When I was in college, I put my name on a list to volunteer working with children at a domestic violence shelter. It was the kind of problem that pulled at my heartstrings and the kind of issues I knew I wanted to be involved with. It would have been a great opportunity … for something. I just knew it was something good to do, for myself and others, and that it was therefore a worthwhile activity.

And then school started, and life got crazy, and getting out of bed for an 11:00 a.m. class became difficult due to going to bed at around 5:00 a.m. I just couldn’t do the volunteering. In fact, I had never started. By the time the group organizing the activity reached my name on the list, and left me a nice voicemail assigning me a date to show up at the shelter, I just couldn’t do it. But I had ducked my head in the sand, hoping the problem would somehow resolve itself, despite the daily warning signs that I was struggling just to get my coursework done well and on time, let alone all the other extracurricular stuff I had piled on my plate (in addition to working a fulltime job while attending my highfalutin liberal arts college … but that is a story for another day).

I left a voicemail for the program coordinator, saying that I had a family emergency and I would be unable to attend my assigned shift — or any future shifts, for that matter. In a way, it was true, if by “family” I meant “myself” and by “emergency” I meant “utter failure to get my life together without feeling pulled in all different directions at all times.”

I still have this problem today: feeling like I “need” to volunteer for a lot of things for one reason or another, and then failing to get the job done because I have overcommitted and taken on too much.

Now, if you google “volunteer” and “overcommit” or words to similar effect, what is striking is that you will almost immediately hit a series of links to articles discussing this as a MOM problem, because it seems that MOMS are especially likely to succumb to the volunteer bug and its attendant need to please: the inability to just say no, for your own sanity, when there is so much pressure to be involved in school, family, work and community “extras” that are nice if you can do them, but usually end up sucking away valuable time you could be using for doing things at home, spending time with your kids, or just NOTHING AT ALL, which is sometimes necessary, although rarely possible.

But I want to look at a different twist to that in this post. Yes, I’m a Mom, and I do believe that this new aspect to my life has greatly exacerbated what I’m now going to refer to as The Volunteer Problem, for the aforementioned reasons. But I’m not really talking about signing up for the bake sale or organizing a food drive at your office. I’m talking more about, as professional working women, our tendency to make commitments such as serving on a nonprofit board of directors, running for an officer position in a professional organization, or attending profession-related social groups in order to keep your name and face involved in the community (e.g., legal fraternities, young women’s networking groups, minority subgroups of professional associations).

From the earliest stages in our professional careers, we are taught that our involvement in professional organizations (e.g., for lawyers, this would be the bar association) and on community nonprofit boards is very important. Professional advocacy groups are important as a way to network: finding a new job opportunity, mentor, or possibly a client by way of referrals. They are also good, at least in theory, for continuing education and training. As for serving on a board of directors, this is a way to advertise to clients and potential clients that you–and the company you work for–care about your community and want to “give back.” It also makes you look well-rounded, because it indicates that you have interests outside of work.

But there comes a point in time when these “extracurriculars” must give way to the overriding obligations of work, or family, or both. Right? This is what I am struggling with right now.

I am actively involved in three different organizations right now. By actively involved, I mean that I do more than just list my membership on my resume – I actually go to meetings, attend events, make decisions, etc.

At this point I was going to provide a detailed description of these three groups, but that would be tedious and I think you get the point: this isn’t the kind of volunteering you do because it feels good, necessarily. It’s volunteering that has RESUME VALUE and, presumably, will help strengthen your career as it grows. People see that you’re involved with the bar association, and they think it means you must be a really good lawyer (it doesn’t). People see that you sit on a nonprofit board of directors, usually an elected position that comes after someone nominates you, and they think it means that you have specialized knowledge pertaining to the work of the nonprofit in question, or that you’re passionate about the group’s mission (this may be true, but more often than not, a coworker or friend got you involved, and you don’t do much other than show up to the meetings, vote on stuff, and pray the meeting moves quickly so you can get home and see your kid).

I was complaining about how much work the bar association is, when all I want to do is focus on my *real* work and not worry about volunteering to chair programs and call potential donors and put together committees, and other unfun crap. A teacher friend of mine, who I was complaining to at the time, remarked that “Volunteering is supposed to be something you do for fun! If it’s not fun, don’t do it!”

But see, I think that philosophy may work for some people, but not for me. In a career where there is no job protection and you must continually prove yourself by bringing in clients, building a professional image in the community, and putting in as much time as possible into your work, it’s inevitable that you are going to have be involved to some extent in professional organizations. And because most of us would rather spend our free time relaxing or traveling or seeing our friends, there is going to be some level of faking it when we say how important these organizations are to us and that we enjoy and appreciate being a part of them.

My husband and others have been telling me to quit my “extracurriculars” for a while now, due to the extreme stress of raising a toddler and working full-time in a demanding career. But I just can’t let go due to the nagging fear that I will be missing out on some fantastic opportunity if I do – – that I am closing too many doors by giving these things up, and I will regret it someday. Then again, with a handful of exceptions, I can’t think of how my professional and community volunteer work has necessarily helped me over the years in ways that justify the time commitment and effort put into them.

Is anyone else a victim of The Volunteer Problem? Or am I completely ridiculous?

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