Volunteering at school events, where are all the dads?

Picture from above of mint-colored iced cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles sitting on a pink background

By Marya Markovich

The end of the school year brings class picnics, performances, competitions, celebrations, potlucks, and school trips. Sounds fun, until you realize that these things all run on parent volunteer power.

Online sign-up sheets are now the standard way of harnessing and channeling this power. I recently found myself clicking through to the 6th Grade Fun Night sign-up to see if anyone had taken my favorite slot, paper plates and napkins—the closest thing I have to a signature dish. As my eyes wandered down the list, I couldn’t help but notice that the sheet was populated exclusively with female names.

A mom created the sheet; two moms were listed as the contact people, moms filled in all the slots.

It’s not that these 6th Grade Fun Night ladies all conform to an old-fashioned notion of a homemaker, pouring excess time and intellectual capacity into school-based community service. I am friends or acquaintances with most of the women on the list, and I know their stories.

Elle, bringing a fruit tray, is an assistant professor of astronomy, with tenure review coming up.

Tessa, who signed up to decorate the gym, has a traveling sales job and practically lives out of her car—while she somehow, I still haven’t figured out how, raises two daughters on her own.

Vivian, who stole my paperware slot (thanks a lot, Vivian), is a pediatrician.

Meera, who will work a Fun Night shift as a ticket-seller, is a lawyer by day.

Julie (another single mom, divorced, restraining order on ex), who has said she is grateful to Costco for letting her hours align with school schedules, is bringing a case of water bottles.

And yes, Wendy (clean-up crew) only works part-time, giving piano lessons, and Caroline (36 chocolate chip cookies, no nuts) is a stay-at-home mom of four tweens and teens. But women like Wendy and Caroline, who have working spouses and whose home-based work may allow a bit more flexibility for school service, make up a fairly small group of mothers at our school.

Most of the rest of us full-time working moms volunteer anyway. We rearrange work schedules to attend daytime events. We add the gifts and events for Teacher Appreciation week to our calendars, right next to meetings with clients. A multitasking mom probably created that Fun Night sign-up form during a conference call.

Can someone explain to me, then, if moms, regardless of their home or work commitments, can do all this, why can’t dads help out a little more?

Dads have been subjected to a lot of criticism lately (here, here and here) for not doing their fair share of the emotional and cognitive labor at home, even as they are doing more hands-on parenting than their predecessors.

But at our school, they don’t do much labor of any kind.

From one perspective (which just happens to be my husband’s), pouring effort into school activities is a personal choice that we moms make—or peer-pressure each other to make. No one forces, for example, already-frazzled moms to organize a dessert potluck after a band concert, then bake the desserts, serve them, and mobilize kids and spouses to help clean-up. After all, as my husband points out, everyone could just go for ice cream. Dads—and moms of course—have the right to opt out of this scene.

Yet from another point of view, non-volunteering dads are free-loading. They reap the benefits of this massive amount of female labor in terms of no-cost enrichment for their children. In our district, parent-led activities greatly enhance the kids’ school experience.

Our elementary school’s PTO engages in labor-intensive fundraising, like the annual Silent Auction (all those phone calls to local businesses!), to pay for field trips and special assemblies.

Class parties for Halloween and Valentine’s Day, organized and run by parents, transform ordinary school days into something special—and give teachers a well-earned break for a couple hours. For older kids, our volunteer labor enables dances, Fun Nights, trips—these are the things kids will look back on fondly, long after memories of the daily classroom routine have dimmed.

To save readers the trouble of pointing it out: Not all dads. I don’t doubt that dads in some communities, particularly in progressive enclaves like Brooklyn or Silver Lake can be found leading PTOs and staffing fundraising committees. And of course in towns everywhere across America there are dads who are exceptions to this rule (and even a few at our school). I am grateful to these dads, just as I am to the legions of volunteering moms.

In our town dads still do the bulk of coaching girls’ and boys’ sports teams. So there’s that. And sometimes moms are the ones who sign up to volunteer for things, but then delegate the task to their male partners (my husband likes to refer to this as being “volun-told”).

But unless the schools in our mid-sized Midwestern town are not as typical as I think, on average, mom volunteer-time dwarfs that put in by dads. These hours make up one component of the invisible domestic burden that we moms are always going on about these days. It’s having to remember, for instance, to prepare or buy the fruit tray for the school party (and then having to call the school office to find out if it can be dropped off in the morning and refrigerated somewhere, to avoid a mid-work-day fruit run). This time of year, our to-do lists overflow with such tasks. I would wager that is not true for most dads. And what proportion of dads compared to moms even read the emails from school and learn about volunteer opportunities in the first place?

Many hands make light work, and every dad who steps up siphons a little of the burden off an overextended mom. Not that contributing one’s time to schools is all cost and no benefit for moms. Lots of good things come from volunteering, including the friendships we develop along the way. But I’ve also heard many of my mom friends saying things like: “I’m feeling so guilty, I haven’t chaperoned any field trips yet this year.” Or, “No one else volunteered to be room parent, so I felt like I had to.” We enjoy volunteering; we just wouldn’t mind doing a little less, or having our male partners more often be the ones to contribute on behalf of the family.

The more dads volunteer, the more kids see them at school, engaged, sharing in the experiences that are at the center of their children’s lives. Kids see that dads can ladle out ice cream punch or decorate a gym too. Moreover, school communities could benefit from the fresh ideas that dads would undoubtedly bring to the table. A diversity of perspective adds value to any endeavor.

Happily, most things to do with gender roles are heading in a positive direction, especially when it comes to parenting, so I hold out hope that by the time my youngest child graduates from high school I will see more and more dads’ names filling up those endless sign-up sheets. In fact, I’ve already noticed a slight uptick since my oldest started kindergarten over a decade ago (thanks, millennial dads).

If this trend continues, I have just two requests. First, that long-time-volunteering moms continue to welcome newcomer dads with open arms, even if the dads want to do things a little differently.

And second, that everyone leave the paper plates to me.

Marya Markovich is a mother of three tweens/teens. She is a health researcher by day, school volunteer by night, and writer in the very early morning.

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