Do you sometimes feel like a big failure as a homeschool mom? We put so much of ourselves into this process of teaching our children at home and we sometimes just hit the wall. Hard. I’ve sure been there.
We all feel this way at different times. I was recently thinking of the difference between this year (which has been really fantastic for us so far) and last year (which was full of stress and many tears and often a feeling of not being able to ever get it together). We were spread so thin with my oldest son participating in a very demanding extracurricular along with his once-a-week Enrichment classes and other commitments. We ended up trying to pack all our formal learning into 3 1/2 days and it just felt so frenetic and crazy most of the time. I was frazzled. We had way too much going on and I was plain-and-simple burnt out.
I happened to bump into a dear friend one day and we got to talking in a parking lot and she said, “Take 10 days off.” Oh my word. Are you kidding me? She said, “You would tell me to do that.” (I would? oh, yeah, I guess I would.) You see, somehow I have this standard for me that is different from my standard for all the rest of you. But, desperate times call for desperate measures. So, this perfectionistic, driven homeschooler considered a friend’s wise encouragement.
I ended up taking my friend’s advice. I took off for two whole weeks. At first I was crazy neurotic about “falling behind” and all that, but I just couldn’t go forward. During our two weeks off, we did read aloud a bit and my son still did some math (because I didn’t tell him we were officially off till later in the two weeks just in case!). I started to breathe. And, you know what? When we got back in the swing of things we were all refreshed and I had revived my sense of “Oh I know why I do this home educating thing” and we were able to get things learned much more quickly because we were revitalized. It wasn’t perfect. The whole year was a hard one in some ways — at least through March with our over-commitment — but we did much better after that break.
Through that experience I learned a big lesson about taking breaks. They aren’t optional. We nailed down a six-weeks-on, one-week-off rotation for our homeschool which gives us enough undivided time for learning and then that glorious seventh week of rest — it’s a sabbath week. And we always seem to need it just when it comes around. I also used the summer months after that crazy year to take a hard look at what we were trying to do with our time. We all have heard the wisdom — add in something new, take out something you were already doing. Well, I just thought that was for “other people.” Humble pie. I realized we had to cut things out and we had to say, “no.” If you have not yet done this excruciating practice, let me just forewarn you it is tough stuff. I mean, there are so many wonderful things we can say “yes” to. But, a dear friend reminded me that just because something is good doesn’t mean it is good for me and my family. So we backed out of that really big commitment, which just so happened to be my son’s very favorite thing he had ever done in his life (quoting here). And we backed out of taking enrichment classes — which means we don’t as easily or as often see our good friends who go there. And we said, “no” to formally being on a soccer team and “no” to taking on gymnastics and a myriad of other opportunities. And even now, we have to keep up this practice of “no, thanks.” We get invites to park dates and classes and field trips. We don’t say, “no” to all of them, but we are super-choosey. It means missing out on a lot of things, but it also means we are home enough to get things done educationally and we are not running like mad hens from one thing to the next. And, you know, my dear friend saw us the other day and she commented on how very content my son seems this year. It’s paying off.
There will be seasons of really being productive and seasons when life hits us with a blindside and for one reason or another we have to slow or stop. When you give birth, when your infant starts to toddle (aka tear apart the house like a team of demolition specialists), when you add in a child to the number you are formally “schooling,” when you move, your spouse changes a job, your car breaks down, you get ill, your children get ill, you have houseguests … it goes on and on. Life has disruptions and they do impact our ability to educate for a time. Give yourself the same grace you would extend to a friend in your shoes. You will get back to educating in some organized manner in due time. Find out what works in the season you find yourself. Stop pining away for the ideal and live in what is real. We are in this for the long haul with our children and we have to know that there will be times of big-impact learning and times of learning other not-so-measurable, but oh-so-valuable skills like how to get along with others, how to entertain yourself when you are bored, how to sacrifice for the needs of others and how to give yourself grace (which they will learn as they watch you extend it to yourself now).
When we look honestly at the wall, it is often our own expectations of ourselves that cause us to just want to quit. We just don’t let ourselves off the hook. We can be so hard on ourselves and set such high expectations that we just feel worn out before we even begin. Our children are learning all the time. We have to remember that. I remember sweating it out that my oldest son couldn’t keep his parts of speech straight in second grade. I went to the resource center downtown and made this fancy chart with pockets labeled for each part of speech. It took me longer to make the chart than it did for him to learn the parts of speech. Once we sat down and went over it a few times, he got it. That experience was an “ah-ha” for me. We can stress over our children’s learning and we forget that they will learn in time. And we will never teach them everything they need to know. Is that what any school is doing? Why do we expect it of ourselves? Think about all you learned in life. Did you retain all you learned in elementary school? Jr. High? High School? So much of what I know now, I have learned while I was teaching my children. We can go on learning forever and so can our children. They have time. You have time. We feel like we fall behind, but so much can be caught easily later. I’m not talking about just eating bon bons year after year and hoping the kids turn out okay. What I am talking about is being realistic about what you are able to do in each season for each child and then letting go of what is beyond a realistic expectation. You see, God already knows your limits and He has chosen you to educate these children — knowing what seasons you will pass through and what challenges you will face, and even knowing about this time of burn-out right now. I’m pretty sure He has a plan and the resources to fill in the blanks. Trust Him more than you trust yourself.
Sometimes in the burn-out we lose sight of why we are doing what we do. It can help to step back and remember why you chose to educate at home. Just take time to enjoy your kids for a bit. Read some good books together. Give them some projects to do on their own. Take some breaks and enjoy lovely areas around where you live. Just reading great literature to your child is one of the best educational experiences you can give them. They learn the cadence of language, grammar, good writing skills and they learn about whatever you are reading. It can be a great way to bridge from burn out just to spend a little time each day reading great books together. Keep your lessons short and then go outdoors and enjoy one another.
As you lighten your own expectations and start to enjoy exploring books and the outdoors together, you are bound to feel a bit lighter. So much more will come from your change in spirit than ever would come from getting through your curriculum. Charlotte Mason says “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life.” You help create the atmosphere through your own emotional state as a mom and that means you have to do what it takes to give yourself grace and rest so that you can be all you need to be to your kids. Don’t give up. We ALL go through this stage of burn-out. It is a stage and you will look back on it from a different place in a few months.
Our own expectations aren’t the only thing that can weigh us down. We can get bogged down comparing ourselves to the public school (our fantasy of what our kids would get if they went there instead) or to other homeschool moms who obviously have it all together and pin it on Pintrest to show it. It is so hard to block out what others think, isn’t it? It just hits on all our fears and gets us rolling and gives Satan a Rolodex of things to hold over our heads. We have to remind one another to block out those voices (of the public school, of family who don’t support homeschooling, of our own fears) and to just take our children from A to B to C. No child is the same as another. There are developmental stages and milestones, but they hit them differently. So, we just build on what they know and add to it bit by bit without (hopefully) worrying about “should.” That “should” is such a trap for us. If you just ask yourself where your child is today and where you want to go, you just take the next logical step towards that end. If they don’t know their letters, start with one letter. Once they know it, move forward.
Charlotte Mason thought formal education should only begin at age six. Most of the younger years should be spent hearing wonderful literature read aloud to them and playing out doors and exploring the world. There were a few more things she did with small children, but so much of it was relational, gentle and within the natural course of the day. Our problems can come when we model ourselves after the broken system we now have in the US and we feel we aren’t doing what we ought. That system is pushing children into academics way too early and there is fallout. The method used is teaching to the test and that is not conducive to a life long love of learning — or even to long term retention of facts. If you can, try to put on blinders and just think of this process as giving your child building blocks. What “blocks” do they have (knowledge in a given subject)? Add the next block. Don’t worry about who says how many blocks they should already have. That’s not important. What is important is moving along with them bit by bit. Later you’ll look back and they’ll have a lot of accumulated knowledge and it will have come over time. Children naturally learn. We don’t have to predigest knowledge for them. They are wired by God to learn and grow. Even children with learning challenges will learn and grow. You can relax, and as you do, you will facilitate their learning far better than when you are tightly wound up with anxiety.
To have some peace of mind you have to take breaks — daily, weekly and seasonally. By the way, that break you may have thought you had … the one where you berated yourself and expected too much and felt disappointed and discouraged because the kids weren’t doing enough and surely you were going to be the cause of their demise, that wasn’t a break. So take one now. A real one — an internal one — and relax for a few days or a week and enjoy your children and dwell in Jesus and His real love for you. Then take a half-day or a day and decide what you must do that coming week for them. And do it — from the renewed place you find after giving yourself a real, legitimate break.
And, you may, as we did, start having to say, “no” to things you really, really want to say, “yes” to. And your kids may get mad at you for a time, or they may have to grieve the adjustment period. But, if it is best for them, in the long run you have to make the decision regardless. And you will all adjust — and even thrive — as a result. More importantly than the practical aspects of making more margin in your life, you have to let go of the “shoulds.” Put on those blinders and focus on the day at hand, the children in your midst and the reserves you have to give from today. Let go of the expectations of others and of yourself and focus on what your child knows and what they need to know.
We get to be the educators of our children, but, please never let that calling trump your first place in their lives and hearts. You are their mom. They will have many educators in their lives. They will only have one mom. Be mom first. This season will pass you by all too quickly. Do what you need to in order to recharge your own battery and then do what you are able to enjoy and love your children while they are with you.
And know you are not alone. I’ll say it again: we all experience burn-out. Expect it as a part of the cycle of home education and don’t see it as the end of the world. God is with you. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. You know it is your own self-imposed burden if it is feeling too heavy. You can cast this care on Him because He cares for you. His strength is made perfect in your weakness.