Does Volunteer Work Count?

Ask my kids what their mom does, and they will likely say she’s the president of the PTO. Ask them if their mom works, and they will definitely say no.

It begs the question: what counts as work?

For ages, women have debated the roles of working moms vs. stay at home moms. I’m not looking to take sides on this one. Staying home with young children is exhausting.  Balancing a professional job while also being a mom is challenging beyond measure. But what about the mom who volunteers her time outside the home? Does that count as being a working mom?

In 2006, I left my job as an engineer to stay home with my newborn son. In 2010 my daughter was born, and I leveled up to stay-at-home mom of two. By the time both of my kids were spending most of their days at school, my husband’s job had evolved into a weekly travel commitment, leaving me to navigate the daily activities and meals without help. I was lucky. I wasn't pressured to go back to work due to financial need, and I could manage our household so that my husband’s absence a few days a week would not be disruptive to our children. At the same time, I was itching to use my brain, spend time with other adults, and be of value beyond making sandwiches and driving carpools.

Enter PTO: A non-profit organization that benefited my community and kids’ schools and held meetings during school hours. It featured a group of (mostly) women, all with past or present careers, looking to contribute smart ideas. Yes, please! A few years in and I find myself in my second year as co-President. I love having the opportunity to work with fellow moms to help our local schools. And it has been very rewarding to regularly meet with our schools’ principals and superintendent to use professional and project management skills from my good old work days.

While I may not have traded in my yoga pants and ponytail for dresses and heels, I certainly have given up those blissful school hours. The unending list of household to-do’s parallels my volunteer commitments. Without a paycheck, it is difficult to prioritize. I am still a stay-at-home mom, so laundry should be folded, fridge should be stocked, dishes done and dinner made, right? And workouts and manicures? All squeezed in between school bells. But when volunteer commitments come calling, my lists are scrambled, and I struggle to get it all done.

Working moms claim that the key to sanity is carving out me-time for themselves. But if I choose to fill my free time with volunteering, does that count as working or me-time? Is it fair for me to complain to my family about being exhausted if most of my day was scheduled by choice and not necessity? If I am not earning an income, is it justified to use our family’s financial resources to get some assistance? Is it appropriate to ask my working, traveling husband to come home early so that I can volunteer my time to others?

Volunteer work is my paradox. Nagging at me is the idea that, if I’m working this much anyway, maybe I should return to my career. The wave of guilt I feel when asked why I still haven’t gone back to work piles up with the other guilt we all carry about what we are doing and how well we are doing it.

Does my volunteer work count as work? I think it all depends on how you think of work. I am contributing in meaningful ways that model for my children a good work ethic and the importance of giving back. I am thinking and problem-solving in ways I am qualified for, and I’m experiencing personal growth. Most of all, I have become a leader to other young moms beginning to feel that itch - an itch that can be scratched by work that counts.