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Jenny Witte Headshot

Volunteering When You Need to Just Say No

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Before I started working, I was lucky enough to devote all of my time to taking care of the kids. It didn't matter what time preschool drop-off and pick up time was, because I had my schedule free for them. For class birthdays and picnics I would plan out fun treats like homemade cupcakes designed to look like little apples complete with tiny green smiley faced "worms" coming out of the top. I chaperoned class trips and carted the kids around to tumbling tykes and swim lessons and art classes. If anyone needed a parent volunteer I was there, I had the time to give and I was happy to do it. I knew other moms and dads worked, and I in no way shape or form resented that I was the one volunteering, rather I felt lucky to be able to step in and fill the need.

Then I started working, but rather than realize I had less time to do the stuff I did before I was working and scaling back, I tried to still do all of it. Makes sense, right? Here I had way less time, plus I added another child, yet I still felt, Sure, I can handle all this. Only I couldn't. Which would have been obvious to anyone capable of simple arithmetic, but to me, felt like sacrificing something I was already doing, like I was letting the kids down, the school down by not volunteering and letting the other groups I volunteered for down. So, I chose to let myself down. I gave up any personal time to fit in these other commitments and wound up being overextended and resentful. I also have to admit, I felt judged for saying no, even though that mainly came from me rather than any external voices.

Soon, however, I found that choices were made for me now simply because of time restraints. I now HAD to say no because I just couldn't make it happen. Can I bake something for the latest classroom celebration? Nope, no time. Can I be the "Secret Reader"? No, because I have a very active 2-year-old who would make enjoying it impossible for everyone. I also work from home, so fitting it into my schedule isn't easy either, never mind finding a babysitter during the day on a random weekday for said active 2-year-old. Same thing goes for being a chaperone, being a class parent, basically anything that is during the day that requires me to be child-free and work-free. I began to make the easier choices, like buying the plates for the school celebrations and stuffing them into the kids' backpacks rather than coming up with anything even remotely "themed" or homemade. I sent in the ten bucks for the class present rather than volunteer to help pick it out. And I was grateful for these options. I still get to "help out," albeit on a much more minor scale.

Sometimes I still feel guilty, especially when the kids specifically ask when I'm going to come in and volunteer to help with crafts or be the Secret Reader. But I explain to them that some parents work during the day and can't make it, and that's that. End of story. Being able to manage my time better means I am around to do stuff more when they are home, and prioritizing that time means we can spend more time together in the long run. I am extremely thankful for the parents that have the time and choose to spend that time volunteering at my child's school like I used to be able to do, and I am very grateful that as a community we all have these different roles that we play to make it work collectively. One day my balance might shake out to make this kind of thing possible again and if it does I will do my part if I can.

Now, I'm not saying that you have to say no to everything, but we all need to get over the idea that in order to be a good parent we need to say yes to everything, there is no super mom, no one is "doing it all" because that isn't possible. Make peace with what you feel comfortable doing, and go with it. If that means one project or one volunteer effort, great. If it means five or six, good for you, but do what you feel comfortable with and say a firm no to the rest. Most of all, don't judge parents who can't be there. Chances are they want to be, but are unable to. And someone's got to be the one to send in the plates, am I right?

Saying no isn't always easy, but you CAN get better at it. Here are some tips on how to make peace with doing less:

Keep in mind that you don't need to say yes simply because you are capable. Just because you CAN handle doing a project doesn't mean you have to or should. Consider the time needed and make sure you will still be able to comfortably balance your primary family responsibilities and other commitments. If you're worried it might stretch you too thin you're probably right and it's best to pass.

Remember that saying no allows others the opportunity to say yes. You most likely aren't the only one who is being asked to volunteer time, and there may be someone else better suited to the job at hand. This also allows you to say yes to other things that might have gone by the wayside if you didn't have the time, like spending time with your spouse or taking some time for yourself to recharge. We don't usually schedule these kinds of activities, but they are the first to go when we are overcommitted.

Never say yes on the spot. If you're asked to do something and you are feeling the pressure to say yes without thinking step back for a second and don't commit right away. Tell the person or group asking that you need to think about it, if they can't wait for you to make a decision then the decision is made for you, easy as that.

Remember that you know what works best for your family, no one else. You also don't need to offer excuses if you can't give extra time. If you think that volunteering to lead your daughter's Girl Scout troop will interfere too much with what you have going on, just simply say no, you don't have time. Offering excuses will only give people a chance to try and change your mind. They might not see your reasons for saying no as valid, but they don't need to. You are in charge of what works for you and your family.

Not every moment of free time needs to be scheduled. This goes for you and for the kids. Maybe you have a free afternoon a couple times a week, but that might be a good chance to catch up on downtime, something a lot of us are sorely lacking in our lives nowadays. In so many aspects of our lives now "free time" is way undervalued, and the assumption is that if you have free time you should be filling it with something. Instead fill it with reading a book, having the kids play outside in some unstructured, imaginative play, or just hang out. That's not selfish, not by a long shot. I firmly believe that childhood needs to have some parts be unstructured. If you're a type A parent this isn't always easy to do, but once you give it a go you'll see how important it is.

Stop comparing yourself to other parents. Maybe your neighbor is one of those moms that seems to do everything, home baked goods for the bake sale, tons of activities and play dates for the kids, volunteering at school and local organizations, whatever. Maybe it works for her, maybe that's how she feels good, that's great. There will always be people and other parents who seem like they're doing more than you and doing it with ease, that's never going to change. Finding what makes you happy and comfortable, and what makes your family happy and comfortable is the focus though.

Whether you work from home, work outside the home or are a full-time stay-at-home parent, the only category we all fit into together is parent. Some of us work at an outside job, some of us don't. Some of us volunteer, some of us don't. Some of us coach soccer teams, some of us don't. Don't make any excuses for your choices, do what you can, but set limits and stick to them. Whatever combination of these things adds up to a happy family is what is the right amount for you.