Years ago, when my husband and I were first discussing the benefits and drawbacks of homeschooling, we cited the scheduling flexibility of homeschooling as a huge positive factor. We talked about how, as homeschoolers, we would be able to go on vacations whenever we pleased, how we could take the kids to museums and the zoo during the week instead of on busy weekends, and how schooling could mold around our life, rather than our life molding itself around school – a necessity when children attend school outside of the home.
What we didn’t talk about explicitly then, but what we realize now, is that homeschooling also allows the freedom to deal with real-life events (such as birth, death, and family emergencies) in a natural, responsive way. For us personally, this flexibility was tested to its utmost last year and I’d like to share a little of what I learned as a homeschooling parent.
At the end of 2014, my family and I moved into a new home with my in-laws. The months leading up to the move were hectic: my two children and I (then aged 6 and 3) packed up our old house while my husband spent many weeks in Los Angeles packing up his childhood home. I worked hard to maintain a social schedule for my kids, as well as a modest school schedule, while I put our life into boxes, closed on our new house, and (haphazardly, I admit) prepared to move from a 650 square-foot rental into a 2500 square-foot home.
I learned (or reaffirmed) this about homeschooling: kids learn from whatever they are doing. My kids learned about packing materials, about realtors, about loans and interest. Even at their young ages, they asked tons of questions about renting verses owning, about landlords and sellers, about banks and inspections, etc. And even though I was pulled in a hundred directions being home alone while managing the move for those weeks, my kids still seemed to thrive. We ditched all book-learning, ultimately pulled out of many social events due to time constraints, but still managed to “succeed” at school.
Then, just days before our scheduled move in late December, our next real-life challenge occurred: my husband experienced a severe concussion in a car accident. Our life was transformed instantly. We postponed our move by as long as we could (about a week), and began what would be a year-long focus on his recovery. With in-laws in our new home who also needed attention and care, 2015 rolled-in for me with a incredibly full plate. Our belongings were left unpacked – our homeschool books included – and it became a daily struggle to figure out what to attend to first.
What I learned during January, February and March of 2015 was this: flexibility sometimes means letting go. When you can’t accomplish everything, or even a portion of what you need to, letting go of expectations is a must. I learned to be content just by accomplishing the task right in front of me. Did my kids need food? I fed them. Did my in-laws need groceries? I went shopping. Did I have ten spare minutes? I unpacked something … anything. I cut all extraneous activities out of our lives, including time with friends, organizing events for Homeschool PDX, blogging, etc. I was in survival mode. And homeschooling? My kids played with packing boxes, explored our new property, and playfully entertained themselves day after day. Flexibility was key. Trusting my children’s innate ability to learn from their environment was also key. I managed to relax within the chaos until our next crisis occurred in late January.
My three year-old son contracted a virus that left him unable to walk. We scrambled to figure out what was going on – doctors appointments, blood tests, etc. With my husband still recovering from this injury, we now had an almost scarier health issue to deal with: our son was diagnosed with an auto-immune issue. Wherever we went, we carried him. And at forty pounds, that was no easy feat! Our world became even more focused on home-life as I struggled to manage the increasing needs of so many people. And homeschooling? We became quasi-unschoolers. Little did I know that the worst was still to come, and that my ability to roll with the punches and adapt our homeschooling approach would be tested even further.
Spring passed, we slowly unpacked, and my husband and son slowly healed. In May, when life seemed almost back to normal, my father-in-law’s health took a turn for the worst. This was the beginning of ambulance visits, hospice care, and – although we didn’t yet know it – his last weeks of life. I briefly questioned how living with a dying loved one in our home would affect my children – would seeing the day-to-day changes in their grandfather help them understand the process of death, or would it cause unnecessary anguish? It was not a hard question for me to answer: as a former hospice caregiver, I know how transformative the process of death and dying can be. I had total faith that my children would ask the questions they needed to in order to understand what was happening, as well as complete faith in my husband’s and my own abilities to answer these questions clearly. School, for that time, was a study of the passage of life … and it was made all the more more poignant by the revelation that I was pregnant just one day before my father-in-law passed.
After months of adapting to changing life circumstances and adjusting our homeschooling goals and methods accordingly, I was desperately ready by July of last year to resume a “normal” routine in our household. I felt that this would help with our grieving process, and give my children something solid to rely on in their daily lives. But the first months of pregnancy floored me, as did our first Summer in our new home. Those Summer months passed in a blur of naps and ninety-degree days, with school taking a backseat due to my physical limitations. And the very day that I finally pulled out of the nausea and fatigue of my first trimester, ready to start “school” once again, I was confronted with the most difficult real-life challenge yet: my father was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer.
My dad was one of my closest friends. After moving to Portland from Puget Sound a few years earlier, he was living just down the road from our new house. We were looking forward to Summer barbecues, weekly hikes, and his increased involvement in our daily lives. But these were all dreams: his oncologist gave him no hope of recovery, nor any feasible treatment options. All that could be done was a procedure to sever nerves in his spine in order to stop his excruciating, constant pain. Within weeks, we had moved him into our house and given him our bedroom. I considered hiring a caregiver, but ultimately chose to caregive him myself. Again, I questioned how this up-close exposure to the dying process might affect my kids, considering that my father was dying in the bedroom adjacent to theirs, not downstairs as my father-in-law had. And again, my answer was the same: this was a family event, and a very normal life process. I would not shield my children from something so natural and poignant, despite the suggestions of well-meaning relatives that I put them in school to protect them.
School? Life was school. Life, it turns out, is nothing but school. My children were submersed in the very fabric of life – they were firsthand witnesses to a new baby growing, beloved grandparents reaching their time, the seasons of life transforming. Had they been attending school outside of our home they would have missed all of these remarkable opportunities for learning. They would have returned at the end of the day unaware of the subtle changes in my Dad’s health, not observing that he could not eat suddenly when just hours ago he had managed to. They would not have had time to ask me questions about our growing baby, or have had a chance to refill their grandpa’s water bottle, or to bring him blankets and stuffed animals to keep him cozy. They would not have felt nearly as needed and useful – perhaps, instead, they would have felt excluded. Worst of all, they would have been robbed of rare and priceless experiences, of the chance to observe and understand the ebb and flow of life. I was immensely grateful, and not for the first time during that intense year, that we were homeschooling.
When my Dad passed just seven weeks after his diagnosis, my personal world shattered, but somehow my children witnessed his transformation with the clarity and wisdom that is a gift of young children. Not only did they brighten my Dad’s last days with unrestrained hugs, story reading, popsicle sharing, laughter and gaiety, but they managed to see me through a portion of my mourning process without even knowing it. I had resigned all ideas of book-learning and schedules by then – we were fully immersed in the world right before us – and they were flourishing. The lessons they were learning were deep and eternal, not generic, superficial or measurable.
As Fall turned to Winter, our days were filled with packing and moving my Dad’s belongings. My pregnancy progressed almost as an afterthought – we had so much to attend to. In late January of 2016 I was finally ready to get back to curriculum, schedule, and a predictable routine with my kids, as well as to my friends and our cherished homeschool community. We enjoyed a brief resurrection of our old routine until Valentine’s Day, when I went into labor.
And so it goes. With our baby in my arms now, I feel like a pro at being flexible. I’ve learned that school and life go hand-in-hand and that adaptability is paramount. We stick to our school routine on some days, we extract lessons from “real life” on others. The only constant in our homeschool – just as in life – is change. I hope that, when all is said and done, my kids will feel that they really lived and experienced their childhoods, rather than just observed life happening from behind the walls of a classroom or the pages of a textbook. And if that is the gift I can provide them by embracing all life has to offer and not shielding them from challenging experiences, than I consider our homeschooling journey a great success.