Recently, I spent some time with a woman musing about homeschooling. She’s teacher in the public schools, and she feels certain she wants something different for her children, who are still several years away from school-aged. So she’s considering homeschooling and wanted to pick the brain of someone who was walking that path. Given the ages of her kids (three and one), her questions wisely aren’t about curriculum. They’re about surviving, and they cause me to think.
One of her first was, “Do you ever want to kill your kids?” This is the less-subtle version of, “I could never do this. It would drive me crazy.” I answered as I always do to that line of questioning: ”I haven’t eaten my children yet.” This extreme question and its equally eyebrow-raising response address what is at the heart of what many fear about homeschooling.
I didn’t set out to homeschool my kids. Four months after my first was born, I returned to work as a physician assistant, although at 20 hours a week. Honestly, I was desperate to return. Yes, I liked my job. And, yes, I loved my son. But having worked up until the day prior to his birth, the world of the at-home mother overwhelmed me. Lonely, unconnected, and caught in the time warp common to mothers of their first child, I knew I’d be a better mom if I returned to work. So until my younger was born, four years later, my then-husband and I walked the tightrope between work and home, and we did it fairly well.
But by the time my younger was born, I’d had enough of juggling an often sick child and unrelenting, family-unfriendly jobs. So I stayed home, with plans to work evenings and weekends when my second got a bit older. Then, I intended to find suitable schools, return to regular work, and lead a “normal” life. But life didn’t agree, and for reasons of poor fit and parental fatigue with schools, we came home in the middle of my older son’s second grade year. My younger son, a challenging three-year-old was in public preschool two mornings a week, which was also a poor fit but allowed me some time alone with my older.
And I didn’t eat my young. Yes, I told this young mother, I yell sometimes. Yes, I lose it. Yes, there are days when the routine of a work day seems far preferable to the relative chaos of homeschooling. But, no, I’ve never really looked back and wished I’d never begun.
“What if I don’t like it?” she asks. “What if I want them to go back to school? I don’t want to fail.”
I explained that we reassess the situation each year, with a sincere reminder that school is fine, if that is what a child wants. I also confessed that I’d threatened a return to school on many occasions, generally saying something like, “If you refuse to learn here, then I am breaking the law having you home, and you’ll have to go to school.” Tears ensue, first the child’s then, generally in the privacy of my room, mine. Those moments are far more a statement about my reluctance to shift my plans when those plans aren’t working than they are about my children’s desire to learn.
But return to school isn’t failure. It’s merely an adjustment in course. School isn’t bad. Bad educational fits are bad, and homeschooling can be a bad fit just as school can be. When I’ve played the return-to-school card at home, it’s almost always out of fear that somehow I am failing — failing them, ruining their future, scarring them for life. In contrast, when I ask my honest annual “do you want to go to school in the Fall” question, it’s not out of fear at all but out of a desire to respect for their desires for their education.
And what if I should decide, for whatever reason, that I can’t do this anymore? Then they’d go back. It has to work for both sides. It’s a line I often give as a La Leche League leader when talking to an unhappy (usually sleep-deprived) new mom: if it’s not working for both of you, something probably needs to change. For some families, return to school come junior high or high school is the desired result. Entry to school is far from homeschool failure. Being miserable while homeschooling indicates a need for change.
“But will I lose myself if I homeschool them?” this young mother asks.
“That’s up to you,” I reply. I certainly know moms who lose themselves. They struggle to find who they are as small, needy people grow in independence and reach out further into the world. But I’ve seen the same for at-home moms who don’t homeschool, women who struggle for their identity once the youngest is in school all day, or perhaps once that youngest reaches middle school, where parental assistance at school is less welcome. In other words, it’s not a uniquely homeschooling issue
I told her how I kept my identity (as more than mom) in plain view: I volunteer via La Leche League, I work (very) part-time (making return to work later far easier), I write, I knit, I make time and space to be without my lovely children. I take time alone, and I make sure I’m still comfortable with the person I find during that time. Yes, being a homeschooling parent is part of my identity, but it’s not the whole shebang.
This young mother asked other questions about finding similarly minded community, managing financially, and losing one’s career, which are also important issues to families considering the homeschooling lifestyle, although their answers are much more specific to the individual. All of her questions are far more important before setting out on a homeschooling odyssey than questions about curriculum, record-keeping, and pedagogy. Those latter concerns have their place, and they are likely ninety percent of what more homeschooling books, blogs, and article are about. This young mother’s questions, instead, were the ones of the heart, the ones that can keep us up at night and fill us with worry and doubt before we even begin. They are the important questions for all of us, wherever we are along our homeschooling path.