The LIG talk that started it all

Some days are hard.

I stand before you not as someone who has all the answers, and not as an expert on anything but my own family, but as just another parent who knows first hand that some days are hard.

When the opportunity to speak at LIG came up I thought about potential topics, what I had to offer that might be different from what others had to offer. I also considered talks in the past that had made an impact on my unschooling journey and what had encouraged me or discouraged me. And while some speakers in years past have touched on the challenges of unschooling, the focus was usually on how awesome it is, the benefits, the rainbows and butterflies, the warm fuzzies. That’s probably how it should be, I mean, unschooling *is* awesome, if it wasn’t we wouldn’t have made it our way of life.

But honestly, sometimes those happy talks rubbed me the wrong way, left me wondering what I was doing wrong, or the talks left me feeling more frustrated and discouraged than encouraged. If unschooling was such a happy wonderful thing, why was it that some days were so hard?

There are many ways in which days are hard, and while I have experience with a wide variety of life experiences that can induce or exacerbate hard days, including but not limited to: divorce, car accidents, unplanned pregnancies, unemployment, and chronic illness, I know that while everyone has hard days, everyone experiences them uniquely.

Today I’m going to focus on the hard days that seem to come up relating to unschooling, rather than the more universal hard days that come from being part of the human race.

Unlike some people here, our family hasn’t always unschooled. We didn’t start out with attachment parenting, we didn’t know before our kids were born exactly how we were going to raise them, partly because we didn’t exactly plan on becoming parents before it happened. Well, we wanted to be parents, but we hadn’t decided that we wanted to be parents together or that it was time to become parents. But, once we knew we were going to be parents we made a commitment to our unborn child, the baby to be that we called “Love Child Robertson” for shock value. That commitment and that baby brought about our marriage a year after Tasha turned one.

We began unschooling when our kids were 12, 9 and 8. Six years ago we attended our first LIFE is Good Conference, it was only a month after I’d first run across the word “Unschooling” while online desperately trying to figure out how I could handle homeschooling my 6th grader since I wasn’t all that organized and I didn’t want to end up fighting all the time, but knowing that she needed to be somewhere other than school.

After attending LIG we decided to take all 3 of our girls out of school. As the school year wrapped up I unenrolled them from school and submitted our “Declaration of Intent to Provide Home Based Instruction” for the following fall. This was kind of a big deal. I had been a volunteer at the elementary school for 6 years. It was our community. I had become friends with my kids’ teachers and the librarian, we attended many evening activities and the girls had been involved in the school plays and choir. Telling everyone we were leaving was a big deal. But we were excited to begin our unschooling adventure.

Fast forward to fall. As the first day of school neared we planned a celebration. We would go up to Lewisville Park and build a fire and make s’mores. We’d enjoy the great outdoors and the wonderful weather that often arrives just as schooled kids get shut indoors.

But the night before school started one of my kids *needed* to go to school. She remembered all the wonderful things about school, she couldn’t imagine life without school, she was sure she wanted to go back.

I wasn’t at all sure. In fact, I was pretty set on this wonderful new life I’d been learning so much about. If she returned to school I would be returning to school, too!  And I’d said my goodbyes, I’d crossed that bridge and I didn’t want to go back. I suggested we wait a few days since the first day the office would be crazy and besides, we had a really fun day planned.

I think I managed to stall her for 3 days. After that I realized that this was something she really needed to do, and if unschooling was about supporting your kid in doing what they really wanted to do then I needed to support her. And so trying to shush the voices in my head that were saying, “What will the people at the school think?” and we walked down to the school and into the office and I said, “I’d like to re-enroll my kid.”

The secretary was really wonderful about it. We were able to put my daughter back into the class with the teacher she’d had the year before who had moved up with his class to 4th grade. The teacher had homeschooled siblings and had been supportive of us taking the kids out of school. Now he welcomed her back, but he did express concern about attendance issues that might come up since he knew we’d be doing fun things and she’d probably want to join us. I acknowledged those concerns but didn’t make any promises that it wouldn’t be an issue. I had no intention of making my kid go to school any day she didn’t want to go.

And for a few weeks she went to school. And she rejoined choir, which meant getting her to school 45 minutes early several days a week. Not only did I have to get up and pack a lunch and get her out the door, sometimes I had to get her there by 7:30! So much for my vision of my new amazing unschooler life!

But really she didn’t go to school for all of those weeks. Once she was back in school, with the same teacher and the same kids, she started to remember the negative parts of school. The mean kids, the way the teacher criticized her writing, lunch time where you never had enough time to eat before being shuffled out to recess. And so she started staying home more and more, until we had another conversation about what she really wanted to do. And then I had to, go back into that office and say, “I’d like to re-unenroll my child.”
To their credit, everyone at the school was very nice about the whole thing, but it was really hard for me to walk into the office full of people I knew and re-enroll and then re-unenroll my kid!

She ended up staying in Choir and participating in Honor Choir. That spring she was in the School play, she got the lead, and then she was done for good.

Through that experience I learned a lot about unschooling in a very short period of time.

There were a lot of hard days in there. But what made them hard? Mostly my expectations. I had this pretty little fantasy in my head about how wonderful unschooling was going to be and then *bam* my kid goes and has a different plan!

Expectations are a huge source of bad days. Expectations about our kids, our selves, how life is supposed to go, expectations about what others are supposed to do. We *know* in our mind how something is supposed to happen and when it doesn’t we think we’re having a bad day.

Fortunately, early on in the process, I realized my kid needed to experience school again before she could move on to unschooling. She needed days of going to school and then not going to school to feel the difference. She needed to know it was her choice.

In unschooling hard days often get at least a little better, for everyone involved, when we return to the basics and ask ourselves, “What does my child need and how can I meet that need?”

Through this experience I had to step out of my comfort zone. I had to be willing to walk into that school, even though I didn’t want to, because it was what my kid needed. Very early on the phrase, “Nothing is more important than my relationship with my kids” became something of a mantra in my head. And my discomfort, my desire not to feel embarrassed or awkward, was definitely not more important than my relationship with my kid. This wasn’t about me, I needed to get over my worries about how the situation looked to other people, I needed to get past feeling awkward, because my kid needed to know she could count on me to have her back. She needed to know that I would listen to what she was saying she needed. I needed to stop telling myself that the whole situation was problematic and recognize that none of it really mattered, what mattered was my relationship with my kid and being the parent she needed me to be. I needed to stop fighting what was and get on with what I needed to do.

Once all three girls were unschooling things got better. We watched a lot of TV series and movies. We started reconnecting after years where the school system had pulled us in different directions. Over time we had inside jokes and began remembering that we liked spending time together.

But there were still really hard days. Being an unschooler doesn’t mean you won’t have to deal with the challenges of different ages and stages, children who are bored, kids who just can’t figure out what it is they want to do, fallings out with friends, and all the emotions, hormones and exploration that goes into growing up. And being an unschooler, for some people, will increase the conflict that comes from the outside: disapproving relatives, friends who think you are completely crazy, and a society that is quick to think the worst. Being an unschooler doesn’t exempt you from the human condition. People get sick, get laid off, get hurt, and get divorced. Tragedy strikes. I know that we are all are deeply aware that the unschooling community is not exempt from being human.

What being an unschooler does provide is a philosophy that sets you up to handle hard days. We should already have a framework of questions that will help us get through the rough times.
We are used to thinking out of the box, getting creative, and questioning societal norms and expectations. We know to ask, “What does my kid need and how can I meet that need.”  On a hard day we can turn that question around and ask, “What do I need and how can I get that need met?”

Now I’m going to try and show you how universal the challenges, doubts, worries and struggles of unschooling are by asking you some question. This is also a subtle way of making sure you are all still awake and paying attention since I know it’s Saturday afternoon and sleep deprivation is setting in.)

Stand up, or if standing up and sitting down isn’t possible raise your hand, if you have had these experiences:

Stand up or wave if you’ve ever:

Struggled with meeting everyone in the family’s sleep needs  (o.k. sit back down)

Struggled with letting go of control when it comes to chores, helping around the house or the level of cleanliness or lack there of in your child’s bedroom.

Faced conflict when it comes to meeting the needs of introverts and extroverts in the same family

Been freaked out or concerned over your child’s eating habits.

Felt like your kids were fighting all.the.time

Felt like you and one of your family members were in conflict all.the.time.

Coped with relatives or close friends who strongly and vocally disagree with how you are raising your children

Worried that your child was going to spend the rest of their life, or at least the majority of it, sitting in front of a computer or television.

Doubted that your kids would know what they need to know, for example how to read, multiply, or understand quantum physics.
(o.k. sit back down)

I was thinking about the universal nature of hard days and thought it would be cool to come up with an algorithm for hard days. I’m not sure I accomplished that, perhaps I came up with more of a flow chart or a series of questions you can ask yourself to help you figure out the best options for getting through your hard day.

You find yourself saying “I’m having a hard day”

Try reframing your “hard day”

is it really a hard day or is it actually a hard moment/minute/hour/few hours?

Try categorizing or naming your hard day:

Is it an immediate crises or catastrophic event?

it’s a chronic hard situation?

is it all in my head? (Am I telling myself something is hard when it’s not)

Ask yourself the hard question:
*How are my expectations contributing to this hard day?*

Consider if there’s something you need or can do about the hard day right that moment:

IS there something I need to do Right Now?

Is a response necessary?

Can I put my life on hold?  (escape, vacation, hide in bed and watch netflix, go for  walk)

Can someone else make things better? (Support, take action, provide an answer/solution)

Ask yourself “Is there something that will make me feel better Right Now?”
Go for a walk, eat chocolate, call a friend, cry, laugh, pound a pillow, meditate, loud music, soothing music

Ask yourself:
What is the best thing that could happen?
What is the worst thing that could happen?

Is there anything you can do to make the best thing happen?
Is there anything you can do to avoid the worst thing?

There are challenges where the only thing that’s going to make it better is time.
There are moments when we need to accept that things are really crappy, there’s nothing we can do to change that, and we need to do our best to let go of our need to control the situation.

When my kids were little I felt like a failure when it came to bedtime. Now, this was back when they were still in school and I still tried to get them to go to bed around the same time each night. I would read them stories, sing them songs, stay in the room with them, and yet they didn’t get into a routine that meant they fell asleep quickly at the same time each night. On the nights when the time spent in the process of getting my kids to bed stretched longer than my patience, I’d get tense and frustrated. My mind would start spinning angrily because I didn’t have any time for myself. And of course that didn’t help.

But if I could just relax and accept the time together, acknowledge that this phase of parenting wasn’t going to last long, things went better. And then we found unschooling, took our kids out of school and Bam! I found out that when kids are tired they will go to sleep. When I stopped trying to get them to go to sleep when I thought they should, things got a whole lot easier!

Well, kind of easier. For a while my kids were experimenting with going to bed very late and my husband was getting up at 5:15 a.m. to go work a job as a manny before he worked his usual job. I was getting up with him to get him breakfast, chai and a lunch packed before he headed off to work. Staying up late when the kids needed me to and getting up with Jess in the morning often left me way too short on sleep. There were evenings when I’d have to take a nap after Jess got home before I had energy to make food for everyone. The answer to the situation was time, it was hard, but it was temporary. Jess worked that job for a year, which felt like forever at the time, but it was really just a year. My kids gradually became more independent at night. Now my kids are all teenagers, they put themselves to bed. It’s total sweetness when I hear them in the hall outside my bedroom saying goodnight to each other as they head off to their rooms sometimes hours after I’ve gone to bed.

I’m guessing that some of you are still struggling to get enough sleep. And perhaps hearing me talk about how great it is that my kids are old enough to be up on their own and even feed themselves and put themselves to bed is rubbing you the wrong way. I get that.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been scrolling along on facebook and found yourself getting more and more irritable?

Maybe I post on facebook about how much I appreciate that my oldest daughter does the laundry for the whole family, which she does, and you’re scrolling through facebook because you needed an escape from the piles of laundry that are waiting to be washed, and my post really bugs you. We all know this happens. Scientists have even studied it and given it a name “Envy Spiral.”  Even though we know that comparing our lives to the lives of others as they are presented on fb is not smart. We get that fb is the highlight reel of everyone’s lives, often leaving out the challenges and difficulties that people are facing, but we just can’t stop ourselves from comparing and contrasting our life with the lives of our friends.

Side note: scientists say the best way to avoid envy spiral - other than avoiding fb all together, is to click on things.  Interact with your friends by way of a comment. :)

If you’re like me, you find it really really hard not to compare your life to other people’s lives. And that brings me to my soap box:

** I’m going to get up on my soap box (well, one of my soap boxes) for 5 minutes, then I’ll get back down and get back on topic.:
It’s important not to try and rate or compare hard days. This is harder for some of us who are naturally good at “critical thinking.” Judging or comparing can superficially make us feel better about our self and where we are, or it can make us feel worse depending on the situation. We all have hard days, but what is devastating to one person may be a quickly passing storm for another.

For some reason society makes it seem socially acceptable to judge people who are having a hard day. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but it sure feels that way, particularly if you read the comment on just about anything on the internet. I wrote a blog post about Why I Buy my kids Redvines with our EBT card. It’s my most read post of all time. People who have been on food assistance relate. Other people read it so they can feel righteous and criticize people who are on food assistance. Would you tell a person with a 6 figure salary what to buy at the grocery store? So why is it that it feels o.k. to tell a person who lives on minimum wage or disability what they they should buy at the store?

Judging other people’s hard days also makes it easier to justify not offering support. “Well, if only they’d made better choices they wouldn’t be where they are…” Some hard days hit out of the blue but some of us can even judge those days along the lines of “Well, if they’d just done *this* then they’d have been better prepared for *that* and they wouldn’t be needing help right now. Or we can see an *obvious* solution to someone else’s hard day, and really, why should we help them if they aren’t willing to help themselves?

But we just can’t know someone else’s experience. We don’t know all the challenges they are facing, the factors that are influencing their decisions. We don’t know who bought them that phone or who is helping them afford that luxury we, for some reason, deem them unworthy of having. Our family has spent a year and a half coping with unemployment. People lookin at us who don’t know us well, and even some people who think they know us well, have no way of knowing the details of our situation. They don’t know all the things we’ve been doing to support our family, the reasons why we haven’t been able to find employment, how our values and long term goals, our children’s needs, and our health issues affect the decisions we are making.

As a community we can try to look for more ways to help and fewer ways to justify not helping. People have done amazing things to help us. Some members of this community have helped us financially, others have listened when we needed a compassionate ear, people have helped us by buying food for our chickens, giving us hand-me-down clothes and shoes and appliances, and helping us keep our house warm through the winter with firewood, bubblewrap for the windows, and new space heaters.

I’ve always told our kids that no matter how little we have, there are people who have less. Given that most of the people we hang out with have so much more, that can be a perspective our family needs to purposely focus on. In light of that, almost every time someone in the unschooling community asks for financial support we try to donate. Some days we only donate $5, but we try to give something. We know that every little bit helps. We also know that helping other people can be a way to feel better when you are having a hard day yourself. It doesn’t have to be money. It can be making up a care package for another family, sending a note, dropping off flowers cut from your yard or simply listening with compassion.

If we all looked for more ways to support each other through our hard days, all kinds of hard days, the world would be a much nicer place. We’d also have a much lower rate of hard days over all..

Now I’m getting back down from my soapbox.

So, we all have hard days. Days when we think our kids will never get along, days when we worry about our kid not ever learning to read or multiply or manage money, and days when we are exhausted, experiencing emotional turmoil, sick, hurting, or facing financial crises.

But we also live in a world where the unrelenting message is that we should think positive thoughts, count our blessings, and remove the negative people from our lives. We are told repeatedly that if we change our thinking we can change our life. But what if that’s not true, or at least not the whole truth? In “The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” Oliver Burkeman writes about what scientists, psychologists, and people who are examining happiness are finding:

“The startling conclusion at which they had all arrived, in different ways, was this: That the effort to try and feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative - insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness - that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy. Instead, they argued that it pointed to an alternative approach, a ‘negative path’ to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, and even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions - or, at the very least , to learn to stop running quite so hard from them.  Which is a bewildering thought, and one that calls into question not just our methods for achieving happiness, but also our assumption about what ‘happiness’ really means.”  pgs 7-8

And I’ve found this to be true. When I stop trying to be happy, you know *HAPPY!!* (jazz hands), when you let yourself off the hook, when you take away the guilt you feel because so many people are posting things they are happy about on facebook and that’s pissing you off because you just don’t feel happy, it gets easier to accept things as they are right now.

For many years I’ve lived in survival mode. When my kids were little I was just trying to keep us all alive for another day. A few years ago when I was first diagnosed with Grave’s Disease I was pretty much on the couch for a month. But that wasn’t so bad. I mean, it was horrible, my heart rate was over 100 beats per minute even at rest, my weight was dropping rapidly and I had absolutely no energy, but because I had no choice but to sit on the couch in between getting up and meeting the most basic needs for our family - food and laundry on a good day - I embraced it. For the first time in ages my kids had my full attention and company. I could never be too busy or have too much to do. I was there, with them, on the couch watching movies and TV shows. And a lot of the usual stress melted away because of that. I was terribly sick, but was still able to be a great parent. In some ways it made it easier for me to be a great parent.

In 2010 I wrote a blog post “For Mothers of Young Children: It Will Get Easier.” It was inspired in part by the “It Gets Better” campaign that was going on at the time. The message may be written to moms with young children and babies, but it applies to all caregivers. I’d going to read it to you as my summary and conclusion to this talk::

For Mothers of Young Children: It Will Get Easier

A comment on facebook, made by a mother with young children about my Stop Yelling post, caught my attention.  The feelings of frustration and desperation, combined with the feeling that there was no answer to the situation, were painfully familiar.  I was reminded of how desperate, trapped and depleted I felt for years when my girls were young.  If you are a mother living in survival mode right now please know, you are not alone.  It does get less intense, you will get more sleep, and you will get to go to the bathroom alone.  If you are a parent or grandparent or guardian of any kind who is feeling over whelmed by the needs of the children in your life and you cannot see a light at the end of the tunnel please hold on.  Tell yourself you only have to get through this one moment at this time, and then you can face the next moment.  You are not alone.

When I was living in survival mode I couldn't see a way out.  I did not feel that there were any resources, that I had any options, that I could do anything to change the situation.  When you are parenting three children ages 4, 16 months and 1 month, just nursing and changing diapers consumes the day.  I did not have a single friend who was inclined to come over for a visit, much less help.  My husband was gone all day and several nights a week for work and classes.  Our only car went with him.  These are years of my life that I barely remember.  Dishes regularly grew moldy on the counter.  The laundry lived in a pile on the couch.  I think I mopped our tiny kitchen floor twice in two years.  Because I lived in survival mode for so many years, and was not one of those mythical Super Moms who manages to have a clean house, and children, too, I did not think I had much to share about the early years of motherhood.  I was wrong, I need to share because you need to know that my family survived those years and yours will, too.

I also need to share because those of you who no longer have small children need to be reminded that mothers do not stop needing support when their baby reaches 6 weeks of age.  We need to reach out because often an exhausted mother is not going to ask for help.  We need to bring over a meal or take the older kids to the park, we need to stop by for a visit and wash the sink full of dishes while we chat.   We need to stop thinking we are too busy with our own lives and figure out what kind of helping we do best.  Do you like to cook, or clean, or cuddle a baby so mom can take a shower?  Do you have the resources to send over takeout?  Do you have a teen or tween who would be happy to be a mother's helper for a few hours each week?

When you are are living in survival mode, exhausted, depleted and possibly suffering from depression, all advice sounds trite, impossible or just plain insensitive.  No matter how ridiculous someone's advice may sound, ask yourself if there is some small way to apply it to your life.  Remember, it will get easier.  Little by little, in ways so small you may not notice them at first, things will get easier.  When you feel like all you do is meet other people's needs, clean up messes, wash dishes, make food, wash more dishes and wash laundry, stop for a moment.  Take a deep breath, exhale just as deeply, then take another deep breath.  Ask yourself what small thing you can do for yourself.

Here are some ideas:

*Eat chocolate.
*Ask for help: call a friend, post of facebook, text someone; be honest about how you are feeling and what you need.
*Take your vitamins.
*Buy food that only has to be heated, even if you think it is something you can't afford:  frozen french fries, pizza, ravioli, desserts.
*Keep fruit frozen in the freezer so it is easy to blend up a smoothie when you realize you have forgotten to feed yourself.
*Put on music that you love.

Look for ways that you can nurture yourself and your children at the same time:

*Get everyone out of the house for a walk, even if you only make it to the corner and back.
*Grab a pile of books and some snacks and spend time reading and cuddling in a pile.
*Let your children watch movies for as long as they want.
*When your children are doing crafts get creative with them.
*Tell yourself three things you love about each of your family members.
*Remember that food is food and ice cream for breakfast is just fine, as are popcorn and apples for dinner, or pancakes for lunch.
*Use a slow cooker/crock pot so that dinner can be prepared earlier in the day when you may have more energy.

When you have dishes in the sink, laundry on the couch, toys all over the floor, and at least one mess to clean up that you would rather not mention out loud, remember, you are not alone.  Take a deep breath, eat some chocolate, put on some music and go dance with your children, the mess can wait, at least until the end of the song.      

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