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Moms: Enough Already With The Volunteer Spirit

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Eunice W. Johnson, the driving force behind the legendary Ebony Fashion Fair Traveling Fashion Show, has died. We'll talk more about her legacy in business and fashion in just a few minutes.

But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

We're starting the New Year by talking about volunteering at school. From helping out on field trips to decorating the teachers' lounge for a faculty lunch to organizing fundraising events, parents have long been expected to spend free time at their children's schools.

But some parents are saying enough already. Helaine Olen is one of them. Helaine Olen, a mom of two, recently wrote a piece for the online publication DoubleX titled "Why I'm Sick of Volunteering at My Kids' Wealthy School." And she's here to talk about it, along with our regular TELL ME MORE contributors, Dani Tucker, mom of two; Jolene Ivey, one of the co-founders of the nationwide parenting support group The Mocha Moms and a mom of five; and author and blogger Leslie Morgan Steiner, who has three children and has written extensively about issues of work-life balance. Welcome ladies, moms, thanks for coming. Happy New Year.

Ms. HELAINE OLEN (Author, "Why I'm Sick of Volunteering at My Kids' Wealthy School"): Happy New Year.

Ms. DANI TUCKER: Hey Michel, Happy New Year.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY: Thank you.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: So great to be here.

MARTIN: Helaine, I'm going to start with you. Your argument or complaint is many-layered. It isn't just one thing, so I want to take it point by point. So let's start with what you call the burden placed on mothers.

Now, it's worth noting that men do volunteer. I know there have been many pictures of President Obama, volunteer-in-chief, you know, reading for school kids and doing stuff like that, as previous presidents have done, but you write: It goes without saying that parental sacrifice is really maternal sacrifice. And you say that the pressure to volunteer places unfair expectations on busy mothers who are judged by the amount of time they spend coordinating class parties and stuffing envelopes. How so? How so? Whose expectation is this?

Ms. OLEN: Well, the first thing I should say is, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, no group in this country gives of their time more than mothers of children under the age of 18. And you know, we're all pretty busy. So you have to start saying why that is.

And it's because in many urban and suburban middle- and upper-middle-class communities, we're judged on our perceived self-sacrifice for our children. This is the way mothers are competitive with each other, and mothers judge each other's ability to mother - on their ability to show up to decorate the faculty lounge, hand out the cupcakes at the Halloween party and so on.

MARTIN: Leslie, let me ask you. Do you think this is true, as a person who's written - you edited the book "Mommy Wars," which is about the real or perceived conflict between mothers who have different ways that they address those responsibilities and so forth. Do you think that's true?

Ms. STEINER: I do think it's true. I think it's sort of a spectrum disorder of modern motherhood in that some schools and some communities are better or worse than others, and I think - you know, I think volunteerism is wonderful, and it can make you feel really good about yourself, and you can set a great example for your kids, but I think that there are lots of communities that go too far. And as Helaine really persuasively argues in her article, it's a ridiculous construct - that volunteering at your kids' school somehow makes you a better mother.

MARTIN: Okay, well, we're going to go on to the other part of the argument in a minute, but before we move on, Dani, Jolene, do you agree? Do you feel like this is a competition, in a way, you're being judged? Dani?

Ms. TUCKER: I totally agree because one of the comments on her articles, when one of the persons says that you're the lazy parent, and that bothers me because a lot of us are not lazy, it's just that we're either single parents, and we're working jobs or sometimes two jobs, and also because we have more than one kid at different schools. Okay, you've got one child this side of the city and another child way on the other side of the city. So I agree.

MARTIN: You felt that way. Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: Absolutely. I put in a lot of hours at my kids' school years ago when I had more time. At this point, it's really hard for me to do because I am back working, and I know one of the moms particularly gives me a hairy eyeball these days because she's still giving that level of commitment to the school, and I can't do it.

MARTIN: Helaine, to the second part of your argument, which may even be the meat of it, you write in your piece: Most of these unpaid volunteer activities, while seemingly well-intentioned, are in fact unnecessary make-work designed to make us feel good about ourselves, even as they allow us to ignore more significant social problems like overcrowded and under-funded schools nearby but not in our neighborhood.

Ms. OLEN: Right.

MARTIN: What makes you say that? I'm interested in your argument that this is just busy work, this is nonsense, it really isn't important.

Ms. OLEN: Well, I think that there's no evidence to show that because one volunteers to say hand out the cupcakes at the Halloween party that one is going to be more engaged with other schools. And what seems to happen is we tend to obsess about our own. But what happens is is while we're worrying about our own, education funding in this country is done by income and race, and as a result, you know, there are frequently overcrowded and under-funded schools with many poverty-struck children, frequently within five miles or less of our own homes.

MARTIN: Well, only thing I'm going to push you own is why you insist that this is meaningless make work?

Ms. OLEN: Well, for some of it, it actually in the end, perpetuates existing equities in the school system. To give a perfect example, recently in New York, there was a laudatory article in one of the papers that the parents at Stuyvesant High School had raised $65,000 to preserve their after school tutoring and their after school activities programs. All that sounds wonderful, but then you remember there are actually more than 1200 public schools in New York City. The vast majority of them serve children much needier than children at Stuyvesant, which is a school for the elite. And what about them? Are they getting anything? So we sort of think we're doing good, but in fact, we're perpetrating existing equities.

MARTIN: Let's go around and talk about this. Jolene, what do you say about that?

Ms. IVEY: Well, on the one hand, Helaine, I completely agree with you, it can be that way, but it's up to us to figure out how we can best use our time at the schools. Now at the times I've gotten the most out of volunteering at my kid's school, is going into the classroom and helping the kids who are having trouble with their reading. Now that doesn't mean my kids, but I spend my time with the slower readers. By doing that, I got a lot out of it myself. And the kids, they just made so much progress having that kind of one-on-one attention. So well, you might not have said this, but we just need to raise taxes. Sorry people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OLEN: This is Helaine and I absolutely agree with you about that.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you?

Ms. STEINER: You know, I think that there is something suspect about volunteerism that helps yourself or your family the most. It's not always like that, but speaking from my own experience, my kids have gone to public and private school and they're now currently at private school and the school really does a great job of channeling people who want to volunteer into two primary activities - the annual scholarship auction, which raises money for financial aid and also the annual fund; which similarly makes it possible for the school to give a significant amount of money to kids who couldn't otherwise afford to come there.

And I think that's great, but that there's also a lot of wasted effort. And I think that it's moms who are looking to feel better about themselves as moms, and they can spend a tremendous amount of time on make work like Helaine describes. And I myself have done it, and it is incredibly frustrating to...

MARTIN: Like what? What do you consider make work?

Ms. STEINER: I was asked to participate in a kindergarten breakfast basket, where one mom put together a breakfast for somebody who had bought it at the auction. And I'm a terrible cook, but I agreed to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEINER: And I made like lemon poppy seed muffins from a mix. But I didn't realize that you had to deliver the food. And I had - I was working full-time and I had to drive - and it was a three-hour roundtrip to this woman's house and I...

MARTIN: No way - three hours.

Ms. STEINER: And I tell you, it was at rush hour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEINER: And I said never again. And that night, I made a vow that I was not going to volunteer when my kids were young enough to need a babysitter, and that I was going to do it in a way that felt really good to me.

MARTIN: Well, Dani, what about that? I mean by definition, volunteering can't be compelled. I mean, you can't make people... And this whole question of why shouldn't you do something that makes you feel good? I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm just saying... Dani, what do you say about all this?

Ms. TUCKER: We've taken a different approach because in our neighborhood, of course, we have kids like my daughter and other kids who live in disadvantage neighborhoods who go to affluent schools because they're good in academics. So they go to these schools that, you know, are like what Helaine was talking about, but they don't live in that environment.

So a prime example, we had a trip to Canada. It was like $2,000, you know. No, my child can't go, because that equals $4,000 for me, because she's not going to Canada with you. I don't know you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah, I got to go with her. So what we tend to do is - they don't really hassle us to volunteer a lot, you know, because they know we're like no - that doesn't benefit my kid. You know, I mean not to say I don't mind, but what we need in our neighborhoods are not what you all are raising money for.

Ms. IVEY: Right.

Ms. TUCKER: So, because our kids that go to those schools, go to the same aftercare program, we do our work there. So we have a lot of the things for the kids, you know, and then we just come together in our unit. You know, but it kind of works for us, you know?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly conversation with the Moms. We're speaking with Helaine Olen, Jolene Ivey, Dani Tucker, and Leslie Morgan Steiner. We're talking about whether the expectations for volunteering are too many, whether they place an unfair burden on mothers, and is it really busy work that distracts people from more important issues?

Helaine, I want to ask a couple things. And one is, if what you want to do is volunteer at a less affluent school, whose stopping you? If you want to focus your attention on the issues around social inequities, whose stopping you?

Ms. OLEN: I would say if you want to help out, I would say the first thing is to ask where the help is truly needed. But to answer the other question, there is no one stopping at you from calling up another school or showing up at the School Board budget hearing, to give an example; but it doesn't necessarily always seem to translate and I'm not sure why that is.

The studies have shown the same thing, that just because you volunteer to help with reading in a child's classroom doesn't then mean you go to the school board meeting and lobby for more professional reading tutors to be placed in the child's classroom. And I would argue, I guess, in the end, that that is the more valuable use of my time at least.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? I'm interested, because you have a foot in both worlds. As it were, you were a work-at-home mom for a long time with the boys, and then you are a public official and you went out and campaigned for public office, in part, because these are some of the issues you wanted to talk about. That's actually a very traditional route. A lot of moms start out as school volunteers and that's where they learn how to run for office...

Ms. IVEY: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...how to run campaigns and so forth. And so I'm interested in whether you think that's true. A lot of the time, maybe, that you spend volunteering, you think maybe it could've been better spent on political action?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I believe the time I spent volunteering, for the most part, was worthwhile. I had a few bad experiences like the classroom where the teacher really didn't like me in her classroom. She thought that I was watching her and so she put me out of the classroom in the hall cutting and pasting. And I thought, lady, if this is what you want I'll do it. And I bring my kids with me. But I was out in the hall breastfeeding one of the babies while I was cutting and pasting and then they got on me for that, so I couldn't win.

But I believe even those experiences helped me as a politician, because I'm right here to advocate, now, on behalf of women who are breastfeeding. So, you know, so many routes these things can take you. The one thing that really bothers me about volunteering in school is background checks. They make this, it's really rampant across the country, and then you have to be fingerprinted, you got to get a background check. That does not insure that your children are safe, just because somebody's passed a background check. That's it.

MARTIN: Interesting. Dani?

Ms. TUCKER: Me and Jolene never disagree, but on this one we do, because I had to go through a background check to be a mentor at my daughter's school, you know. And I kind of liked it because, in a couple of instances in the school system, we had situations where people had got through - that had not had, you know, the background check. You know, I had to go through it even though I was just volunteering as a mom.

MARTIN: Well, I find it; I guess it's interesting to me because I find it a little patronizing to expect that just because people are of a different socioeconomic status that they're not in a position to volunteer. People have all kinds of gifts. And so I guess the idea that you can't volunteer just because poor people can't volunteer is not true. I mean, people can do all kinds of things.

Ms. OLEN: Can I respond for a second?

MARTIN: Sure, of course.

Ms. OLEN: This is Helaine. I would say two things. I would say you do have a point; however, first, many people in less advantaged communities simply don't have the time. Many are working two or three jobs to simply get by. And second, the fact is, is that parent participation does seem to go up with economic status. No one is quite sure why that is but it does seem to be a factor.

MARTIN: Well Helaine, we're dying to know what kind of a response you received to the piece. It's kind of a love it or hate it I think it evokes and you could see we've had no shortage of reactions to it. What kind of reactions did you get to the piece?

Ms. OLEN: It seems to be one of those pieces that has definitely hit a nerve and I think that's a good thing, whether you agree with it or disagree with it.

MARTIN: And what kind...

Ms. OLEN: It's obviously something that we've all wanted to talk about and think about for...

MARTIN: What kind of responses at your children's school?

Ms. OLEN: No one has come up to me and said they didn't like it. The only people who come up to me are those who say they agree with it. That being said, I'm sure there are people who disagree with it passionately and won't tell me that.

MARTIN: Helaine Olen is a journalist and the author of "Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding � and Managing � Romance on the Job." If you want to read the piece that we're talking about, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to NPR.org, click on programs then on TELL ME MORE.

Also here with me in our Washington studio are our regular parenting contributors Leslie Morgan Steiner, blogger of "Mommy Wars" and "Crazy Love," Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey.

Ladies, moms, thank you again.

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you.

Ms. IVEY: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. OLEN: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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