I have a hard time accepting the compliment when people tell me I’m a good mom, because like most mothers, I’ve made a lot of mistakes on my journey as a life learning parent. Although they’re getting fewer and far between, there are still days when I wake up and want nothing more than to be able to drop my kids off at school for the day so I can have time to myself. There are moments when I still yell, bargain and manipulate my children (think Italian mafioso mom with a dash of Irish Catholic guilt) without really considering the consequences. And yes, I occasionally lose patience and succumb to some form of testing, persuasion and reward system to ease my doubts about whether my children are learning “the essentials” according to someone else’s timeline. There are days when no, I don’t feel like Googling Genghis Khan or watching a Youtube video on how to make sand mandalas.
Those days, when I resemble more the mom I used to be, are not proud days, but they are nonetheless important. They are days that whisper, “hey, you, Ellen, yeah you, what’s the deal? What’s going on with you?” I’ve learned to recognize them as a warning sign to look at external factors that may be playing on my old insecurities. Did a family member or friend directly or indirectly criticize our unschooling choices? Am I just having a bad writing day? Perhaps I’m experiencing diploma envy, prom picture nostalgia or sports achievement angst brought on by seasonal Facebook status updates. You may laugh, but these can trigger my insecurities and doubts more readily than I’d like to admit.
You see, I’m still a work in progress. Even after three years of life without school, my days are filled with a wonderous, magical element of utter admiration for my children and their passion for learning . . . and all the nagging projections that go along with it. But I embrace the whole package. Because it isn’t just my children who are going through life as unschoolers. I’m right there with them, observing, probing and gently examining all the encoded messages I received as a result of my own formal education. My sense of worth as a human being, the way I think about intelligence and creativity, my definition of success–I’ve had to turn it all upside down and re-examine it from an entirely new perspective and ultimately decide what I want to keep and what needs to be thrown away in favor of my children’s best interests.
The circumstances which led us to homeschooling and eventually unschooling were so unexpected and foreign to my previous way of parenting that I literally had to reprogram myself and face some hard facts about myself and my own deeply moored ideas about education. Truth be told, if you had told me when my children were babies that several years later we would take them out of school and allow them to choose their own learning path, I would have said emphatically, “right, and they just found Jim Morrison alive and well in Bangladesh.”
When my children were babies, I was busy stressing about how to get them into the “right” school, prepping them, like all the other mom’s I knew, with Baby Einstein videos, early learning games and getting them on a schedule so they would be acclimated to the waking, eating and sleeping schedule dictated by school. And yet here they are, at 9 and 10, living and learning in a way I had no idea was even possible just a few short years ago. Which just goes to show that we are all able–armed with courage, guidance, information and conviction–to make our own choices and take steps towards liberating our children from the educational box. But first we have to be willing to take the risk.
I remember my freshman year in college writing an essay for English class on how I would define myself and what my college goals were. I distinctly remember writing that I was Catholic, a Republican and that I wanted to major in Political Science with an emphasis on Cold War politics in hopes of becoming an International Lawyer. The professor gave me a C on the paper because, while he said it was well written, I hadn’t answered the question which made up the second half of the essay: What factors have contributed to how you define yourself and your goals?
No one had ever asked me that question before and I didn’t have the answer. So I left a glaringly empty half-page of clean white space. The fact was, until that day, I had never thought about why I believed the things I believed or wanted the things I wanted. I was Catholic because I was raised in the Catholic church. I held conservative political beliefs because my parents were Republicans. And law was certainly a nobel and successful profession. The list of never-questioned beliefs went on and on, and as I began to think about how I defined myself, I realized what a gift that unanswered blank page was. I had the right and the responsibility to ask questions and inform myself. And I had choices. It was O.K. for me to be different.
I did a lot of soul-searching as a result of that unanswered question, and the difference between the assumed version of how I defined myself and what I really believed when I allowed myself to answer the questions was vast and liberating, night and day. Whether we’re talking about education, spirituality, politics or any other belief system, ultimately it isn’t about those beliefs being right or wrong. It’s about making informed choices that are in line with who we are and how we want to live our lives. It’s about allowing ourselves to fill in the blank page.
When those decisions fall outside the expectations of others or play on our sense of “should,” they can be challenging and even stressful. As parents, we may have chosen unschooling with purpose and conviction, but for most of us, we still have to go through the adult process of sifting through our own educational beliefs and asking ourselves some hard questions. In the midst of all the joy and wonder we witness and share with our children, we may still have days filled with doubt, fear and impatience about the unschooling process, the unpredictable nature of it and/or how others perceive our choice. When that happens just remember that, like me, you too are a work in progress, which is just another way of saying you’re only human.