Today, I dodged a special Volunteer Appreciation breakfast at my kids' school. I was included because I volunteered last week to cover the classroom during teacher appreciation when the teachers are taken to lunch outside the school. (One of the kids in the class remarked that he thought it was odd that the teachers left the school in order to feel appreciated. Ha ha.) I felt that they could best appreciate the time I had taken to volunteer by not taking up more of my time thanking me. I am appreciating myself today by cleaning my office, getting rid of the traces of this semester's classes, and organizing the materials I need for this summer's writing and class prep.
The volunteer system at school never feels very voluntary to me. Nobody has ever said that I have to volunteer, but there is an ethos that assumes that you will volunteer for field trips, classroom parties, special events, etc. All of this on top of attending the frequent assemblies, concerts, class presentations, parties, and other in-school events that parents are expected to attend. So I generally allocate one to two things per child -- meaning I try and do one field trip for each kid if possible and one in-class volunteer session. So, this year, I did Teacher Appreciation in the 4th grade (which had me in the classroom for about two hours, just making sure the kids didn't run amok) and Ellis Island Day for the 2nd grade (in which the kids pretend to be entering Ellis Island and we check their medical status, papers, money. I like to make them change their names.) I brought home made donuts to my son's "half birthday." I fell down on the field trips, but am going to the zoo in two weeks time, getting one in just before school closes for the year. Along the way, I attended holiday concerts, an assembly in which they celebrated reading (I missed one in which they presented on infectious diseases because I was away at a conference and felt guilty for weeks), plus a Native American museum (kids make dioramas and you walk through the classroom talking to them about their work) and an Egyptian museum (for this, they also wore costumes). All within working hours. (The band concerts are at night).
I understand the impulse -- parents should be involved in their child's education, it takes a village, etc. But there seems to be little understanding from within the school or even among the parents that people might not be able to frequently attend events between 8 and 3PM on weekdays when people work. When I was a kid, the school day was when my parents didn't have to worry about me or take care of me. But now, we are supposed to be on call all the time. Some dads do volunteer and dads often attend the concerts, assemblies and presentations. But, of course, most of the volunteering falls on moms. Many of the moms at our school are stay at home moms. Actually, a surprisingly large number. Most of whom had jobs, and big serious jobs, at some point in time. The volunteer system feeds on them, because they are seen as "easily" able to show up for any and all school events. It also, I suspect, helps some of them feel that their stay at home status is a necessity, because paid work would make it hard to volunteer. The school becomes another unpaid job for them. The temptation for me and other moms and dads who work for pay is to rely on these stay at home moms (and few stay at home dads) to take up the slack. The temptation for the school and for our kids is to see these parents as more committed. Along the way, we erase the idea that postfeminism taught us that being a stay at home is as valid and as hard as working outside the home. We extend the stay at home parent's nurturing role beyond their family and ask them to be substitute parents for the rest of us.
I'd rather that the school would make clear its expectations. Rather than assume that everybody can just skip out of work whenever they feel like it (and amazingly there are doctor and lawyer parents and other people who have much less flexible jobs than mine who manage this stuff), just say up front that the price of school (on top of its exorbitant price tag) is one volunteer activity per year per parent. This would equalize the gender imbalance, create more equality between working and stay at home parents, and make clear that it is an obligation not a choice.