Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Just saying ‘No’

A couple of years ago I read an article about Karen Zacarías, a local playwright and mother of three, who confessed that she was only able to write (and be a good mom) because she had quit being a volunteer. The article struck a chord with me because I was at the start of my tenure as a high school PTSA vice president. Much of my free time was being spent in meetings, running events, and creating web site content—all adding up to more than 300 unpaid hours in 12 months.

[Maybe you’re wondering how it’s possible a school organization could suck up so much time. It's mostly because, in my experience, there are few parents left who will volunteer for high school PTAs. Their cute elementary students have become sullen teenagers, or they're burned out from past volunteering, or they don't feel as connected to a big school. The result was that, in a high school of 2,000 students, and potentially 4,000 parents, there were maybe seven or eight people who ran the PTSA and did most of its committee work.]

It took me a good part of this school year to catch up on all the things I had put aside the year before. I found unanswered correspondence, piles of papers that hadn’t gotten filed, even sheets that hadn’t gotten washed for a year, hidden away in the laundry bin. And I erased more than 1,000 email messages I had written as a PTSA VP.

This year I set out to just say ‘No’ if anyone asked me to help out. And, other than managing to do a few things for E-girl’s GS troop and serving as a room parent and occasional volunteer at her school, I’ve mostly accomplished this. But it wasn't without some degree of guilt. The year before, when I went to PTSA meetings I'd rather have skipped or worked to near-exhaustion, it was because I knew that if I didn't do it, one of the other seven or eight people would have had to shoulder even more work; the naysayer I am now would have pissed us all off.

There’s something callous and selfish about not offering help when it is needed and yet, if I said yes every time someone has asked me to volunteer in recent months, I wouldn’t have been able to write a novel last fall. As it is now, too often I feel like I am feeding the creative person inside me crumbs of time. When 20 minutes is all you feel you can guiltlessly spare in a day (or week), you get a blog post, not an essay or story. Perhaps if I can see my need for self expression as another child that needs to be nurtured, I can ease the guilt a little.

Postscript: In preparation for this, I googled "women writers volunteers" and mostly got articles about female writers serving as mentors to younger writers. But this blog post from Feministe popped up, which I thought was apt: Over-booked moms opt out of volunteering.

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