A few weeks into September, I was chatting with several other kindergarten mothers at the playground after school.
“Are you all coming on the duck pond trip tomorrow?” asked, Michelle, the room parent.
“I am!” said one woman. “Me too,” chirped a third. They looked at me expectantly.
I stared back in dismay.
When my oldest son started morning kindergarten, I was thrilled. For him, of course, but mostly for me. Sure, I still had a toddler at home. But that kid was a sleep champion, reliably conking out every morning from 9–11, the precise hours my kindergartener would be singing the alphabet song.
My elation was barely containable. For the first time since giving birth, I was facing the prospect of two uninterrupted hours to myself. Every day. That first morning, I watched other parents wipe away tears after kissing their kids goodbye at the classroom door. Not me. Free at last, I was thinking. Free at last.
I had no idea then how much our public school is indebted to the parent volunteers who enrich programming. They knit with first graders, brew herbal tea for second-grade poetry parties and dig garden beds with the middle schoolers. Thanks to those dedicated parents, teachers pull off projects that couldn't be achieved with our school’s limited resources.
After finally securing some time for myself, I wasn’t about to sacrifice it.
Even when I began to notice all this activity, I didn’t make any appearances in Teacher Trinh’s cheerful classroom. After finally securing some time for myself, I wasn’t about to sacrifice it.
“Heck, no,” I said, that day at the playground. “My little guy takes a two-hour nap every morning. That’s my time.”
Too late, I realized how this sounded. I hadn’t meant to dismiss these mothers’ enthusiasm for watching their kids observe waterfowl. But I’d been to that duck pond with my son a hundred times.
Then, in a moment of sudden clarity, I realized that this wasn’t about the duck pond. It was about being involved. Had I just established myself as the kindergarten’s slacker mom?
To my surprise and relief, I was met with a collective outpouring of empathy.
”Oh, naptime,” sighed the chirpy mother, wistfully watching her three-year-old hurtle down the slide like a member of the Olympic bobsled team. “Those were the days.”
Another mother looked up from the bench. “Lady, there’s no reason for you to sign up for anything,” she said. “Live it up while you can.”
I should have known better than to doubt my fellow mothers. It was women like them, after all, who supported me through new parenthood, friends and strangers alike: commiserating with my nursing problems, complimenting my baby and assuring me that one day he would actually sleep longer than twenty minutes at a stretch.
Now, other mothers were picking up the slack for me in the kindergarten classroom — and cutting me plenty of it, too. For the rest of that year, whenever the subject of volunteering arose, they waved me off. “Besides,” Michelle said one day, looking at me shrewdly, “You don’t really want to volunteer, do you?”
I had told her about my decade of teaching, and how burned out I was when I quit. My son’s safe, art-filled K-8 was very different from the tough city high schools where I’d taught; but I couldn’t deny that I was happy to limit my time there to pick up and drop off.
Two years later, I no longer craved solitude so desperately. My youngest was starting kindergarten, and the quiet mornings alone, while my firstborn had been in preschool, had restored my equilibrium. Now, as I ventured into school more often, I began to appreciate what drew other parents to volunteer: the delight on my sons’ faces when they caught sight of me unexpectedly in the hallway and the satisfaction of helping teachers I admire and respect. But that’s not why you’ll find me at school once a week these days.
I volunteer for the parents with babies at home who don’t have the time to give, or who desperately need their few free hours to themselves, the way I did. I volunteer because I work from home part-time and have the luxury of making my own schedule, while others work all day and still manage to make time for our school.
Most of all, I volunteer to repay the women who filled in for me when I couldn’t bear the thought of one more demand on my time, women who never made me feel like less of a mother because I wasn’t at school regularly like they were. It's my turn to pay it forward. Those two hours I now clock every week at my kid's school? Those are for them.