As I mentioned in my last post I had the good fortune of being interviewed by the frickin' New York Times a few weeks ago. And, then the misfortune of the photographer coming to photograph me for the piece. It went live last night and I was able to post it on Twitter and Facebook. Most everyone was very positive and gave me major props. If you read all the way through you will see my good friend Jennifer Christensen (she was my inspiration for saying NO) interviewed also.
So this morning I did go rush out and purchase one, okay three copies of the paper. I kept singing the old "Cover of Rolling Stone" all day today. I thought it was funny....my kids not so much. My new nickname around school is Jamie "No I'm Not" Lentzner. I heard that the article was passed around a lot today around some Bay Area schools, amongst volunteers, PTA boards and us ex-volunteers who were happy to NOT be at school. You can read the article here:
Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering
Jamie Lentzner, of Foster City, Calif., feeling overwhelmed, put an end to her school volunteering.
By HILARY STOUT
Published: December 1, 2010
IT was last spring, somewhere between overseeing Teacher Appreciation Week and planning the fifth-grade graduation party, when Jamie Lentzner, mother of two in Foster City, Calif., reached her breaking point.
She had already designed the fifth-grade T-shirt, taught art twice monthly to three different classes, and organized movie night, restaurant night and beach night fund-raisers. She was overscheduled and exhausted. She had scant time to help her children with their school projects because — coincidentally — she was always working on projects for their school. “You’ve got to stop,” said her husband, Darin, who worried that the constant stress she seemed to feel was damaging to her health.
Ms. Lentzner realized that she had spiraled out of control. She vowed to put an end to all this volunteering — and to recapture some of the serenity in her family life that had vanished because of nothing more than a well-intentioned desire to pitch in.
Today, more than three months into the school year, Ms. Lentzner is a new woman. She has yet to attend a PTA meeting or decorate so much as a classroom doorknob. When she saw her name listed as chairwoman of the annual Donuts for Dads Day (another event she oversaw last year) on a volunteer sign-up sheet, she whipped out a Sharpie and crossed it out.
“No, I’m not,” she wrote.
Her business — she designs children’s room décor — improved, and at home, the change has been striking. She has time to play Ping-Pong and Wii with the children. She hosted 27 relatives and friends for Thanksgiving last week, and for the first time in years she enjoyed the holiday. “I told my husband, ‘I am not stressed,’ “ she said. “I did not have some event hanging over my head, or a T-shirt design that had to be done. I think I finally have my priorities in the right place.”
Around the country there are a number of altruistic, devoted and totally burned-out mothers just like Ms. Lentzner who are becoming emboldened to push back against the relentless requests from their children’s schools for their time. What started out as an admirable civic gesture somehow snowballed into an inability to say no to any committee assignment or project request, and spiraled into night, weekend and after-school commitments, middle-of-the-night e-mail exchanges, as well as frozen dinners, takeout pizza and baby sitters at home.
With the holidays approaching, the call for parental help at school has reached a fever pitch, but this demand is not just seasonal. As local and state economies continue to struggle, budget cuts to rich and poor school systems are increasing the reliance on unpaid parent help. The need is so great that some school districts, like a couple of specialty schools in Prince William County, Va., have made it mandatory to commit to a small amount of volunteer time, and others are considering it. In San Jose, Calif., one elementary school district has been discussing a proposal that the families of its 13,000 students commit to 30 hours of volunteer work during the year.
Many parents are happy to volunteer uncoerced, and most everyone recognizes the worthiness of the cause. But the heightened need and expectations are coming at a time when many parents have less and less time to give.
“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.
Economic necessity, Mr. Parkes said, has forced some stay-at-home mothers to go back to work. “People are so busy trying to stay afloat, they just do not have as much time as they would like to give,” Mr. Parkes said, adding that he has heard similar laments in regional PTA meetings. “This seems to be a problem for a lot of schools.”
(Mr. Parkes has been getting creative. He reached out to the Cub Scouts to help with the fall festival and recruited the girls’ lacrosse team at the high school to operate the crazy-hair and face-painting stations. He is also exploring arrangements with the R.O.T.C. and with corporations that have public service programs.)
Ms. Auerswald, who estimated that she had sat through 1,000 meetings over the last 10 years as a volunteer, said all her work for the schools had left her “a run-down, crabby, resentful wreck.” Worse, she said in an interview, “My kids got really resentful.” When she would leave them with yet another baby sitter, or drag them along for yet another Saturday Clean-up Day at school, they implored, “Why is it always you who has to do everything, Mom?”
Ms. Auerswald emphasized that her children’s school had a very real need for parents’ volunteer work. But she said she has learned that parents need to set realistic expectations about what they can accomplish and how much of themselves they can give.
Because the work is unpaid, some volunteers say, few realize the toll it can take on people. “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. “Then her husband left her because she was never home.”
That news was startling to Ms. Auerswald. “Not that my husband was leaving, luckily,” she said, “but he was not happy about how much I was doing.”
Part of the burnout stems from the fact that in most schools a small number of volunteers shoulder the vast majority of the work.
Everyone recognizes this, but they can’t help but wring every ounce of commitment out of those who seem willing. Consider the case of Zan Jones.
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.
This year’s theme was superheros, so Ms. Jones made the sign with Superman saying, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a book fair!” She made tall buildings out of cardboard boxes. She stuffed the Spider-Man costume that she had found and bought herself. When it was over, she helped pack everything up and take the money to the bank.
That’s a lot of work — especially since her children don’t go to the school anymore.
Near the end of the summer, Ms. Jones’s children, a third grader and a fifth grader, were accepted to a charter school, but she felt uneasy about breaking volunteer commitments she had made to their old school. And, apparently, the school was desperate for help.
“They were panicked,” Ms. Jones said. “There was not one mention of ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’ If there was, I probably would have taken it and run with it.”
Still, Ms. Jones insisted that she was happy to help, and no sooner did she fulfill her commitments at the old school than she started volunteering at the new one. She has chaperoned three field trips, worked in the library and helped set up a “mad scientist” dry ice center for a Halloween party. But she admitted she considered bowing out.
“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.”
That is what most parents assume — that school volunteer work is in the best interests of their children. But some veterans are skeptical. Jen Christensen’s epiphany came on her 41st birthday in May 2009. She was presiding over Teacher Appreciation Week at her children’s school in San Mateo, Calif., and getting up daily at 4 a.m. to work on the school auction. She was so overcommitted, she said, that she could not find time to celebrate.
The next fall, Ms. Christensen declared herself off-limits to all school volunteer requests. “I said: ‘I’m done. I quit. Don’t call. Don’t e-mail.’ I said I have given so much of myself. I’m spending 50 hours a week working on a volunteer position. Where does it end? You want some blood? I wouldn’t even let my husband write a check.”
Ms. Christensen added: “It felt fabulous. I took a step back and was able to see what was wrong and appreciate the opportunity I have. I don’t have to work, and being able to spend time with my kids is what my job really should be.”
She noted the simple pleasure of reading with her 8-year-old son, Owen, in their special “reading chair.”
“It was calmer in our home and I think everyone was much happier,” she said.
Some of the push-back stems from just plain irritation over the way volunteer requests are made, often involving large numbers of increasingly desperate-sounding e-mails. A few years ago, Karen Bantuveris was on a plane on a business trip. “I looked down and literally saw my BlackBerry fill up with reply-all e-mails about whose turn it is to help at recess and to bring snacks,” she said. “The more I talked to working moms, the more I heard: ‘I can’t volunteer anymore. This is ridiculous.’ ”
Ms. Bantuveris put her training as a management consultant to work. She invented an online system — similar to the popular Evite invitation service — that sends a calendar of volunteer opportunities and allows parents to sign up for those of their choosing without multiple e-mail exchanges. She now runs a company called VolunteerSpot that markets the system, coordinating 460,000 volunteers, 75 percent of them parents in schools.
Even among those who have made the break from volunteering, there is always guilt. “There is such a need,” Ms. Christensen said. Her year of saying “No” ended when school started this year. But still she is a far cry from her old über-volunteer self.
She agreed to be a “room parent” for the third grade, which means she plans class parties. And she did consent to oversee the kitchen-tour fund-raiser, but she is now “kind of regretting it.” It is scheduled for September 2011, Ms. Christensen said, noting, “I still have time to get out of it.”
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So that is that, I was in the New York Times. I can scratch it off my bucket list (I don't have one but if I did I would put be in the New York Times on it). Once I get on the Oprah Winfrey Show (you did not think I would not reference her did you? I only have till September 2011) and my products in People Magazine I can say I have done everything. Everything as far as publicity goes that is.