Saturday, August 10, 2013

Learning to Mind Our Own Business, or, Getting Out of the Mommy Wars For Good

Recently Time magazine unleashed another wave of mommy war teeth gnashing with its article on childless living: The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children" by Lauren Sandler. Since I haven’t been reading Time lately -  I did not renew my subscription to Time after being so irritated by the bizarre article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting they ran last year - I first saw mention of it via a friend’s Facebook post. I was particularly interested in the way the article linked in the post phrased is was something along the lines of, “Even women like us who don’t even have kids yet have now been pulled into the mommy wars! Women can't make anyone happy whatever they do!” Later I happened to catch a radio show with the article's author and was struck by the personal angle she was coming from - she had felt judged as a mother with only one child, and saw her childless friends also feeling harassed, so concluded that an article exploring the benefits of not having children would be a great thing.

But really what the article and the radio show came down to me is that women in general feel a tremendous pressure to conform to a cultural ideal of two children. Women who have no children or only one child feel that their motives are openly scrutinized and naturally become defensive about why they want to live “childfree,” all for reasons that most parents can agree that yes, are easier without children (more time for oneself, more money, more time for career, etc). What I desperately wanted to point out reading this was that actually women on the other “wrong” side of the cultural idea also get tremendous loads of scrutiny put on them for their larger families. Any women whose family portraits veer much to either side of this two kid norm experience uncomfortable - and inexplicable - pressure to conform. While it might be appropriate from a sociological standpoint to ask why our nation’s birth rate is falling, and what steps might need to be taken as a nation to support childbearing in general, these are not the tone of questions being asked. Most voices in the media seem perfectly gleeful to stir up debate over what decision is superior for various reasons, but the question I want to ask is,

“Why is any of this anyone’s business in the first place?”

Why something as intimate, nuanced, and personal as childbearing considered to be open season for public critique? Why do we feel  comfortable venturing questions of family size or timing with anyone but very close relations? And if a question is asked and answered, how can any of us really feel comfortable telling that woman what she should do? Of course we hope its that we want the best for her, but in reality, we won’t be the one juggling career and baby, or wondering guiltily if we are missing out by staying home with them, or any of the myriad considerations that having children involves. We are the village around that woman and possible children, certainly, but what kind of village are we? Instead of warm and supportive, we have become shrill and combative. Its no wonder that the “Mommy Wars” have become such an apt description of the tension women today feel over their family decisions. When someone is judged and berated, they usually respond with defensiveness and will naturally feel threatened by others who are not in their camp. Its become such a vicious cycle that some women feel completely alienated from friends and family who make different choices than them, and this is truly ridiculous.

Fair disclosure: I am a mother of four children, who while not being perfectly timed, I am thrilled nonetheless to have had just when they happened to be born. I know the bone tiredness, the emotional stress, the overwhelmed days, the financial juggling - I know them very well. My husband and I agreed on the decision that I would postpone my career to take care of our kids at home while they are young, and now we even homeschool them, pushing back my reentry into the paid economy even further. Both of these decisions I wholeheartedly believe are correct for us, but I also consider them deeply personal and not at all transferrable to the general public. The fact that this is what we have chosen to do does not mean that we think everyone else should do it. Its simply not our business. We will happily share our hopes for this lifestyle with others who ask (and I have been asked a lot - rolling in scientific and academic circles we are not at all the norm), but we try to do so without pretension that ours is universally superior, but only that after careful thought, it is preferable to us.

Unfortunately today it seems that just the act of making decisions for your family has become synonymous with choosing a side in hyped-up war. I have learned from being at the awkward answering end of casual  questions about “will we have more?” to being told by a stranger that I have too many kids and need to "get a new hobby," that a woman’s reproductive activity has been snatched out of from under the protection of culturally assumed privacy and thrust into the realm of vocal public scrutiny. After fielding these kinds of questions for years (a youngish mom with a gaggle of children in the grocery store always seems to draw attention, even when everyone is behaving themselves), I’ve become convinced that any leading questions to a woman about kids - when she’s having them, how many she wants to have - anything - are usually unwelcome and not really appropriate. We need to kindle a sense of deep respect for the privacy that the process of family planning - whether that family decides that they want no kids or fifteen - deserves.

The real problem - and the root of the mommy wars - is that  we as a culture have suddenly been presented with more options than ever before for what a woman’s life can look like and we just cannot accept that one woman’s ideal can be - will be -  different that another’s. But we are not automatons, and one size, one life, does not fit all. And this is not only okay, its wonderful.

I want to challenge every woman especially to  refuse  to buy into the tension and drama that swirls around us. We need to let go of the judgmental attitudes we've bristled under and nasty comments we have heard in response to our decisions and make a commitment  to support and encourage other women in our lives - especially those women that have made different decisions than we have about family or career. Give insight when asked, but no judgement. No snippy comments or veiled insults. Let’s be comfortable enough with our own decisions that we don’t feel the need to convince anyone else to make the same ones. Once we do this, the mommy wars will have no fuel to burn on, and all women - those with and without children - will be better off for it.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Tips for the Brand New Homeschooler

So you're planning to start home educating your child this fall? Welcome to the world of the homeschool parent! *high five* I don’t know what brought you here - maybe you’ve got a kindergartener who can read but can’t sit still and don’t want to subject her to a classroom of “be quiets” and “sit downs!” Or maybe you’re pulling out your 5th grader because he hates everything to do with learning and it breaks your heart. Maybe your child has learning requirements their school can’t - or won’t - accommodate. Maybe you’re just fed up with the toxic social situation your middle schooler is dealing with and feel her stress level (and yours) would reduce coming home to learn. In any case, you’ve taken the step into the unfamiliar and are wondering what comes next.

Get That Legal Stuff Taken Care of

You’ve probably already looked into this, but if your haven’t, you’ll want to soon. No one wants to be in that awkward situation of being afraid to go out with your kids during regular school hours for fear of random truancy reports! Look into your local homeschool regulations, and figure out what you need to comply. Local homeschool support groups or just a local homeschool friend can help you out enormously with this. If you don’t know anyone, go ahead and ask on a local homeschool Facebook page or Yahoo group. We’re generally a pretty friendly bunch that tries to help out newbies.

Do Your Research

Take a few weeks to explore the major approaches to home education. Websites abound, including forums, Facebook pages, curriculum vendors’ websites, Pinterest boards, and of course myriad blogs.  Google terms like Classical, Charlotte Mason, Unschooling, Unit Studies, Waldorf, and Montessori along with “homeschooling” and you’ll find plenty of information to get you started. It can be overwhelming, its true, but if you can get an overview of styles most likely one or two will appeal to you and strike a chord - “THIS is what I want my kids education to look like!” And then you can go deep into whatever chose philosophy with books and curriculum vendors’ pages, as well as more specialized websites.

Start Out with a Plan, But Be Flexible

I started out homeschooling with an everything-in-the-box curriculum from Sonlight. It was great - literature based, all planned out, lots of fun. Having everything planned out but still flexible was exactly what I needed as a homeschool newb - I wasn’t even sure what all this should look like.  Even though I went through a chunk of early childhood education classes in college, I wasn’t clear on how to schedule and manage our days. I look at Sonlight as my training wheels. I felt security knowing that it was a well planned out curriculum by people who knew what they were doing. Once I got a good sense of it, I began to branch out. In later years I took what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I wanted to add, and began to put together my own program. But those first two years of using Sonlight really helped me to build confidence and find what worked for me and my kids. Another approach is to think in terms of subjects and put together a plan from there - find individual math, grammar, writing, spelling, handwriting, history, literature and science programs. I now use the book The Well Trained Mind heavily in my planning, and its really not much harder to plan than a box curriculum to plan. Whatever you use, consider your first year or so to be a learning period - it can take some time to find what works best.

Don’t Go Crazy Overboard

Maybe its just me, but when I go through homeschool resources I start to lose touch with reality a bit. Sure, I think - we can do Spanish....and Latin....and LEGO Robotics....and Rhetoric....and that amazing looking class on underwater pottery! Yes! YES! Then I remember the many times I have introduced an awesome new subject or activity only to have it fall with a thud because it was just Start with your basics - Math, Language Arts, History/Social Studies, and Science are usually the core subjects. Art, Music, P.E., and various electives should be added in, but thoughtfully and realistically. Not every subject has to have a classroom-like lesson. Art for us usually consists of me introducing various art mediums (watercolor, pastels, clay, etc) and looking thoughtfully and discussing beautiful works of art. Fun, low-stress, and easy to fit into a laid back afternoon.

Start Looking For Your Tribe

Join local support groups (check for links of off state organizations, yahoo groups, facebook groups and groups). Go to whatever meetings you can find - just to check it out. Check out local co-ops and social groups. As in anything, you won’t click with everyone. Some groups will rub you the wrong way, but hopefully you’ll find a few families that you and your kids click with. Maybe you'll find a group to play at the park with, a co-op, or even an experienced homeschooler that can field some questions and offer encouragement.

Reconsider Household Routines

Homeschooling really is a lifestyle. Your day will look pretty different from your neighbor whose kids leave at 8:30 am and come home at 3 pm. In some ways this is great - no rushing around in the morning packing lunches and signing permission slips, no nights of homework. But you will have your kids at home with you. All day. If you’re starting homeschooling from the beginning with your Kindergartener, or you already have young kids at home, this won’t be a big deal, but if you’re going from no kids (or just a few) at home to everyone suddenly, I can imagine it might be a shock to the  system. Be open to adjusting housekeeping expectations and planning when your will be out of the house alone (when your spouse is home? or hiring an afternoon babysitter?). Just knowing that these will require adjustment can be comforting during the transition.

Consider Deschooling

Whatever educational approach resonates with you, if you are pulling a child out of regular school you might want to consider a period nondirected, discovery based learning . This is commonly called “deschooling,” and the idea is that it allows your child to calibrate themselves to the rhythm of learning out of an institution by allowing them the time to explore their own interests, no strings attached. We do this for at least 2 months out of the year (we call it summer break, hah!), but it seems to be particularly cathartic for older students who have developed negative associations with learning.  You can read more about deschooling here.

Much luck in the coming school year! Sending your virtual hugs and cups of coffee (and maybe glasses of wine if that's more your style). :) It will be an exciting year!