How to Survive PTA Culture and Mom Guilt

Say No Without Feeling Guilty

Post It notes on steering wheel

If you are like most mothers, every time you say no to a PTA request or a school volunteer opportunity, you find yourself slipping into the deep, dark waters of mom guilt. You fret about what the other parents will think of you for not stepping up. And you internally criticize yourself for not being able to do it all. Worst of all, your worry about how your lack of involvement in that one activity will negatively impact your child.

But the reality is that your volunteering, or not volunteering, is only a small piece of the parenting puzzle and you should not stress over it. In fact, recognizing what you can handle and what you cannot handle is a pretty healthy place to be. It not only keeps you from saying "yes" to something you cannot possibly take on, but it also keeps you from engaging in people-pleasing, which is what often happens when moms are asked to add one more thing to their plate. They want to be liked. They want to be appreciated. But at what cost?

The Problems With PTA Culture

There are plenty of parents who are happy to volunteer without being coerced into doing so. After all, many of us recognize the worthiness of volunteering in your child's school. But the increased need for volunteers and the mounting expectations that parent volunteers function like full-time employees for the school is coming at a time when parents do not have a lot of time to volunteer.

Many parents are forced to say no because of family and work obligations. As a result, just a few volunteers end up doing the work of many. Those who do not have time to volunteer (yet do it anyway) end up living frantic lives filled with exhaustive responsibilities while struggling to keep all the demands of their family and work-life on track.

Perhaps the biggest problem with PTAs throughout the country is that there is an expectation that most volunteer roles will be filled by women. This puts a lot of pressure on moms especially at a time when nearly two-thirds of American mothers are working full time.

When moms are not able to help out, they may feel that they are looked down upon by the PTA culture within the school.

Whether or not this is real or perceived depends on the school. But in the end, moms feel like they do not measure up and that they are not as good at mothering as the moms that are involved.

Another issue with PTA culture is that it often appears like a small, privileged club of moms. While it is true that parental involvement has a positive impact on a child's involvement, not everyone has the luxury of spending time at the school.

For instance, working moms (and dads), single-parent homes and lower-income families often have unforgiving work schedules that do not allow much flexibility for volunteerism. These groups of people have fewer opportunities to get involved and have less influence on their child's school and their education. Consequently, these groups have less of a voice at school. This creates an unfair power structure within the school where the involved parents have more influence than those who cannot make room in their schedules for PTA activities.

A Closer Look at Mom Guilt

All moms, even the ones we admire from afar, at some point feel that they are not good enough. It comes from wanting to do all and be all—an expectation that is next to impossible to meet. Many times, the guilt moms feel is self-imposed. Moms everywhere set a standard that they feel they should be able to meet and when they fall short, they feel guilty. The problem is that most moms set their standards way too high and often expect to accomplish way more than is physically or mentally possible. 

Other times, mom guilt comes from other sources. People use tactics designed to make a mom feel guilty for not doing exactly what they expect. But it is important to remember that this type of guilt is the result of bullying and control. Others will try to use mom guilt to control your actions, shame you and get you to do something you have already said no to. The key is to not give in.

Tips to Reduce Mom Guilt

Developing a healthy mindset and a list of attainable goals is the first step toward dispelling mom guilt from your life. But are there other things you can do to cope with mom guilt and develop a healthier mindset? Here are some suggestions.

  • Turn in the Super Mom cape. Remind yourself that loving your children unconditionally is really the only requirement of Super Moms. So, stop putting pressure on yourself to do everything and be everything to your kids. Your love is really all they need.
  • Give yourself a break. Remember that perfection is not attainable. Accept that you, like every other mom in the world, will make mistakes. And, be honest with your children when you drop the ball. Your children will understand. 
  • Quit judging yourself. Tell yourself that your best is good enough. And don't fall into the trap of comparing yourself to other moms at the school. Focus on your own life and resist the urge to be the hero or the star of the show. 
  • Realize a little mom guilt is healthy. When you feel a tad guilty, this is an indicator that you care about your child and your family. You want to give them the best part of you. Just don't let the guilt take over and control your life.
  • Stay positive. Focus your attention on the positive things you are doing. Instead of beating yourself up when things go wrong, focus instead on what you are doing right. You may even want to ask your kids the same thing. 
  • Laugh at yourself. Every mom makes mistakes. So, don't take yours too seriously. Laugh at your screw-ups. After all, you are only human.
  • Pick your battles. You do not have the time to fight every battle. Spend your time wisely and don't sweat the small stuff. And remember tomorrow is a new day.
  • Rely on your support network. Whether you are feeling guilty about not volunteering or you don't know whether you should take on one more task, it is important to bounce these things off of people who know you and care about you. They are the ones who can help pull you back from the ledge when your mom guilt gets to be too much.

How to Handle PTA Requests Without the Guilt

There is no doubt that schools need volunteers. With tight school budgets and cuts in staff and resources, the demand for volunteers is greater than ever. But if you are like most moms, you also have limited time and resources.

Obviously, the easiest route is to opt-out of PTA activities completely. But studies show that volunteering at your child's school helps him or her perform better. So, how do you incorporate some PTA events into your schedule without getting sucked in completely? Here are some suggestions.

  • Learn how to say no. One of the most freeing things you can learn how to do is say "no" or "not this time" and really mean it. If you are used to saying yes all the time, the first time you say no can feel a little awkward. You may even worry that you will make other people angry. But you should not worry about that. Being able to say no is one of the healthiest things you will ever learn to do.
  • Find a balance. If you really want to volunteer, pick something small that you know you can handle and do it really well. Never feel like you have to run an entire committee or do all the work on any given project. Remember, if you start devoting all your time to the PTA then your mom guilt will switch gears and you will feel guilty about all the time you spend away from your kids.
  • Do not overcommit. Anytime you consider volunteering, you need to think about everything that is going on in your life. Do you really have time for this commitment? Can you balance it along with all your other obligations? If saying yes to the PTA is going to stretch you too thin, it is best to say "maybe next time." 
  • Refuse to give in to bullies. While there are many wonderful people serving and volunteering on PTAs across the country, there also are a few bullies too. If you come in contact with a PTA bully, make sure that you do not allow her to use your mom guilt against you. And remember, "no" is a complete sentence. You do not owe anyone a long explanation.
  • Have fun. If the volunteer work you are doing with the PTA is not fun, you should not be doing it. It is just draining your energy and wasting your time. You should also feel good about what you're doing. If you're not, it's time to spend your time someplace else.

A Word From Verywell

Sometimes mom guilt is the direct consequence of wanting to be a good mother to your children. However, in the end, it will only weigh you down. Be sure you are taking steps to set normal and achievable expectations for yourself and don't succumb to the pressures of doing it all. Making healthy, balanced choices will benefit both you and your children in the end. And, if you are not stressed out and overcommitted you have more time to enjoy your children and your family.

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  1. U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment Characteristics of Families 2019. Updated 2019.

  2. Jeynes WH. A Meta-Analysis of the Relation of Parental Involvement to Urban Elementary School Student Academic Achievement. Urban Educ. 2005;40(3):237-269. doi:10.1177/0042085905274540