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?