Is Volunteer Work Keeping Women From Leaning In to Their Careers?

4 years ago

The school year is well underway, which means that teachers and PTA organizers are looking for volunteers to make copies, raise money and organize harvest festivals.

When my firstborn entered kindergarten, I was one of those moms, eagerly signing up to read stories, stuff folders, and chaperone field trips. I even enlisted the help of my mother to watch my toddler so I could go do these tasks. After all, I was a stay-at-home mom, and the time and talents of parent volunteers were the things that brought all the extras -– art, science, PE, even school supplies -– to our underfunded public school.

Image Credit: Traj-. via Flickr

Not surprisingly, the unpaid work of motherhood played a big part in the narratives of the women interviewed by Judith Warner in her August article "The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In."

For some, volunteer work is a way to build up a resume and meet connections that lead to career jobs. For others, volunteer work brings satisfaction and a sense of purpose. What it doesn’t bring is a lot of money. And that’s where the problem lies for women who have opted out of the career world, but who eventually need to return back to a paying job.

I recently talked with a mom whose kids are in the upper grades of elementary school. She’s been volunteering tirelessly in the classrooms for years, but she wants to pull back this fall. She needs to return to work, preferably with her career field, but she would consider waiting tables just to have some income. She swears she’s not going to help in the classroom as much this year, but it’s hard when at Back-to-School Night both of her children’s teachers enthusiastically pointed her out as an example of a parent who is a great help in the classroom. As my children reach their tween years, what I hear more and more is moms pledging to just say no to volunteering.

Volunteer and help your child’s education or work in the office and help your family’s saving’s account? That is the dilemma. Sure, some critics are quick to dismiss whole “Lean In” or “Opt Out” discussion as a rich woman’s problem. But for women who are financially able to take a few years off work but can’t afford to send their children to private school or move to neighborhoods with high-performing public schools, this is a very pressing issue.

A generation ago, our parents didn’t seem to wrestle with this choice. Of course they didn’t worry about food additives, or inappropriate television programs, either -– but this is more than a case of helicopter parenting. I think it shows how much less society provides in terms of support for our children’s education than it did a few decades ago.

Judith Warner, who is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, just returned from spending time in France, where she says life is much easier for parents -- with seven weeks of paid vacation, full-day school, and minimal cost for college.

Recently, I chatted with Warner over email and asked her about my impression that volunteer work – whether for school or other organizations, such as Girls on the Run – seems to be a much bigger expectation for today’s moms, and whether that’s a reflection of how much less society is supporting families. She’s been studying this themes about mothers taking on more and more responsibilities since her 2006 book Perfect Madness.

”Mothers (and it’s almost always mothers) are taking onto themselves all sorts of school and community-based work that other generations didn’t feel they had to provide. Some of it, I believe, is excessive and unnecessary, particularly in private-school communities, but much of it is absolutely essential, and I agree completely with you that there is a ‘great feeling of burden,’ and that much of that burden springs from what, unfortunately, isn’t being done by our public institutions.”

The shifting of the burden of education to families may work fine in the most affluent neighborhoods -- where parents have the time and know-how to volunteer and fundraise -- but not in middle-income communities caught in a spot between unpaid work to help their children’s education now or earning an income to save up for their college or retirement. Warner acknowledges that the high cost of daycare or after-school care also deters some moms from seeking jobs:

“The need for these supports is by no means limited to the poor; in fact, everyone but the very, very wealthiest families could use help in paying for high-quality child care, would benefit from a longer school day and year and more and better after-school programs, not to mention a changed work culture that helped promote a saner sort of existence.”

In Silicon Valley, some of the largest tech firms have on-site childcare or preschool available (for a cost) -- a perk that is so desirable that some of my friends jokingly call those benefits the “golden handcuffs.”

What is the solution? According to Warner, it may lie in more volunteer work -– but done in a strategic way to effect political change that would benefit public education for people of all income levels. She wishes that more well-off mothers would invest their time and resources into advocating for change for all public schools.

“(P)articularly into political activism on behalf of greater public funding for programs serving less well-off families. After-school programs. Paid family leave. Paid sick days. A longer school year. Flexible work arrangements for all. The list goes on and on. There is such an enormous need for family supports in the United States; we basically have none.”

So where does that leave people like my friend, who is trying to help her kids’ education as best she can, while trying not to leave herself high and dry for the future? Here’s my advice: Choose your volunteer duties wisely. Will your efforts really enrich education? Will it help you re-enter the workforce? And finally, balance your time spent on volunteering that benefits kids immediately with that which makes changes that make society better for all families.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

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