Volunteering anxiety: A complex parenting challenge

Where do I go? What do I say? Who else will be there? Do I really have to do this?

“What do you want me to do?”

Recently my eight-year-old daughter came home from school and asked if I would volunteer to do something-or-other for her class. It was difficult to suss out exactly what she wanted me to do, so I said I’d consider anything that would fit with my schedule, but I’d need to have something written down so I could fully understand what I was committing to. As foreseen by my Machiavellian brain, no such written request ever materialized, and I was free to avoid being a good person.

A good person would have gone to his daughter’s teacher, who is already too busy for words, and said, “Hey, my daughter says you need help with something. What can I do?” A good person would have already known what the needs of the class were and volunteered ahead of time. But a good person would not have crippling anxiety when it comes to not knowing the exact expectations of me in a social situation.

I want a FAQ page before attending a party. What is everyone wearing? What types of people will be there? Will people be fashionably late or will people be on time? It doesn’t matter that I actually thrive in situations where I don’t know what’s going on. It doesn’t matter that I have the natural empathic sense of a half-Human, half-Betazed. I still want the full briefing.

This is especially true if what is asked of me requires any sort of action. A phone call to ask a question about an unsure situation? Delay for months. Asking a teacher about volunteering for an unspecified thing? I might as well figure out who my kid’s high school teachers are going to be so I can start working up the inertia.

But, as I said, once I’m actually in a situation full of unknowns I’m awesome at it, at least where I can see where I can contribute to reducing the chaos. Giving orders to strangers when I have authority to do so? No problem. Being part of a crowd that someone else really should be organizing so we get our pop-up pizza more efficiently? I’m a complete mess.

Being one of a few adults in a room with children? Instant authority. It doesn’t matter if they actually listen to me; it’s enough for me to know that I am empowered to be in charge that, once I’m there, there’s no anxiety. But getting there? I’ll have to check in at an office with adult humans in it. I’ll have to sign in. I might have to make small talk. I might say something stupid, like “You too!” when “You too!” doesn’t fit the context of the conversation.

So, I’ve started out slowly. My first school volunteering experience was under highly controlled circumstances. My elementary school puts on musicals and they need lots of volunteers. A friend of mine, who is father of one of my daughter’s friends and has been volunteering at the school for years while his older daughters attended, runs the lights for the performances. I signed up to be his apprentice.

I knew next to nothing about stage lighting. Now, I know almost next to nothing, but at least I know how much electricity each circuit can handle and where the school’s breaker box is. But I gave myself one job with one boss. I’m here primarily to help with this one thing, and take orders from this one person. It is remarkably calming for my expectation anxiety.

And while I’m there, I can process what else is going on and step in to help where I’m needed. Obviously that other parent lifting that heavy thing would appreciate my help lifting that heavy thing. Obviously that kid should not be on that ladder. I should tell him to get down.

I know that all of this anxiety is completely in my head and that even in the most socially awkward situation imaginable, the school would be happy to have as much help as I can give them. But it’s my irrational anxiety and I’m glad I’ve gotten a good start instead of just hiding at home under my protective blanket.

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Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the father of two daughters (ages five and eight) who lives in Northside Richmond. He and his wife Kat are trying their best to not raise sociopaths.

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