This week (1-7 June 2013) is Volunteers’ Week. I couldn’t let this pass without expressing my gratitude for the millions of people who freely give their time, energy and compassion to help others and, in the process, not only contribute billions to the economy but also make millions of individuals’ and families’ lives a whole lot better.
But first, I need to backtrack a little. Last week I participated in a Twitter chat about making time for ourselves as parents. I had blogged about respite last week and, judging by the many comments, tweets and emails I’ve received, this is a pretty hot topic. And whether it’s something we’ve found in our lives, don’t feel we need, or are desperately seeking, it seems to be a subject we all have an opinion on.
I thought I had things to bring to the virtual table when the chat went live. But I am very aware of two things that make such online encounters difficult for me. First I am a new girl on the blogging scene and I am still learning the ropes. But bloggers seriously are the nicest people, so for the most part they help me overcome my insecurities. Until, that is difficulty number two rears its ugly head. My biggest difficulty is fear of difference. I blog in part to connect with others, to find common ground, to feel less isolated. And I do feel much less alone now than I did 8 weeks ago when I started this blog. But then there are those moments when someone says something, meant kindly or innocently, that in my mind, although I’m sure not in theirs, puts up fences between us, between the greener pastures of parenting in general and the wilder terrain of prematurity and special needs childrearing.
This happened during the Twitter chat last weekend when the conversation turned from how we find time for ourselves to making time for our kids. At this point I mentioned my lovely Homestart volunteer who comes over for two or three hours a week, originally to help me get through the especially difficult time when Mr Boo developed infantile spasms, but now to look after Boo to give me a little time each week with Sissyboo to help her with the difficult adjustments she has had to make since her brother was born. Someone responded by saying they wouldn’t be comfortable with such an arrangement. This is completely understandable and, truth be told, I probably would felt the same if someone had told me a few years ago that we would be relying on the generosity of a volunteer in the future.
I left the conversation feeling quite sad: sad that I had been struggling; sad that I wasn’t as self-sufficient as I wanted to be; sad that I needed help; sad, most of all, that my daughter needs help. Sad, if I’m honest, that I didn’t have the luxury of feeling discomfort at the prospect of accepting help.
But after mulling it over for not all that long and chatting about it a bit more with some kind tweeps I got over these feelings and got over myself. I am astonishingly grateful for the help we have and don’t feel ashamed about it at all. And in honour of Volunteers’ Week I thought I’d share just a few of the reasons why I feel this way. I can’t share the name my Homestart volunteer, a wonderfully generous, smart recently retired woman with a long career behind her and more energy than I imagine I will ever have. She doesn’t know that I blog and I blog anonymously anyway. So let’s call her M. This is what I’d like to say to her.
I never thought I’d be writing a letter like this. I used to volunteer myself as a teenager for various animal charities. And I always thought that as an adult I would volunteer again. I am planning to, for Bliss, in the near future. But if I’m honest with you, I never thought I would need a volunteer’s support myself. I’ve always prided myself on my independence and can-do personality. I am lucky enough to have reasonable health and a good job. I come from a loving family (although a widely spread one) and I have some fabulous friends (similarly widely spread). I never expected that I, that my family, would be utterly sideswiped by prematurity and disability, that my beautiful boy would suffer so much in such a short period of time. That the worry and anxiety over his health would see me develop a severe anxiety and depression that would paralyse me and impinge on my abilities to be the mother, partner, colleague and friend I wanted to be. I didn’t realise how fragile my long-won security in life was. How it could break down so fast. How quickly I would morph from the person who always helped others to the one who needed the help of strangers.
As I fought back tears after weeks of no sleep and watching my son like a hawk in case he fitted again during an appointment with a Health Visitor I was told that I should consider accepting help from an organisation called Homestart which helped families with young children who were struggling in various ways. I was reluctant to consider this. I was worried others might be more deserving of help than us. That we would be taking something we had no right to. I didn’t want to admit I was struggling. But I couldn’t fake it any longer. I was in bits and I was too tired to protest to the suggestion.
A regional co-ordinator came round shortly afterwards and explained what Homestart could do for us: provide a few hours a week where I could nap if I wanted (I never did) or get on top of Mr Boo’s medical admin (a part-time job in itself) or just talk through the challenges we were facing as a family. I still felt awkward, but started to feel excited too. She went away to match us with a volunteer. You.
In the days that passed before you came round for the first time, I thought several times about saying ‘We’re OK now. Thanks, but we don’t need your help.’ But I didn’t. I knew I was lying and my kids needed this as much as I did. That’s how I rationalised it. They would benefit from this too. This wasn’t about me being a bad parent, it was about me being a responsible one.
My nerves about meeting you quickly disappeared. As we chatted that first time we met about our families and our shared professional commitment to education I forgot you were a volunteer and started to think of you as the friend you have become.
Your visits have helped in so many ways. You’ve picked me up on down days, allowed me to take a bit of control over a life complicated by the demands of looking after a little boy who needs 24/7 care. A boy who cannot be left to play independently, who often sleeps dreadfully and who is frequently ill. Most of all, you’ve given me time to spend with my daughter, time when she’s not constantly told ‘after we’ve done Boo’s physio’, ‘after we’ve gone to the chemist’, ‘after Boo’s had his bottle’.
You listen to my concerns. You don’t pretend they will go away or diminish their significance. You offer help and advice on local services a d shared ideas for dealing with some of the practical problems we have (like trying to bath a nearly 10kg baby who can’t sit). You don’t judge. You don’t intrude. You just let me be me and offer oodles of encouragement.
I can’t imagine you not coming round any more but can see that day will come. And we will be forever grateful for the help you have given us: a bit of breathing space, a bit of time to attend to the difficult things that have come to us as a family with Boo’s birth. A bit of time just to be.
We needed and still need help. I am comfortable with saying that now. And I won’t feel ashamed about it any more. Moreover, I pledge that one day, when things are better, because I know they will be, I promise to help others as we have been helped. Because I am grateful for all that you and others like you make. And because I know what it’s worth, not just to the economy but to families like ours.
Thank you. The words are inadequate, but thank you.
Links to other Volunteers’ Week Blogs
If you’ve enjoyed this post and want to find out more about volunteering and the CSV’s Volunteer Champions campaign please see this lovely post by the fabulous Dorky Mum.
If you want to here about Volunteers’ Week from the volunteers’ perspective, please hop over to visit Ruby+Lottie where Kimberley has posted a wonderful piece about what the volunteer gets out of volunteering.