On the last Sunday of every month, my family participates in a rotating work party. We call it Family Work Day, though it only lasts from 9 a.m. until noon.
There are four families involved — eight adults and seven kids, ages 2 to 13. Each family hosts once every four months. The hosts cook breakfast. We eat and talk for an hour or so. When everyone's ready, whoever's in charge presents a list of jobs, and the workers pick what they want to do. We try to steer clear of routine cleaning.
The most fun jobs tend to be ones that require us to work together. Two summers ago, we showed up at Rachel and Jules' house, and they told us we'd be moving their custom-built wooden shed from one corner of the yard to the other.
"How are we going to do that?" we asked incredulously.
"I watched a video about it on YouTube," Rachel assured us.
She had found a couple of skinny metal rods on which to slide the shed, and for the next two hours, seven of us pushed and pulled and pivoted it into place while the eighth parent watched the kids.
At one point, I remember someone exhorting us to "push like you're trying to tip over a police car at a demonstration!" It's funny, because I suspect there was some residual muscle memory of those movements among some members of our now responsible, home-owning, job-holding group.
Together, we moved that shed. The whole experience was exhilarating.
When our friends first suggested we join Family Work Day five years ago, I was reluctant. My partner, Ann-Elise, had just given birth to our son, Graham. "We can barely manage our own lives," I told her. "How are we going to spend one day a month helping other people?"
My resistance crumbled when I realized how much we could use the help ourselves. Like most new parents, we struggled to find time for big projects such as trimming out-of-control shrubs, repainting the kitchen or finishing the installation of the wood floor that we had started before the baby was born.
And our friends are good workers. Some of them are handy with power tools or paintbrushes. One of them has access to a pickup truck. All of them are willing to get their hands dirty. So, four years ago, our family joined the crew. We managed to stay involved after Ann-Elise gave birth to our daughter, Ivy, in 2008, though I think we missed that month.
There have been times when going to Family Work Day stresses me out. At 8:45, I'll storm around the house, getting ready and muttering angrily about how little time I have to myself. How I'm always working for someone, whether it's at my job or at home, cleaning up after a poop accident or making lunch for a whiny toddler. Sometimes I can't contain my frustration.
But I've been pleasantly surprised to find that the best cure for that feeling is going to Family Work Day. If I'm feeling overwhelmed, I can own up to it as I'm eating eggs and beans, or munching on a veggie sausage link, and everyone will empathize, because they feel it, too.
This unofficial parenting support group is particularly helpful because everyone's kids are older than ours. I pay attention to how these parents navigate situations that Ann-Elise and I will be dealing with in time.
But it's not just the talking that I like. The work, in many ways, is its own reward. Do not underestimate the therapeutic value of dusting a friend's ceiling-fan blades. Being able to focus on a concrete task, to zone out while listening to music and not talking to anyone — especially anyone under 6 — is, amazingly, a real treat.
And it's useful. We're helping our friends, and they, in turn, help us. When we bought Graham a new trundle bed that wouldn't fit up the stairs in our house, it was our Family Work Day friends who slid it up our icy driveway one winter morning and helped us hoist it up a ladder and through a second-story window.
Two years later, that same crew pitched in to lower the bed out of the second-story window and pack it into a U-Haul for the move to our new house. In fact, they packed everything in our house into the U-Haul. I don't know how we would have done it without them.
Usually, while the adults deep clean, whack weeds or sort through junk drawers, the kids play quietly nearby. But one of my favorite things about Family Work Day lately is when Graham asks if he can help. I want him to learn the value of work, to experience the satisfaction of finishing a tough job.
And if it inspires him to pitch in around our own house, well, that's great, too.