To Homeschool or Not to Homeschool: Life in the Trenches

By Aubrey Lively

I was reading a biography of Beatrix Potter, memorizing Scripture, and working on geography and math facts when the local school district told my mom I had to be in school. At first, the new adventure did not disturb me—the thought of trekking to the other side of our tiny island, seeing what went on in classrooms, and carrying my own lunchbox was mysterious. The mystery subsided when I arrived in kindergarten.

Since then, I have dreamed of homeschooling my own children. One of the bright spots of that island school was Leonardo daVinci, Renaissance man, a person of indelible curiosity, my hero and career ambition, but my teacher corrected me: no one could possibly know everything any more. “We’ve come too far since daVinci,” she said, although we had learned nothing new since first grade. From that point on, when I was bored, I’d use the margins of my paper to make homeschool plans—plans for learning everything—for becoming a Renaissance man. My reasons for homeschooling were purely academic, purely a reaction to my own experiences.

In 2000, when I found out I was finally expecting my first child—after fifteen years of planning how to homeschool but only a year of marriage—I began reading everything I could find. I remember one blog entry that described how a mother gave each of her boys a spoonful of peanut butter, for protein, because there wasn’t time for anything better, and I, with my one child, was aghast. I couldn’t imagine homeschooling under anything less than perfect conditions.

My son turned 5 at the same time that we bought and began remodeling our first house. My dad, 49, died that September. Teaching reading, counting, and handwriting bordered on torture for me, and my barely 5-year-old boy had an attention span that rarely lasted more than thirty minutes and sometimes failed to reach five. My 3-year-old insisted on doing everything her big brother did and wept when she discovered we had done history without her while she was napping.

This is where I am supposed to laugh at my unreasonable expectations and write about how I found balance. Instead, my husband was diagnosed with a chronic illness, we had another baby, sold our house, moved to another city (where my husband began a seminary degree), and found out we were expecting our fourth baby. That was 2007, and those aren’t even all the highlights.

Suddenly, feeding kids spoonfuls of peanut butter for protein made sense. Actually, protein wasn’t even on my radar—most of the time; it was a battle just to keep my toddler out of the trash and off the new baby. Latin got recategorized to “pipe dream.”

My academic vision of homeschooling was slipping away. As year after year went by at ever-increasing speeds, I began to wonder if I was making the right choice. I began to fear that I was sacrificing the very education I wanted for my kids by keeping them at home. My husband made a list of our many homeschooling successes with which to counter the sleep deprivation, and his list trumped my imagined failures and temporary problems. Although I was not reaching my own goals, I was still exceeding every other option available to us. My husband suggested that perhaps my ideals were a little . . . idealistic.

Again I have reached a point when I am supposed to write about how encouraged I was and how things got better. Instead, our finances plummeted. After two years in seminary, my husband still hadn’t found a good job. I have a master’s degree and am certified to teach—I have asked myself countless times how I can justify staying home when my husband is unable to find work. Our kids were not being educated in the way I wanted anyway.

In that struggle between wanting to stay home, wanting to realize the dream that I’d carried with me since childhood, and the burden of financial crisis, I found that homeschooling was no longer a simple issue of academic success or the possession and mastery of infinite realms of knowledge—there were reasons that did not fit clearly into one of my husband’s lists. I was no longer the person who would homeschool “unless something better came along.” The very idea had gotten into my bones and become a part of who I was in a way that perhaps it could not have before I had children.

The family closeness that can blossom in the process of homeschooling was like a dormant flower I hadn’t planted and didn’t know was there, and it took me by surprise. My two oldest children had gotten along well before homeschooling became official, but in the process of learning and working together, they have become genuinely best friends, and they have received and nurtured their younger siblings in a like manner.

This closeness fostered by homeschooling extended beyond siblings, though. After my dad died, we lost both of my great-grandparents. They were in their nineties, so their loss was not unexpected, but before they went, we were able to spend time with them and my grandparents who were caring for them, having had a taste of the brevity and unpredictability of life when we lost my dad.

The last time I sat with my great-grandfather, it was a school day. I held his hand, but he did not know I was there. It had been months since he’d known who I was. I looked across the hospital bed at my children, and a black-and-white photo of my grandmother doing the same thing before her grandmother died flashed on my memory. My son’s eyes held the mystified expression that my mother’s eyes had held in the old photo when she was about the same age as he, and for a moment, a great canvas of time was opened up for me to see.

I’d worried on the way to the hospital about setting aside our lessons for the day. I think I’d even packed books to take with us, lest we lose a precious moment doing nothing. I sat there, though, doing nothing but holding Grand Dad’s hand and watching my kids learn a lesson that is unutterable. Sometimes homeschooling is more than math and grammar. That was the last time we saw Grand Dad alive.

I can’t pretend that I’ve had some kind of epiphany about academics. This part of me is still the most vulnerable to daydreams of perfect schools on the other side of the world, but in my pre-kid days, there were only lists and schedules. Now there are living, breathing, crying, wiggling children.

Two of them would not easily succeed in a classroom. The smaller one is fiercely independent but has a gentle side when her independence is met with understanding. The older of these is my quiet, brooding son. When his boat is nudged gently onto the waters, he has a confidence and an enthusiasm that give steady wind to his sails, but too hard of a shove, too much conformity, and he becomes becalmed, stuck.

Knowing how these two could shut down and how the other two could be pulled away by the lure of peers, so extroverted they are, academic reasons for homeschooling have changed from “knowing everything” to helping them find their own paths for success, paths that are not always available and not easily found.

In the process of transformation that is homeschooling, one cannot avoid the spiritual depth that creeps in, for it is that spiritual dimension that lights the paths we did not expect to take. I had always seen religion and academics as an either-or choice, but experience taught me otherwise. As the living tapestry of our lives was woven with teachable moments, Scripture, history, language, art, and potent questions asked by innocent hearts, I saw for the first time what a Christian education might be. Happening upon my children praying for each other pierces my heart with clear conviction: the spiritual reasons for homeschooling are primarily that I might have the Word that I pour into them echoed back to me.

Homeschooling has called upon me for sacrifices I hadn’t expected, as the lifestyle eventually calls upon all of us who choose it. Perhaps the greatest sacrifice has been itself—exchanging my inexperienced idealism for commitment grown in the dark and fertile soil of experience. I am inspired, though, to present my body a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God (Romans 12:1).

I am called to homeschool, despite the crises falling down around me like the scene of a battlefield. I see my life, as a mother and a homeschooler, as a wartime nurse, a testimony of the peace and fulfillment that is in Christ. When life is stormy, it is so easy to doubt the call, but I am learning that it is not the lack of storms in our lives that testifies of Jesus: it’s the Savior on the boat.

Biographical Information

Aubrey Lively is married to a musical seminarian and is homeschooling mother to four, aged 9 to 2. She has a BA in literature and a MEd in teaching. She loves writing, coffee, books, great curricula, and talking to anyone who doesn’t mind the limitations of these four topics. In her spare time, she writes novels, tutors, scrapbooks, sews, and rearranges furniture. Visit Aubrey online at aubreylively.blogspot.com.

Copyright 2010. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Fall 2010. Used with permission. Visit them at theoldschoolhouse.com.

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