When I first moved to Dunedin time was on my side. I had gone from the craziness of being a full-time working stressed out mum to having time to spend with my girls and breathing space to work out what I wanted. I decided to work from home so I could plan my life around my family and immersed myself in the community I found at my local playcentre. Within six months I had stepped up into the role of president at my playcentre and found myself struggling, like almost every other centre, with the task of encouraging parents to engage and participate more fully in the running of the co-operative.
For the longest time I didn’t get it. Why weren’t more parents stepping up to help with all the important tasks that needed to be done to keep our centre afloat? Every parent who becomes a member is clearly told the kind of commitment we require. We have monthly meetings, we have working bees, we have fundraising, we have training, we have on session parent help and yes that’s a lot but that’s the deal if you want to attend our playcentre.
It wasn’t until my eldest started school and my middle child started kindy that I started to struggle with participation myself. Suddenly I was finding my time, effort, energy and money were being sought after by these other locations plus my eldest girl joined a sports club and so I had to add that one to the mix too. Right now I have a raffle sheet I’m supposed to be selling, cheese rolls I’m supposed to be selling and a photo fundraiser that I need to coordinate and promote. Each of these is for a different location that my children attend. In the past, I had looked at the parents who attended my playcentre as a group who belonged solely to us but now I see that our parents are actually involved with multiple community groups, associations and clubs. Almost every single location our children attend asks parents to chip in with their time and/or money in some way or another and parents often feel under pressure to pull their weight. Well that’s how I feel anyway and I want to be clear, I don’t feel that the pressure comes from these locations specifically, rather I put myself under internal pressure to pitch in. If I find I just can’t help for whatever reason, I move to self-imposed guilt for letting people down.
It’s worth noting that many parents also volunteer at other groups, associations, societies or clubs because of their own personal interests. I’m talking about parents who are helping with babywearing groups or breastfeeding support meetups. These are things they are doing on top of the already crazy existence of being a parent such as being up all night with a little one or trying to keep on top of household chores. I’m trying to run a social enterprise on top of all this stuff and it’s got to the point where a panic attack is just one missed community meeting away.
When I realised just how stretched and frazzled the parents of my community were, that’s when I stopped focusing on how to get the parents to do more and started trying to work out how I could reduce their burden. Because for the most part, the parents who attend my playcentre love our community. They want to meet their obligations and do their part but at the same time, every parent only has so much to give in terms of time, money, energy and effort. Anything we squeeze out of them needs to be used as efficiently as possible and appreciated fully.
Please understand, I don’t blame the schools, kindys or clubs for asking for help from their parents. Contributing builds a sense of community whether it’s through donations or attending meetings and working bees. All of the money raised is sorely needed. All the meetings are essential for collaborative decision making. It’s true that we really desperately need the help we’re requesting from our parents and it’s also true that our parents only have so much help to give. I’ve come to realise that the parents who attend my Playcentre do not belong solely to us. We do not have ownership of their free time and focus no matter what terms they signed up to. Telling them to like it or lump it is a missed opportunity to see more clearly what the needs of our parent community are.
I don’t know what the answer is. I’m told you shouldn’t write a blog article highlighting a problem unless you have a solution to offer. Obviously, I don’t agree. This article seeks to open a discussion and perhaps through reflection and dialogue, a solution will present itself. I think that part of the reason parents have little to no capacity to volunteer their help comes down to how hard everyone is working just to survive. We only have so much personal time to allocate among friends, family and the broader community. That’s a societal norm and it’s probably not something the schools, kindys and clubs can do much about. But I do think having an awareness of our parents beyond what they contribute to our specific organisations is important. When it comes to requesting contributions in whatever form, that awareness could at least bring some compassion and understanding to our stressed and stretched parents. To the parents who attend my playcentre I’m truly sorry for my lack of awareness but I get it now, boy do I get it and I’ll be doing all I can to find ways to support you in your endeavours to support us.
Bronwyn Bay (fatigue fighter)