Back to School: Stay-at-home mom turns volunteer to stop the tears

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When my husband and I greeted our beautiful daughter in 2002 after a long struggle with infertility, we immediately became the happiest and proudest people in the history of parenting.

It was as if no one had ever changed a diaper or given a bath before us. Every smile, every expression, every milestone took our breath away. We had achieved our singular dream! It was an easy decision to quit my full-time job, trading in meetings and business trips for naps, crayons and "Elmo's World."

At musical performances and sporting events, we're the ones recording every moment of our daughter's wonderful, miraculous life. We are the most enthusiastic and supportive volunteers when my daughter chooses an extracurricular activity.

We have cheered like maniacs on the sidelines, attended parent observation days at local dance schools, changed musical theater costumes backstage, lined up little swimmers at meets, chaperoned countless bus rides and sold Girl Scout cookies and raffle tickets.

I went from being a vice president at a public relations firm -- with solid footing on the career ladder -- to a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom. We were fine with a precipitous, shocking drop in my salary. We were OK with giving up our entire living room to create a combination home office for me and playroom for my daughter.

Her playpen and bouncy seat were gradually replaced by dolls, dollhouses, chapter books and bookshelves. For over six years, my lovely daughter and I were together in one room, managing the difficult task of balancing play time and work time.

But there's one thing we didn't prepare for: the annual day in late August when the smaller occupant would leave the other occupant alone to sob bitterly into her keyboard. We never thought of her going off to school every year. While my extroverted, cheerful daughter has always been fine with this annual transition, it has taken its toll on me.

Preschool wasn't bad, just a couple of hours two days a week. Enough time to get groceries or write a quick press release. Half-day kindergarten? OK, a little harder. But still that blissful reunion after only a few hours apart.

But when my daughter went to first grade for seven hours a day -- seven hours! -- that's when I began to experience the September loneliness of the work-at-home mom. I would try to focus on a writing assignment, but my eye would wander to the copy of "Charlotte's Web" left open on the sofa nearby. To her pink notebook, where she had been writing a mystery story just hours before. Where was she? What was she doing? And why was it so QUIET?

I'd cry as I ate lunch alone, folded her little socks in the laundry, or stepped on her singing "High School Musical" dolls. I would call my husband, a blubbering mess interrupting his workday. "Now you can get your hair cut or go to the dentist alone," he'd say, like the most rational person in the world.

It took time, but I eventually found the solution to my lonely work-at-home dilemma: school volunteering! We are lucky to send my daughter to a wonderful Catholic school that welcomes, and needs, parent volunteers. Today, that's me.

Because of my background, I help with public relations and serve on the advancement committee. I chair the Scholastic Book Fair. I am the homeroom mom, the library mom, the science room mom and an ambassador for new families. I am at the school two or three days a week. It makes me happy to see my daughter now and then, and to glimpse her other world at school.

I have also been lucky to meet and befriend the wonderful teachers and staff who look after my daughter every day, teaching reading and algebra while also applying Band-Aids and fixing loose barrettes. They have become my real-life heroes.

Of course, there are challenges. I need to interview a busy CEO? Let me check if that's my school library day. You need to talk about a new brochure on Dec. 18? Sorry, that's the fourth-grade Christmas party. One of my clients thinks I should write and star in a sitcom called "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again!"

But I can't stop. And I don't want to. As I tie the shoe of a first-grader in the hallway, help a student find just the right library book or analyze mud samples on the Pittsburgh Voyager field trip, I remind myself as a mother: This is a club I thought I'd never be in. And it's the best club in the world.


Cynthia Fusco of Ross can be reached at The PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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