I realized with great discomfort recently that I’m playing favorites with my children. I know how important it is to treat them alike, having benefited from fair and equal treatment when I was a kid. My mother would count out potato chips so no one child would get more than the others. She’d buy three boxes of cereal so we’d all get a prize. Even if I wanted my mother to love me the best, it was reassuring to know she loved us each the same.
I’ve tried to be as fair with my own children, and had been pretty successful until last fall when they began attending separate schools. Suddenly, I had to choose between fundraisers. I had to decide whose PTO meetings to attend and where to volunteer. Every few weeks, I’d face another decision. Do I give all of the box tops to the child whose school is sponsoring a contest? Or do I dash any hope of his winning by dividing them equally between him and his sister? Do I volunteer for my daughter’s or my son’s school book fair? Can I do both? But if so, when exactly will I get my paying work done? And how the heck am I going to make it to two PTO meetings a month?
I reviewed my activities since September, and realized that I’d given more time to my older child’s PTO. That’s not because I love her best, as she’d tell her little brother. It’s because I’m more comfortable with the group. My son’s PTO is brand-new, and I don’t know the members very well.
I decided to put more thought into how I could divide my resources more fairly between the two schools. First, I budgeted a dollar figure for each school’s fundraisers. If by year’s end I don’t use up the entire allotment for one, I’ll send the PTO a check for the balance. Then I thought about doing the same with my volunteer time. I could set aside five hours per month or 50 hours per year for each PTO. At first it seemed like a good solution, but what if I wanted to serve on a PTO board? I’d blow my annual time budget the first month. I could compensate by running for a position on the other school’s PTO, except I’d never see my kids. Or my husband.
I thought about my husband, who was reading the newspaper in the next room, and realized it was better to maximize my available resources—namely him. I’m lucky to have such a nice balance in my household: two children, two parents. Yet, for some reason, the weight of our PTO activities tilts entirely toward me. I asked my husband if he’d be willing to get involved with one of the PTOs.
He was puzzled. “What do you mean? Can anybody just go? I thought you had to be recruited,” he said.
An image popped in my head of a uniformed recruiter offering me a signing bonus for showing up at a PTO meeting, and I asked my husband if he knows how a PTO works or what it does. He mumbled something about never giving it much thought. Another image came to mind, this time of me laboring away for the last four years on our PTO’s newsletter, the one that’s packed full with information about past and upcoming meetings, cultural arts events, and fundraisers.
“Don’t you read our PTO newsletter? The one that I put together each month?” I asked. But before he could answer, I pictured myself picking it out of our daughter’s backpack and tossing it in the trash before he has a chance to see it. After all, I know what it says. Why let it clutter up the house?
So there I was, caught in my own hypocrisy. I’d been so careful to be fair and equal with my kids. But when it came to sharing their school lives with my husband, I put myself first and left him out of the equation entirely.
Now I’ll be sure to do with PTO information what my mother did with the potato chips, and make sure my husband gets exactly the same amount that I do. In turn, he told me, he is willing to share the PTO burden with me. All things being equal.
Sharron Kahn Luttrell volunteers for parent groups at two schools in Mendon, Mass.