* Trigger warning - this article addresses issues such as domestic and sexual violence and may be distressing for some readers.
If you are new to homeschooling or unschooling, chances are that when you start to speak to families who have been educating at home for a long period of time, you will find that a lot of them will talk about times when their children have had to go back into school (or go into school for the first time) and have come back out again later. And if you are a more experienced family, chances are that you will recall the times when you take a break from homeschool group for a little while, and come back to a few children 'missing' , lost in the abyss of 'did they go back to school? I don't remember them talking about going to school!', met with the shaking of heads and knowing looks between parents. We have all been there. When you take on the responsibility of educating and having your child at home, all day, every day, for their entire childhood, it is kind of like making a commitment to a university degree - you know it is going to be long, and challenging, but sometimes you forget just how long 4 years (or 18 years) really is! and a lot of things can happen in that time. Life changes, relationships break up, family members are born or die, parents lose and gain employment, small children grow into young adults, you might move cities, or move out of the cities (and away from your homeschool support networks). But what can you do when you start to feel that there is just no way that you can homeschool anymore?
Realistically assess your family situation - is it temporary?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach. When you are starting to consider sending your child or children back to school, it is really important to analyse the reasons why you feel that way. Are you experiencing a significant life event that is temporary and will pass? I have found that the times that I have heard my friends and other members of the homeschooling and unschooling community express feelings of being overwhelmed, are at times where a new baby has been welcomed into the house, Mum is not sleeping, the kids are playing a little on the Playstation and watching television too many hours in the day, and it all seems just a bit too much! If it is something that will pass, then what can you put into place to help you to be healthy, and physically (and mentally!) healthy while you breathe through a birth, or death, or divorce in the family? Do you have friends and family that can come and help you to get some time out? or supervise activities with your children in the morning? or can you afford a cleaner to come in and tidy everything up while you get other things done? (or have a really good friend who will do it for a cup of tea and a biscuit?!). If it is temporary and it will pass, it is well worth considering how you can access support for yourself and your family until everyone adjusts!
Is it damaging?
There is a significant difference between temporary life and family stresses, such as a baby, a bereavement, a big move or a temporary loss of your 'I love homeschooling' mojo, and big problems that need more careful consideration. There are inevitable times when the 18 year, 24 hour a day job of parenting can get a little too much for everybody. Ask any mother who has had a week of sick children and broken sleep, followed by 18 hour waking days filled with children that are confined to the house, enhanced by a little back-chat and tantrum throwing (not necessarily by the children!) and see if she feels that a 6 hour break wouldn't be nice right about now. We all have days like that. We have all been there. But sometimes it can be more than that.
Homeschooling and unschooling involves responsibility that is rivalled by little else. Not only are you parenting and educating (or facilitating education) but you are also the person (or people) that your children will see most in their day. Your home environment is their life environment. It is the backing-track for everything that they do and see, and feel. And for many families that is mostly positive. Your children are surrounded by love and support and encouragement that can never be found anywhere else. However family life is not always amazing, and homeschooling families are not immune to bigger social issues that affect everyone else.
In Australia at present, statistics indicate that at least 23% of women who have ever been married or in a de facto relationship, experienced violence by a partner at some stage. 42% of women have experienced domestic violence in previous relationships, and less than 20% of women contacted domestic violence services while in an abusive relationship. The statistics are equally depressing for sexual violence and sexual abuse, indicating that one in three girls, and one in three boys, will be sexually abused before the age of 18, and that most of this abuse is by a close family member or friend. With dv and sexual abuse this prominent, it is inevitable that these issues will affect homeschooling and unschooling families. In addition, less talked-about issues such as depression, mental illness and addictions are just as prevalent, and would have an even more significant affect on children who are at home more often to witness and be a part of bigger family issues. If you feel that your family is affected by an issue that is damaging to their physical or mental health, then that issue absolutely takes precent over homeschooling or unschooling. It is important to get as much help as possible to ensure everyone in your house is safe and healthy, and in these circumstances, combined with appropriate assistance (numbers and contacts at the end of this article) and support, school can be a welcome change of scenery for children who may not have current stability at home. This doesn't mean that you can never home educate again - very rarely is anything in life permanent! - but in times when life at home is damaging, school can be a fantastic resource to assist in gaining much-needed respite in the interim. And make sure that you look after yourself! If the plane is going down - you need to put your oxygen mask on, so that you can look after your family too. Your physical and mental health is just as important.
Comparison is the thief of joy - are you comparing yourself?
When you are comparing your high school homeschool experience (especially if you have just started home educating in high school!) with the social media highlights of other people's home education experiences, it can be difficult to discern what is normal and what is not. And when you first start, it is so easy to get stuck into the trap of comparing what you are doing (and just starting to get a grasp on) with other family's 5-year-rhythm that has been established after many stops and starts, stumbles and failings! Nobody's homeschooling or unschooling journey is perfect. Nobody's life is perfect! If you feel that you are falling into the comparison trap, try posting in some online groups for support, and asking how other people felt at the beginning of their home education journey. Or consider joining in with some local groups, and talking to other parents about what they were worried about in the very beginning. Just like any new job, taking on the responsibility of educating (or facilitating the education of) your family, can be overwhelming, especially without a good support system. Make it a priority to get out (or online) and meet people in the same boat. And get off Instagram! if social media is overwhelming you, take a break and come back when you are feeling better about your journey!
You need a break
When I first started homeschooling I was not used to spending so much time with my children! and they were in the de-schooling process for a really long time. So I had 4 hyperactive, over-extended children at home, while I was running a business and my husband was working full time, and I had no idea what I was doing. A few hours into the day I wanted to run to my nearest coffee shop, call a friend to come and listen to me whinge for 5 hours, and hide behind a big piece of cake lest anyone want to find me. And I often did. Really often. Like about twice a week. And then I tried to organise 'homeschool Mum's cafe days' - and realised that none of the homeschool Mum's seemed to need or want a break.
At that time I didn't realise that children who are fresh out of school and de-schooling (and a Mum that was very fresh out of school and de-schooling) paints a very different family picture to families with calm and happy children who had never set foot in a school, and Mum's who could relax in the knowledge that their children were being properly socialised, and well educated and wouldn't grow up alone and illiterate, and blaming them for their lack of social skills!
New unschooling and homeschooling can be hard. And scary. And overwhelming. A lot of it comes from your own fears and the misguided information that if you don't go to school, you will fail in life. And a lot more of it comes from family and friends, and society in general who have grown up with the very same misconceptions - and have no trouble vocalising them to you (that generally stops after a few years). Not to mention that children can be hard. Sick children in particular. But count in hormonal children, breastfeeding children, older children who have just started driving or dating, and sometimes you need that coffee shop and 5 minutes of silence. And you don't need school for that - just babysitters (or a babysitter. One will do), or a really good friend who doesn't mind visiting you when the house is a mess and you have no bra on. Or a Grandma. Or an adopted Grandma. Or the television. I swore off television for several years, but on the brink of a that's-it-you're-going-back-to-school crisis, my husband came up with the brilliant idea of plugging in the television, and putting on Netflix. They watched documentaries for 4 hours straight, and all was good with the world...
I read an off-the-cuff remark about the strangeness of homeschooled and unschooled children this week on social media and wanted to wholeheartedly and publicly respond to the lovely random person who labelled all of our children as 'strange'. I actually completely agree with you. In my internet searching of creative definitions of strange, I came across 'atypical, unexpected, remarkable, curious and incongruous' - in my experience of children (and I have had quite a lot) that explains just about every child that I have ever come across. Not just homeschooled children - ALL children!