Monday, January 15, 2007

Quiet desperation: a humbling look at my own homeschool burnout

I continue to periodically receive emails from homeschool moms curious about our family’s decision to stop homeschooling (at least for now - we evaluate carefully every year). I am currently homeschooling our five-year-old, but our older three are in their fourth year of public school, after three years at home.

Now, please understand, I have complete and total respect for anyone’s school choice, and my intention here is not to debate a "right" or "wrong" method of educating our children. Our family benefited from our years at home in a way that is immeasurable (see this post, and this one and this one). My best friend Sherri is a homeschooler extraordinaire, and a constant source of inspiration to me. In fact, I find myself drawn to homeschoolers as friends because I resonate so strongly with the homeschool conviction that a parent is a child’s primary teacher.

We call ourselves public schoolers with a homeschool mindset.

So why did we stop? How did we come to this decision?

Some express more than curiosity. An email I received last week expressed a desperation I completely understand. I could have written this myself. Read on:

…right now, I feel totally burnt out w/ it. I used to enjoy it so much. But now I feel that I can't keep all the plates spinning, and I have 3 out of 4 who tend to be more "high-needs" children. Also my oldest is very, very strong-willed. I feel like we constantly butt heads. I am really asking God to help me w/ this.

I feel that [if I stopped homeschooling] I would have the disapproval of my parents, but they are not around enough (live about 1hour + away) to help out. I sometimes feel desperate for help. Hubby is wonderful and supportive, but extremely busy w/ his own business. I carry the load by myself, and I don't feel that I'm doing a very good job at any of my "jobs". Dirty house, bickering kids, tough to homeschool w/ toddler and a rebel in the mix. I think the guilt weighs on me. I want to do the right thing for my kids. I don't want to lose them to the world. I want to have their hearts.

Oh, have I been there, and reading this made me relive the sense of guilt I felt for even considering any other options. I realize now how unhealthy - and even dangerous - it is to equate asking for help or changing schooling decisions with guilt and failure. It keeps us from talking about it, and hinders us from getting the help we so desperately need.

Yesterday I went through the journal I kept during those years. They were some of the best years as a whole for our family, but also some of the very hardest on me. Here’s an entry from the end a homeschooling year, when considering whether or not to continue teaching our children full-time at home:
So much of what goes through my head (ashamedly) is a sense of letting my support group of home school moms down – some of whom I admire immensely. We’ve talked extensively about the pluses of homeschooling, and I’ve let most all of them know I do not plan to do it forever...but public school is such a “big bad” that it never gets serious talk. I don’t know many folks I feel like I can really talk to about “what’s good” about [our local] schools (besides having the house quiet from 8 to 3). I feel almost as alone on this side of it as I did on the other side last year.
Ladies, we have to be able to talk about this.

If things are not going well, with any of our schooling options, they are certainly not going to get any better if we don’t tell anyone.

As the years went on and I wrestled through my convictions about educational choice, here are some more thoughts I had:
So what is my deal, anyway? Is it public school, or is it just institutionalization as a method of teaching (of which I am a product)? Am I too proud to admit I am whooped and need a break? Am I fearful that my children might not succeed?

How much of my decision to home school is wrapped up in the fact that it has become part of my identity? Without it, who am I? Just another mom? Just another public school mom?

Hmmm…thought provoking. Painfully so.

Just how much of my pride is hung up in this, anyway?

It is humbling to admit that I made any educational choice out of fear or pride. But I did. Of course I wanted to do what was best for our children. I love my kids and I want their hearts. I'd like to think my motive in that regard was pure. But I would be lying if I said there was not an element of "peer pressure" involved. I did not want disappoint my family, my friends. After all, I was very involved in the homeschool community, and even though I went into homeschooling knowing I had options, I still felt that to quit was, somehow, to fail.

By my last year (on bedrest with #5; my husband traveling for work and also in graduate school; no extended family available to help; and seriously struggling to hold it together) my entries looked something like this:
I get to the point where I don’t even want to go back to the school room. The kids want to do projects in the afternoon, and I don’t even want to talk…to anyone! Don’t get me wrong, when it’s great, it’s REALLY great—like when [our son] started to read—wow, it was breathtaking! But there are moments where just have to wonder if I’m doing more harm than good with the kids. I feel like I use all my energy for school and there’s none left over for “fun” stuff. There’s none left over, period.
All the while I felt like I could talk to no one. My husband listened, but he was already doing all he could to help, between his work, travel, and graduate school schedule. I did have some household help. My mention of being overwhelmed to my homeschool friends was met with ideas for “getting more organized” (I was already very organized) or taking time to “unschool” for a while. That was not an option, either for my personality, or for my bickering kids (ages 9, 8, 5, 2 and pregnant with #5) who (as kids do) got into trouble when not constructively occupied.

And I felt I could not confide in my public school friends because I had spent so much time singing the praises of homeschooling that I had painted myself in a corner.

Eventually it came down to this: My mental and physical health (Mom's needs), and our marriage. All were suffering. I was exhausted, grumpy, losing it regularly, and, with no one to talk to, it came out toward the people I loved the most: my husband, and the kids I was trying to give such a wonderful life to. I was so focused on (as my friend above stated) “keeping the plates spinning” that I drew inward. Irrational as it sounds, I was angry ALL THE TIME because I felt there was “no way out.”

What good did it do if I homeschooled, but lost my marriage in the process (at one point my husband cornered me and said, "You are obviously not happy!" I guess I do not hide my feelings well!)?

After many hours of talking and praying, my husband and I decided we'd rather have our kids in school (at least for a time), knowing our marriage is healthy and Mom is healthy, than homeschool just because it "looks good," or "we've always done it," or because it appears "more spiritual."

For the first time, I actually admitted I couldn’t do it. What a relief!

This brought me face-to-face with my faith:

Did I believe God could show up – as I firmly believe – in the less-than-ideal circumstances of... my limits? The limits of my physical health, my support system (or lack thereof), or even (gasp) my lack of desire to continue?

Did I really believe He was even bigger than a method of education I had put a lot of faith in?

Did I believe He could help us build the family we wanted – wholly devoted to Him – even if we didn’t do it according to “the formula” others said was the “only" way?

For us, the road of “less than ideal circumstances” led to public school (I talked a little about that here). For others, it’s meant getting help in other forms, such as taking a break, changing curriculum, getting household help, unschooling, co-ops, private, or university model schooling.

Regardless of the form it takes, getting help – whether that be physical, emotional, or spiritual – starts with admitting you need it.

May I always be humble enough to reach out for it. And not to be too proud to accept it when the answer comes in a form I did not expect.
He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.
Psalm 25:9, NIV


Anonymous said...

Is it possible I could be the first to comment today? I am a homeschooler of 8, have felt all the feelings you have and more. I understand. I have watched other moms change to public school and basically be told by hs friends, "Your children are going to be ruined by the ps. You're making a grave mistake!" It is so easy to get into the mindset of HS-good PS-bad (no exceptions). I am getting less and less idealistic the older I get! There are pros and cons to ALL school choices. We need to support one another and not make assumptions. It is very easy to make assumptions and judgments if you don't have as much life experience. The majority of hs parents are younger and eager to be different to obey God. It is easy for them to be nearsighted. I have been! I continue to hs in spite of the cons because the ps cons are greater at this time for us. Hope I didn't offend anyone too much.

Anonymous said...

I'm a homeschooler who isn't homeschooling right now. Its ok to need a break! As long as God gives you peace about it, its all going to work out. I've gone through times I really wanted to quit and God just wouldn't give me peace, so I kept going, even though I didn't do a great job, and then God gave me peace and I put them in, and took them out and put them in and took them out.... Well, I still waffle some, but for the most part public school has been good and brought out character issues that I can work on before they leave home that I wouldn't have known about before!
I know its hard to disappoint others and ourselves, but everything has a season, and everything has an off season, too. Also, I think God uses stuff like this to help us keep perspective and gain understanding in other's lives and decisions. In other words, He knocks the high and mighty out of me, hehe.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for writing this. We had always planned on homeschooling and yet as my daughter got closer and closer to schoolaged, I became more and more secretly sure that it was not something I could do - she's a great kid, but our personalities often conflict and I was terrified that throwing homeschooling into the mix would wreck our relationship.
Their school situation - a rather awful tiny public school - is NOT perfect, and we're considering homeschooling again, but now I'm also comfortable knowing that MY limits matter, that my kids' needs matter, and that there are many things that would go into that decision. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading for a short while, with this being my first comment.
I have read a few blogs, but yours gets in my head - it's like we might be twins or something where one twin gets hurt and the other feels the pain. I also have five children 11g (pushing 20)g, 9b, 8b, 4g, and a very HIGH MAINTANCE 22mo b that should have been a first born!
This post, I feel, is on the pulse of many hs moms that I know here in TN. Thank you for putting this in print for me to read (and save) and share with others.


Anonymous said...

Once again, you write on a topic that I need! I "homeschool" our preK son, but I often find myself questioning if this is a good mix for us for Kindergarden. I feel that I will be condemned no matter what I decide, but that's not what is important. What is important is that I allow God to lead me to do right for my kids.

Anonymous said...

I think your point is applicable to so many aspects of motherhood (of life). Our pride runs deep. I first became aware of this issue when we moved our son from a crib to a bed too early. Not a big deal, one would think, but I came face to face with the depth of my parenting pride and I was ashamed of myself. The mentality of 'I can do anything if I just commit to it' ran head on with a 20-month old little boy and I was bound and determined not to let the boy win. In the end God won and he dealt with my heart issues so I could deal with my family issues. I could so plainly see how I was putting 'parenting' in front of my child. The high and mighty was definitely knocked out of me.

(Emily sent me a text message to make sure I read your post today.)

Beckyb said...

Wow - hit that nail on the head!! We take our homeschooling year-by-year. You just never know when God will put you on another path! I love it, but somedays would put them in school gladly - guess it's like anything else - it has it's Good and it's Ugly!!! :) I have been reading Todd Wilson's book - Lies Homeschooling Moms Believe - it says so much of what you said as well. Challenges me to look inside and ask myself, "Why do I do this?"

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this post so much. My best friend began her homeschooling journey last year. Because of her, I have spent so much time thinking, researching, and praying about what we will choose for our schooling next year (my son starts kindergarten in the fall). There are so many reasons why I would love homeschooling, but my husband and I believe that public school is the right decision for now. We will take each year (and month, and day) as it comes.

I loved your thought that you are in a public school situation with a homeschooling mindset. I also believe, as Marni said, that there are pros and cons to all school situations; and I believe that with God's help, parents can raise godly children in both types of school settings.

Thanks for these thoughts! I have truly struggled with this decision over the past year, and I appreciate hearing the thoughts of someone who has struggled with it as well.

voni said...

I love that verse:)

Chris @ Come to the Table said...

Excellant post. I have walked a similar path in my own homeschooling journey. My kids have been in public school for the past six years and I have complete peace with our decision. My oldest daughter is a freshmen in high school and I am deeply humbled by the Godly young lady she is becoming every day. I have one in fifth, fourth, and a Kindergartener. My youngest just turned 2.

I pray this ministers to those who need to know they are not alone.

Chris @ Come to the Table said...

p.s. where is spell check when you need it. I mean Excellent!

Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience said...

Katherine, as a homeschooling Mother of six (1 in 6th, 1 in 4th, 1 in 3rd, 1 in first, 1 preschooler and an 18mo), and one committed to several homeschooling curriculum projects, I just want to say *thank you* for your transparency, humility and honesty. I very much appreciate you. It is good to be sisters in the Lord.

All is gift,
Ann V.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. We are putting our kids in school for the first time after 10 years of home-schooling. I have felt guilty for wanting to send them but just don't feel like I'm up to it anymore and like I am doing them more harm than good.

Anonymous said...

Once again, thank you for your transparency and humility that we can learn from.....

"God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble" 1 Peter 5:5


Laura said...

Katherine, this is huge! I wrote a post awhile ago titled "Do you know your limitations" and I couldn't agree more wholeheartedly. Great post!

Rachel Anne said...

I think sometimes we moms think we can control the outcome of our kids based on the schooling decision we make. If only it were that easy. There are no guarantees in any direction. Only humility and throwing ourselves on the grace of God. I pray for each mom who is searching for answers...I know this post will be a blessing, maybe even a life-saver.

Kelly said...

What a fantastic post! Thank you for your transparency and honesty. We have homeschooled and done private school--it is such a unique decision to be made by each family about what is best for YOUR family and where God is leading you. Thanks so much for sharing.

Andrea said...


Always a breath of fresh air here.
You are real, and point us to the Word.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. I'm not a homeschooler yet as my daughter is almost a year. But over the past week or so, I've felt led to go back to work full-time to help my family out. I was staunchly against day care, but I'm realizing there are some very good ones in my area and it will be a positive situation for my daughter. I'm taking harsh criticism from others, and I've felt as if I'm failing as a mom, yet I know this is what the Lord wants for my family at this time. Thanks again.

Gina Conroy said...

Wow! I feel I could have written this post! I've been where you've been about homeschooling and right now I think our plan is to send my oldest two to a homeschooling co-op three 1/2 days a week.

My biggest problem is giving up control of their education, and by sending them to the co-op I would not be able to teach them what I want.

But I know all too well about the anger, bickering and strife with my kids and marriage all related to my stress level with homeschooling.

Thanks for this post! I'm feeling more of a peace in our decision!

Leann said...

I just thought you should know that you blogged today for me! We filled out paperwork this weekend and enrolled our oldest of four in public school today. I cannot stop crying over the guilt I feel at thinking somehow I have failed in this venture. I won't blog it all on your blog. I am going to share it on mine at some point this week but my heart is breaking. I was so glad to read that I am not alone. You described me completely in your post. I know we are doing the right thing but it still hurts. Thank you for sharing this!!!


Deidre said...

Great post. I so enjoyed reading this, especially the part at the end about 'humility'. It's so hard to take that road when we've advocated an idea for so long. I applaud you for doing what you did in the first place (homeschooling). My oldest is 5 and I'm in constant prayer about what is the right choice for us.

Elise @A Path Made Straight said...

You bless so many people by being so transparent, Katherine. And I appreciate it, from the trenches of the first few years of schooling, and having a baby underfoot. You always say something that I can tuck away for help - and hope - later.

Grafted Branch said...

Good post.

I don't know anyone with more than 1 grade level going on who can effectively and consistently keep the plates spinning. If they say or suggest that they can, they're probably breaking the 9th commandment!

I'm still trying. They're still learning. I still feel led in this direction.

And that's all I'm going to say about that. :)

carola said...

Lots of good stuff. I'm always looking for the underlying challenges (a mental thing, probably because I'm not burned out yet, but I'm right on the cusp!) It seems to me that the saying applies here, "It takes a community to raise a child." Many of us really don't have suppportive communities, although, with home schooling, we are looking to recapture something wonderful that was lost in eras gone by from when communities were strong (and television, vgames, and SUVs were non existant).

Our culture makes "psuedo communities" out of coops, church groups, etc., but John Taylor Gatto's (DUMBING US DOWN) thoughts about support groups & schools replacing communities and being poor substitutes keeps ringing in my ears.

I guess we ought to be mindful that we, these seeming supermoms, cannot replace a community any more easily than a school can. Often, we are basically "becoming" a community, and when it gets to be too much, it is understandable, and normal. I don't know the answers. I love the answer of throwing oneself on the Lord. It always gets back to simplicity, yes?

Your words rang true when you said you were letting your coop down. Me too--in every possible way! So embarrassing. I even asked my daughter (only child) if she would consider going back to school until I finished one huge work project (work from home) and she was vehement that she didn't want to (4th grade). I don't know how to override least not on this matter.

At any rate. Thanks, friends, for the best thought, which is to return to our roots--as branches!