A year and a half after we stopped exclusively homeschooling, I am still processing our homeschooling years and what they meant to me. Tonight I had an opportunity, thanks to a fabulous group of women, to get together with other homeschooling moms (I'm not being sexist; no dads were present) and discuss the idea of sustainable homeschooling and what that term means to each of us. My intent in writing this blog post is not to outline our discussion but to hit upon some of the areas that we encountered again and again as we told our stories, and to further develop my thoughts about the concept.
Sustainable brings images to my mind of agriculture, of business, of harvesting trees and fish, and other areas like that. The overarching concept is not to ruin something so that it no longer exists, i.e., it can be sustained indefinitely. We don't eat so many wild salmon that there aren't enough left to reproduce, so that we can continue eating salmon for generations, for example. If homeschooling is a positive thing, and even though I am no longer exclusively homeschooling, I believe that it most definitely is for many people, then we should want to do it sustainably, so that our families can reap the benefits and mitigate or eliminate the disadvantages.
My concern, which comes from my experiences as a long-time homeschooling mom of a large family and from my observations and conversations with other homeschooling moms, is that a large percentage of homeschool moms are not homeschooling sustainably. Instead, they are burning themselves out. The disadvantages create a vicious circle, a downward spiral, that leads to a mom always feeling worn out, incompetent, and overly stressed. At the same time, homeschooling rhetoric demonizes school, and so the mom ends up feeling trapped.
I didn't realize that I felt that way until the day my principal mentioned at a faculty meeting that she was considering starting an elementary school, and I felt like I had been let out of prison! Words cannot adequately describe that moment. Once that happened, I could not, no matter how I tried, stuff those feelings back inside of me. But public school was not an option. Until there was no other option. And then I tried it, and it was fine.
I heard moms say tonight that they are tired, they don't have time to plan, they have no time in their houses by themselves, they never get a break, they don't have money to hire help or to fund outside activities, that there's chaos frequently, that they have to be everything (teacher, psychiatrist, chauffeur, etc), that their children have special needs that require a lot of time and effort to handle, that they don't understand a certain child...the list goes on.
One realization I had a few years back was that often, when homeschooling moms have an issue and they discuss it with each other, the answer is frequently some additional thing the mom should research or try to do. I remember a conversation with a mom trying to solve all my issues for me by suggesting thing after thing that I could do. The issue is - homeschooling moms don't need more to do! They need less to do!
I already had a tendency to maximize my time before children. I always had something to read with me. I would work on something during commercials while watching sports. Even when I had twin babies and a two year old and had to go out somewhere, I would STILL bring something to read or do with me, even though I didn't have a prayer of ever getting to any of it! I kept trying to get more out of my time so that I could do even a fraction of what was on my plate, when really I needed to do less. The last year of full homeschooling, as I pulled out of the driveway on my way to go teach, I heard the Alan Jackson song "It's Five o'clock Somewhere" with the line, "This lunch break is gonna take all afternoon" and it hit me that I had not planned a lunchtime for myself in my schedule! I had figured out when the children would eat, but not me.
Then it dawned on me that we have a word for that in English: workaholic. Because I didn't have a regular job, it never occurred to me that I didn't know how to take a break. I was never recharging myself! If you don't plug in your electronic device to charge, it will die and won't be able to do anything, and that was where I was headed. That day I forced myself to take a fifteen minute break to do nothing, and it was very difficult. I ended up calling my husband the last half of it.
However, the thing that concerns me the most after the discussion tonight was how many moms feel like they've lost themselves. I completely lost myself in the first nine years of homeschooling. I gave up everything I was interested in outside of my children, homeschooling, and parenting. Starting my first Books and Brownies blog in the summer of 2006 was the first step back to finding myself. Even the title was a step in that direction because I love books, and brownies, and alliteration. Because of all of the above issues: exhaustion, stress, lack of finances, long driving distance, no babysitters, etc., I never did things for myself. That was eight years ago, and I'm still recovering myself. I don't want to see this happen to other moms! There has to be more to your life than being a homeschooling mom.
Being a mother can be all-consuming. Being a homeschooling mom can be more so. Linguistically that makes no sense because if something is already all-consuming, it's consumed all and so there's no more to consume! It's easy to fall into because you are constantly surrounded by everything you need to do, every dish you need to wash, every child you need to spend time with, every piece of laundry you need to fold, every curriculum you need to research, every bed you need to make, every meal you have to cook, every subject you didn't manage to get to today...the list is endless.
In my last desperate attempts at trying to make homeschooling work, I seriously considered renting a house just for homeschooling, so I could achieve some separation in my worlds. My thought was that all our homeschooling things would be there and organized, we would get dressed, pack lunches, and go over there to do our work, and then come home when we were done. I still think the idea has merit even though it would be expensive. When we first started homeschooling, my oldest was friends with a boy who lived in a house that already had a wired workshop on the property, so they used that as their schoolhouse. When we moved into our house, it had four bedrooms plus a den, and at the time we only had three children, so we could have easily made a room our schoolroom. However, my husband wasn't in favor of that idea and I didn't insist, so our homeschooling materials were all over the house, which some would say integrates life and learning, which is true, but doesn't take into account a mother's need for some mental space!
I don't know what will come of the group that met tonight, or what schooling decisions we all will make for our families in the future. But I am elated that people are having this conversation and that there are moms willing to discuss the drawbacks of homeschooling, because I have met homeschooling families who will not admit that there actually are drawbacks! This attitude leaves moms feeling isolated and alone, like they must be doing it all wrong if they're not 100% ecstatic every day to be with their children. If we can have honest discussions about the difficult areas, we can begin to solve those issues so that homeschooling can be truly sustainable.