“You don’t do any service”
“You don’t do any service,” he told me.
I was surprised by his comment, and not only because it was so rude. It hadn’t occurred to me that my life was devoid of service. As a mother of young children, I felt like all I ever did was serve other people. I worked at a service-oriented job and at home, I worked even harder at childcare and housework—responsibilities so demanding as to make my paid work seem sort of restful, by comparison. I had virtually no “me time.”
I probed. Whatever was he talking about?
He rattled off some of his own service accomplishments as examples: helping out neighbors by giving Mormon priesthood blessings, moving heavy objects, shoveling snow and doing other physically demanding favors.
I don’t do that kind of service and I doubt that my neighbors would want me to. My sex disqualifies me from the male-only Mormon priesthood and my wimpy stature makes me an undesirable kind of volunteer in the physical labor department.
He rolled his eyes at me when I countered with my own list: volunteering as a blogger (“That’s just what you do for fun,” he said); donating blood (“Once every other month? That’s hardly any time at all!”).
I remembered that conversation later when a Mormon woman asked me for advice about what kinds of service for her adult daughter might do while simultaneously caring for her young children. Her daughter seemed burned out by all that child-rearing and hoped that service would be a remedy.
I was stumped. The local elementary school always wanted volunteers, but required them to come without any younger children in tow—a rule that precluded both me and my friend’s daughter. I had volunteered for political campaigns when my oldest daughter was a baby—canvassing while pushing her in a stroller, but that became less feasible as my family grew.
Both conversations reflect common ways of thinking about service:
- Service benefits people outside your own household. Serving your own family doesn’t count.
- Service is unpaid. No matter how much good I am doing for my community and the universe at large at my workplace, that’s not service.
- Service is always time-consuming, usually arduous and probably unpleasant.
- Although service may be unpleasant, giving service is spiritually fulfilling and necessary to be happy.
I have come to question some of these assumptions. Crediting a husband for service when he helps the neighbors, while ignoring the service of his wife who is left to do even more work at home while he is away, seems like quite a male-gazed view of service. I can and do serve my community through my paid work, and I am much better qualified to serve there than I am as an inept unpaid physical laborer. Yes, feminist blogging is an enjoyable hobby for me, but it is also something of a calling, and I believe I have provided service to many people through this medium.
And yet, with more nuance perhaps, I also see value in traditional ways of thinking about service. I believe the world is a better place when people are willing to give service outside their homes, without pay, and even when the tasks are unpleasant. I acknowledge that I could and should do more service beyond my own home and workplace, and I do feel more spiritually fulfilled when I stretch myself to serve a little more. Children are demanding and their care should certainly be acknowledged as service, but I do feel happier when I manage to find other ways to serve, as long as I don’t allow myself to feel guilty because my four little, living household service projects eat away most of my service time.
Giving blood is simple, but it is meaningful service that works for me within this stage of life. There is a blood donation center near my home and it includes a playroom where my children can wait for me. It is not time-consuming. In fact, I am not even allowed to donate more than once every eight weeks, but my service there is deeply meaningful; I am saving lives! I happen to have CMV-negative blood, valuable because I am among a minority of blood donors who can donate to infants. I take this responsibility seriously; the donation center calls me when they have an infant of my blood type in need and I feel blessed that I have been given the gift of being able to contribute.
It’s simple, but it’s service.
*Post Script: Just wanted to clarify that the anonymous Mormon priesthood holder I mentioned in the post was not my husband, for the record.