“Questions of science,
Science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart…”
– “The Scientist,” Coldplay
You know that thing where you’re in something like a trench, a hole, a rut, but you can’t remember how long you’ve been there, how you got there, why you’re there, or how to get out. That’s been my homeschooling journey. Confusion, pain, and darkness have defined my attempts to teach my young kids at home these past four years. So I began writing about it this morning. And now, a few minutes before midnight, this is what has poured out.
I started on the homeschooling path in earnest about four years ago when my son was three years old and my baby was, well, a baby. We dipped our toes in the homeschooling waters at an in-home Montessori program with just a few other kids. Now let me be clear: I am a little obsessed with the Montessori way. I began researching Montessori education when I was pregnant with my first. But what I didn’t know was that full-time Montessori programs range from $8,000 to $12,000 a year. This was not even remotely an option for us, so the neighborhood program we found gave me hope that our son could have Montessori.
The in-home Montessori program was run by a woman we trusted, but did not know well. She had all the necessary credentials, an immaculate home, a calm presence, and a stunning Montessori school room for the kids. It seemed like a good opportunity at the right price, a few minutes from home, two days a week, for five hours each day. It was perfect.
Except that it wasn’t. That day, I received a handful of cheerful texts from the teacher with pictures of our son and a few words about what the kids were doing. He looked despondent at best in the pictures. And that afternoon when we picked him up, he exploded with sadness and cried for six hours until he finally fell asleep. Mind you, this was not tantrum or angry crying, this was gut-wrenching “Why did you leave me in a strange place with people I don’t know” sadness. When I approached the teacher to ask if I could sit in for a brief time in the morning and then slip away at a break, she said no. When I asked if my son could just attend the morning for an hour or so, inching his way toward a full day, she also said no. She had her reasons, but they didn’t work for us. So we pulled our son from that program. It was my first wound in this battle, with a scar I still bear today.
So, I began dabbling in Charlotte Mason and studying Waldorf methods. These approaches emphasized home life, literature, and the whimsy of childhood. This jived with my artist, homebody heart, so we embraced it, spending time reading and creating and playing outside. But chronic illness and anxiety soon took over my life and didn’t relent. In that season, I found out I had a genetic mutation that kept me from absorbing essential nutrients and was also beginning to be diagnosed with chronic anxiety and a mysterious gut disorder. I could get out of bed most days, but my quality of life didn’t allow for much more than keeping my kids safe, clean, fed, and barely occupied. Implementing routine, following curriculum, and organizing field trips all over Nashville was the furthest thing from my mind.
In these years, I would hover over my laptop reading homeschooling blogs, soaking up their positive vibes. I would meet with other parents who were thriving at teaching their kids. I would be a click away from buying curriculum, but something would stop me. I would try out some activity or routine, but my illness or my children’s disinterest or some other obstacle would derail us. For two years it went on this way.
Then in 2015, I dared to peak my head out of the trench I was in. We found a Montessori group in our area and enrolled our son. It gave us the best of both worlds. Some school days apart, some home days together, guidance from a wise Montessori certified teacher, and unparalleled social interaction. My son, now three years older than our first Montessori attempt, quickly took to the group and found his home there. He soared and excelled on the two days he attended “school,” but I still couldn’t find my mojo at home. I was healing and having some better days, but I still found it near impossible to get a homeschooling structure together.
After four years of no structure, floating aimlessly through our weeks, we were a ragamuffin lot. My kids fought, argued, nit-picked, screamed, and got bored far too easily. I was Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Life was depressing, purposeless, going nowhere, and exactly the same every day. I got very little time to myself, which is like suffocation for an introvert. My energy was low, my anxiety was high, and my health was deteriorating again under the merciless stress of screaming, restless preschoolers who never napped, by the way. This was unsustainable at best and I was fading. I had let myself become a victim and that was not my M.O.
As a gentle parent, I don’t scream at, spank, hit, shame, or abandon my very passionate kids who loudly share their big feels. Instead, I try to empathize and be present. This usually dispels the unwanted behavior and they get an emotional reset. But not without great cost to me. In this season, I realized that everyone was getting an emotional reset except me. One of my few pressure releases was to go into my closet, close the door, and scream into a pillow or throw a shoe. This was happening more and more. So, I got counseling.
It was time for another check-in with a counselor anyway and this time I found a child and family counselor who specialized in attachment theory and could help me navigate my struggles as well as shine the light on the issues with my kids. The counseling helped and confirmed the things I thought about my anxiety disorder, but money ran out quickly. I also wondered if I was using counseling as an excuse for not taking action. Going to counseling felt like action, but things weren’t changing. I wasn’t changing. Don’t get me wrong: I love counseling, but in this instance, it wasn’t helping me get out of the trench. And that was on me. Another failure.
With no money, no ideas, and no real improvement in my health, I made another desperate attempt to help my son and myself thrive and heal and grow and be our best versions: we started looking at public and private schools. But, to make a long story short, there was no option that fit our family. If it wasn’t money, it was driving distance, unrealistic admissions requirements, strange belief statements to sign, poor teacher-to-student ratios, or just that gut feeling that I’ve learned to listen to in these mothering years.
“I’m back at square one,” I cried to my husband one late night a couple weeks ago. “What the hell am I gonna do?” I was in the midst of one of my worst autoimmune flares and couldn’t imagine another year like the one before. I was facing down my Groundhog Day existence and couldn’t see a way out of my trench.
In do-or-die fashion and with no thought or pretense, I sent an email to a trusted friend who has homeschooled all her kids using Montessori and is at the end of that journey. “Thanks for meeting me,” I said a few days later, tears welling in my eyes. I had become close with her in the past year and, as we sipped tea and coffee, she shared stories about her homeschool journey with her three very different children. She also encouraged me for letting my son have these early childhood years to be, well, a child.
“But I’m failing him,” I cried. “I say I’m homeschooling, but we’ve never even had one school day at home. I don’t own any curriculum. I don’t know where to start.”
She stayed calm and graceful and began to challenge me. But it wasn’t a hollow, fluffy challenge. And it wasn’t an in-your-face, drill sargeant challenge either. It was a tangible, hands-on list of daily activities that I could not write down fast enough. It was a sustainable, practical, tailored routine for my family that involved enough down time for me. “Trust me,” she said a few times. “You have to stick with it, but it will become like breathing to them. This is for you,” she said with a serious look. This plan wasn’t cookie-cutter. She knew my son well – his strengths and weaknesses. She knew my spicy, talkative daughter, too. And she knew me – the introverted, anxious, artist momma who was healing chronic illness. I’d never experienced encouragement, empathy, and motivation all so beautifully presented. I felt loved and heard and understood, maybe for the first time ever on this homeschooling journey.
In that 90 minutes, everything changed. I felt the shift, down to my soul. My mind did a complete 180. My plans and expectations shattered and new ones formed almost simultaneously. My heart swelled with love for my kids and a deep desire to connect with them rather than just survive them and get through a day. The experience, wisdom, and grace of my friend boosted me.
Bloodied and beaten, I dared to reach an arm up and pulled myself out of the trench.
That was Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, so I spent every spare minute of the next 36 hours plotting and organizing. I gathered supplies and discovered we had almost everything on hand that my friend had suggested for us. Spray bottles, sponges, tweezers, colored pencils, drawing paper, wooden blocks, over-sized geography and earth science books, hole punchers and construction paper and scissors and cotton balls and dozens of other items lay before me on our dining room table. I organized them all in small see-through bins and surrendered my cute baker’s rack to the cause. I then sat by the light of a salt lamp and created a plan for Tuesday based on my conversation with my friend. I felt butterflies in my stomach and then, in the excitement, I heard that all too familiar voice.
You can’t do this, you know. They’ll eat you for breakfast. You aren’t cut out for this. Why are you even trying? You know this is gonna fail, just like everything else you do with them.
I shook my head, trying to throw off the doubts, but they hung around. I made a plan anyway. And Tuesday morning, I woke feeling better than I’d felt in months. I dressed, put on make-up, made breakfast for the kids and me, made beds, tidied rooms, and whisked a cup of matcha tea while looking over my plan. The doubts came again.
The kids aren’t gonna go for this. They’re gonna revolt. You’re outnumbered. They’ve never seen you stick to a routine. Why would they believe you’re going to now?
I swallowed my green tea in one chug, grabbed the Tibetan singing bowl from the dining table, and told my kids I’d be ringing it in a few minutes. “When I ring it, you come find me, ok?” They both nodded, heads down in their bowls of cereal. Then I stood in the middle of the living room. I had no idea what to expect. I was just doing. It was my only choice. I couldn’t worry about this being perfect. I couldn’t think about my failures. I had to act. Now. For my kids. For myself. I didn’t see myself in that moment as making some brave, bold choice. I was just putting one foot in front of the other. But when I look back now, just one week later, it was brave. I dared to have hope. Again. I had the nerve to try again at something I’d been failing at for four years. And I had the cojones to knock out that jackass in my head long enough to let some fresh air and light and truth into my soul.
I took a deep breath and rang the singing bowl. My kids perked up their heads, cocking their ears. Out of curiosity, they came to me. “Let’s each pick out a favorite book from the rack here and bring it to the rug and talk about it,” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking or sounding weird and fake. They skipped off and both brought back unexpected books. So we talked and laughed and hugged for a few minutes before beginning our work cycles.
And wouldn’t you know, my kids loved our day. And I did, too. I was in shock. Our first day with our new schedule and activities and boundaries began a healing process for our family that I didn’t know was possible. But that voice still kicked in later that night after the kids were asleep.
Today was a fluke. This is never gonna work. You can’t do this.
Didn’t I give you a concussion earlier, I asked the voice. He didn’t answer.
So I got up the next day and did it again. And the kids loved our day. And I did, too. I was in shock.
I didn’t hear the voice that night. And I got up the next day and did it again. And the kids loved our day. And I did, too.
I got up the next day and did it again.
And this is what life looks like outside of the trench.