Beat Winter Homeschool Burnout with 20 Minutes of Joy

What did Melville write again, “The damp, drizzly November in my soul whenever I find myself pausing involuntarily before coffin warehouses?” That is exactly how homeschool burnout feels – only forget November.

November is National Decorating Season in America. Having died before reaching the age of one hundred seventy-two, Melville never knew. I feel certain that if faced with an inflatable singing Frosty the Snowman, he would have forgotten all about coffin warehouses.


Inflatable Frosty the Snowman with Christmas wreath

No, in the modern day, that damp drizzly gray time is after Christmas. Stores strip their altars. Rudolph the Retail Reindeer is silenced. The neighbors conduct the ceremonial curbside dumping of the Christmas tree. Even if you practice liturgical Christmas and hang on longer, you still have to back to school. There is work to be done!

Everything seems to urge it. Daylight is scarce. Darkness creeps up before supper. If it’s cold where you live, and you have little kids to bundle, you don’t want to go out because you spend more time preparing to go out than you do actually being out. You tell yourself, just stay in, obey the weather, and hit those books. You’ve used up about a year’s supply of energy on the first semester alone and are staring into the face of an even longer semester ahead. You know the stare. It’s the kind people go up to and wave their hands in front of as if trying to rescue you from drifting into a permanent hypnotic state – which wouldn’t be so bad.

How are you ever going to finish by June? Only one hundred days to go. Hurry up!

Stop. Stop everything.

You may be running a homeschool but you’re not running a business. This is a family. While homeschooling is important, it does not come first. Family life does.

That’s why you home schooled, remember? You did it out of love for your family – for a close bond, for a culture of faith in the home, for happy children.

People tried to talk you out of it. “It’s a big job,” they’d say.

Perhaps you answered, “No. It’s a vocation.”

The years went by and you discovered that a vocation feels a lot like a job most of the time. A big job.

Didn’t somebody say that once?

At this point, it’s best not to think of the bigness of it. It’s overwhelming. Just go day by day. Just do your job.

Homeschool burnout is real and it’s normal. Just keep in mind that the children don’t see the scope of all you are doing with the same wide angle lens that time and experience has given you. They see the process, the details, the day in and day out. For good or ill, they are forming a lasting impression – of family life, of homeschooling, of Catholicism.

What will they say eventually? Will they remember the job or the vocation?

Job: “I’m never going to homeschool. It was too stressful.”

Vocation: “Homeschooling brought us closer together. We knew our parents loved us.”

You know how it is with homeschooling. You have a lot of duties. It’s impossible to get them all done sometimes so you focus on the most urgent and let the others go. Then, you find out that the ones you let go grew urgent in your absence.

That’s true of joy too. While it is natural to work your heart out during this damp, drizzly season, don’t forget the reason you are homeschooling in the first place. Interrupt school and add a little sweetness back into your day.

Here are a few ideas to help you beat winter homeschool burnout.

Begin every school day with a favorite read aloud book. Choose a classic that packs a lot of drama or comedy. Resist the urge to assign a book report on it. My kids were vaccinated against hating literature by doing just one book report in all the years they were home schooled. Result: a vibrant love of reading.

Unpack just one string of white Christmas lights. Even if you just put these things away, the kids will love helping you wrap them around a tall plant or around a large window.

Go on a snack run. This advice comes straight from a holy missionary who enjoyed a cigar whenever a certain tiresome woman called. Sometimes life is enough of a fast.

Call another homeschooling family and make plans. Share the food prep and bring paper plates.

Bake a dessert with the kids. Write it down as school. When you consider how many people consider slicing frozen cookie dough as home baking, it is school.

Talk to your spouse and the kids about an upcoming day trip, vacation, or day off. Imagine it. Decorate a box to save up for it.

Forget about your own cabin fever and check on an elderly neighbor. Have the kids bring along some of their home drawn pictures.

Go outside. This is my favorite way to beat homeschool burnout. Go when the sun is highest, every day. Breathe the fresh air, feel the sun warm your face. I know it’s a bother to get the kids dressed if they are little. Do it anyway. Make a game of it. Take them out even for just ten minutes. Wave your arms, sing, play tag. If your neighbors have cabin fever too, they might just turn away from the TV set to watch.

It’s easy to put off these things. After all, they do take time – time that you think you will have to make up later. Guess what, that’s not how it works. When you return refreshed, you will be way more productive. Those twenty minutes of joy will yield hours of lightheartedness and provide energy for all that work that lies ahead.

Remind yourself, it will soon be spring.

In Pennsylvania where I live there is always a mid-winter thaw before the final icy blast. It’s not spring. But for a day or two, the gray lifts, the sun warms the earth, the piercing wind settles down, and there is a whiff of spring in the air. Manure?

No, it’s just rotting leaves leaving their fast frozen state. Their black nutrients penetrate deep into the soil, renewing it, feeding the earth, the brown sod, the brave onion grass, the irrepressible dandelions.

A yellow dandelion smiles up from a crack in the sidewalk. It grows low and snug against the gray earth. The kids probably planted it when they picked the white fuzz balls and blew the seeds into the air- not knowing the bother they were causing speckling the yard with weeds – not knowing the joy that one bright survivor would bring on a winter day.


God put it there to remind you that your purpose for this day, for your home school, and for everything you do is for love.

This article was published in the Christmas 2014 issue of The Latin Mass Magazine.

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