Homeschooling Is your Second Job

Why do we admire a working man for homeschooling, yet treat it as if it’s part of a woman’s normal duties? It’s not. It’s a second job.

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It was one of those homeschooling days. The kids were brutes and I was a beast. Later, when I forgot the soup and it turned to swill, I thought, “How appropriate.”

The family assured me that it tasted fine but I didn’t like it – not the swill, not the beastly behavior, not the whole wretched day. The whole day qualified as a recipe on allflops.com. It all started when I skipped my morning prayers.

It wasn’t until the end of the day that I realized that I needed help from a source that transcended my mere self – someone who empathized with my weakness, who experienced my temptations. So where does the burned out mother turn?

Facebook, obviously.

“What’s the hardest thing about homeschooling?” I put it out there like a primal scream into cyber space.

There were 93 comments.

Some were things outside of my experience and above my paygrade like, ADHD. “Somewhere there’s a sixth grade teacher who owes me a big thank you,” said the resilient mom.

There were things I’d gotten over long ago like, “people’s stupid comments” and things yet to come like, “male teenage hormones.”

One impassioned mother entered a single word, “Boys!” In her mind, no further explanation was needed.

Most of the issues were my old friends – things I’ve worked through and am still working through which jam up the gears of everyday homeschool life whether you have one child or twelve – not getting enough sleep, motivating uncooperative kids, getting the housework done.

The most original problem was, “being a man.” Active homeschooling dads are rare so there aren’t a lot of resources geared to their issues – one of which is having to provide. “I’m always thinking about the other work I’m doing so it’s hard to take a deep breath and remove myself from those things before I start school.” Wow, I thought. This man homeschools and has a job? How does this superhero do it?

Wait a minute. It’s the same for us moms.

Why do we admire a working man for homeschooling, yet treat it as if it’s part of a woman’s normal duties? It’s not. It’s a second job.

If you find yourself sneering at that idea, maybe you’ve bought into society’s decades-old caricature of our job – that any half-wit can sit around not producing much of anything, devoting entire afternoons to watching soaps. I know no one who does this.

However, I do know a few women who devote entire afternoons to making soaps. I know others who make clothing, or canned goods, or cheese, or bread or all of the above. They make a budget, appointments, and financial deals. They make the house clean. They make ends meet. Above all they make a home culture where the family can flourish. What happens if you don’t have an intelligent, committed, full time person on the job? Just look around you.

These are just a few of the activities. I haven’t even begun to describe the vocation.

We are wives, helping our husbands. Sometimes this means we listen to them and help them work things out. Sometimes this means that when our husbands are up on a ladder pouring boiling water through gutters, we’re below, boiling great pots of it, delivering it to them, and in between chipping ice off the ground with a pickax.

We are mothers – which means that for an epoch of our lives we’re carrying and delivering babies. This entails a lot of sleep, a lot of food, and a lot of episodic crying.

The doctor tells us to take a vacation from our normal activities and just concentrate on growing a baby. If we are fortunate enough to live in a traditional society where women have the support of mothers and female relatives, we can do this. Most women do not have that arrangement.

We hate the feeling of helplessness as the house falls down around us. Besides, every sense is keener. The potato that rolled into a dark crevice and rotted, the webs forming in the ceiling corners, the dingy brown paneling – are simply not to be borne. Meanwhile, there are still a host of daily needs – young children who are desirous of our tenderness, our attention, and our lunch. Older children who keep us up at night more now than they did when they were little because they aren’t home and safely tucked in yet.

I grant you that it seems perfectly natural to add homeschooling a mother’s daily life. She’s already home. She’s already invested in her children. She may even see it as the fulfillment of her vocation. Motherhood to an exponential degree. An elderly man expressed it, “Any mother who loves her children will homeschool.”

Sir, do you know what you are asking? Educating small humans is a whole other job which we may or may not be called or qualified to do. We aren’t magically invested with the skills when our children are born. We have to learn them. Even if we acquire them, there are so many variables in the job which could render it impossible – our health, finances, marital stress, a learning disability. When one of us gives it up, the rest of us do not dare judge. It could easily be us.

Yet when it falls below our standards, we judge ourselves. We tell ourselves we should have had complete control, ignoring the fact that small humans defy projected outcomes.

One veteran mom commented, “Math took up so much time for some of them that many of the fun, creative things you dream about doing when you start homeschooling just don’t happen.”

At first this looks like just another one of those particular comments about one aspect of the job. But it gets to the heart of the matter – that the hardest part is the part where you have an ideal in mind, a way you dream the job should be done. But you are too busy for it, because you have to juggle it with your first job just to keep order and functionality. Yes, your first job doesn’t go away. That home culture where the family can flourish? You’re on.

It’s the reason serving swill gets us down. Sure it’s nutritious and possibly even tastes all right but it’s ugly. We long to create beautiful things. Sometimes we manage it. Maybe often. Maybe we do a lot of things well. But here’s the thing – it is not without a cost – somewhere.

You could decide that the house doesn’t need cleaning ever; or you could let your kids play in the bathtub and write it down as health class, but most mothers simply take the cost upon themselves. They don’t relax. They are always on. They are there – yet not entire. The manager is in but the mother is out.

At the end of the day, the mother wants to relax with the family but the manager knows what time it is. Which one prevails? I know you all want to say the mother – because that’s the ideal. But if the price of a half hour of rough and tumble bliss on a Wednesday night is a ruined school morning on Thursday, the manager will probably win.

I know this all sounds like I’m stuffing the complaint box but that fact that I’m still here after twenty years ought to tell you that I have no regrets about homeschooling. In fact, now that my four graduates are gone, I’m grateful for the ten years and the three young children I have left. I’ve chosen this second job and I continue to choose it still. I strongly suspect that when it’s over and I suddenly have a clean house, and time to myself, and grown up cooperative kids, I will find myself commenting, as my son in law’s mother did: “The hardest thing about homeschooling is not schooling after twenty plus years. Couldn’t wait for it to be over. I’d count down – only ten more years until I’m done. Only five more years… Then twenty-three years later, it is all over. Now I long for the days when all the kids were under the same roof so and I could gather them all together and read to them again.”

Yes. Exactly that. But I also know that it’s going to be a day to day process, and that it is going to continue to require sacrifice from me. And I thought that people should know – husbands, children, and elderly men with pat answers, definitely. But the people who need to hear it the most are mothers. We need the perspective more than anybody.

Recently Obama made a speech stating that moms shouldn’t have to choose between good childcare and earning a wage. Of course, the material point was that the government should provide the childcare. (The Soviets were really nice babysitters too. They wanted no payment except your child’s soul.) You need to realize that such a bold conclusion is only possible because we’ve already accepted the premise: People should not have to make sacrifices.

That same silly concept is what underlies our own moments of discontent when our performance is down. We think that of course we can do it all! We should be able to carry two jobs and do them both exquisitely. We can be beautiful, caring wives, tender, attentive mothers, housekeepers like Heloise, kitchen wizards like The Cake Boss, and tutors specializing in all the academic disciplines just by fiat (blissfully ignoring the fact that we bombed math in high school). Not to mention that our hearts should ever be ruled by noble motives. We should never get mad at a child for knocking over a chair and shrieking, we should never hunch protectively over a bowl of Pringles, and never resent a husband’s late night request for a back scratch. What kind of person does that?

Answer: a human person.

There are going to be bad days. There are going to be bad years – the pregnancy and new baby years, the household pandemic years, the unemployment years, the marital stress years. A bad day is not a failure. A bad year may just give way to a good year. A whole homeschooling career of worry, as my sister in law commented, “that the kids are missing out on something” indicates nothing worse than the fact that yes – the kids will miss out on something. We cannot provide everything. We don’t have to. If there’s one thing that having four graduates has taught me, it’s that if kids have gumption and a strong work ethic they can get for themselves whatever it is you didn’t give them.

Besides, do you think non-homeschooled kids never miss out on things? Never have bad days? Never have to eat swill? What’s more, why do we assume those experiences are bad for them? Consider how we eat like kings here in the First World. Maybe, just maybe, God wants us to eat like peasants once in a while. I’ll get off my box of homemade soaps now.

In twenty years of homeschooling, it was not my first bad day. With ten years to go, it won’t be my last. I know exactly when my next one will be. It will be the day I tell myself I am too busy to pray.

Wrong. I’m too busy not to pray.

*This article was originally published in The Latin Mass Magazine

** Cartoon credit Ron Leishman