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Cornered Office

with Mir Kamin

I'm a freelance writer and mother of two working from home, which theoretically means I can set my own schedule so as to best accommodate my family. In reality, "flexible hours" often equals "working too much." Yes, I'm my own boss; no, that doesn't mean life is easy. It's hard to leave the office when you live there. But I love what I do and feel very lucky. And not just because I get paid to work in my pajamas.

To learn more about Mir, check out her profile on Work It, Mom! or visit her blog at

Working moms and working with the schools

Categories: A mother's work is never done, Maybe I can pencil in a nap


Four years ago my kids and I moved to a new state, a new school district, and what often felt like an entirely new world. (That’s what we get for being a bunch of yankees in the south.) My solution to the stranger-in-a-strange-land predicament was to dive in head-first: I joined the PTA, I volunteered for committees, I did my best to get involved and be there for my kids.

The result of my gung-ho attitude is that I was a cheerful participant for most of the first year, and felt bitter and burnt out by the end of the second. Our third year brought the change of having the kids in two different schools, so my husband and I each sort of manned one school (albeit at a fairly minimal level, attending meetings and such), and this past year—the fourth one—I did nothing. Nothing. Wait, I lied; I did volunteer in my son’s class for a holiday party, and last week I chaperoned a field trip. But basically: nothing.

I work from home. My schedule is flexible. Theoretically I should be all kinds of involved with the schools because I’m potentially more available than parents with conventional jobs. So what’s the problem?

1) It’s depressing to volunteer and look around and realize that it’s always the same few people. I’ve been to PTA meetings for a school of, say, 800 students and seen three people in attendance. I get that people are busy—heck, I’m busy, too—but I find myself getting irrationally annoyed when I attend school events and most parents have blown them off.

2) There seems to be a swirling vortex of need ready to suck down any parent who volunteers in any capacity. My schedule is flexible but I still work full time. It’s not unusual for me to run into folks at my kids’ schools who don’t seem to understand that I have a job. Jane Doe who has a boss and a cube is never asked to go the extra mile because it’s understood that she has work obligations; while I’m happy to help out, it eventually grates on me when people seem to assume I can always be there/do that/participate because I must not have anything else to do.

3) It often feels like there’s little appreciation of the time a parent can end up putting in just to handle their kids’ extracurriculars which aren’t covered by the school. Do not get me started on how there’s always transportation provided for our sports teams, but our state Science Fair winners were left to get to and from the event on their own. (Ahem.) My kids were involved in tournaments, fairs, and plenty of other activities which necessitated a lot of parental involvement and hours—and often those of us with schedules flexible enough to provide ended up picking up an extra kid or two for others. So we’re doing those things, putting in a lot of time already, but then we’re supposed to do more? Sometimes it feels like too much.

Complaining aside, I’m back on the PTA for next year. I think it’s important, and I’m aware that the world is run by people who show up. Simply put, I feel a responsibility to do what I can. I guess what I’m wondering is how do we get the load a little more evenly distributed when it comes to our kids’ schools?

Think about it—somehow most dads seem to get a pass on this. I see some fathers volunteer at my kids’ schools, but overwhelmingly the volunteer force is composed of mothers. And while I’m grateful for any parent who doesn’t work and has the time to be really involved at school, lots of us work, and we still need to find a way to get things done without the same four people doing everything all the time.

I know that at many private schools, parents are held to an expectation of a certain number of volunteer hours each year. People complain about how inconvenient it is, but… isn’t that more fair? Even if you have a “conventional” job, couldn’t you figure out a way to get a few volunteer hours in if you had to? I’m thinking yes, because the same parents who never show up when there’s work to be done all manage to make it there for the holiday concert and similar sorts of things.

I think I’m mostly just wishing for a world where 1) my work is taken seriously, even though I do it from here in my house and 2) more parents prioritize their kids’ schools, regardless of how super-important they believe themselves and their time to be. Is that too much to ask?

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13 comments so far...

  • Well, maybe the PTA wish list is too long. Thing is, if you have chosen to volunteer for something and it ends up weighing you down, it was still your choice. Next time you can just say no. But if you do say yes, say it because YOU want to do it. Not because you think other parents should want to.

    My job as a parent is to prepare my kids for school, send them to school, and parent them outside of school. If I’m going to be much more hands-on than that, I may as well homeschool.

    On the other hand, each of us has different interests and gifts, and some parents really like doing PTA stuff. More power to them. Myself, I will be taking my kids to the nearby children’s home to do volunteer work there. I’ll be participating as an active board member on various nonprofits. I’ll be working long hours to pay more than my kids’ share into the treasury to support the schools that way. I won’t be angry at you for not choosing to do these things - they are my “things” that I have chosen.

    You wouldn’t really want 1600 parents to show up at the PTA meetings, would you?

    I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be involved in the PTA. I’m thinking not. My mom used to tell me how she went to 1 meeting and that was more than enough. Myself, I recently overheard a meeting of PTA officers near my table at Panera, and it seems little has changed. I have no desire to spend my precious “free time” engaging in that kind of activity.

    SKL  |  May 17th, 2011 at 4:13 pm

  • I guess I’m saying that if I volunteer for something specific but it somehow gives the impression I’m available for absolutely anything, that’s what irks me.

    And stereotypes—true or not—about the type of people who tend to dominate the PTA aside, they are arranging a lot of activities for our kids. I’m asking this totally seriously, SKL, and without judgment: Do you really feel no obligation to ever contribute to the school stuff handled by parents? Sounds like you’re assuming there are plenty of people to do it and they don’t need you. But if you’re in a district like mine where no one wants to do it… then what?

    Mir  |  May 17th, 2011 at 4:17 pm

  • Well Mir, first, like I said, there will always be people who want to do that stuff. And secondly, if it doesn’t get done, so what? Is it really so necessary? What activities can you name that would harm me or my kids if the PTA didn’t do them? Keeping in mind that I will never have sons on the Boys’ Varsity teams.

    Just so you know, I have clocked thousands of volunteer hours at schools and in connection with children’s education, before I became a parent. I had to drop out of much of my nonprofit stuff because being a professional single mom of 2 is quite demanding. Moreover, though I work at home, I get a guilt trip (as well as make-up work) whenever I take time to do personal stuff during the work day. And spending my very limited “family time” on PTA does not seem right either. So, no. I do not feel obligated to contribute to what the PTA does - especially not by donating time at this stage of my life.

    SKL  |  May 17th, 2011 at 5:21 pm

  • Mir—I am in complete agreement with you here. I’ve been so frustrated that the other moms on the PTA (oh, don’t let me forget the ONE dad) don’t seem to grasp that yes, I work from home, but I do work–there is a limit to how much time I have to contribute. PLUS– my daughter’s class this year has very few parents willing to volunteer for special events during school hours, so in addition to all of the PTA stuff, I’ve spent countless hours this school year in the classroom as well. I feel like a school employee! I still feel obligated to help, but I’m taking a minimized role next year. I’ve accepted the fact that no one is going to recognize my situation no matter how much I remind them; all I can do is give what I can and let the rest go.

    Jennifer Joyner  |  May 17th, 2011 at 5:31 pm

  • SKL, I’m not sure if I’m reading you right, but I’m getting a lot of anger over the suggestion that everyone should pitch in a little. Which I guess I’m not understanding. As for what needs to be done otherwise you or your kids would be “harmed,” I have no idea what happens at your school, but at ours there’s a fall fair that requires volunteers, as well as just regular field trips which need chaperones, a teacher appreciation week for which folks are asked to help out, and then there’s always a couple of late parent-teacher conference nights when dinner is provided for the teachers. And I’m sure I’m forgetting some things. If it’s true that in your district “there will always be people who want to do that stuff,” then that’s great. All I was saying is that where I live, there are never enough volunteers, and I, personally, am not comfortable assuming that it’s just not my job.

    If every parent did one thing—and if time is a problem, then maybe it’s just committing to donate food for an event or whatever—everything would get done and there wouldn’t be undue burden on anyone. Many hands make light work.

    And for what it’s worth, I’ve done the working single mom thing. Maybe I did less (out of necessity) but I still felt an obligation to participate in some way.

    Mir  |  May 18th, 2011 at 7:05 am

  • I don’t know that I’d call it “anger” until someone actually comes and tells me I’m not doing my share.

    It always seems like those who are doing the most are the first people expected to do more - as you point out. Now as a single working parent of young children, I have less time for volunteering than I ever have. It seems to me that it makes more sense for people to do more volunteering when they have more time, not when they have less time. The way PTA operates ignores this reality. It’s based on the old reality when a mom’s main job WAS dealing their kids’ stuff during business hours. Wouldn’t it make more sense to get some HS and college students and retired grandparents to pitch in?

    “If each parent did one thing” assumes that whatever I’m already doing is either the same as or less than what you’re doing. But can you really assume that? And also, would it make more sense for your frustration to be directed more at stay-at-home moms who are not personally contributing via the tax pool OR via volunteering?

    I think that putting together Thanksgiving food baskets for needy families (as I plan to do with my kids this fall) is more important than a fall festival. If we don’t have a fall festival, my kids and I won’t miss it. Frankly, we have too many festivities throughout the year already. So does that make me a terrible parent, or just someone who has different priorities than you? (I am not saying this “angrily,” just asking you to see my perspective.)

    I believe that everything that is truly essential to my kids’ school experience (other than their readiness and motivation) should be provided by the school. I pay a lot of money toward the salaries of those responsible for this. I expect and trust that they will see to my kids’ education, at least until they prove me wrong. Extras such as parties are not essential. (FTR, I did go on a couple of field trips with my kids last year - and there were far too many parents there. So I don’t plan on doing that except on rare occasions.)

    The PTA exists because the parents who join it want whatever it is set up for. Parents who don’t want that should not feel obligated to contribute to it.

    SKL  |  May 18th, 2011 at 2:11 pm

  • Fair enough, SKL. I do see what you’re saying. It just feels like this is a pendulum that’s constantly swinging one way or the other, with no middle. I wish I knew the answer.

    Mir  |  May 18th, 2011 at 2:36 pm

  • The biggest problem I have with our PTA is not having a clear understanding of what my time/money would be going to. You want me to show up to an ice cream social every other Friday - but for what? T-shirts? Not going to happen.

    I think more parents would pitch in if they felt it had a direct impact on the school or education.

    Miss Britt  |  May 18th, 2011 at 4:50 pm

  • I attend a handful of events each year that I feel are important. This year I did 2 things and felt zero guilt about everything else I missed out on. I know what I do for my son at home and that is enough for me and for him.

    Most of the stuff you mentioned “a fall fair that requires volunteers, as well as just regular field trips which need chaperones, a teacher appreciation week for which folks are asked to help out, and then there’s always a couple of late parent-teacher conference nights when dinner is provided for the teachers. And I’m sure I’m forgetting some things” is just complete silliness.

    When I was a kid we went to school to learn! We had one field trip a year, one fair, and teachers and parents didn’t expect snacks at every event and there wasn’t parties and events every other week either. The PTA’s all over this country need to get a grip and cut back on all this.

    Parents ARE very busy whether we work at home or in a workplace. We don’t have time for all this stuff. Like another mom said we have jobs, our own volunteer interests outside the school, church, hobbies, etc. Parents don’t need to be involved but what is required these days is overkill!

    As far as you bitterness goes, it’s not your job to make up for all the other parents. Do what you can do and be happy with that. If you want to avoid feeling bitter focus on giving what feels right for you, let other parents give what they’re willing to give and stop judging yourself and everybody else.

    What’s the point of giving your time and effort to something if it’s just going to make you angry and upset. In my opinion that’s not real giving.

    mneave  |  May 19th, 2011 at 2:58 pm

  • Sorry, I meant to type parents DO need to be involved but what is required these days is overkill!

    mneave  |  May 19th, 2011 at 3:00 pm

  • Our school did have a push one year to get every parent to give 1 hour of time; not do “one thing” give one hour, and many were able to, but partly becuase it was all varied. There was a painting project, gardening, leading a school tour, helping on the night of the annual fundraiser. Any of it worked. And it was varied times (during the day, weekend, weeknight) to make it easier for all. THAT gets more parent participation.
    And I agree with both SKL and Mir here - yes it would be nice if more parents would do something hands on - but then again, there’s many ways to do something that isn’t hands on. Giving “more than your kids’ share to the treasury,” something.
    I can sit there at the fundraiser taking payments for what people bought - but if you’re the parent who just bought a thousand dollars worth of goods & services - many thanks! And no, I’m not going to be watching to see that you gave an hour volunteer time.
    If parent A does field trips and is the room mother, parent B organizes fundraisers and parent C can be counted on to chip something into all the funds, why isn’t that equally counted as doing something?

    Mich  |  May 19th, 2011 at 3:12 pm

  • “If parent A does field trips and is the room mother, parent B organizes fundraisers and parent C can be counted on to chip something into all the funds, why isn’t that equally counted as doing something?”

    Thank you for pointing this out. Some parents donate big time and that’s giving too. When my son was in 1st and 2nd he attended a school that used the system you mentioned and it worked heaps better for everybody.

    mneave  |  May 19th, 2011 at 3:33 pm

  • I don’t get annoyed when I see the same few people at a place where I’m helping out, because I think that’s true in all areas. Some people choose to spend it helping out at the school—and some of the others are doing clean-up at the playground, or helping out at the nursing home, and wondering why THEY always see the same few faces.

    I do nothing in-person for the school (SHY SHY SHY SHY, and not good at effectively handling other people’s children), but I donate money and classroom supplies (I mean, as in a couple hundred dollars’ worth per school year, on things from teacher wish lists), and I spend hours (and $$) baking, several times a year (bake sales, class parties, teacher appreciation week).

    I sometimes feel invisible: no one knows I’m doing it except the person coordinating it, who varies with each event and every year, and the teacher, who might not know I’m doing it every year and for so many children. And the thank-yous are limited to a group “Thanks to everyone who helped out!” in a newsletter.

    I worry that people are wondering why I’m not chaperoning field trips or doing the in-person stuff that would get me noticed but that wouldn’t be a good fit with my own skill set. But I figure that if _I_ know that the other parents are likely doing things I’m not, THEY probably know I’M doing things THEY’RE not.

    Swistle  |  May 29th, 2011 at 10:03 am