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Mama vs. Papa: How our standards differ on volunteerism

I had already decided what to do when I posted my (I hoped) thought-provoking piece on "neglecting" my children to coach cross country -- for free! I've been volunteer coaching for several years, and even though my husband has just left for his second tour overseas, I spend all of my waking and sleeping hours with the boys save about 10 a week for cross country and Thursday night writer's group. I am comfortable with my decision; though some commenters pointed out that, with only one parent on the ground, I was depriving my boys, I have to disagree. The boys enjoy time with their babysitters, who frankly have lots more focus to give than I do. I struggle with being on duty 24/7; I end up so, so tired by Sunday evening that I can rarely stay up long enough to finish packing school lunch; the time away from the boys is life-giving. After a few charged discussions about it and chatting with some of the officers with whom he deployed, my husband agreed that my cross country time and babysitting expense was something we could afford.

OK: so that's my personal story. Let's chat about the universal. Today, a commenter chimed in about her experiences feeling resentful when her husband volunteered for basketball coaching. Another commenter said she, too, had felt frustrated at other dads doing similar things -- those that benefited other people's kids. While no one said quite this, the message is very much that dads don't have the time to spare. Any free time, the sentiment seems to be (and I can think of times I've thought this, from an outsider's perspective and not in my own family): dads need to give all available free time to their own children. Why should moms get a break?

I wonder if this sentiment stems from those 80's-sitcom-style family makeup: dad working 60-hour weeks, mom doing lots of volunteering at school and keeping the home spic-and-span and oven full of casseroles. This dad should not be leaving work early to coach middle school sports across town when he has grade schoolers watching He-man, neglected, at home.

I know a bunch of dads who volunteer, but I know way more moms and childless uncles who keep the youth sports machine churning and staff the fundraisers and political phone banks and non-profit events. Do we not give dads a break to follow their volunteer passions because we see them -- collectively -- as already spending enough time away from home? Is this a classic Freudian issue; those of us whose own dads were absent are the quickest to judge? Or is this just "the truth": dads should not, no how no way, be spending precious hours coaching or coding websites or organizing conferences or building bikes unless their own kids are being directly benefited? What do you think? Are dads and moms judged alike in their use/abuse of me time? Should they be?


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Good questions!

My husband and I both work full time. We actually have more or less the same exact job, so presumably we would have the same free time. I do about 90% of the (required) volunteering at our child's school, as well as put in extra hours in other occasional volunteer capacities. Thinking about this in general terms can make me irritable, frustrated, angry: it's true that we've now sort of meshed the 1950s model of the mother volunteering to help her community (school, church, etc.) with the present-day model of (for many families) both partners working full time, to the detriment, or overload, of one person's overly full plate. A friend and I have grumbled before about how it's moms who are often asked to volunteer in this or that way, rather than dads.

But the truth is, in my own everyday life I don't mind the way things have fallen out. I like being involved in neighborhood institutions; like you, Sarah, I get something out of my volunteering that I wouldn't want to give up. My partner needs more alone time. We are the classic stereotypical illustrations of woman=multitasker and man=single-minded.

Finally--I'll just say that one of the things I struggle with as a parent is the way that raising children tends to make people turn inward, become more self-focused. I often think about the kinds of things I would be able to do (go volunteer abroad, be a longtime mentor to an adolescent in need, etc.) if I didn't have children at home. It's not that I ever wish I didn't have children; I just think that I'd like to model for my own kids that it doesn't have to be either-or--be a good mom and be home with the kids OR "neglect" family and be involved in community work.

My husband and I split the available "free" time as evenly as we possibly can. We've arrived at a rule: nobody gets to make value judgments about how the other person spends their free time. I choose to spend my free time baking, volunteering, writing, and exercising. Some of those things directly benefit the whole family; some are just for me. My husband spends his free time working in the yard and volunteering at a nursery because he likes working with plants.

There have been times when I've felt frustrated and wanted to argue with him about this, because I've felt like his free time choice activities do less for the "common good" than mine. But the bigger issue is that the relative mental health of both parents directly affects the whole family. If that's what makes him happy, and doing what I do makes me happy, and we're splitting the time equally, then there should be no argument about whether it's "worth it."

And as other commenters have mentioned before, it makes me incredibly sad to hear people say that helping "other people's children" is irresponsible or neglectful to your own family. Those "other people's children" will be caring for us in the nursing home, teaching in our grandchilden's schools, putting our fires in our neighborhood, and growing our food. Investing in your community benefits everybody.

Both of our parents were pretty insular, and even as a child I longed to have a mom or dad who was more involved in the community. Before kids, we each volunteered or found ways to get involved in community groups. After kids, we scaled back pretty significantly.
We're relatively new to Portland, and now that my youngest doesn't need to nurse all the time any more, I'm trying to find ways to get more involved in the community, not only to give back but to make connection with my new hometown.
We've talked about having my husband get more involved, too, for many of the same reasons. Here's the thing, though: he works full-time, often 50+ hours a week. I'm a SAHM, who is struggling to find the time and energy to start freelancing. Our two young kids need early bedtimes, so if Dad, who usually can't get home before 6 on a regular day, decides to start volunteering several times a week, that means I'm going to effectively become a single parent several days a week. I can't imagine not being resentful of that, in addition to being sad that my kids, who only get about an hour of awake time with their dad each day during the work week anyway, will be getting even less. And my husband knows this, which is why he is reluctant to commit to any sort of long-term volunteer gig.
I once worked for a company that gave each of us 10 hours a year to take time off to volunteer. I think it was a great way to encourage full-time employees to give back to their community, and would be a great way to get more dads involved, specifically.

I work out of the home very few hours/week and my partner works many. By default, I am the one who has the free time to do community work. As much as many moms say they enjoy their paid employment for what it brings them, I feel the same way about my volunteering. However, I am very mindful of balancing time away from home with time at home. Just as it would not work for one of us to be working 60 hour weeks all the time at a paid job, it wouldn't work for one of us to be away from home that much doing anything else. Our children would miss out on having us with them, and the basic household things would not get done. Maybe if we did not have such an unequal split in paid time at work it would be more balanced? Also, my husband has expressed very little desire to replace the little time he has with our children with any other activity. I don't know if that's a big issue for other dads, but he is very mindful of anything that keeps him from coming home on time. For him, to be the kind of father he wants to be, he just cannot fit it into his life at this point.

I don't know if I would necessarily agree that dads aren't given the chance to volunteer in the same way moms are. Perhaps it's a byproduct of the "free time" division or something else at work? Maybe it's another one of the gender stereotype issues that is evolving? I don't know. I do know that both my partner and I have another 30+ years of time to volunteer in us. We both have a pretty big list of things that just don't rise to the level of priority right now but someday will.

I choose to spend my free time baking, volunteering, writing, and exercising. Some of those things directly benefit the whole family; some are just for me. My husband spends his free time working in the yard and volunteering at a nursery because he likes working with plants.

RE: gender: yeah, I hate that the moms (and, I've observed, the bio-moms in two-mom families) are The Ones and the Go-Tos for volunteerism, esp in schools, but also in most nonprofits. Drives me batty, in fact. I see it as totally based on asinine, ancient assumptions about leisure time, who has the "soft" skills most called upon for volunteers, who might demand pay vs who might just sigh and get the job done for free, etc. My husband would love to be asked to chip in; he may still have to say no because, yes!, he does work longer hours than I do, but, as his own boss, he might also simply close shop one day in order to help.

RE: questioning parents *wanting* to volunteer, esp outside of their own kids' schools. How can this possibly be a bad thing? So many volunteers are either young people pre-kid/pre-career, or retired folks. Both those categories of volunteers can and do bring wonderful energy, experience, and outlook to their "positions." But, as someone who has relied on volunteers many a time in workplaces, I believe that when parents are out in the community, their perspectives on family and children adds a much-needed richness to their volunteer cadre---and (shout out to you activists!) can open eyes of nonparents to the issues of those raising children.

Personally (since that's what UM is all about, right--our *personal* experiences), the two parents in our house have no time or energy right now to volunteer and, yes, conciously choose to spend all free time w/our small children, raising them and creating a stronger family. We both can see a time when the kids' needs will be different and we'll each, in our own way(s), get to go into our community. I guarantee my extrovert husband will be more "out there" than his introverted wife, who'd prefer, ANY DAY, to bring home the box of envelopes to stuff quietly at 11pm.

Molly: that all sounds pretty much right on.
I volunteer at one of my kid's school because I've been kind of pressured to. It's a good cause, needs to be done, I have the skills to do what they ask of me, etc. so I do it. Both parents work full time and we also have a toddler at home, too, and I get about 1 1/2 hrs per evening to spend with the kids before bedtime. Volunteering takes away from that - or I have to stay up quite late to get volunteer tasks done at home. I resent it, but I want the school to succeed and I think that we all need to pitch in.
I have tried to get my husband to volunteer when there are opportunities that are in line with his skill set and he flatly refuses. This irritates me, because I think that we all need to pitch in if we can, and I hear the pleas for someone to help with something that he could do with his eyes closed and he won't do it. But he guards his free time much better than I do, and I'm probably a little jealous of that.
I think that the family benefits when people volunteer, especially outside of schools. The kids see that it's a big world out there and that we're all in this together, and they are more apt to volunteer themselves when they are old enough. Especially volunteering places like Children's Relief Nursery, Dougy Center, Morrison Child and Family Services, Potluck in the Park, etc. - I think - are good ways to introduce your children to the concept that not everyone is as lucky as they are, and that it feels good to help others. Surely they won't be "neglected" if you take a few hours a month to do this. They might even be proud of you.


Having been both a very full time working parent and (because of unemployment) a SAHM (though I was always looking, which is almost a job in and of itself)--I can honestly say I've never noticed any sort of sexism in pressuring to volunteer.

When I worked, we interacted with school personnel fairly evenly (it was largely based around our work schedules). Since I've been home, I obviously volunteer more (just as I cook more, clean more, handle appointments more, etc) because I have far more time to do so.

Our vounteering is generally ability based as well--my husband is a scientist who enjoys gardening, I work in sales and marketing/event planning. So at my daughter's school, he signed up to help in her Life Science class, I signed up for the auction planning committee.

That said, I wouldn't ever overschedule myself (even though I do like to help) or spend money on daycare that we can't swing to volunteer for free. But I probably wouldn't do that for a leisure/pleasure activity, either.

I also don't think a parent having to spend evenings at home alone with the kids from time to time is a defacto "single parent". Single parents have to work all day at a job (typically), then come home and handle all the kid issues/needs/etc. If anything, if you're able to get by on one income, be grateful for it. If you find you're feeling isolated, go back to work.

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I can only speak for myself and my family's situation, but I hold my husband to the same standards as I hold for myself. Although we have chosen very traditional roles in our lives as parents (I'm a SaHM), my husband works 48hrs a week outside the home, he and I strive for an egalitarian relationship in all other respects (unlike the sitcoms of yesteryear). If he were to include volunteer coaching to his schedule again he would not only be spending more time away from his family, but he would be creating a longer "work day" for me. So my anecdote about my husbands coaching clearly isn't applicable to the original poster, but i think it applies to much of the broader audience here. I myself volunteer occasionally but only do so when it's possible for me to bring my children or to complete a task at home during naps or after bedtime so as not to take away from family time and expect the same in return. I suppose if I hired a mother's helper I'd have certain folks looking down their noses at me (and believe me, I wish I had the resources to hire a quality helper...but quality/affordable childcare is a different story), so I hope you didn't feel judged by my earlier comment. My two cents were thrown in a bit haphazardly.

I work full time and my husband stays home. While we don't feel pressured we think it is important to be involved in our school and community. We split it up so he does the school stuff and I attend committee meetings, fundraisers and I also try to support/ volunteer at one community event every 2-3 months. I definitely struggle giving up what is usually a full day with my kids but I think it sets a good examplefor them in helping others. They are 5 and 8, I didn't volunteer much at all when they were not school age.

great post very nice thanks a lot.

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