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More parents say they want to pitch in at their kids’ school. So why does volunteering feel so stressful?

Illustration by Chris Gash (Illustration by Chris Gash for The Boston Globe)
By Beth Teitell
October 15, 2009

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With the academic year well underway, most kids have shed their back-to-school jitters. Now it’s time for another group to start stressing: the parents. The source of their anxiety? Volunteering at school. As schools cut budgets, many parents say they’re feeling pressure - often self-inflicted - to pitch in more at school, even if coordinating the spring carnival or helping out at the holiday fair sounds, well, torturous.

“The worst is the class trip,’’ said Meredith Bryan, a mother of two in Charlestown, and the owner of a local ice cream shop. “You can’t be texting or checking your BlackBerry while you’re in charge of 25 kids.’’

And yet Bryan, like many parents, thinks she should volunteer and wishes she felt more enthusiastic about it. “I want to want to,’’ she said. “It would make me a better person.’’

Her feelings about the value of volunteering are in line with a back-to-school survey by Harris Interactive and GreatSchools, a national independent education nonprofit organization. The August survey found that because of the rough economy, 64 percent of parents believe it is more important for them to volunteer at school now than before. And more than half - 53 percent - said they plan to volunteer at their children’s schools this year, an increase of 20 percent from last year.

But good intentions are one thing. Spending hours manning a booth at the Halloween fair is another. As parents’ inboxes fill with volunteer solicitations and those daunting sign-up sheets hang on classroom doors, many parents report volunteer-related angst. Among the worries, taking on too much and doing a lousy job - or taking on too little and becoming the object of gossip. Some working parents face additional stress: they want to volunteer, but in this economy can’t get - or are afraid to take - time off from work, and their schedules are already so packed that putting in time in the evenings is just too exhausting.

It’s the fear of being seen as a slacker that worries Leah Klein, a mother of two in Cambridge. She happily volunteers at school. But as a stay-at-home mother, she frets that some working moms think it’s her responsibility to do even more than she already does.

“It’s probably just a perception I put on myself,’’ Klein admits.

Perhaps, but the uneasiness over volunteering makes one thing clear: Wanting to be part of the “in crowd’’ doesn’t end when you graduate from high school.

Consider the qualms of Suzanne Rutstein, a mother and part-time event planner from Concord. Her fourth grader just started a new school, and while she’d like to observe the volunteer scene before jumping in, she worries she’ll get a bad reputation if she doesn’t sign up quickly.

“Do they write you off?’’ she asked rhetorically. “I doubt it. But part of me is concerned that if I don’t get involved now, I’ll be left out and my son’s experience will be less.’’

It’s no wonder one mother in Brookline uses the word “pain’’ to discuss something as benign as chaperoning a field trip to an apple orchard. “Of course I volunteer and of course I feel guilty that I don’t do it enough, and of course I’m resentful that there’s always someone who’s doing more.’’

The woman, who asked not to be identified, sort of wishes she were one of “them’’ - the uber volunteers - but can’t bring herself to do more. And yet, how appealing it would be.

“They call the principal by his first name and they know the teachers, and they have the inside scoop,’’ she said. “They make me feel so inadequate.’’

If you ask people - on the record - why they volunteer, you’ll hear all the high-minded reasons. They want to make their children’s school a better place, be closer to their kids, do their part and strengthen the community. Then there’s the reason that dare not speak its name: competition with other parents.

Mary Hickey, deputy editor of Parents magazine, says the quest to be a super school volunteer is “one more area where moms like to compete against each other.’’ But, she added, “it’s not even that overt. It’s more of a subtle thing.’’ As in: you see Sam’s mother coaching soccer and being room parent and running picture day. You figure if you don’t volunteer to do something big - head the PTO, say - Sam’s mom will rule the halls.

Despite societal changes that have fathers playing a more active role in children’s activities, most school volunteers are still mothers, although certainly not all. Fernando U. Donis, a carpenter and father of two girls in East Boston, likes volunteering at his daughters’ school when he’s between jobs. But sometimes, he says, he feels the need to explain why he, and not his wife, who works, is the one pitching in. “I don’t want them to think she’s not taking care of business,’’ Donis said.

There’s a lot of school business to be taken care of. Anecdotal evidence shows that widespread funding cuts have led to reductions in programming and personnel in many districts, says Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. (The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education doesn’t yet have figures for per-student spending for this year.)

“Everyone is looking for volunteers,’’ said Kim Hunt, president of the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association. She made an observation that every guilt-ridden slacker parent will recognize as true: “You’ll find it’s the same parents everywhere. They’re helping out with sports, with the open house . . .’’

The most effective way to get people to volunteer, she added, is to ask face-to-face. A personal invitation is harder to turn down than a group e-mail. Carmen Lafontaine, a family community outreach coordinator in East Boston, suggests another method: “You have to have food.’’ And if the bagels and the pleas don’t work, there’s always the element of surprise.

“I got an e-mail from one of the PTO chairs thanking me for volunteering to coordinate the fall picnic,’’ said Lisa Billowitz, a lawyer with two children in the Brookline public schools. “I had no memory of volunteering for the job.’’

She was speaking on a recent evening as she oversaw - you guessed it - the fall picnic.

Billowitz said she did recall a discussion about the difficulty of various school volunteer jobs. “I think I may have nodded in acknowledgment when someone said the fall picnic was the least onerous. Or maybe I did volunteer without realizing it,’’ she said. “That would be like me.’’

However it happened, Billowitz was too embarrassed to opt out, and says she’s already planning to run next year’s event. That means she’s officially crossed the line from askee to asker. “Now that I see how the game is played,’’ she said, “I’m going to start hounding people - early and often.’’