kids a good school experience and help their teacher. While I don't mind helping, when I took the job of room mom I expected all parents to pitch in and assist when they could. It's not like the room mom gets PAID like you do.

I understand that many have to work. This does not preclude you from being active in your child's class. Not only does it embarrass your child that you won't help out but it makes those of us who actually do something to HELP YOUR CHILD lives harder because we not only have to do all the in class things but the extra things that working moms could easily send in if they cared at all. Such as "cleaning up" after an event or "making cupcakes."

This is not about all working moms - just those like you who are taking advantage of their working status. Just so you know - room mom's have lives. We just choose to spend much of them helping our children - and yours. Someone has to - you obviously won't.

Posted by: Renee at January 10, 2007 07:18 PM

After reading all of this, I need to post. Sometimes kid's events get out of control. Last year there were 12 parties throughout the school year. Each party my child was sent home with entirely too many sugary snacks and little toys that break and are quickly forgotten about. There were endless fundraisers. The sports, scouts, church, etc.etc. events. My husband puts in a 10 hour work day, then brings work home. I have a baby and work part time. Then there are those of us who help take care of aging relatives with health issues. Then there are those who have health issues of their own. Then there are doctor appts., home chores, homework. There just isn't enough time or money sometimes, and if super parents have the time and money and energy, then go for it, just don't expect if from everyone. Then my kid won't have to be embarrassed when we don't have the time or money to do something.

Posted by: febmom at January 30, 2007 07:38 PM

I wanted to respond to the post by the Room Mom. Please don't assume that all working parents who aren't involved in their kids' schools are simply using their jobs as an excuse to be lazy. I'm a single working mom, and believe me I would love to be more involved. In fact, before I started a family I created and ran a volunteer program in an inner-city school for 5 years. But my current job situation makes it almost impossible for me to attend activities during the school day and early evening. So please know that some of us 'deadbeat' parents really do care -- and we really do appreciate what you are doing for our kids -- we just simply can't manage to get involved right now.

Posted by: arianel at January 31, 2007 05:55 PM

HELLO I ALSO AM CLASS MOM it happened quite for that nobody wanted to take part and I'm stuck, the bad thing is my this daughter in nursery, and the worst thing is that I do not write English, and I need to send party letters to the perents or messages if is known someone where I can obtain letters for party samples ... and give me an idea, thank you. now I wrote in Spanish and a translator uses in Internet line forgive if everything does not go out correctly like deve of being.


Posted by: Elva at March 27, 2007 01:32 PM

I didnt grow up in the US - so I find it very hard to believe the number of fund raisers that happen each year. In fact, the school seems to find the most laborious events to raise money - such as auctions.

I do want to be involved in school activities where I can interact with the kids. But to raise funds, I'd rather write a check.

Posted by: Deepa at April 2, 2007 12:11 AM

It is sad that so many moms think it's so wonderful to be able to pawn off all volunteering to others. We all have many things to do in a day, but not participating in your child's education is a sorry thing. I am a teacher, and believe me when I say, your child knows that you don't care. My second graders tell me all the time "My mom never helps out" or "My mom never has lunch with me." If you are snickering at the do-gooder moms, they are feeling sorry for you. As a teacher under tremendous amounts of pressure, with a lack of time and money, parent volunteers are the lifeblood of my profession. And look it up: educational research has found over and over again that parent involvement and academic achievement are positively correlated.

Posted by: Shannon at April 9, 2007 10:08 PM

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