[My dear friend Anna–blogger at The Feminist Librarian, grown homeschooled person, and go-to understander of my complicated work/family story–mentioned this book to me and said she’d be interested to hear what I thought. So naturally I borrowed it from the library; here’s what I think! I’ll apologize in advance for the length of this post. It’s just that I think so very much …]
Why do some mothers choose to homeschool their children, despite the immense workload and wearing stigma? And how do they manage to keep at it in the face of these challenges?
Jennifer Lois became fascinated by these questions when she moved to an area where homeschooling was more common. But since she’s a sociologist, instead of being like “hmm weird,” Lois observed and interviewed homeschooling mothers over a 7-year period and then wrote this book.
Sociologists are like that.
not like me
I really enjoyed reading Home Is Where the School Is, in part because it doesn’t reflect my family’s experiences and dynamics. As regular readers know, I have somehow accidentally turned into a homeschooling parent who usually doesn’t do wage work. We are enthusiastic about public schools and sort of fell into homeschooling. I haven’t been able to find a long-term job post-2008, but I always planned to do professional work outside our home throughout parenting and would prefer that to be what happened. (In contrast, 23 of the 24 mothers Lois interviewed wanted to forgo paid work during their children’s early years, even if they hadn’t yet planned to homeschool). And yet I very much enjoy and feel good about learning at home with Noah. I guess it’s the best part of being unemployed and career-less, so … that’s something?
Perhaps this outsider/insider perspective, coupled with my academic background, make me an ideal reader for this particular book. Lois began this research as a person without children, and completed it as a mother of two conventionally-schooled children with a full-time professional job. She is deeply respectful toward and sympathetic to her subjects, but she isn’t and doesn’t want to be a homeschooling parent.
And, gosh, who would? If it’s exhausting, labor-intensive, self-sacrificing, and constantly scrutinized and stigmatized to boot? If this were my lived experience of homeschooling, I would have done it for approximately three days.
Lois’s study participants experienced a whole lot of questioning and criticism from family members, friends, and even total strangers. We, on the other hand, have never encountered that questioning or criticism. Why? Perhaps because of our PhDs, perhaps because we know very open-minded people and live in Minnesota, perhaps we live far from our extended families, perhaps because everyone knows we don’t give a shit what they think anyway.
For most of the study participants, homeschooling also involves a great deal of work and planning. It is time-consuming and requires great sacrifices. This is also not my experience. Part of it seems to be the “lesson plans” and “curricula” that get mentioned a lot in the book. We’re strictly planning-free, although I do spend about an hour every couple weeks searching for library books and other resources. And because we have a two-year-old who’d be home anyway (since my career-less-ness has nothing to do with the fact of homeschooling, and we certainly can’t afford daycare), I don’t YET feel like I’d have any more time for writing or other pursuits if our older child were in school.
justifying home education (against & through “good motherhood”)
Why do these people do something that sounds like such a haul? Well, also unlike my family (but probably more like the majority of homeschooling parents), the study participants really feel a need to educate at home instead of in a school environment.
- The mothers Lois categorizes as “first choicers” feel called by God to teach their children at home, and/or believe fervently that home education is the best possible way for their children to learn, and/or find such fulfillment in the “intensive mothering” role that they want to extend it into the schooling years.
- The mothers in the “second choicers” category feel trapped in homeschooling because their children’s particular needs are ill-served by the particular school options available to them (or because their arrogant asshole husbands are seriously pressuring them to mother in this way; Lois doesn’t put it in quite these terms, but CRAP, PEOPLE).
In that context, it makes sense that these parents make sacrifices to follow this path (despite pressures to parent more normally). Then, Lois finds, they justify homeschooling through the mainstream rhetoric of “good mothering” in our culture. They’re just like all the other “good mothers”–caring, responsible, joyful in the motherhood role, experts on their own children, always ready to put their own desires behind their children’s well-being, and so on–and homeschooling is an expression of (rather than a “bad mother” departure from) those traits and values.
This is an especially interesting argument because Lois ties both the critics’ remarks and the mothers’ defenses to ideas about maternal emotions. Many jabs at homeschooling mothers boil down to you’re not doing motherly emotions right (you’re being overprotective, clingy, smug, extreme). Reasonably enough, then, many defenses boil down to nuh uh I’m doing maternal emotions AWESOME. This move, Lois claims, further embeds these mothers in some really demanding ideas about mothering.
Because of our culture’s broader understanding of “good motherhood,” and because of both systemic and individual sexism, home-educating mothers (like their conventionally-schooling counterparts) often get the short end of the parental responsibility stick. Mothers are somehow more responsible for children and domestic chores than fathers; fathers may “pitch in,” but mothers are in charge of getting them to do so, or of doing whatever fathers don’t get around to. Mothers are somehow the default experts on our children, too, in a way fathers aren’t.
In short, this bites. It’s stressful and exhausting to be the person who has to keep track of everything mentally, figure out everyone’s needs, and make sure things get done!
In Lois’s sample, even the liberal- or progressive-identified families have (what strike me as) wildly inequitable divisions of household labor. An example that stands out to me is that of Leanna’s husband, who:
worked full-time as a public school teacher and had trained for five marathons in recent years. Leanna told me that he had very little energy to contribute to household and family duties, which meant the housework, child care, and homeschooling of their nine-, six-, and three-year-old boys fell on her. (106)
What would happen if Leanna wanted to train for marathons? Meanwhile, she is experiencing burnout and feels she can’t keep her head above water with “her chores” and her educator role. STOP RUNNING MARATHONS AND BE A PARENT, MAYBE, LEANNA’S HUSBAND.
When I described these housework-related patterns to my spouse, his response was, “What the fuck?” And that gets to the heart of the matter, I think.
After getting Simon down for a nap and Noah into his room for “quiet time,” I have literally never thought now that I have this time to myself I’d better go do some household chores. That line of reasoning has not occurred to me. In my family, my writing and my own personal needs (like maybe a shower, or a cup of tea enjoyed while seated) obviously take precedence over the dishes. In my family, I am not innately responsible for all cleaning or cooking. We frankly do not understand how someone could care for a small child (who seems determined to lose an appendage or decimate our house by preschool) and also do lots of household crap. Let alone care for a small child, do lots of household crap, and help an older child learn outside school. These study participants, like so many mothers, are carrying a terribly heavy burden in terms of both labor and stress.
At a bigger-picture level, we have this similar dynamic:
Despite Benny’s conviction that there was great value in being home with the children, neither Jackie nor Benny mentioned the option of Benny quitting work to be a full-time parent, though […] he had left his paid job and was home pursuing his dream of writing a screenplay. The full-time at-home parent decision, and the emotional turmoil that accompanied it, was Jackie’s, a gendered pattern that other research on mothering has also uncovered. Indeed, sociologist Pamela Stone found that the mothers in her research felt their husbands’ support on the surface–“it’s your choice”–but they interpreted the subtext of that message as “it’s your problem.” (52)
I love how Lois describes this and other dynamics later in the book: “Homeschooling parents […] protect[ed] fathers’ free time while invalidating mothers’ claims to it. In the process, these families created meaning systems that prioritized workplace time over domestic time, which granted fathers, but not mothers, the privilege to choose their level of family involvement” (121). Totally.
are you cherishing every moment?: time & managing tough emotions
One of the homeschooling mothers in this study stated that “There is something extremely sacrificial about homeschooling.” Lois goes on to describe some mothers’ experience of homeschooling as “sacrificially altruistic to […] literally self-obliterating” (119). These are people who feel that their children’s and husband’s well-being, needs, and interests always come before their own. They see themselves as giving up their own lives or their own interests during the precious years of their children’s childhoods, to give them the very best education they can have and to cherish every moment of intensive motherhood.
Lois finds that the mothers use temporal (time-oriented) strategies to manage their emotional experiences. That “cherish every moment” thing–Lois calls it “savoring”–draws on a desire to avoid regret in the future and an anticipated nostalgia for this childhood time once the children are grown. “Sequencing”–this is the time to be with my children, there will be time for me later–is also a common temporal strategy for emotion management amongst these (and probably very many other!) mothers.
I am not sequencing because I didn’t choose to be outside the professional workforce, and because I have no idea how or when I might be able to sneak back in. Instead, I’m just taking life up on what it appears to be offering right now. I do try to manage some stress and misery with savoring, though. With mindfulness. With appreciation for the good in the now.
me me me!: a conclusion
My own reading of this book was–obviously!–so much about me. How has our family ended up looking so very retrograde (Daddy goes to work downtown in a collared shirt, Mommy stays at home to nurse her toddler and teach her third-grader long division) but feeling so very anti-sexist? How do our intentions and perceptions interact with the powerfully sexist gender dynamics of our society? What does it mean to homeschool–such a strange thing to do!–because we all just sort of feel like it, because it’s working for us right now, because it makes us all happy? Where does that put us in relation to “the homeschooling community,” which I witness but never seem to enter, exactly?
Home Is Where the School Is offered broader context and raised further questions as I pondered my own experiences, something I always welcome in a book.