Well friends, we are about 1 week out from baby #5’s due date, and I’m in the final stages of planning for the days ahead. The fourth trimester is always the toughest for me (total transparency: I love babies, but the new baby stage is just not my fave), and I find that I need LOTS of encouragement and affirmation to keep going when we’re in the thick of adjusting to our new family dynamic. Yes, having a freezer full of meals is great, and having family here to help with big kids is amazingly helpful, and I really can’t complain at all about my husband’s amazing paternity leave perks. But…postpartum mental health is a HUGE priority for me as a homeschool mom, and without a fair amount of planning ahead, it’s easy to let that one fall by the wayside. And friends, I’ve determined that this time around, mama’s mental health is non-negotiable.
In the last six months, I’ve had countless conversations with my homeschool mom friends about what we’re working on, and we’ve all been united in our search to do better for our kiddos. But we’ve also all been in tough seasons with things like moves, changing family dynamics, sick parents, lost jobs, new jobs, illnesses, or just feeling like our current homeschool setup isn’t working. It’s easy, especially in the midst of searching for resources to improve our homeschooling, to feel incredibly inadequate as a home educator. I see these beautiful instagrams of moms out in nature with their children, making constellations out of marshmallows and toothpicks, at kitchen tables covered in explosive science experiments in front of beaming children who are in awe of the wonders of home chemistry, and I can’t help but feel like somehow I’m giving my children the short end of the stick. My squad doesn’t have beautiful penmanship, they haven’t mastered any musical instrument, and they don’t exactly seem to be future champions of the National Spelling Bee. What kind of homeschooler am I??? And don’t forget my favorite non-encourager: the dinnertime chat with dad. You know the one I mean:
Dad: “What did you guys do in school today?”
Kids: “Oh we didn’t do school today.”
Dad: looks at Mom
Dad: *changes subject
Mom: *rapidly explains everything children have learned over the last 72 hours as if defending doctoral dissertation.
It’s painful. But it’s also a good reminder that we’re programmed to see a specific kind of progress, and if we want to give ourselves credit (read: feel good about) what we’ve accomplished, we have to know what we’ve accomplished. And it doesn’t hurt for us to tell our kids what they’ve accomplished too. In the hard times, when school doesn’t come as easily, and when we’re having to spend more time nurturing or healing or focusing on different priorities, it is vital to remember what we’re working on, and to recognize our progress on those things.
This week we got the sweetest letter from my oldest daughter, who, if you haven’t followed our journey, is on the autism spectrum and has recently moved to live with her dad full time, 15 hours away from us. We miss her terribly, but she’s living her best life in an amazing environment for her. And occasionally we’ll get fun little surprises from her, like the gem pictured here. She never loved homeschooling- she just needs the structure and predictability of a traditional school environment- and it shows in this little letter to her sister, which also serves as an amazing reminder to me. Note the schedule, the suggestion of a special building for homeschoolers, and her suggestion that “all teachers” use the schedule she laid out. Bless her. She doesn’t get the whole homeschool concept. But then again, sometimes, neither do we. When that uncomfortable dinnertime conversation rears its ugly head, I’m reminded that even my little homeschoolers think “doing school” means sitting at desks, following a schedule, and writing in workbooks. It’s true- for some families that is definitely what school looks like, at home or in a different environment. But for my family, most days, it’s just not. And especially in the hard days, when new baby wants to nurse around the clock, or you’re running back and forth to see a sick parent, or the contractors for your home renovation cannot seem to make it through one hour without needing to review something with you, school needs to take on a different look, and that’s okay.
So what’s a tired, stressed-out, inadequate-feeling homeschool mom to do? Well, here’s my go-to approach that helps keep the negative thoughts at bay, without neglecting the duties befitting a home educator:
- Set general goals, and write them down. I know the usual mantra for goal setting is to make them both measurable and attainable, but this is more of a guiding principle than that. For me, general goals are things like “read together every day,” or “complete math workbooks 1 and 2 by New Year’s.” My four year old is really big on reading right now, and we set a goal for him to learn 100 sight words by his birthday (which is around Thanksgiving). My nine year old is really struggling with multiplication tables, mostly because she’s bored by them and would rather use a table, so her goal is to have them all completely mastered by the end of the year. Both of these are things I can help them with at any point in my day, and if the kids know to expect to do 15 minutes of practice at some point every day, we don’t have a ton of fighting about it.
- Give yourself freedom in your goals. As an unschooler, I don’t follow a curriculum, and I don’t have set lesson plans other than what I myself create, which is gloriously freeing in and of itself. But before I gave myself permission to take this kind of freedom, I definitely felt overwhelmed by the mountain of tasks to accomplish each day, and the fear of letting things accumulate because we just couldn’t get to everything only made me feel more like a failure. In the hard times, be realistic. Look at your goals, and decide if all of them are absolutely vital. Do you really have to do penmanship every single day? Is that science experiment going to shrivel up if you wait for another opportunity? What if instead of doing speed drills you laid in bed and reviewed flash cards together? The hard times are no time to be a hero. Remember, martyrdom seems great until you realize the martyr is dead.
- Do establish non-negotiables. Give yourself a few things that you can be 100% sure you do accomplish every day, even if they get done while you’re rushing to get dinner on the table. For us, it’s reading together. For some families, it’s time outside, or music, or Bible time. Whatever you decide on, make that a priority every day so that you, your children, and your spouse see it as a predictable opportunity to grow every day. We read our history from Story of the World in the morning, and we read a chapter or two from a children’s novel after lunch every day, no questions asked. To keep myself encouraged in the hard times, I choose novels that I loved as a child- we just finished Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and will start The Railway Children when baby gets here. These moments feed my soul and keep us grounded in routine. They also give us something to look forward to when the morning multiplication review and sight words are giving us heartburn.
- Don’t be afraid to change your standards. Like every other homeschool mom, my goal was for my children to have perfected New American Cursive by second grade. And truthfully, my daughter does have beautiful cursive when she tries. But…I also recognized that I don’t have it in me to sit and review pages and pages of cursive practice, nor do I (if I’m being super honest) see the value in spending that much time on it when things are hard. So we switched from cursive/penmanship to typing. That’s right. (Homeschool moms everywhere are cringing as I write this.) But it’s true. I adopted a typing game into our daily schedule and haven’t looked back. My kids have been on a technology timeout for the last few weeks, which happens quite a bit in our house, mostly because no one has any respect for boundaries and screen time makes us all jerks. (Please tell me we’re not the only ones.) But…when new baby gets here, rest assured the computer will come out of sleep mode and the typing lessons will return, and I’ll have a beautiful 30 minutes of schooling that requires very little from me.
- Talk to your children about how things are going. Hard times are hard for everyone. I underestimated how hard it would be for my kiddos to adjust to this move, and I’m sure I’ll do the same for the changing family dynamic with new baby. Having regular checkpoints to ask how they’re feeling is a great opportunity to learn how to deal with fears, stress, and changing relationships, and these skills are worth their weight in gold. Shielding kids from hard times is one thing, but growing with them through hard times is something else altogether. There’s no better feeling than walking away from what was an explosive argument with your tweenager having realized you were both just stressed and worried and lonely, and that now you know you have each other.
- Remember that practical lessons are lessons. No, I’m not going to say the grocery store counts as math (but it does). Things like using a planner or a to-do list, writing the dinner menu for the week and the grocery list to accompany it, balancing a checkbook, unclogging a toilet, changing the furnace filters, getting stains out of clothes and properly sorting laundry, checking the car’s oil and tire pressure, paying bills…these are all great lessons that shouldn’t go unnoticed. My daughter learned from our plumber how to shut off water valves in running toilets and how to adjust the hot water heater so we don’t scald ourselves. My sons learned from our contractors how air compressors work to shoot nails into shoe moulding. When I prepare for our family’s weekly budget meeting, I review how we spent our money with my daughter, and we look at upcoming expenses together. All these things are legit lessons that didn’t come from a lesson plan, but that will prepare them to be independent adults. And that’s the ultimate goal anyway, right?
- Be kind to yourself. Even when times are hard, taking care of yourself should be a non-negotiable. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to meet your needs. If you need quiet time, take it. It’s hard when babies are crying and toddlers are demanding a sandwich shaped like a little bear, but you owe it to yourself as a human being with needs to set aside time to recharge your batteries. For me, this is morning coffee (iced, and usually fixed by my oldest cutie), scripture reading, and yoga, and it’s non-negotiable. The tv goes on for the kids, and the baby may be in the room with me nursing through the scripture reading, but I will absolutely have 30 minutes of solitude every morning, no matter what. Protecting this time has become the saving grace for me in times of struggle, because it reminds me that I’m a person whose needs are valid, and (especially in times of prayer and meditation) I’m not alone.
- Don’t forget why you’re doing this. It (hopefully) isn’t for the instagram-perfect daily digest of home education. Most of us are doing this because we feel led to teach our children about the world in which they live, without the boundaries or influence of some other model of education. For me, I homeschool because I have always loved learning, and I want that for my children. I want their education to be the spark that ignites a lifelong pursuit of thinking and questioning and challenging and learning all about a world that is much bigger than they can even imagine. I want them to be independent and successful adults who lean on their knowledge and their kindness to make the world around them a better place, and I don’t need to hit every item on a lesson plan in order to do that.
That’s it friends. Pretty simple. Note that I didn’t list things like taking field trips or making time for playing in groups- that’s because I’m an indoor cat and in the hard times I prefer to snuggle up in my house and hibernate. But the heart of this isn’t to do your school the way anyone else does- it’s to do it the way you need it to be. You’re the boss. You write the rules and you create the atmosphere- so make it suit you. The kids will be alright, because they’re learning at home with the best teacher for them- you! Here’s to getting through this one day at a time, and coming out on the other end happier and healthier than ever.