Time off from volunteering to spend it where it's really needed

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My addiction may look benign. I am not hurting anyone and what I do is not only legal, it's encouraged. I am a volunteer.

I volunteer at my kids' schools and scout troops, church, political campaigns, and other causes, including environmental, community, and human rights. I volunteered in various capacities, from chairwoman to classroom aid to general gofer. I have attended as many as six volunteer meetings in a single week and still yearned to do more.

Charitable work is a noble obsession, but I have begun to question my priorities. Do the world's needs outweigh my family's desire to have me stay home more?

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I began volunteering in third grade as caretaker of the kindergarten's rabbit. In junior high school, I helped fourth-grader's learn to read. By high school I stuffed envelopes for a presidential campaign. College in the '70s was full of political movements happy to help my volunteer spirit bloom.

But it was parenthood that sent me over the top. Adding school volunteering to an already bursting agenda of meetings took me into the danger zone. I was now volunteering sometimes several times a day.

It probably would have gone on if it weren't for a casual comment made by another mom. A group of us were chatting. It was our third school meeting that week and the conversation turned to our other volunteer work. Soon we were comparing schedules. One woman lamented that we spend so much time in meetings, we have little time to be at home with our children.

Her statement knocked me off my do-gooder's pedestal. I was spending only a few hours a week with my family, most of it at the dinner table. After dinner I went to meetings and by the time I got home my kids were in bed.

My husband, Alan, had complained about my compulsive volunteering for years, saying I gave more to others than I gave to my family. Although my intentions were good, I realized I had gone too far. Spurred on by my long standing dislike for people who take, but don't give back, I allowed a virtuous pastime to turn into an addiction. Although my sons' elementary school required parents to volunteer 10 hours a month, I did 40-plus hours in one month alone.

Slowly, with Alan reminding me that it was OK to say "No," I began to change. How much, depends on who you talk to. The other night when I told Alan I was enjoying life as a reformed volunteer, he quickly counted off my four volunteer positions. Only slightly deflated, I pointed out that I no longer attended weekly committee meetings. I even have an occasional week with no outside commitments.

In my search for a balance between my family's needs and my need to volunteer, I have found one truth. No matter what I do, I am always torn. When I spend night after night with my family, I feel guilty for not volunteering. When I volunteer I feel as if I am short changing my family.

A recent turn of events has led to a partial solution. This year, instead of fighting my need to give away my free time, Alan has joined me. We found a joint cause and joined the same committee. Now we attend meetings together. Maybe next year I will get my kids started on volunteering. Then we can save the world as a family.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to home@csps.com, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

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