Sunday, February 2, 2014

You could totally do this (or, Why I Am Not a Saint)

Multiplication tables practice.
Hey! So! I sort of keep this "on the down-low" around here, but we've been homeschooling for awhile now, and naturally I get asked about it from time to time. As I don't like to subject the unwary to the spectacle of me rattling on and on about something, I usually try to confine myself to a brief and non-threatening statement about how much we like it. But I wrote the following email to a friend and thought it might also be useful, in slightly edited form, for those of you who find yourselves curious about such things. To the incurious, I release you! Fly away free!

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So, I am concerned and have been thinking about your email. I hate to hear you say you felt like a horrible mom reading about homeschooling—because that's the very opposite of what you should feel!! Argh! It's so hard to express things right. I think about this a lot, because it's so common to have people say something like, "Oh, you homeschool? You are such a saint!" or "You must be so patient; I could never do that; I can barely stand having my kids home for the summer"—or similar statements. And it bothers me—not bothers me in that I'm annoyed, but bothers me in that it makes me think, "That's not correct." I will try to put into words why that is.

First of all, it's NOT that I am putting my own progression on hold and only thinking of my kids, being a saintlike and selfless person. I keep realizing more and more how life is just a series of trade-offs. You just CAN'T do everything you want to do—at least I can’t—so I am constantly shifting around and re-evaluating, trying to keep balance in my life and trying to make sure I’m at least covering the most important things—which keep changing constantly—and I constantly feel like there is SOMETHING I’m really neglecting and should be doing. Once I start doing better on one thing, I promptly neglect something else! But the great epiphany I had was that these things are CHOICES. Like, I could feel frustrated all the time and mad that I can’t do what I want to do—or I can take control and make sure that most (not all, obviously) of the things I'm doing ARE what I want to do—or at least they fit in with what I want to do.

So in other words, I'm searching (along with everyone else) for the balance between what I feel I “should” do—based on the gospel and the culture and what everyone around me is doing—and what I “want” to do—also based on the gospel and my own personality and what is fun and what matters to me.  Some of the “shoulds” and some of the “wants” are unimportant; some of each are also important——but those change based on who I am and who my family is and where we are in our lives, etc.  And that’s why no one should look at me, as someone who homeschools, and think I am doing “more” than they are—because I’m NOT—I’m just doing different things. I can’t speak for all homeschoolers when I say this, because I know some people really do it because they feel they “should.” They feel it is the best thing for their kids, so they are willing to sacrifice their own preferences which would be to NOT homeschool. But for me, it’s not that. I admit I started thinking about it because of some spiritual experiences and promptings that I had, over the course of 6 months or so. And at that point it really wasn’t my preference; I felt like I would rather not, but I was willing to do it if that’s what God had in mind for our family at this time. But then I gradually realized that “homeschooling” had a big component of “arranging my family and my day the way _I_ want it to be arranged” and that was really attractive to me. So I decided we’d just dive in and go for it, try it out for a year and then go back if we didn’t like it, and the amazing thing I discovered is that I PREFER it this way. Again, it’s NOT because I’m selfless and martyrish. It’s because it works with who I am and with what I like and with who our family is. Sure, there are times when I feel like I am sacrificing my own needs or my own time, but EVERY mom does that. The thing that separates me from where I was when we were in public school is not that I’m “more patient” or “more selfless” now—but that I feel like now, I am using my time and my talents in a way that is fulfilling and fun and exciting to me—rather than trying to fit in all the things I “should” do around someone else’s priorities or schedule. And for me that tradeoff is totally, TOTALLY worth it, in fact it makes all the “sacrifice” of homeschool NOT a sacrifice.

I feel like I’m still not making total sense, so let me try to give specifics.

Okay, here is a list off the top of my head of some of the things I wish I could do or think I should be doing.
  • Cooking great nutritious meals, not eating out too often, trying out new recipes to keep things interesting
  • Keeping the house clean
  • Teaching the kids to clean and work
  • Spending one on one time with kids—interviews, dates
  • Helping the kids get along with each other so they will love each other when they’re grown up
  • Playing with the little ones in an educational way, reading to them etc—helping their brains develop
  • Helping the kids become good musicians—piano, singing, an instrument?
  • Keeping the kids physically fit—sports, exercise
  • Keeping myself physically fit, running, lifting weights
  • Practicing and performing the piano
  • Composing or arranging music
  • Writing—poetry, or essays, or anything
  • Being a good friend to my current friends—remembering birthdays, getting together occasionally
  • Making new friends—both me and the kids
  • Having people over for dinner or having fun with other couples
  • Working on my marriage and devoting time to Sam, dates, etc
  • Decorating and making the house look cute
  • Saving money, being frugal, looking for sales and finding “good deals," balancing checkbook, saving for the future
  • Staying informed and involved in the community
  • Looking and dressing cute myself—cute hairstyles, makeup, not “letting myself go” :)
  • Keeping the kids clean—baths, haircuts, new clothes and shoes, mending and fixing old clothes, sorting them, keeping the old ones in boxes to hand down
  • Teaching the kids about the gospel, preparing for missions, "the home is the new MTC”
  • Family Home Evening
  • Free time—unscheduled— “time to be a kid” for the kids so they don’t miss out on the boredom and freedom of childhood
  • Reading great books as a family
  • Reading good books myself
  • Family scripture study
  • Watching BYU football and basketball
  • Watching movies I like with Sam
  • Missionary work/sharing the gospel
  • Personal scripture and gospel study
  • Thinking about and taking care of my mom, and Sam’s parents
  • Keeping in touch with my brothers and their families
  • Going to plays and concerts, enriching myself culturally
  • Learning new things so I show my kids that learning should be a lifelong process
  • Going to the temple, often
  • Fulfilling and magnifying my calling
  • Helping Sam magnify HIS calling
  • Truly listening when the kids talk to me
  • Broadening our minds through travel and having new experiences, getting out of our comfort zone
  • Visiting teaching, being a good neighbor, compassionate service
  • Having more meaningful prayers—couple prayer and personal and family—not letting it get repetitious
  • Working in the yard, weeding, planting flowers, making it look nice
  • Fixing stuff that breaks around the house—I mean, calling the repairman to GET it fixed, or buying the part or painting over the hole or whatever
  • Supporting ward activities and RS activities, primary, passing off scout requirements and hauling everyone to pack meeting etc.
  • Keeping up with doctor’s and dentist appointments for the kids and me
  • Creating and keeping holiday traditions, birthdays, etc.
  • Enjoying the outdoors and the beautiful world around us, riding bikes, hiking, campfires etc.
  • Down time and sleep—relaxing, allowing time to recharge and recover
So, you have a list like that too, as does everyone, obviously. And we CAN’T do it all at once. And I even just wrote things I actually WANT to do and think are important—I didn’t even include things I feel vaguely like I ought to do (family history, volunteering, donating blood, sewing Halloween costumes etc). It sounds clich├ęd and I know you know this, but it was a big realization for me that EVERY TIME I do something on that list, I am also choosing NOT to do something else! That’s just how it is. And you’re probably thinking, like I did, “How could anyone ever take their huge list like that——and then ADD HOMESCHOOLING to it??! that would be crazy."

So, okay, I started homeschooling because I felt it was something God wanted our family to try, and because it intrigued me . . . and I thought it might be fun, after talking to friends about it. But I did really worry, "What about my own time? do I just have to give that up? what if I resent my kids or have a nervous breakdown because of it?” I know those are real issues for a lot of people. But I thought I would never know unless we tried.

And what I discovered, to my great amazement, was that I had been thinking of it all wrong. For us, and let me emphasize FOR US—it would be different for every family, and I know our experience is not universal, and in fact this might not even be true FOR US at a different time in our lives—but FOR US, RIGHT NOW: homeschooling has allowed me to get to MORE of that list than I EVER have been able to before. I am busy, yes, and maybe I’m busier than I’ve ever been—but it doesn’t feel burdening and I don’t RESENT it the way I resented busy-ness before. Because I always used to have this nagging feeling: "we should be having more gospel study, more family time, more quality parent-child time, etc etc etc——and if I was a BETTER MOM then I would be DOING all those things!  If I were more on top of things, we would get up at 5 a.m. to do scripture study; we would have family councils on Sunday; I would go have nightly talks with the kids as I tucked them in every night." I felt like it was so daunting and I just had no TIME for all those things, because the kids left the house at 8:30, got home at 3:30, homework-dinner-bed, and there was nothing left, and I was so TIRED and I resented every extra school project and every PTA meeting and School Carnival and so forth. But I also knew I could have found the time for doing more, if I’d gotten up earlier or been more efficient or more organized—but I just didn’t. I kept knowing I should but I just didn’t.

So suddenly when my time became MY OWN and MY FAMILY’S, I was able to find ways to fit more in, and it was actually stuff I WANTED to fit in. Piano lessons can be during the school day instead of after it. Helping the little kids get along and be entertained is everyone’s job, not just mine. If something feels really out of balance we have the freedom to correct it. Learning and living aren’t separate tasks. We are learning and reading and spending time together as PART of our school day instead of trying to fit that in AROUND it. Half of the stuff I felt like I “needed to be doing” just gets done naturally when our family is learning together and working together all day long!  I don’t have to add it in separately. I don’t feel like, if I miss the goodnight kiss and talk, that I’m a failure because I haven’t even seen my kids that day, or if I end up getting mad or yelling at the kids, that we only had negative interactions that day, or if we miss FHE I missed my one chance in the week to discuss the gospel. It gives me more margin for error! For me, that’s huge, because I am less stressed and that makes me a better mom! It doesn’t stress me out to read books and plan lessons for our homeschool. I love it!! It’s what I like to do anyway! I do get stressed out about it, of course, but not in the same way, because I’m the one making the decisions. We don’t do stupid projects I think are a waste of time. :) And it’s also this way for me to connect with the kids that I not only didn’t have TIME for before, but I didn’t WANT to do it. I’m not naturally a sit-and-play-legos type of mom, or a let’s-get-out-the-craft-box, or a take-the-kids-to-the-Monte-Bean-museum-in-the-afternoon type of mom. And I think a lot of people (YOU seem to be) are so much better at that than I am, and it’s not that I couldn’t have TRIED to become better at it, but I just didn’t do well even when I tried. I would rather sit and read my own book, or do my own project, and so I felt like I was not giving MYSELF to my kids as much as I would have liked to. But if we’re doing a craft project for school? or a field trip? then it has a purpose to me and I enjoy it SO much more, and I get enthusiastic and have FUN doing it. Again, not that I couldn’t have done that without homeschooling, but I DIDN’T do it. But enthusiasm for learning is one thing I do have, and I have always had, so when I get to share that with my kids, MY way, I really feel like ALL of us benefit. 

And of course, I still am neglecting tons of stuff on that list above, but what we are doing is more in line with my priorities and my inclinations, so everything goes smoother. I know there are people that will think my kids are missing out on stuff, but they’re ALWAYS missing out on something, whether they’re in public school or not. By not being at public school they’re missing out on fun class programs, and having other adults that love them, and good friendships, and potentially being good influences on others around them, and teachers who are smarter and better than me in various ways, and who knows what else, and I’m missing out on stuff too. And we had to weigh that when we were making the decision. But they are gaining closeness with their siblings, and life skills and habits that the artificial setting of a classroom with 30 kids all their same age will never give them, and hands-on knowledge, and subjects and skills no school would have time to teach, and immersion in gospel topics, and a love of learning. And maybe that sounds like I think the latter outweighs the former, and I DO think so, but only for us, you know? For other families, the benefits and costs might be totally different. Or other families might be able to fit in more stuff in addition to public school than we were ever able to. And it’s really worth a lot to me to be able to determine what _I_ think is the most valuable way to spend our time learning, rather than being at the mercy of what the teacher or the school or the government thinks is the most valuable thing for my kids to know. In some ways, maybe that is MORE selfish. Or some people might hate it. For me it is freeing, though, and gives me great peace.

And there are still plenty of external things our family has to plan around—church, scouts, choir, homeschool groups, extended family stuff, sports, etc. So it’s not like I get to TOTALLY dictate how to fill our days. But I have a lot more control than I used to, and it’s really made me so much happier. To the point that, again, I don’t feel like I’m “giving up” anything even though I read less, I practice the piano less, I shower less :), I write less than I used to. The benefits FAR outweigh the costs. And I do have faith that I’ll have time for more of those things in a different time of life—my patriarchal blessing says, what I can’t do simultaneously, I can do sequentially. That comforts me. Also I feel like I have been blessed to (often—not always) have more energy and drive so that I can often accomplish more in a shorter time than I used to. I don’t know why exactly, but when I'm keeping my mind engaged and active in working on school stuff, other parts of my “creative self” seem to come to life as well, even more than they did when I had “more free time.” Interesting. And maybe that's just because of what I like and how I'm made, and it wouldn't be true for everyone? I don't know.

And again, I want to make it clear that I realize there are lots of benefits the other way (i.e., in NOT homeschooling) as well. I have been reminded by several people of what we will be losing by doing homeschool. I have worried about neglecting the younger kids and cheating them of their time alone with me, about depriving the school kids of the chance to learn from other teachers better than me, about making them socially awkward, about them missing opportunities like spelling bees and talent shows and dance programs, etc etc etc.  And to all of those things, I just had to accept it: “Yep. They will miss that. Yes, that is true, they won’t get that.” It’s true. Malachi didn’t get the chance to go off to kindergarten in his cute little backpack all independent and proud of himself and sweet like kindergartners are. And I regret the loss of those things, but I think you just have to face the fact that you can’t EVER fit in everything you wish for. Public School vs. Home School is not a choice between “doing something totally fail-proof that I can guarantee will be great for my kid in every way” vs “doing some crazy thing where who KNOWS what the consequences will be!”  And it’s ALSO not a choice between “doing the minimum for my kid” vs “being a selfless parent who gives up everything enjoyable for the good of my children.” You know? I just think you have to accept that there are tradeoffs in everything, and try to inform yourself about what those tradeoffs might be instead of pretending they don’t exist. That is my main regret about the years previous to our doing homeschool. I didn’t ever even think about the tradeoffs at all; I just did the default. And I didn’t think about what other options there might be, and I didn’t try enough to figure out how to be proactive in shaping our family life into what _I_ felt it should be. I let other people and other activities dictate that more than I should, so I regret that. And really, that’s something I need to be constantly working on with ALL the choices I make in life, not just schooling—should I spend my morning, while the kids are at school, exercising or practicing or reading or going to the temple? If I do one of those what will I be NOT doing? And is it worth it?

Anyway, it was really liberating for me to say, “I have never been good at sitting on the floor playing with the baby anyway. So, she’ll get hauled around hither and yon with us while we have our field trips, and she’ll scream in her crib while I help the older kids with a math problem, and THAT’S A CHOICE I’M MAKING because I think it’s the best of the available options.” Or “Any weird habits or social awkwardness my kids develop will now be blamed on me and/or homeschool, and THAT’S A CHOICE I’M MAKING because I think it’s the best of the available options.” Or “The bickering and fighting between the kids will sometimes seem almost unbearable, but dealing with it is A CHOICE I’M MAKING because I also get all the good parts of having them around.”  You know what I mean? We’re just doing the best we can with the options we have right now, and as time goes on we’ll re-evaluate and make sure we are still doing the best thing we can for the situation we’re in.  And you’re doing the same with your kids—you may not love driving them back and forth, or having to squeeze everything in between the end of school and bedtime, or whatever, but it’s worth it to you because of the opportunities and the growth and the tradeoffs that public school provides to them and you. And if it ever STOPS being worth it then you’ll do something different, because you’re smart that way. :)

SO—I have been very long-winded and I’m still not sure I have been very clear. But that’s the reason I don’t like hearing “you’re a saint!” or “I could never do that!” even though it’s very flattering and I’m sure people mean it nicely! :) I’m just a person like you—bungling along, failing at a million things, impatient with the kids, messy house, wishing I looked cuter, trying to keep the spiritual perspective in the day-to-day. I have been LUCKY enough to have a chance at some control over the structure of my kids’ education and our family’s life, for awhile (it won’t last forever) and I’ve chosen to take that chance because I like the benefits of it and I’m willing to pay the costs of it. And you COULD do it if you wanted to, and you would be great at it, but your NOT wanting to does not make you inferior or bad at parenting. That would be silly for you to think, because you are AWESOME and I’m always wishing I could be more like you as a mother.

Love,
Marilyn