The Volunteer Effect

People volunteer for a variety of reasons: some do it because they have infinite amounts of free time and need a way to fill it, others because they truly enjoy helping people. There are the folks who volunteer because they want to change lives, or perhaps as payback for having their own lives changed by a volunteer once upon a time. And there are yet others who volunteer as a way to avoid jail time through community service.

And then there’s me. I volunteer for purely selfish reasons. I volunteer for that sense of appreciation that I don’t get at home from my family.

Maybe this is a widespread feeling amongst busy moms who feel as if their many daily tasks go unappreciated, or are taken for granted. But I have lately felt an overwhelming sense of monotony and ingratitude at home, so six weeks ago I went looking for a way to show I am good for more than just the role of chef, nanny, chauffeur, laundress and housekeeper. And I found myself at my daughter’s elementary school.

I will admit that I did not initially take on my job as volunteer because I wanted to feel appreciated. I think I initially did it to keep myself distracted from the black hole that is my current life. I spend my days caring for my three children, trying to keep my head above water from the weight of bipolar that continues to drag me down, desperately trying to get through my days with the belief that there is likely no light at the end of my tunnel. My husband and I are separated and I do not have the kind of love in my life that used to sustain me during my darkest times.

So when the school sent out a mass email looking for a costume director to help with their yearly school musical, I stepped forward. It was the perfect opportunity for me to spend time with my daughter who was part of the play, it would allow me to be creative, and I would get to be in charge, something I’m definitely not at home. And control is a fabulous feeling.

I admit that I felt some stress when I realized there would be two shows with 118 fifth graders divided between them, and that they all needed costumes. The show was “Aladdin”, which meant costumes for all manner of desert creature, royalty, servants and beggars. Not to mention a genie and a magic carpet. But I was excited. People were asking for my opinions. They listened to my input and actually heeded my advice, something unheard of at home. I felt needed. I felt important. I felt valued.

A couple of weeks ago, my ex-husband suggested I had taken on too much by volunteering for this position. He felt I was maybe in over my head. True, I was neglecting some of my household duties. I was up late every night, sewing and designing. I had a feeling of anxiety at the back of my head, but my overwhelming emotion during the entire process was definitely satisfaction. I felt satisfied with not only my ability to take on and complete a big project, but with the results that were coming together.

Each day at rehearsal, I would show my progress on the costumes to the director, and she was delighted with everything. I heard the words, “thank you” and “you’re doing a terrific job” more times than I could count. My ego and self-esteem soared. When the children finally got to try on the fruits of my labor for the dress rehearsal, they were so excited. And so was I. These kids appreciated me, and were not shy about telling me. They thanked me profusely, and told me I was great. And as a double bonus, they told my daughter that she had a cool mom, which caused her to positively glow.

Last night was the final performance, and on stage in front of hundreds of children and parents, the music director singled out me in her thank-you speech. That has never happened to me before. She praised me for my creativity and hard work, my love for the children and for making her show a success. She pulled me up onto stage and I was presented with flowers. I felt like a beauty queen. Nobody has given me flowers in months. In fact, it’s been months since anyone gave me anything, including flowers or praise. I was overwhelmed with emotion and my heart felt full for the first time in many months. I was valued by the community, even if it was just for one night. People thought I was special, and they told me so. It was wonderful.

And then I went home to my messy house, with my mile-long to-do list and my hungry kids wondering when dinner would be ready. It was a short-lived high, but one I will never forget. I felt important, even if for a short while. I felt appreciated. I felt loved.

Whatever your reasons, volunteering is a terrific outlet for people with mental illnesses. It’s a terrific outlet for “normal” people, too. It provides a distraction from daily life, and it makes you feel good about doing something for others, even if your main objection is to do it to gain something for yourself.

And the best part of all? This morning, my daughter sat down next to me and gave me a huge hug, and told me how glad she was that I helped with her school play. Volunteering is salary-free, but that hug, along with the feeling of satisfaction and appreciation I felt for doing something good for myself and others, was all the payment I needed.