Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Mommy Wars, Explained for Daddys

I guess I really have to do this.

Recently, I wrote about a (now all but antique!) article in the New York Times called "Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering," and I was pushing my take that this was Mean Girls All Grown Up.  The article started with the heartbreaking tale of a mommy who was so busy planning fund raisers and designing t-shirts for the school that she didn't have time to help her own kids with homework. So she bravely took the radical step of cutting back on volunteering and now she has time to play ping-pong and Wii.

And then her kids come home and she plays with them too!  Buh dum BUM!

I was snarky about this article.  It pushed my buttons, and I went to town with my thesis that this was just another round in the "Mommy Wars" in which Stay at Home Mommies and Work Outside the Home Mommies accuse each other of being Worst Mommies and making Bad Choices about their priorities. 

It seems I've missed the point.  A Daddy went out of his way to point out to me that "the article was really about how schools are asking too much of their parents, and volunteer burnout is an issue."

Just like a man.

Because I don't think men get this--this exquisite sensitivity that women have to being judged by other women.  Maybe this goes back to our different formative years on the playground.  Boys went out at recess and played "King of the Mountain," where they literally hit each other over the head and pushed each other off whatever pile of dirt they were claiming, and this did not affect their friendships.  Meanwhile, back in Girl World, the mere comment "nice knee socks" meant social death for the rest of the school year, if not longer.

So was I surprised that a Daddy didn't get the nasty digs and social posturing inherent in the "Frazzled Moms" article?  I was, but I shouldn't have been.  Because a man doesn't vibrate to the same resonances of social status as women do, and a man's identity isn't as tied up in his self-image of "Good Daddy" the way a woman is in her image of a "Good Mommy."  A man can read that article and actually think that the pressure to over-commit to volunteering comes from the school and not from the other over-committed  parent mother volunteers.

Let's take a look at what the article gives us.

First, there is that heartbreaking story of Jamie Lentzner, who once she stopped volunteering went home, played ping-pong and hosted Thanksgiving dinner for twenty-seven relatives and friends.  This is not a woman who was forced by her school to overcommit--this is a woman who can't say no.  Who hosts Thanksgiving dinner for that many people?  Someone who likes to do that sort of thing, and would rather do that sort of thing than help her kids with school projects.  This was not the school's fault.

Next up, a case of heartbreak and woe from the American South:

“Volunteerism is way down at our school this year,” said Gary Parkes, the PTA president at Carmel Elementary School in Woodstock, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. At the school’s recent annual fall festival some games had to be closed down because of a lack of adult volunteer supervisors. 

Did they cancel the "fall festival?"  No.  Did they fail to raise funds?  No.  Was this part of the school curriculum?  No.  Was there even a district employee interviewed?  No. This was a case of a slightly smaller "festival" run by the PTA.  Was this even a case of "frazzled moms" refusing to participate in a school's excessive demands for volunteer time?  Not according to PTA President Parkes--there are fewer volunteers available because the economy sucks and they had to go get jobs to keep their families afloat.

Our next guest at the pity party is a former PTA president from Los Angeles who estimates that she attended over one thousand meetings in ten years as a volunteer.  So that's an average of 100 meetings per school year.  Consider, then, that California has only 180 mandated instructional days, and you realize that this insane woman was at meetings 55% of the days her kids were at school.  That's not a volunteer position, that's a more than part-time job.  And who did she compare herself too--the teachers?  The principal? 

“I know a woman — the work she did for the public schools was so critical — she made me look like a loafer,” Ms. Auerswald said.

So who exactly is setting this women up for self-destructive levels of volunteering?   Is the school really demanding that mothers leave their children at home with babysitters, or is this a Competitive Mommying Olympics? 

The next Martyred Mommy ran a book festival.

Ms. Jones is a mother of two in Keller, Tex., who works part time as a booking manager for professional speakers. This fall she was co-chairwoman of the Scholastic Book Fair, a commitment of five full days on top of the multiple meetings required to organize the event. And the decorating. 

Her kids didn't even attend the school any more--they had moved to a charter school, and rather than find a substitute to take her place, Ms. Jones decided to keep volunteering.  At a professionally sourced book festival that is a fund raiser run by Scholastic Books as a business proposition to sell their inventory and incidentally a way to raise some money for the school.  Take a look at the Scholastic web site and tell me that this is something the school is asking parents to do.

Even when her kids changed schools, Ms. Jones couldn't break her volunteering habits.
“Selfishly, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is my chance for a clean break,’ ” she said. “I thought, ‘I can go somewhere where no one knows me, and I can sit silently under the radar and not volunteer.’ ” But, she explained: “My kids really like me volunteering. Their faces light up when I’m there.”

There are two more sob stories--the woman who was so busy she didn't have time to celebrate her own birthday, and the woman whose email filled up because the other volunteers didn't know the difference between "Reply" and "Reply All."  The latter woman saw a need and developed volunteer coordination software which has become a business opportunity.

You know what is missing from these stories?  Teachers.  Classroom volunteering.  Actual requests from the educators.  It's all parent committees and PTA and extra-curriculars, and people who have no limits, but are unable to take any responsibility to Just Say No.  (So why do we think this will work to keep kids drug free?  Don't get me started.)

With the smallest of exceptions, the article presents a dichotomy of volunteering vs. staying home and raising your children.  It's presented as an all-or-nothing situation: either you volunteer and leave your kids with baby-sitters and feed them frozen pizza, or you stop all volunteer activity and stay home to teach your kids to read.  Because the author of this piece isn't actually investigating anything about how volunteers actually assist in supporting cash-strapped schools, or analyzing return-per-volunteer-hour of fund raising.  Instead, it's a case of Judge-y McJudgerson disapproving of the way certain mothers spend their time, when they should be home with their children--playing ping-pong, and hosting enormous Thanksgiving dinners.

I myself am a "former volunteer."  But I did volunteered doing things I enjoyed doing, and I said "no" to things that would demand more time than I wanted to give.  I worked for years on the school book festival, but I never chaired it.  And after my kids left the school, I stopped volunteering.  Some things stopped entirely, or were radically revised, to reflect the interests and availability of the parents.  Just because something has been done doesn't mean it needs to be perpetuated, and I am fine with change.  I have always been fine with that. 

Some parents (mothers) I know disapprove of the changes that came after they (and their kids) left the school.  "The book festival doesn't raise nearly as much money as it used to when we were in charge" or "I can't believe they don't even bother to hold Teacher Appreciation Day every month!"  They apparently think that some volunteers don't work hard enough.  I have also heard parents (mothers) complain that some events are too lavish and labor intensive.  Maybe they are all right.  But this is the kind of catty innuendo that is the equivalent of "nice knee socks."  It is not the fault of the schools.

Think about it--what is a school supposed to do to save these women from their own excesses?  The PTA says "we'd like to raise money to pay for new library books/art supplies/band uniforms and we'd like to have a book festival/fall fun fair/Doughnuts for Dads program that we will organize and staff with our volunteers."  Who at the school do these people suppose is going to say "No!  Stop!  Don't raise money!  Don't donate!  Don't try to fill a perceived need!  You might make some kid eat frozen pizza for dinner if you do!"

Sure, maybe somewhere in this great country of ours, there are schools that really do specifically ask parents to volunteer in order to make ends meet.  And maybe there actually are educational institutions that over-tax their volunteer base and need to deal with volunteer burn-out.  This article, however, does not make that case in any way, shape or form.  Instead, it uses innuendo and blame to turn The Woman Who Didn't Have Time To Wii into a victim of the American educational system.

I get what the article was pretending to do--it was pretending that this was a real problem with the way schools are run, and that's what the Daddy saw.  What he couldn't see was the insidious smear campaign against women who are So Selfish as to do something outside the home, which invariably leads to the children suffering!  Men leaving their wives!  Broken homes and broken hearts and frozen pizza for the children!  Stop the insanity and go back home, you selfish volunteering mommies!  Your children are crying for you!

And don't tell me that I missed the point.  Because I didn't.


Gary Parkes said...

Gary Parkes here. I was interviewed for this article and mentioned above. Keep in mind I answered a media query discussing a broad range of topics relating to volunteering in the schools. I spent about 25 minutes talking with the reporter. At that time you have no idea what the direction of the article will be. Nor do you know what sentence will be used out of the hundreds spoken.

I did not love the article as it came out. I was glad that my contribution was a positive one at how we look out of the box to fill the gaps. I did not really get how my input made sense in the finished piece about frazzled moms, but I was not the author.

You are right the lack of volunteers did not cause any significant impact to the event.

In terms of trying to focus the PTA on academics, many of us try. Unfortunately at many schools there is little to no teacher/staff involvement. I constantly question what are we doing, what is the impact on the kids, should we ask parents to help with only the important things, etc.

The one positive out of the article is that it opened a dialogue on this subject.


Clay Boggess said...

As the husband of someone who has a huge heart, I have challenged her to say 'no' to things but I don't think it's in her DNA. When it comes to our children and their elementary school activities she is always helping out because 'someone has to do it'. My hope is that once our kids get older and are in a new school she will take advantage of being in the 'back seat' and relax for a while; however, something in me tells me that this won't happen based on her track record. Oh well, at least our kids appreciate her active involvement.

Cate Ross said...

Somehow, I missed both of your thoughtful comments, and I apologize not to have responded sooner. Mr. Parkes--I think you did come across as reasonable in the article. My quarrel is really with the tone and structure of the article, which is the fault and responsibility of the writer. Frankly, parents sometimes cannot be stopped, which is not the school's fault. It's the fault of the parents, and the article failed to place the blame where it lies.

Clay Boggess--Thank you for commenting, and I wish you and your family the best. It can be a slippery slope between volunteering because you genuinely wish to contribute, and getting over-committed because of a hyper-competitive environment. Beware the warning signs! (as Professor Harold Hill says in The Music Man.)