Women’s Work: Homeschooling as a Feminist Act

Contributed by Jennie Marable

I am a pretty lightweight internet patroller and my searches for discussions about homeschooling as a feminist act have come up pretty empty, but I was hopeful that was due to my net-illiteracy, not because homeschooling and the principles of feminism are impossible to reconcile. Even though I exist in the ether–I blog, and belong to various homeschooling message boards– I’m not on Facebook, or anywhere else, for that matter (sometimes I wonder if that’s where the homeschooling feminists are; on Facebook, though I have my doubts), so if anything is going on in other social media spaces, I dunno. I usually get my good web-sourced information secondhand through internet-loving friends, but none of my internet-loving friends are homeschoolers, so they aren’t blowing me up with links on the subject. In all honesty, I don’t have any homeschooling friends, period–just a lot of acquaintances. I struck out at the library too. In all of the endless books about freeing children from the yoke of public school oppression, and raging against the machine, I found precious little about the really, really sticky questions raised by the choice to stay home with your kids–stay at home for a long while.

Anyway, crickets. From these thousands of people who had opinions on EVERYTHING regarding parenting and schooling and householding– nothing. It made me feel so alone. Thousands of people, most of them women and not one wanted to talk about the crazymaking of trying to reconcile a desire to live by principles of gender equity, with the reality that you are (maybe), by yoking yourself to home, hearth, and child, dismantling all of the gains made by the women’s movement in pursuit of…or, for real?– I just wanted one other woman to come forward and say “I chose to do this, I LOVE doing this, but sometimes THIS–this is some bull****.”

Despairing of finding answers in the vast, anonymous universe of the internet, I started a thread on a homeschooling message board about working outside the home. I asked, simply, how more seasoned homeschoolers balanced the needs of their children, home, and relationship, with a personal need to do some kind of meaningful (or not so meaningful) work outside the home. I work because we need the money, but I also work because I need to. It keeps the anger, the kind of anger that for me, is deeply rooted in intellectual boredom, at bay. It makes me feel like me.

The response to this post was an avalanche. My personal favorites included a message from a woman who suggested that I get it together and find better paying work so I could afford to farm out housework and childcare, thus freeing up more of my time for lesson planning, and from the dude who mansplained to me that I would never find true fulfillment working outside the home, so I should just get over myself and get in touch with the fact that women are only happy if they stick to what they do best–housework… but these were anomalies. I mostly heard from two groups: women who had left work to homeschool, and were writing from the future–my possible future– women with grown children, and a lot of time on their hands; and women who had just started to homeschool, and were struggling to keep their job and their sanity. There was a lot of honesty, a lot of anger of the bitter variety, a lot of humor, a lot of disappointment. But mostly no regrets, except from women who said they would absolutely homeschool all over again, but they should have kept their job. All of them urged me to keep.my.job.

All of this was over a year ago, and sadly, I still haven’t discovered a radical feminist homeschool collective to embrace me and take me in. I’m not entirely sure they’d have me anyway, because while I find the claims to joy without asterisk professed by many homeschooling women alienating and unbelievable, I’ve also stopped believing in the possibility of gender equity, at least when it comes to the domestic front. And I do think babies and young children should be at home with their mom, mostly. Like most people, I exist in a maelstrom of contradictions, I guess–it’s exhausting sometimes.

So, no homeschool feminist manifesto, but I did recently stumble across this prickly and thought-provoking book, Caitlin Flanagan’s To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. Allow me to quote (at length) one of my favorite passages, a part that I think captures the brisk, bossy, and assured tone of the book–a tone that enraged me, but also was a relief. This lady is apologizing to nobody for nothing. In the passage below, she reflects on the difference between her children, whom she remained at home with until they went to school, versus kids who were put in daycare from the get go:

In the end, what did my boys gain from those thousand days they spent with me before school took them out into the larger world? Nothing, it seems to me, of any quantifiable value. No head starts in life that will ensure them of some prize that will forever elude the children of working mothers. All they gained, really, was the sweetness of being with the person who loved them most in the world. All they gained was an immersion in the most powerful force on earth: mother love. And perhaps there is something of worth in that alone.

I could quote the whole book at you, really. Flanagan has thought a lot on the topic of ‘women’s work’, and she pulls no punches. She is also coming at it from a very particular place–and she is straightforward about that. She is affluent, she has a job that allowed her to be at home when her kids were little–her life is not everyone’s life. But. but. As I said, I appreciated the lack of apology, to anyone, for anything. I appreciated that she made a choice and she thought her way around that choice. I’m still choking on (but maybe also agreeing with) her conclusion that:

It turns out that many aspects of adult life that I have always considered messy and finely-nuanced are in fact simple and clear-cut: life can be lived in pursuit of that elusive old dog, happiness, or it can be neatly fitted around obligation and sacrifice.

For us, as a family, and for many other families, homeschooling is a sacrifice. And we do feel obligated to do the things we believe best for our kids. For us, that’s keeping them home as they learn and grow. But I worry sometimes about what we are teaching them about what women and men are, and are not because of how we have structured our household in order to support the choices we’ve made.

Anyway. I’m all over the map in this post. All I’m trying to say is that sometimes, being a person in possession of a lively mind, and using that lively mind to stay at home to scrub toilets and plan meals and make appointments AND be in charge of educating my kids while my partner builds a career and moves freely in an adult world is frustrating. But also sublime. And what, as it turns out, I really want to do.

Recently, at work (I teach part-time in a public school–more contradictions!), one of my students, a shy, quiet girl who has had very little to say all year, suddenly looked me full in the face and asked, “When it’s Halloween, do you buy your kid’s costumes, or do you make them?” I make them, I replied. She smiled, and kind of nodded, like she had just won a bet with herself. “You look like the kind of person who makes things,” she said. And I am. And I do. Am I building a prison for myself, or am I making a palace? I feel differently about it every day. How about you?



  1. I hear this perspective a lot of the “not fully satsfied” moms amongst a few friends. I hope this can come across with the kindness i intend. I think social media has created such a society of narcissists that must celebrate themselves to the point of nausea. I am a full time working mom, the primary income earner in my household, and i have always homeschooled my sons..now 12 and 10. I work from home which is lucky, and like everyone doing so many hours that rarely involve this thing called “me” time…i am too busy to complain or notice….but i received what i now see as the gift of persoective 4 years ago when my youngest was diagnosed with cancer. 3 years of hellish treatment followed where i set up a make shift office at the hospital some days and worked late into the night most other days…and kept up with my workload, and house. It was ridiculously busy, and stessful, but you just do it. I was so glad that i already had in place a structure at home so my son did not feel like he was a burden, or having to miss school or outings. Our routine just flowed with this new reality…and made me know how important this ” motherlove” is to these 2 humans i am responsible for. More important than “me”. I had “me” time before them, and will have it again. But for now, i am content, love to sit and read a magazine and drink tea now and then and feel so splendidly busy and important to my family. My oldest son is also special needs, with severe learning delays and speech issues. Not to sound like our granparents who had to walk 10 miles in the snow, but buck up mamas….we can do this! And hopefully without forced ” perspective” of tragedy. I am not now, nor have i ever been,a member of any social media accounts. That helps me keep my focus where it belongs….outside of myself.

    • It’s hard to hear kindness when it’s followed by being dismissed as a narcissist! Yikes. Selfish, maybe, like all of us, some of the time, but I don’t think I’m psychologically disordered! Maybe you are just speaking generally, and generally, I agree with you–the intersection of navel gazing and the internet is a banal and terrible place. Hate to think I added to the awfulness:)
      I didn’t mean to bemoan a lack of ‘me’ time, which for the record, I think we agree about–‘me’ time, ‘self-care’, and the notion of being ‘too busy’ are pretty silly notions. I work with families in crisis and I see every day how privileged I am to get to dither on about fulfillment. And worry about GMO’s. And fret about getting signed up for the best ballet class. But I am privileged. And I do dither, because I exist in the space I exist in….
      I intended to express how questions about autonomy and choices–what choices are best for my kids, my family, and yes, myself–look a little differently because of this homeschooling thing, and I wish I had someone to talk about it with. Like I said–it seems (to me) you can find an opinion on absolutely everything in the HS community except the work-life balance thing. It was a tough piece to write, and I don’t think it was entirely successful–but I’d love to talk about it with other parents who are interested in the question. If you think it’s a stupid question then you are not my target audience!
      Lastly, I am a cancer survivor, and I had multiple pregnancy losses before I was finally able to have children so I get what you’re saying about the value of a perspective altered by loss, and how foolish it is to be caught up with inconsequential bs–life is short, and shouldn’t we try to make it sweet? I guess I don’t think asking questions and feeling gratitude are mutually exclusive entities–I can do both. Thanks for reading the piece, for thinking about it, and for sharing your thoughts. I wanted to start a conversation!

      • I did not mean to offend at all…..I, like all moms felt the same pang of longing for freedom from Candyland….My comment was less a response on you, but moms I see and hear in general in my community who have a bad case of “Moan-y mom” and too much facebook time which I see as feeding their discontent. I thought about it though, and I can say I write from a different place than maybe the “target audience” as you said. Namely, my kids are older. It is so much easier now and I do not feel intellectual longing like I can remember feeling when they were younger. Chess is more fun than Candyland…although getting Queen Frostine in the first few draws was pretty riveting. Keep up the good work Jennie!

  2. I homeschool. I work too, but I don’t enjoy it and plan to “retire” soon for full time homeschooling. I’m happy about that. I don’t think the feminist backlash in my mind is a homeschool thing. It’s a mom thing. I love motherhood and resent it all at the same time. While Elon Musk is inventing the Tesla, I’m playing Candyland. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Why do I have this need to show that I produced or constructed something at the end of each day? Why not just enjoy the day for the miracle that it is? Sometimes I can do that. And sometimes someone will suggest something that sounds to me like, “why didn’t you invent a Tesla today?” and I die a little inside.

    • I wish the comment function had a like button! Yes to all of the above. I tell my kids all the time ‘only boring people are bored’ while silently dying inside from boredom with a capital-B. It’s Memory that does me in, or at least Memory the way my shameless cheater of a 4 yo likes to play it…
      I think you’re right that it isn’t a homeschool thing, it’s a mom thing–but I’m embarrassed to bring this stuff up to other moms since homeschooling is (from some perspectives) such a radical choice that I feel like I can never, ever complain to my non-hs’ing friends about any frustrations stemming from being at home, period. Which probs isn’t fair to them, but it’s how I feel.

  3. Jennie, I read Radical Homemakers a couple years ago and it covers some of that. I also have The 7 Stages of Motherhood on my reading list – which might cover some of that. I think it’s true that most of the issues and conflicts we feel will be true whether you’re a working mother or at home mother. Being an at home mother you get more time stuck on the “boring” pursuits but also more time for connection and cuddles. Every choice in life has pros and cons and contradictions. Just do what feels right and then make no apology!

    • Annie gave me the heads up about Radical Homemakers–P.S. You two should really meet–I think you would really hit it off, and I think your kids would enjoy each other as well–but I have never heard of 7 Stages. I will add it to my summer reading stack, thanks.

  4. Hey Jennie – I loved this piece and have struggled or do struggle with a lot of these questions. It’s interesting because – for me – one of the first encounters I had with the concept of homeschooling was in a feminist context. I was reading the book Radical Homemakes by Shannon Hayes. I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t.

    I recently stopped working after combining part-time work and being home full-time with my kids. For me the work was a drain and felt like it was taking away from what I really wanted to be doing with my time. I was enjoying time with my kids (or, you know, not enjoying it) but then in all my spare time I was working and it wasn’t a good set-up for my family. I don’t think I am any more or less of a feminist when I’m working or not – for me it’s more a question of whether I’m feeling fulfilled by what I’m doing. I get a lot of enjoyment out of being home with my kids and am trying to ruthlessly cut out the parts that drive me nuts.

    I think there are emotions that come with the underbelly of motherhood and homeschooling – anger, boredom, etc. – that just don’t feel like safe playground conversation topics but we ALL experience them. Or if someone doesn’t, well, good for them. Louis CK has some great things to say about the boredom that can be found in parenting. But that’s just life, right? Some of it is bliss and some of it is bulls***.

      • I know! The spelling thing kills me, too. I am getting that book and taking it to the beach–thanks for the rec. And Louis CK is our parenting guru:)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s