I was warned by those who travel the path ahead of me: life just gets more complex and demanding the older your kids get.
I could understand this, but I didn't get it. Not a wink.
In the same way you can't prepare people for parenthood, you can't prepare them for elementary school-hood either.
See, after age 2-3 (give or take), we had this semi-golden age of 4-5 (give or take). This age can be great: still a little bit of baby and sweet, but also mostly capable and independent. This happily meant that Patience's frustration level dropped way lower than the previous two years, and thus so did ours. We had the hang of our kid. We were old hands at preschool. We'd been around the block for this stage. We were fine, on the whole. We had a handle on life, on our kids, on our family. And we knew it.
That's one reason why we approached kindergarten with such trepidation. We knew we were relinquishing our control in many, many respects, and we understood we were entering a System, not of our making. It's a Whole New World.
One other aspect of the Whole New World is the Increased Opportunity for Extracurricular Activity. So many things begin at age 5!
In fact, Patience had so many opportunities, it was tough to choose. We were Spoiled for Choice, but we considered each option carefully and aimed for wisdom. We didn't want to isolate Patience from the neighborhood with all Away Activities but we also didn't want to immure her in the neighborhood and school with Our Gang activities. I strongly believe that if you become exclusively involved in activities with the same people, then you lose the chance to gain perspective of a broader world and the confidence of meeting and getting to know new people. We wanted a balance, and we wanted to make sure she wasn't overscheduled.
In fact, we were so focused on Patience that we overlooked ourselves.
I knew I'd have a big chauffeur obligation, but I had no idea that every single one of Patience's activities wanted more than her charming presence and my money. They wanted me, too.
Each time we went to a sign-up or registration, I was herded through an assembly line where multiple Leader Parents offered no quarter or choice about me throwing myself 100% into volunteering for that activity. The question wasn't, "Can you help, are you interested in volunteering?" No, instead the question was, "Which position do you want to take?"
Strangely, I was continually taken aback each time I ran into this. But by today, not only was I finally getting it, but I was getting mighty annoyed by the peer pressure. On me. I had so carefully considered this for Patience, but never, ever for myself.
It couldn't have come at a worse time, either, on many levels.
First, I hit mega burn out for volunteering and participating last spring, when I was still in the minors. (Really, people, if you are Farm League, you have no idea the pressure when you get called up to the Big League. So don't burn yourself out early.)
As a newbie around here, I was so eager to pitch in, be a part, be involved, etc. that I got into the nasty habit of saying "yes" too much and "no" too little. When work needed more, health needed less, but the demand for my help didn't slack off, I had to make some hard choices of where to be and what to do in order to not be spread too thin. If I didn't choose, my body would, for me.
Second, with my complicated health (or lack thereof) issues, I need to pay attention there. I must remember that it is important to take care of me, so I can take care of my family. However, I don't like to trump the card game with a cry of, "Oy, but my health!" and slap a hand to my forehead whilst precariously leaning back, all drama. In a way, I'm okay with sharing that I have health troubles, and many times it is germane. In another way, I HATE talking about it. I don't like being sick. For one, it's complicated and difficult to explain and understand---it hasn't got a handy well-known name like Cancer. For another, it doesn't show, or so people tell me. "It'd be so much easier to get, you know, if you had one easy name for your situation, and if you looked sick, or went bald or something," one person told me. Ugh. How can I be more like a real sick person should be, exactly? I feel bad enough as it is...and believe my looks reflect that, too often. Anyway, I don't like Sick to be a part of everything I do. It takes a big enough part of my life as it is.
Third, between health questions and so much newness, life has taken on a slight feel of uncertainty. It seems wise to me to get my feet wet and learn how to swim before becoming a life guard, so to speak. Many of the activities are new for us. I'd like to get to know the activity and how it fits in our lives, and how our life can accommodate it before taking on a larger role than mom of participant, who contributes in small but important ways---such as "snack bringer" one day, or "tissue paper dispenser for craft project" another day, or simply "brings child."
But when I whip out that last line---without all the long-winded context preceding it---I get annoyance in response.
"But we depend upon helpers, we need helpers...without volunteers we couldn't do this!"
I get you. I do. I've been on both sides of the fence, so I have a true understanding. Honestly.
However, as I said today, "But you see...everyone says this. Every single thing needs my time and attention. It's tough, and I try to contribute as I can, but I also try to be wise about it."
Instead of garnering understanding, I think I recruited a new member of the Julie Sucks Club.
I compounded it at the subsequent station in the complicated registration assembly line today. This one attempted to catch any non-volunteers that slipped through the last net.
"Here, fill this out, front and back, and this too, just front but make sure to sign it, and then choose a date on one of these sheets and sign up there, too," the lady told me and my husband, handing us sheafs of paper.
"And it's for...?" my husband asked.
"The volunteering. This is the background check, this is the application, and this is the leadership training dates."
We looked at one another. "Ummm, can we just take this with us, and get back to you after we evaluate?" I asked.
She snorted impatiently, "Of course, or you can go sit at that table like that lady and bring it right back. It really helps if we have the paperwork processed in advance."
I felt like I had dropped into a David Sedaris sketch directed by Woody Allen.
My husband and I were too stunned to protest further, so we filled out the paperwork as directed, but then we hit two snags: first, the leadership training. It mainly occurred on dates over the next month when we are not available, or on one precious day when we happen to be home. So I balked, and refused. My husband balked when he learned he was going to have to pay $20 to volunteer.
"Are you kidding?" he said to me, sotto voce.
"I guess not," I whispered back, suddenly exhausted. We'd been on the go from one thing to another all weekend, and I'd be out doing this and that since 8 a.m. that morning. It was now 5 p.m. "Just give her the money so we can go home."
So we did.
There is no circumventing this, either. My husband signed up for soccer online. Each time he clicked "not at this time" in response to the query "do you want to volunteer as a coach?" he got a sassy pop-up finger-wagging, "Not so fast...how about you volunteer as a...?" He said he had about half a dozen of these to click through and ended up an assistant coach, anyway.
Patience hasn't ever played soccer before, and this is some new league with different rules, anyway. Once again, we'd like to have been able to get our feet wet, first.
"I don't mind coaching, helping, or volunteering," my husband said, "I'd do it anyway, just maybe not upfront or before it even started, and I really don't appreciate being forced into it."
No is not respected. No with understandable excuses is not respected, either.
I still get demands, need and expectations from the activities I've already been in since I moved here. They still want their pieces of me, and now these new ones do, too.
This is the age of obligation.
And people aren't terribly gracious about it in all cases. I understand many people want to reap the benefit without sowing the effort. But I'm not sure this mandatory draft approach to volunteering is the answer, either.
I don't know how to solve the systemic troubles, but I do know I have to solve my own personal ones; and the way to do that is to draw boundaries. I believe it is surprising and dismaying to people who have grown accustomed to, "Ask Julie. She'll do it," to hear no from me, or a strict limit, or limited role (assistant instead of in charge, for example). I think it is surprising and dismaying to people who expect more from me than they are getting.
I am personally dismayed, too. I want to say yes. I want to help when asked, want to pitch in, help as needed, fill holes, make things great, and keep good things going. I have so many ideas for ways to grow and improve good groups to great groups. I enjoy my many areas of volunteering, and I do most of it with love, usually. Except, lately, I've gotten a little resentful...I know I'll get a bit of a negative response when I draw my boundary, and while I understand why, it's painful for me. I also feel like I am giving as much as I can, and am frustrated that it is still never enough. Even more frustrating is the negative judgment and pressure when I say, "I can't, I'm sorry."
I'm not a slough off responsibility person. I'm a take responsibility person. Saying no is hard for me.
I know these new people don't know me, my character, my ways or my past helpful history.
And it smarts to see them look at me, shake their head and think, "Another one of Those Moms. Just wants to dump her kid and go get her nails done."
It hurt when instead of feeling welcomed into a new activity, I heard behind me as I walked away from one registration group one day, "Oh ho ho hoity toity busy busy is she," followed by giggles.
The worst part? I didn't even say an unqualified no. I simply offered a qualified yes.
I'm sure, as with all things, we'll get the hang of this, too. These activities and events will probably transition into some of our best memories. But oh the transition pain and learning curve...may it be short. And sweet. And soon.
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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