I never thought I'd find myself smiling cheerfully at preschool drop-off trying to sell stuff to time-pressured parents. The last time I headed up a school bake sale was probably in high school. But when the job of "Challah Lady" fell into my lap this past fall, I figured how hard could it be? Now, every Friday morning, I race to the local bakery to retrieve a few dozen freshly baked braided loaves - some sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds, others embellished with raisins or chocolate chips. Then I scramble to get to school in time for the morning rush. Turns out, the "job" was a little more involved than I realized.
Some Fridays, you'll find me sporting my sweaty workout clothes so that I can get to my post in time to ask anyone who passes by, "Want to buy some challah?" The meager proceeds go to our synagogue's early childhood education center. The truth is that as a juggling work-at-home mom, there are a million other things I could be doing at that hour other than pushing carbs on people. Yet, even when I'm frantically labeling the orders so they go to the right classrooms and writing up yet another sign for the lobby entreating friends to "support our school," when I'm finished the task, I feel relieved...and uplifted. And it happens every week. Somehow, the more rushed I feel in the morning (telling myself this is the LAST time I'm going to volunteer to do this), the more meaningful it is to get it done. That's the power of giving. Everyone always says when you volunteer your time and your energy, you get back more than you give. It's true.
I was just as shell-shocked and overwhelmed as anybody when I became a new mom almost three years ago. It was hard to figure out who I wanted to be (work - not work? part-time? flex-time?) I know I am one of a lucky few who had the choice to consider not working full-time. In my journey to decide how to spend my time and my transition to motherhood, I felt a bit disconnected from the world. It wasn't until I made an effort to find a way to channel some of my energy into people and causes outside my family that I started to plug into a community.
For years, I had given my time as a "big sister." It was easy when I was single. I could arrange my schedule in DC to spend a long afternoon at the zoo or evenings tutoring at the library or prepare dozens of brown bag lunches for a crowd of children from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the District. Later, as a young reporter in Denver, I connected with a terrific program called, "The Bridge Project," through the University of Denver. That was ten years ago, long before the time commitments of marriage and children. I had the pleasure of mentoring an 11-year-old girl who had recently emigrated from Cambodia. Together M. and I fought school administrators to move her out of English as a Second Language class into mainstream middle school. We worked hard to convince her protective mother that attending a high school across town would afford her better prospects for college and a life beyond the public housing project where she lived with her siblings and an assorted cast of cousins, uncles and "friends" who surfaced from time to time in their tiny apartment.
Through the years, we tackled her brother's brushes with the law, her mom's language barrier, first boyfriends, prom dresses, grades, summer jobs and finally, graduation. I wish I could tell you that this relationship ended with my wonderful mentee going off to college. Sadly, despite the best efforts of myself and a supportive team of other adults and social workers, M. never got her diploma on graduation day. A few months later, we learned she was pregnant. I don't regret any of the time we spent together. I pray that when she finds the strength to get back on her promising path, this bright young woman will remember how much faith I had in her (and still have now).
All that time invested feels a lifetime ago. Once I got my sea legs, motherhood handed me a new mandate to look for opportunities to give back beyond my front door. Yes, the neighborhood preschool is not a very far reach. But it's a start and I especially love the fact that my kids see me there and know what I'm doing to make a contribution. It is not easy to make the time for any of us moms -- whether it's to tutor a young person, bring a meal to an elderly friend, be more environmentally conscious, make the trip to Goodwill or volunteer at school. But what I've found and other mothers (including my own) have shared with me is that giving nourishes the soul. As we balance caregiving with the knowledge that deep down, we're still the same people we were before children, service, no matter how small can make us feel whole -- that despite the constant juggle, we are contributing to a larger world beyond the nest.
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