This is the time of year when my email inbox becomes full of “invitations” for me to volunteer. We have our children in two different schools, with different ways of doing things. And there is a steady stream of electronic missives with subjects lines like: Fall Festival, Donuts with Dad, and Pep Rally. Which has got me thinking, aren’t women in my neighborhood thin enough? Why can’t we have donuts too?

It also has me wondering if I am the only mother completely overwhelmed by the onslaught of participation asks. It can feel that way. Is everyone signing up to bring ziplocks for leaf gathering? Okay. Yes? Is that a yes? Oh, right! Of course! Yes! Me too! Now, where do I find Fall themed ziplocks again?

Sweet Jesus, take the Target cart.

In a brilliant piece from McSweeney’s titled, “A Few Reminders From Your Child’s Third Grade Class’s Room Moms,” writer Kate Washington nails the ubiquitous beginning-of-the-year email. Fictional “Room Moms” Patty and Mary Louise tell all of the parents (bcc’d, obvs) exactly how to get their you-know-what together:

Volunteer in the classroom! You might have thought since fall is here you could finally get something done without your kids underfoot every day, but it’s really not that hard to prioritize your sweet babies! And seriously, Mrs. Webber needs all the help she can get with these 33 little ones crammed in the classroom, so carve out time in your calendar to volunteer at least one (1) time a week. You can always flex that guilt muscle instead of hitting the gym, are we right?! And no excuses from you ladies with “jobs” — there’s no work more important than your child. (Confidential to Denise, surely you can’t be the ONLY pediatric neurosurgeon in the tri-county region?!) Patty will have the sign-up sheet for classroom hours at pick-up and drop-off every day — if you miss her, don’t worry, she’ll track you down!!!

These days the whole “school volunteer” thing feels very black-and-white for me. Either you look like a volunteer mom or you don’t. From my sideline observations, there appears to be a uniform: yoga pants, amazing hair, good makeup, SUV. Try as I might, I can only nail 1 of the 4 on any given morning. But never all at the same time.

And also, volunteering requires me to smile more than is in my nature.

This is a real problem for me because I have RMF (Resting Muppet Face), I over-gesture with my giraffe arms, and my hair always sticks up.

Unfortunately, not having the look down does not keep you from trying. I will have heart pounding anxiety over a Sign Up Genius email along with every other Sandra, Donna, and Mary out there. WHO WILL BRING THE ZIPLOCKS, DONNA?

Back in the 80s, my mother almost never signed up to volunteer. Once, when I was in third grade, the teacher asked my mom to come and read a book to our class about Christmas. This was public school in Mississippi, so naturally we just pretended like everyone was a Baptist.

My mother, a huge advocate for the separation of church and state, told the teacher she would be happy to read a book about Chanukah. Not only did she read a story about a Jewish girl growing up in Louisiana (the critically acclaimed, Toby Belfer Never Had a Christmas Tree), she made the entire class latkes. A decade later, when I was a senior in high school, one of my classmates casually mentioned that I was Jewish and I was like, “Nope. Christian.” And he was like, “But remember how your mom taught us about Chanukah in elementary school?”

Mom didn’t volunteer much, but when she did, she did it with gusto. And she obviously did only what she wanted to do. I honestly don’t remember being sad my mom wasn’t the #1 volunteer. I remember thinking my mom was a good mom. Because she was my mom.

And I suppose that is the lesson here. Honestly, I’m writing this more for me than for you: We do not have to volunteer in order for our kids to love us.

We live in a world where other people’s affirmation of us is everything. It makes sense that we would also want our children to think of us as “good people” who volunteer for loads of things. But the insane thing about our kids is that they already think we are good people, regardless of if that’s actually true. And they just want us, which is not the same thing as volunteer.

They want us at dinnertime, us to help them with homework, us to tell them that they will make friends and to assure them they are good at catching lizards. And in the middle of the night, when their small feet are cold and the dark is just too dark, they want to crawl in bed with us. And so we sleepily raise the blankets and tell them it’s okay. There’s no email response in those moments. No volunteer form to fill out. No one sees it happen. But there is great love. And while it seems impossible to believe our children love us because God made them that way, isn’t that a miracle?

In the autumnal panic and hurry of “doing it all,” I’m praying for a brief pause to ask myself why I am signing up. Because if the answer isn’t love or joy, I’m fresh outta ducks. This does not make me selfish or a “bad citizen,” it makes me painfully honest that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, but only the things that He has chosen to strengthen me for.

I know we need volunteers. I work at a church for God’s sake. But I’m also a mom and I desperately need some perspective. Kids want us, not the shiny halo version we try to project. Do you want to be a Room Parent? Great. Do you want to educate a group of small children about the wonders of Judaism in small town Mississippi? Have at it. Do you like Donuts?

I do. This fall I volunteered to pass them out to neighborhood fathers at my kid’s school. And then scarfed down two myself. Because I love my kids. And I love donuts.