Volunteering is a wonderful way to spend your time, if you have the time: a couple of hours handing out trays in a soup kitchen or manning a table at the church bake sale, driving around to collect items for a clothing drive or going door-to-door to sell tickets for a charity event. So much of our world is run on volunteers; but when you're a parent, volunteering often becomes less of an option and more a mandatory part of participating in a community.
There's school - classroom helpers, reading partners, field trip chaperones, fundraising committees, parent council. There's sports - volunteer coaches, referees, snack moms, team managers. There are community events and playgroups and organized neighbourhood activities. They all depend on volunteers to run - and those volunteers are the parents.
The more active and involved you and your kids are in the community, the more you'll find yourself volunteering. And as admirable (and necessary) as volunteering is, beware that volunteer trap!
It's so easy to get sucked in as a volunteer, to take on just one more task, to add just one more thing to the list - to the point where the time you're volunteering takes over the time you should be spending elsewhere, either on work you're actually getting paid for or on actual mental-health-required downtime.
We are a very active and involved family in our community, and I'm one of those joiner moms who likes to have a hand in everything. It's a deadly combination when it comes to volunteering.
As soon as we moved to this neighbourhood I joined the parent council at the boys' new school, which quickly resulted in volunteering for a series of fundraisers in rapid succession and subsequently running the fundraising committee. When my older boys played t-ball and baseball I volunteered as a coach. When my youngest was a newborn and too little to be without Mommy for an hour my husband stepped in to volunteer for their house league soccer teams - and ever since they started playing rep soccer I've been volunteering as manager for both of their teams.
How much time can it possibly take to manage a children's soccer team? I thought the same thing. Turns out it's a lot. Like, fifteen to twenty hours a week, between the two teams.
Fifteen to twenty hours a week. Every week. All year long.
And that's not including the time spent at practices or games - that's administrative tasks taken care of on my own time. On top of my day job (home daycare), my night job (writing), school council volunteering, all of the kids' activities, and - you know - full-time parenting.
I'm happy to do it. I'd prefer to do it, to be honest. I've done it for years now, and I'm a bit of a control freak, so I tend to feel like as much as I might not really want do it anymore, at least I know if I do it - it will get done right.
But there have been times when that volunteering has gotten in the way of a deadline, or the impossibility of being in two places at once becomes a problem, or the combination of volunteer and paid tasks pile up so high on top of one another that I'm left working all night long for days and days on end, losing out on sleep. Because of all this volunteering, "downtime" has become a thing of the past - there's always something on the to-do list.
I am the type of person who operates better under pressure, who prefers to be way too busy, who likes to have a lot on her plate. So for me, this works fine. But I still find myself feeling tired every now and again, looking longingly back on those days when the boys were too young to be this active and involved, dreaming wistfully of the day when some of these volunteer commitments will be passed on to someone else and "downtime" won't always have deadlines attached.
By all means, volunteer wherever and whenever you can - our society depends on it. But beware that volunteer trap! Budget your time between paid work and work that you're doing for free, between scheduled time and free time.
And one of these days, maybe I'll try to take my own advice. If I ever pull myself out of this volunteer trap.
Originally published as "The Volunteer Trap" on my weekly column at gailvazoxlade.com