When my children started preschool I wanted to be involved. Being new to the community and eager to crack the code that would grant me access to the inner circles of small town life, I said yes to everything. By this, I mean the party planning, parade coordination, craft procurement and general commitment to the committee for prevention of mayhem and merriment making.
When the children moved on to elementary school, I stepped up my game. Working part-time left me ample time to be Head Head Room Mom (That means I was the headest of the heads I guess). I coordinated classroom parties, tutored and volunteered in the lunchroom and the library. There wasn’t a mini-milk carton or lost paperback I couldn’t wrestle into submission.
Later, I was a proud member of the PTO, The American Red Cross, Local Emergency Planning (because clearly I am who you want between you and certain disaster) and a variety of community activities designed to fill — and fulfill — my days.
I am proud of my accomplishments and enjoy the connections — and real friendships — I have made. That said, I fully admit that volunteering can become overwhelming if you allow it to. There is a fine line between “helping others” and “hurting yourself,” and recently, I crossed it without realizing it.
I was in the midst of another busy week. My favorite kind. I love to have plans. Always on the go, that’s me. I had already attended a soccer game and meeting and had just arrived home only to find myself fielding phone calls about a catering issue (another volunteer situation I had unwittingly gotten myself into).
I sat in the driveway, still on the telephone. It was after 9 p.m. (i.e. past my bedtime). Then I looked up to see one of my children hovering nearby. I realized, glancing at my phone, that while I had been chatting away a text message had come in from my child. “When are you going to be home?”
That child was now standing barefoot in our driveway, in pajamas, waiting for me to be present and parenting. Simple. Plaintive. Straight to the heart. Suddenly came a moment of clarity. I was ignoring the emotional needs of the child in front of me to work out the details of snacks for children three weeks from now.
My other child waited indoors. Stressed and desperate for help with homework. Neither situation was really a crisis. Fortunately just the normal issues that seem to arise with kids. Emotional upset. Stress. Lost homework and lost loves.
These kids rarely take a number in the complaints and general bumps and bruises of life department. Issues always seem to swirl into chaos at the same time. My parenting experiences are less deli counter and more firefighter. When something happens, it blows up all at once.
During this I was on the telephone discussing sandwiches.
There are things we “must do.” Work, school, scrubbing the toilets (although at least two members of my family would insist that’s negotiable). Volunteering, helping and being a good friend to others are all valuable and necessary too — in good measure.
Still, in this moment, all the volunteering in the world didn’t make up for the fact that my children needed me. Right then. The only responsible thing to do was to put down the telephone, the clipboard, and the heady sense of being “the one to get things done.” I need to be present in my real life.
“Only you can do it.” “We really need you,” and my old favorite “I’m counting on you” are all heady compliments. We all enjoy feeling needed. I think it is important to volunteer. To give back. To be present and involved in your community.
In truth, sometimes what we need to do is take a long hard look, step back, and just say “no.” “No I can’t.” “No, I won’t.” “No thank you. I can’t do that but thanks for asking.” It’s nice to be a helper but it’s necessary to say “no” to some things in order to say yes to what really matters — being present and involved in your own life too.