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You Just Can't Compete with School Mom Meryl Streep

Photograph by Getty Images

Last week I was lucky enough to see legendary comedian Andrea Martin’s Tony award-winning and show-stopping performance in the musical “Pippin.” Literally, the night I saw her the first act stopped to give her a standing ovation for a song that included stripping down to essentially a bathing suit, leading an audience in a sing-a-long and turning upside down on top of a half-naked man on a trapeze swing while singing.

Martin is the first one to tell you she’s no spring chicken. Backstage after the show, I asked Andrea about the rest of her tour. Turns out, Los Angeles was the last stop for her. “Touring is a young person’s game," she said. "I need a rest.

Not that you’d ever know it by her her impressive-for-any-age energy.

Seeing Andrea reminded me of a story in her new, very funny and brave memoir, “Lady Parts.” It’s about her intensity around school-volunteering nearly 30 years ago when her two sons were 3 and 5. In painfully hysterical detail, she describes all the activities she engaged in at her sons’ pre-school to compensate for her nagging insecurity. Although it’s hard for her to remember how she parented so many years ago, she is certain: “I was anxious all the time. Worried that I was not doing it right, whatever ‘doing it right’ is supposed to mean.”

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Martin moved from Toronto to Los Angeles in 1986 and enrolled her young sons in a small private school, where Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman sent their kids. This only added to her stress. “I would study Ms. Streep as she waved goodbye to her kids when she dropped them off in the morning, and feel that my goodbye paled in comparison.”

To compensate for her insecurities and, in her mind, to help her sons’ futures by sidling up to all the people in charge at the school, Andrea became that woman we all know and, what else, love? The over-volunteerer. You know the one, glue-gun in one hand, bucket and mop in the other? Annoying at first, but once you catch on to the fact that the school basically wouldn’t run with out her, or at least be a lot less festive, you start bringing her kale infused protein shakes to keep her going. Andrea was that woman, and I urge you to get the book and read her first-hand account of all the insane things she did. Until she realized that none of her efforts, from emceeing the school fundraisers to cleaning out rabbit cages, would secure her children’s place in the world.

I was hoping I could use some epiphany from her to get out of making 1,000 latkes for Gideon’s school next month. But other than a little positive PR for Jewish people, by spreading the joys of fried potatoes smeared with applesauce and sour cream, I have no motive.

I asked Andrea what she would do differently with her compulsive need to volunteer, if she had the chance to go back. “I would still volunteer," she told me. "But I would enjoy it! Volunteering allowed me more time with my sons. If I hadn't been [so focused on] the result, how volunteering would benefit my sons’ future, I would have stayed in the moment and enjoyed it!”

Image via Dani Klein Modisett

Given that the holiday season is upon us, that wasn’t quite the answer I was hoping for. If I am to believe Ms. Martin, and how could I not believe a woman who can sing hanging upside down on a trapeze swing, over-volunteering is not a mistake. The mistake is thinking you are going to get something out of it other than being with your child and making his or her educational experience better. The mistake is not allowing yourself to enjoy it.

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Not great news for me. I was hoping I could use some epiphany from her to get out of making 1,000 latkes for Gideon’s school next month. But other than a little positive PR for Jewish people, by spreading the joys of fried potatoes smeared with applesauce and sour cream, I have no motive. Despite the hot oil burns I inevitably get on my hands, it’s a pretty good time. Taking Ms. Martin’s advice, I’m also free to go on countless field trips, read endless stories to school kids, put in sun-soaked gardening hours for campus beautification on the weekends and chaperone the 5th-grade dance three years from now. I just can’t do any of it so that the principal will write Gideon a glowing recommendation for middle school. Which means I, too, have little control over my sons’ future. With all the nervous energy this realization triggers, I might as well volunteer more.

Thanks Andrea, can’t wait.

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