Golden Rules of Volunteering and A Call To Arms-A Timely Back-To-School Post

(Andrew going to kindergarten, he is now in 8th grade. In a blink of an eye.)

Here is a timely repost for August, originally posted here, with a little extra at the bottom.

A couple weeks ago I had to go to a quick meeting after school for a first grade activity that involved a family feast.  I was assigned to make a part of a meal and we volunteers all met with the teacher for a quick "go over".  I sent my older kids home on the bus, just for routine sake, and because they are old enough to be home for a few minutes.  Of course I had my trusty helper Patrick by my side.

One of the moms there had a little baby in a car seat, 2 little ones, and was picking up her first grader.    The baby had been peacefully sleeping, and some of the other kids (like kids do) woke him up to "see the baby".  Her little toddlers were being little toddlers and she tried to keep track of them and attend the meeting at the same time.  She look frazzled, tired and overwhelmed.

It brought back SO many memories, because that was once me.

I remember the amount of work it took to organize naps and nursing times, to show up for a meeting at school or someone's house, or to drop off a snack that I was signed up for, or to show up in a classroom.  It hardly ever seemed to go smoothly for me and never as easy as I thought it would be.

It often meant that the entire nap/nursing/snack/dinner schedule was thrown off for the rest of the day, or sometimes even days.  It meant I had to find something decent to wear, and find the time somewhere to put on some makeup and brush my hair.  It meant that I had to make sure each child had a snack in him/her, to prevent breakdowns. It meant I had to look at my watch all morning long.  It meant that I usually ended up sweating buckets carrying a 40 pound car seat, and a toddler who refused to walk, into a stuffy classroom, or drive across town to someone's house. 

I always felt very obligated to do all I could to help...I didn't want anyone to say, "Oh she never does anything."  I felt like my kids would have this huge gap in their childhood if I wasn't participating regularly at their in-school activities. 

As I added my 4th and 5th child to the family, I let ALL of that go.  I gave myself permission to NOT sign up for things, I gave myself permission to be OK with letting school be school, and not a parent participation contest, I gave myself permission to know myself, and know my babies, and know my family...what I can't handle, what is too disruptive for our little thriving schedule, what I just don't want to do...it's all OK. 

Here's what I want to tell my younger self, and all of you who may be experiencing the same struggles I did:

1. Whether you have one child, or two, or five, remember that their are times and seasons of your life, where you are "allowed" to step back and just survive day to day without adding more to your plate. 

2. Be confident in having the knowledge that only you and you alone can decide when your family can handle any extra committments. 

3. Learn to say no without guilt.  Offer to do what you can do easily...that means with no stress.

4. Don't compare yourself with others.  What one person seems to handle with ease (notice the "seems" part), is maybe not what you can handle.  We all have different talents, and we all have different stresses and thresholds.  We also all have different support systems behind the scenes.

5. Be kind to yourself and in spite of what the world tells us all today, do not underestimate how much work it is to be a mom, just by itself, without all the extra things we feel pressured to do today.  

A few additions:

School has become very different from what I remember growing up.  Rare was it to see a parent at school.  Celebrations were very simple, far and few between, and not all day events.  The school was very learning-centered and teacher-centered.  I am not knocking at all the 'school community'-building and supporting parents getting to know parents, parenting helping in classrooms and supporting teachers (as the teachers see fit) and parents supporting the school with educational pursuits, etc.

But I will also say that many things I see today encompass a whole different level of commitment from all involved and often I end up feeling like the teachers, who today have enough stress in the classroom, bear the brunt of a lot of parents "good ideas".  (I often picture a well-meaning parent dropping off a huge tray of fluorescent frosted cupcakes, soaking in the 'hero' moment, and then heading out the class room door while a teacher is left to deal with a bunch of kids (literally) bouncing off the walls filled with high fructose corn syrup and Red Dye #40.)  A very smart education consultant that I happen to know was once approached by a group of teachers she was counseling, begging for help (with tears involved!) with "taking back their school"-all these extra "good ideas" were just really wearing on them, and taking away from the purpose of school.  They were majorly stressed!

I also know that "good ideas" by one parent can cause many other parents to do a lot of work-it's like a train gaining steam and parents being pulled onto this crazy train that sometimes can run for years and decades before someone says, "Why are we doing this again?" Maybe it's time to step back-I don't think much will be missed-and I've heard from so many parents at all different schools, that the last thing our kids need in their life is another celebration-by the time we get to the holiday itself, the kids have burn-out!

One day I was listening to an awesome speech by a favorite author, Meg Meeker.  She referenced this "crazy train" and said it takes some courage to jump off but the more parents who see others being brave, they too question and reject the pressure and the fast paced 'busy' that is natural to these extra commitments, and ease off that train themselves.

When time does open up for us in our lives to have outside commitments we can choose carefully, paying attention to the right fit for our strengths and weaknesses and season of life-but there is no rush (see above.)  How will it help our children if we are snappy and tired from doing too much elsewhere outside the home in the "name" of their education?  How will any activity help our children if dinners together are constantly compromised or we stress our marriages by always running out in the evenings, or being exhausted or distracted when our husbands are home?  There is little if anything that can be beneficial to our children's growth besides these things-a good marriage, dinners together, calm parents, a "rested" educational environment, and a dependable protected home routine.


  1. Yes, yes - I couldn't agree more! A very timely reminder!

  2. Oh Sarah I needed this today. Thank you

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!

    I am in my first trimester with #5 and have never been sicker. But I feel so much guilt that I'm unable to do more with/for my older kids. It's unfathomable to me that just a couple weeks ago I was taking my whole crew to the zoo without breaking a sweat and now it's a miracle if I make it from the couch to the bathroom.

    I keep forgetting that this won't last forever.

    I just hope my kids don't feel inferior to the other kids at school/in the neighborhood who are only children, or have just one other sibling. Their parents always seem to be taking them on expensive, amazing adventures and buying them incredible toys. I know I'm giving my kids all I have, but I just don't feel like it will ever be enough.

    Okay, enough of this pity party.

    Thanks again. I really appreciated this.

    1. Hi I have five boys and I think they are so grateful to have each other. They want more brothers. That last pregnant was a doozy. My boys are 9 and under so we can't go on all the fabulous vacations I see other families taking, but my kids think a day trip to a small local amusement park is an epic vacation - their words not mine. Good luck on the rest of your pregnancy!

    2. Hang in there Brooke! The sickness and exhaustion will pass, just squeak by as best you can. There is nothing that can add to a child's life more than a sibling-no trip or toy or event-what tiny things compared to a lifetime of love, sharing, caring, lessons, etc. The older ones get to learn from you in real life how to care for a real live baby-they are so so lucky-that is priceless!!!
      It is hard when you are in the thick of it to not think it will last forever just like you said, so you are allowed to vent.

      PS. Here's my morning sickness/hyperemesis post if it helps any.http://www.memoriesoncloverlane.com/search/label/hyperemesis

  4. Sarah, I can not begin to tell you how much I LOVE your blog.
    I have come from being the only home in the mountains with my young children (being able to have just our family and no other constant outside pressures) to moving to the city for my husband's new job where we are surrounded by homes and young families.
    Once I moved here others realized that I was a stay-at-home mother and had realized how nice that would be to have me watch their children and were asking me all the time. My husband travels a lot and I devote EVERYTHING I can to my husband and my children ((two at the ages of 4 (twins) and a 2 year old)) and I also have a religious calling in my ward that can be time consuming-- so this always seemed to really throw me off to have to add "helping others" out by watching their children all the time. I didn't want our family to have to suffer for it, which they would if I were to choose to do so. So I felt guilty and felt that I should be "stronger" and able to do everything and to "help others" out by watching their kids. That's why I come to your blog so often to be reminded that it is OK to say no and that we all have different thresholds. I can't watch others' children very often (or hardly at all) or do play dates often because it just stresses me out and I can not devote as much to my family when I do so.

    Long story short: Thank you!! When I feel like I have to fit the "neighborhood standards" of doing it all instead of staying home and working so hard every single day for my family-- I come to you and your words. I am a young mother so this has meant the world to me to read and feel accepted that what I believe in doing and what I am staying firm on (taking care of my family as best I can!) is not only OK but what is best.

    I will be forever grateful for your wonderful blog and your sound wisdom!!

  5. Family first! No one knows or loves your children more than you. I feel so sad for children, and their parents, when their mommies give away their family's time to keep up with what others are doing. Just follow your mother's heart and all will be well.

  6. What great advice! Your point that school is not a "parent participation contest" is just the best. Preach, Sarah, preach!!

  7. Yes, thank you. Your voice for mothering and marriage is so needed. I'm grateful for you, too.

  8. Great reminders! We don't start school here for a few more weeks, but with twin boys arriving mid september (#5 and #6) its very helpful to think about this ahead of time. During this season of my life I think it will be pretty much impossible for me to help out much at our children's school, but that doesn't mean the guilt won't be there. Thank you for the encouragement and reminder that saying no is ok and in a lot of cases the best for my family. I've noticed it's gotten easier the more kids we add to our family because the bandwidth just isn't there anymore! Love your words to us moms...

  9. Yes, yes, and yes! I was a full-time elementary school teacher for 7 years, and I am now expecting my first in just a few weeks. :) As a teacher, I can tell you first-hand that the students whose parents made HOME their first priority were the most well-adjusted, compassionate, respectful, ready-to-learn, etc. I only taught private school for one year, but the excessive celebrations and over-the-top parent "volunteering" were exhausting-- for teachers, parents, and kids! I missed students being happy and appreciative about a sticker, compliment, other small treat, or (dare I say it?) the satisfaction of a job well-done, ON THEIR OWN.
    I digress. I just want to thank you for being a voice of reason and reassurance for me and others. I happened upon your blog several years ago, and it is the only one I read. It's even more comforting as a new mommy, especially with all of the wrong messages sent by our culture. I respect and admire you, and I love reading your posts!

  10. Amen to that last sentence! (Well, to the entire piece!)

  11. I have been wrestling with the fact that as a mom of three, I only allow my kids to each have one after school activity- we eat at home most often- I don't like sleepovers- none of my kids have a cell phone (including my middle schooler)- and we only have one TV in our home... and the list goes on. I am over the top about bedtime and the quality of the food they eat, and this year I haven't volunteered once because the last two years of being at school 2 days a week- it did me in! Thank you, Sarah, for your example and support- that we as mothers know what's best for our precious family, and that it is perfectly ok to go against the grain and raise our kiddos in a less chaotic, less stuffed, more restful way.�� ~Kelli