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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Small Game and Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
I have a friend who’s really involved in local clean-up efforts, invasive species removal, and other volunteer projects in our community. She also organizes many of these volunteer events herself. I think this is great. However, she always invites me to help, and I always end up saying no. I work full time and have two young kids, and when I have some time to myself, which is rare, the last thing I want to do is spend it cleaning up trash. I know that this probably makes me hypocritical, because I’m grateful for what she does and I know it’s important. I feel even worse when the cleanup is in the park that I walk through every day. So every time my friend invites me and I say no, I feel like a bad person, and like she’s judging me. Is there a way to ask her to stop expecting me to be as good a person as she is, without coming across like an asshole? Or am I being selfish here and should just find a way to help out?
I have an incredibly strong memory of being, like, six years old and sitting in the back of a car at a stoplight, staring out the window. I made eye contact with the woman in the car next to me, and she gave me the absolute brightest, biggest smile I had ever seen. It felt like getting the best hug ever. It made me happy for the rest of the day.
My point is that there are a million ways that people give back to their communities, and hands-on volunteering is only one of them. Even if you have nothing else to give, you can literally spread happiness by smiling at children. I have a friend who lurks anonymously on social media in order to send encouraging notes to people who are struggling. Others donate to positive causes, check in on each other, stay in touch with lonely loved ones. As for you, you’re presumably raising your children to be kind, thoughtful people. That’s huge!
There are also times in most peoples’ lives when they simply don’t have the time or energy to give back, and that’s OK, too. In fact, that’s what community is for: supporting each other even in hard moments, when we have nothing else to give. You’re in a particularly busy chapter of your life, working full time and are caring for two young kids. This is a perfect moment for the community to be supporting you.
And in some ways, that’s what your friend is doing—by keeping a park clean so that you, your kids, and others can enjoy it. The goal of a public park isn’t to make everyone feel guilty if they don’t help with its upkeep. It’s to have a pleasant outdoor space where people can get outside and come together. As long as you aren’t making things actively worse by, say, leaving behind trash that other people will have to pick up, then you are contributing to the park’s goal, simply by using and enjoying it.
This is all to say that you’re absolutely not a bad person because you don’t have the bandwidth to take on physical volunteer opportunities right now. Not even a little. You’re a tired parent who’s doing your best, and you shouldn’t feel guilty in the slightest.
Of course, there’s still the matter of communicating with your friend, and—as in most situations—being direct is probably the best way to do it. You can tell her basically the same thing you told me: “Honestly, I’m just not in a place in my life, with my work and the kids, where I can spend time volunteering on these projects. I hope you can understand.” If there are volunteer efforts that you would want to participate in, like fundraising drives or a family clean-up day where the kids could be involved, you can let her know.
Also, be sure to express how much you feel grateful for the work she does. My guess is that she’s been bringing these opportunities to you because (a) she genuinely thinks you might enjoy them, (b) she wants to spend time with you, and (c) she wants to feel appreciated and seen. Letting her know that you admire her efforts can go a long way toward making her feel appreciated. (Technically, should we all be doing nice things without wanting to be praised for them? Sure. But people are people, and it’s nice to know that our friends recognize what we do.)
I suspect that as long as your friend feels appreciated, she’ll be understanding. And I also suspect that the same is true for you. Part of the tension you’re feeling might be because you’re working your butt off right now, and when your friend invites you to do something that you’re clearly not up for, it feels like she’s not acknowledging the work and effort that you put into your life every day. Maybe you could invite her to join you on your walks in the park, say, or for another activity with the kids. It’ll give her a glimpse of everything you’re managing (particularly if she doesn’t have kids of her own, and might not know how much it entails). And it’ll help you both with one of the most important aspects of community: staying connected with the people you love.