Voluntaddict (noun) [vol-un-tah-dickt] One who, despite compelling data to suggest otherwise, feels that ‘yes‘ is a superior answer to ‘no‘ when asked to volunteer. Characterized by sudden and voluntary spikes of panic, churning guilt, full calendars and an underlying buzz of resentment. Commonly represented by 10% of any given group of mommies in any given community.
I am a recovering voluntaddict. Just in the nick of time, I realized that the excessive volunteering was doing neither myself nor my kids any good. Why? Lots of reasons. First, the volunteer mom is almost without exception the busiest and most stressed of our species. She tends to take on more than she can handle, (oddly) sometimes to the detriment of her kids. She tends to overshadow authority figures in your child’s life – like teachers, coaches and other mommies. Her husband would probably admit, if guaranteed anonymity, that he thinks it’s ridiculous because never sees his wife, and when he does it’s usually in a blur of exiting or entering the house, and she’s copping a major self-important attitute. She looks almost robotic, always appearing to be late for something (think hurried airport traveler who’s careening down the terminal on his cell phone while precariously balancing a briefcase and rollerbag). Her face alternates between a strained smile (“are you available to run the sponge toss at carnival this year?”) and barely contained hysteria (“ohmygosh it’s late; I forgot the brownies; ugh – the line for balloons is SO long today”).
She looks down on all the other moms, but for a small few that match her intensity. She has a disdain for working moms (but will never say it out loud – a sideways glance will suffice if and when the working mom dares to show up at an event). In her heart she believes that this pattern of manic volunteerism constitutes being a good mom, and that anything less would not only induce extreme feelings of guilt, but would somehow harm her children.
But somewhere, deep in her heart, I think she is looking for a way out. She is dying for someone to rescue her from herself. She may be at the mid-point of the parenting years – around 7th or 8th grade – before it hits her…burnout. At that point she is fueled only by her habit, Starbucks and a large dose of mommy guilt. She needs help…STAT, but is stuck in the vicious cycle with no way out. Maybe even past the point of return.
Our only hope is to break the cycle. Therefore, I have compiled this list of warning signs…the stages of progression for a voluntaddict which I will attempt to explain in hopes of helping someone quit earlier to avoid full-blown addiction:
Stage One, The Newbie: Oh boy your child just started Kindergarten. You are so happy to see them socializing and beginning their school experience. The teacher is ‘sooooo nice’ and your child ‘loooovvvvvveeeeeeessssss’ her; so when said teacher requests a Room Mom volunteer at open house, your hand goes up immediately.
Signs you’re at risk: You’re not quite ready to give up your child to a half or full day of Kindergarten, so being a Room Mom, you rationalize, will allow you a ‘sneak peek’ inside the classroom and more time with your little darling. You may even feel like you secretly have an advantage over the other mommies because the teacher will for sure like you (and your child) best now. You post your new status on facebook and a bunch of other moms comment – “Thank you so much for volunteering!” It feels good.
Stage Two, The Regular: Your child has progressed through a couple years of elementary school. You’re on campus several times a week. You’re on a first-name basis with the principal and most of the teachers. On any given day your car is loaded with [circle all that apply: flyers, cookies/snacks, school supplies, orange cones, envelopes to-be-stuffed, at least one clipboard]. You are heading up several committees and there are at least two events taking place this week that require your attention.
Signs you’re at risk: You wake up and get ready for school right alongside your child most days. You have binders to keep all the activities and commitments organized. You’ve been up late a few nights these past couple of weeks doing ‘paperwork’. You’ve developed a group of 2-3 moms that are your go-tos. They follow your orders with military precision. Your presence on the school campus is becoming a normal occurrence. All the other parents know you even if you don’t know them.
Stage Three, The Ringleader: Your child is in the upper grade of elementary or middle school (5th, 8th). You’ve been around for years. Your email list of prospective volunteers numbers in the hundreds, and you send out approximately 2-4 emails per week in an attempt to round up enough pairs of hands to feed the machine. Some of the people on the recipient list – if we’re honest – used to admire your passion and unending commitment to the school. Now after all these years they just secretly think you’re ridiculous and they feel bad for your husband. You treat your mom volunteer role as a management position.
Signs you’re at risk: You are as busy or busier than your full-time working husband. Volunteering occupies so much time that you’ve resorted to feeding your kids fast food a couple of times a week, rationalizing it by reminding yourself (and your kids) how important your work is for their school or team and that you’re ‘doing it for them’. You find yourself tossing and turning in the wee hours, worrying about book fair sales. You morph into a drill sergeant at school events, ordering the moms around that you managed to scrounge up to work, inadvertently adding to the likelihood that they will never volunteer again. You’ve changed the verbiage in your emails from – please help the school do X, to please help me do X.
Stage Four, full blown Voluntaddict: You are on campus as much as your child. Even the principal is a little sick of you and tends to ‘handle’ you rather than relate to you (he knows he needs you, just doesn’t really enjoy your company all that much). Your car, garage and kitchen are full of half-finished projects, games/sets made out of plywood and empty gift baskets. You know the district policies better than the office staff. You have a constant, nagging sensation of needing to be somewhere. Every event is planned and produced as though the President was going to attend. After all, it’s your name all over it so it had better be perfect.
Signs you’re at risk: You hang out in the teacher’s lounge. You are up until midnight counting money, sending emails and doing recaps – almost nightly. You sit in at least one official position of authority (be it PTA, Foundation, Board). Anytime your child starts a new activity, none of the other parents offer to volunteer because you just give off that volunteer vibe and they know you’ll raise your hand (you know you’ll raise your hand). Your kids show up at their events/games on average two hours early and stay on average two hours late because of your extended duties and conspiratorial one-on-one meetings with the coaches/teachers/principal. They spend blocks of their time waiting in the car or shuffling their feet and standing around. Your husband hasn’t had a home-cooked meal in three months and your laundry is piling up to Chrysler Building proportions. You criticize all of the other moms that were brave enough to take the lead volunteer spot and you’re a walking database of what went on the previous five years (‘we never give flowers for an end-of-year-teacher-gift’ or ‘Art lessons? Last year we did Field Day’). Your grip on power is fierce and firm. When you change schools (from elementary to middle), you drive by the old school and wonder how they’re getting along without you (fine, actually).
OK – so I give you permission. STOP. Sit on your hands. Get a shock collar and give the button to your husband or a close friend. Take a Xanax right before the first team meeting. Practice saying no in the mirror until you can do it with conviction. When someone asks, fight it. You’re losing yourself into this spiral – I know, I almost did. 10% of you are doing 90% of the work! I used to be you – running around trying to prove something with my involvement. It was more about my insecurity than an actual desire to be involved. Nowadays I let the opportunities go right by. I think my kids are happier – in fact, when I ask them if I should raise my hand for this-or-that activity, the answer is almost always NO. It turns out they don’t want to share me with the rest of their team. They know I’ll be busy and stressed, and they hate it when I’m like that.
Look, I’m not saying check out entirely, but be true to yourself. Don’t get pressured or guilted into constantly getting involved. Follow your heart and gut. There will always be those moms who appear to have a boundless capacity for volunteering and getting involved. I secretly think they’re miserable, but maybe not. Either way, you don’t have to be them in order to be a good mom. Promise.