The Volunteer Momfia

by Leslie Morgan Steiner


Get this: 40% of moms with kids under 18 undertake unpaid charitable work each year. Translation: we volunteer a lot. This constitutes a clear sign of insanity, since there are no busier people on the planet than moms with kids under age 18. We have absolutely no rationale for giving away our most precious commodity – time – for free.


So here’s the real question, recently tackled with refreshing candor by Helaine Olen in a bracing Double X story and by Michel Martin on NPR’s Tell Me More: Why do we moms volunteer so ridiculously much?


In her Mommy Wars essay “I Hate Everybody”, Leslie Lehr – a producer struggling to keep her career alive while single-parenting two daughters -- blames “supermom volunteer vampires on a mission to suck other moms dry.” In “Sharks and Jets,” stay-at-home mom Page Evans blames herself. “The problem with saying yes so often is that I’ve found myself doing more volunteering than parenting. For stay-at-homes moms without so-called real jobs, volunteering becomes a social payback of sorts. I feel obligated to volunteer, to say yes, to prove my worth. But who am I proving it to? What am I trying to prove? Do I feel pressure from other parents when I see them volunteering? YES! Yes.Yes.YES! Yes. And Yes.”


This being America, our first task is to figure out who we can file a lawsuit against for this rampant overvolunteerism. Naturally, like Leslie Lehr, we blame other moms for pressuring us. Like Page, next we blame ourselves for being so unassertive that we cannot say no. I also hear some folks blame schools for expecting parents to volunteer. Personally, I blame society for devaluing moms’ contributions so drastically that we need to prove our status by volunteering.


No matter who is to blame, it’s high time a little mental health entered the volunteer arena.


Yes, volunteerism is noble. Wonderful and often rewarding. Flexible and feel-good in a way that paid work usually is not. It can also be a great way to meet interesting people, develop new skills, give back to your community, get out of the house. You can set a fine example for your children. You can get to know their school, their friends, their world, in a new way.


However, I’d like to share a few facts, even though some moms may now avoid me like a sneezing H1N1 carrier.

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When the preschool handed out the candy-selling sheets I simply noted I would pay the cash equivalent of 2 boxes but I wasn't pumping my friends to buy candy none of us needed.
I do volunteer more than I exercise! But the truth that parents of younger kids volunteer more is oh so true. We get upper grade parents only if it is something that benefits only grades 5-8. It is pulling teeth to get them to do anything that is whole school like assemblies, even when their kids are starring!
I do say no more. But it is hard, they won't stop asking!!!


My daughter is only three so I haven't yet hit the scary volunteer time - however I see the writing on the wall. However, after reading the comment above - I realize that I will probably have to curb my husband's volunteer gene or he will be the one to over commit us. He currently serves on a board at church, works with another community interest group and Big Brothers and in addition to his career. I am the slacker so far in that regard - I work two jobs and ferry the pumpkin around. A couple of my friends who have older kids have a strategy that I like - they pick one activity that their kids do that they believe in and then volunteer for that activity - oddly enough for both of them it has been Girl Scouts which is how I met one of them 30+ years ago. I am thinking that is something that would interest me which would allow me to do a good job without feeling resentful. I live in a community with enough stay at home moms scheduling school meetings @ 9am that I will look to help outside the school.


I don't think volunteers don't do what they do to make you feel bad, or even to make the whole world a better place.

"It can also be a great way to meet interesting people, develop new skills, give back to your community, get out of the house...You can get to know their school, their friends, their world, in a new way."

The reasons you noted here are the ones why I volunteer. I don't do it to be noble or to set a good example. Any volunteer group or work I sign up for, I do because it is beneficial to me.

I have met many interesting people with experiences far different from mine who I wouldn't have met without volunteering. Living in NYC, volunteer work that revolves around common interests, whether kids or community, can be a great way to make new friends.

Through my community work, I have learned how to acquire permits, work with city government, close down streets for parties, raise funds, fix problems, and generally "get things done"--skills I didn't have through my part-time work in the office.

I also volunteer at my son's school. Not to feel better than anyone else, but because I genuinely enjoy spending time with my son and his friends and sharing my interests with them. I also value his teachers--who don't often ask for anything from parents--and I'm willing to help them create a solid classroom experience for my kid, if they need my help.

For me, volunteering is fun and for my family's benefit. If it benefits others, too, I'm not opposed to that. The few times that it has seemed overwhelming, I have simply pulled back for a while and said NO.

Stacy Boyd


If the other 60% of parents pitched in just a little, the volume of work wouldn't be so overwhelming for those of us left to do it. I'm on our PTA Board, I work part time, I struggle to find time and balance it all. But if I don't step up, I can't expect anyone else to either.
So don't "overvolunteer." Find your point of moderation, but then try to encourage a friend to help out with you. Many hands make light work.

leslie morgan s...

Leslie Morgan Steiner

I agree -- pick something manageable that you care about!

And then -- don't overdue it. It cracks me up the way some volunteers send out 25 group emails with instructions, updates on progress, questions about decor, which of six dates might work for the potluck, etc. I love the moms who keep it simple, have one meeting (or zero) and get it done. We need to go easy on ourselves!