The V Word

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By Mel Tibbs

October 5th  2015

When did volunteering become a dirty word?  Instead of seeing it as the pinnacle of human achievement, having time to devote to others without seeking financial recompense, it is scorned as an indulgence or something people are embarrassed to have the time to do.

We live in a culture where being busy is prized above all else.  People will endlessly tell you how busy they are as it equates to two things: how important they are and to what degree they are fulfilling their supposed social obligations.  The political rhetoric of ‘hardworking families’, the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor (or not so poor) has truly permeated all our conversations about how we spend our time.

Not so long ago economists dreamed of a future where mankind would harness the power of machines in order to free him and herself up for increased leisure time. Back in 1930, Keynes predicted that the working week would be drastically cut, to perhaps 15 hours a week, with people choosing to have far more leisure as their material needs were satisfied. That brief reverie was cut short by our sense of what our ‘material needs’ are and capitalism’s willingness to tell us those needs are never really being met.

Often when you are a parent there are little pockets of time when you aren’t needed by your child or children, but that you don’t have the inclination or ability to use in a paid job.  It might be that your baby has long naps, meaning you have a bit of time to yourself, or your pre-schooler is spending a couple of mornings in a playgroup where you don’t have to stay, or your primary school child (or indeed secondary school child) is busy from 9am to 3pm but you want to be there for them after school, during the holidays and on sick-days.  Some people might choose to use these pockets of time volunteering in their community- the opportunities are endless, be it helping the elderly, volunteering for a charity or helping at a school.

This happens, of course this happens, up and down the country for hours and hours every week.  People of all ages and interests giving of their time without expecting payment.  What I think has changed is whether or not one is given social permission, as it were, to feel proud of voluntary work, particularly when one is of ‘working age’.  The implication is that if you are able-bodied and seem to have time on your hands you should be doing paid work.

I have first-hand experience of this having been involved in primary school PTAs for 12 years.  Perhaps I am looking back through my rose-tinted specs, but I can remember a time when it was understood that the PTA was raising funds for extras, but essential extras, for all our children; reading books, play equipment, outings and visits.  Groups of parents would take pride in organising an event and seeing it through to fruition.  Over the past decade, though, the numbers of parents turning out to meetings where events are organised have fallen steadily.   It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day the meetings are held or what day of the week, people are very quick to tell you they’d love to come, but unfortunately they can’t; they’re too busy.  The implication behind this is that it’s alright for ‘other people’ (there are no ‘other people’!) with spare time on their hands, but not for them, the hard workers who can’t indulge in fripperies like volunteering.

Now, everyone has a right to use their spare time as they wish, but let’s be honest about the reasons people are not giving their time.  It’s always possible- with a baby, with a partner working way, with older children, with a paid job- I’ve done, and seen done, voluntary work in all these situations.  By all means people can say they’re not interested, but being ‘busy’ is a convenient excuse for not being willing.  And my feeling is that they’re not willing because volunteering is seen as an indulgence.

This attitude can be transposed onto the two types of not-in-paid-work mothers we’re presented with: the lady of leisure who is so fortunate and well off that she’s ‘lucky’ enough to be able to afford to toil unpaid, and the scrounger, the young, possibly single mum who is just workshy.  The truth is that the majority of us are not represented by these tropes, and even so, women who are ‘ladies of leisure’ or unwaged, young, single mums have every right to devote their time to bringing up their families as they see fit. 

Many of us are managing as best as we can to do what’s right for our families and communities.  There are times during life when we do, and times when we do not, have the time or inclination to undertake voluntary work, but to deny the value of volunteering, to dismiss it as something unproductive or best left to others we imagine have endless time on their hands, is to diminish a great pool of human resources.  Some of the best work done by people is done voluntarily; we should celebrate the times when people are able to do something purely motivated by good will rather than money and not simply assume that someone else will do that work because we are too ‘busy’.  If we all wait for someone else to do the volunteering, it will never get done.

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