The Delicate Dance of Saying "No" to the PTA
(without suffering from "mom guilt")
I know it is coming, in fact, it has already arrived. The question from a parent on the softball stands on a Friday night last spring, the wind coming in from the west, the cool coast air making my light jacket barely serviceable. “Are you joining the PTA next year?”
I’m always taken aback by forthright questions like this and fumble around for an answer. What I really need to say is: No. No explanations needed. But instead, I feel this need to excuse my negation, like I must have a reason to refuse.
Confession: I derive very little enjoyment from volunteering for the PTA, and in fact find the endless requests for parent volunteers during the elementary years somewhat maddening. I’m not saying that the work the PTA does isn’t important. I recognize the huge gap between what our government provides for our schools and what our children deserve. I understand that the social activities of elementary school would not exist without the work of the PTA. What frustrates me is the pressure placed on parents, and particularly mothers, to do their part.
If you noticed, during the pandemic, much of the fundraising, “community building,” and volunteering disappeared. I sometimes wonder how much we should bring back.
The PTA was designed during a different time, when mothers rarely worked outside the home and had the hours while their children were in school available to form into committees, build social bonds, and create some industriousness outside of the drudgery of housework. That hasn’t been our reality for a very long time. In fact, as early as 2003, only 7% of families had one parent who worked and one parent who stayed home. In 2019, before the pandemic sent women’s employment rates plummeting, over 50% of families had both parents employed, while in 2020, 25% of children lived in a single-parent household.
I live in Silicon Valley, a place where it is increasingly difficult to live without both parents working due to sky-rocketing housing costs. Yet the school district still acts like we are in the 1950’s. The five years that we have been at my elementary school, teachers and parents alike express frustration at the lack of volunteers: for help in the classroom, for PTA positions, for drivers for field trips. Often, it is the same parents who volunteer over and over because they are one of the handful of parents who do not work.
When will our society recognize that we no longer have an army of women waiting at home for their children to finish school, freshly baked cookies on the kitchen table for snack, the house clean and tidy, with dinner simmering away in a crock pot? Instead, what you likely have is a parent who works while the kids are in school, frantically meets their children at the ridiculously early school pick up time, and tries to shuttle them to various activities in the afternoon while they attempt to get 20-30 minutes of work done on their computers on the sidelines.
The constant barrage of requests picked back up this year once the students were back on campus full time, though they were much diminished in scope as in person events are still on indefinite hold. But I noticed that many of the positions were remaining unfilled. Perhaps parents realized during the pandemic that the school could function without us. Or maybe we were so tapped out from all the pandemic had forced upon us that we were in touch with our finitude. We knew we could take on no more. And owning that “no” that once felt impossible now felt like an exercise in self-preservation.
But I want us to be able to have access to that “no” even when we aren’t fully spent. I want mothers to have less obligation, more joy. More time, not just for self-care, which should really be a prerequisite, but also for fun, for passion projects, for work they can pour their soul into. Certainly for some people, that can be accomplished through the PTA. But not for every parent.
Despite how much time I am spending talking about the PTA, what I really want to discuss is the endless amount of responsibility we place on women who are already over-burdened. The teacher gift, the spirit day, the silent auction, they get added to never ending ticker of to-dos already spilling over in our heads, a list that crowds our mental space so completely it is no wonder that we tend to lose touch with our own voices as mothers. There is no room in there to hear ourselves.
There is cost to continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done. The expectation that mothers should willingly give of their time to their schools with no consideration of what else they have on their plates and the many things they will not get to in order to fulfill that role feels antiquated. We all have so few moments of space outside of parenting and work and the household, the precious “Unicorn Space” that Eve Rodsky talks about in Fair Play (and her new book coming at the end of the year). If we endlessly give it away in pursuit of checking a box about what it means to be a good mom, what are we left with? No time at all.
I recognize that I am particular sensitive to this kind of request right now, my lack of boundaries for the first forty years of my existence meaning that I often said yes to things that did not work for me and then had to deal with my burgeoning resentment. I am trying to change my patterns and not feel like I must always take one for the team. Because I am in a nascent place, if I am not careful, the demands of the world will inflict upon the few hours that my children are not at home, and take me away from what should be my primary focus right now, which is my career. Finding my voice requires quiet, space, a cultivation that mindless tasks and reluctant volunteer positions will encroach upon.
If you, like me, have been bred to be a good girl, to step in to fulfill needs, if you too haven’t learned to set firm boundaries, or even feel like your wants and needs are valid, I’m here to say. They are. You do not need to volunteer for anything.
You are allowed to say no to the PTA.*
*Please note that I am still organizing the book fair this year, a role I took on before this epiphany that has carried over because we still have not been able to host an in-person book fair since COVID. So I still need to take my own damn medicine.
An interesting article about the ways PTAs can increase inequality in our classrooms in The Atlantic. And the editorial board at The New York Times wrote an argument for why wealthy PTAs should share their resources with those that are less well-funded.