Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Finding support for homeschooling

After a recent exchange with an online friend, I got to thinking about how much (or how little) support we had when we started homeschooling.

We started when Anne entered first grade, because we were concerned about keeping her love of learning alive. Some of her preschool and kindergarten experiences had left her -- ahem -- less than enthusiastic.

I investigated homeschooling all through her Kindergarten year, finding out about the process, and possible curriculum, researching the legalities and scoping out the support systems available in our community.

Atticus was a bit reluctant, given that he's a public school teacher, and we both support the ideals of public education. But, solid investigation, convincing evidence about the benefits, and ongoing conversations about what I'd learned paved the way for acceptance. By the time Anne's Kindergarten year ended, Atticus had both come into the Catholic Church and was completely on board with homeschooling.

We dove in the following year and I began to take advantage of the aforementioned support systems in our community.

Oh, wait a minute. There weren't any.

Well, no, that's not entirely true.

In my early research, I'd looked for some other Catholic homeschoolers. They were scarce in our parish. Among fellow churchgoers, there was only one homeschooling family. They had a daughter in college and a son in junior high. Hmmm. Not exactly ready-made playmates for my children.

And, the mom in that family gently warned me away from the local Protestant homeschooling group, as she'd felt criticized and challenged by them for her Catholicism. She was a lovely person, though, who eventually helped us out with state paperwork, and some hand-me-down curriculum, for which I was very grateful. But, realistically, I knew that our families wouldn't cross homeschooling paths very often.

I knew two other women who had actually homeschooled for a time. They invited me out for coffee during my fact-finding mission and tried to talk me out of homeschooling. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. They'd both hated their experiences, and wanted to be sure I was getting all sides of the story, not just the rosy pictures painted by homeschooling books and websites. (One of those women is still a dear, close friend of mine, and we now share a good laugh over her dire warnings.)

To get back to my point: local support was not abundant. But, I was so drawn to the idea of homeschooling that I pushed on. I looked at my options:

Option One: Give up homeschooling.

Nope. Couldn't do that. It just sounded too good.

Option Two: Take my chances with the local Protestant group.

Hmmm. Yes ... entirely possible. I wasn't intimidated by other people's views of my faith.

Option Three: Tailor my support from among our school-attending friends.

Yeah, yeah, that's the ticket. We already had friends ... I'd just hang on to those friends, right?

Yes and no (with a little more on that later.) Ultimately, what I did was an evolving combination of Options Two and Three. Although we didn't partake of all of the local group's activities, we did meet one family with whom my kids clicked, and they've remained friends ever since. By remaining open to what the group has to offer, we've been able to find friends and like-minded people in unexpected places.

The tailor-made, school-friend support came from taking advantage of opportunities to keep Anne in touch with her Kindergarten pals. We made after-school play dates, met on weekends, and planned special times together.

Our first year, we also took a "Gym and Swim" class at the Y, and met a homeschooling family that lived about 30 miles away. A new avenue of support! The girls became good friends, but I would never have known that family existed if I hadn't started homeschooling that year.

Over the last seven years, our support system has been a fluid, changing thing. At times, a torrent of activities inundates us. We meet new people and dabble in new things. At other times, life settles into a more enclosed, serene family routine (this has happened when a friend moves away or we simply decide that it's time to pull back and slow down our busy-ness.) And, as sad as we've been to see old friends move away (and it's happened all too often), new friends do seem to wander into our lives. Our needs are met, one way or another.

And for my personal "Mom" support? I've turned to a variety of sources. There's long-distance support, dear friends who homeschool in other towns, with whom we get together a few times a year. There's the telephone, for catching up with my dear friend, Andrea, who once tried to talk me out of homeschooling. There are local friends who, while they don't homeschool, understand everything else that a mom goes through.

The internet and online discussion groups are invaluable, too, and have saved my sanity more than once. Sometimes, the internet has led to real life encounters, like this one. And, it's played a part in helping me connect with a new and -- gasp! -- local homeschooler:

A couple years into our journey, I reached a point of discouragement. Though our first years had gone beautifully, the school-friend dynamic was changing, Anne was getting older, and I was really starting to feel the need for some friends -- for some other homeschooling, Catholic, local friends -- who could become a bigger part of our life. I prayed, in that annoying, insistent way that I have, "Okay, God, now listen: I need someone else, or I may just have to quit homeschooling. I'm not sure I can keep doing this if You don't send someone." Happily, He agreed with me and soon I received an email from a woman saying that she got my name from a regional homeschoolers' directory. She'd be moving to our town soon, and could we arrange to meet? Oh, joy! I was delighted, especially when I met her and we hit it off immediately. As it happens, the whole family is great and they courteously provided a friend for each of my children (two of her kids are girls the same ages as Anne and Betsy; our daughters became instant best friends, and J. and I were each pregnant with the next set of best friends -- Ramona and C.)

It's important to note, too, as I touched on earlier, that a homeschooling mom's best friend might not be another homeschooling mom. Yes, it's great to have other people nearby who understand your lifestyle, but if all you've got is your best girlfriend who sends her kids to school, that doesn't mean she's not "support." If you can get out for some chocolate with a friend you love, well, hey, that works, too. It's all about finding things that will refresh you.

In the end, the question of support is an important one, but it's not the only one. For me, I know that I had to trust that I was capable of providing my children with what they needed, and that God would provide what I couldn't handle. Without a ready-made support net of other homeschoolers, I did have to work a little harder and be a bit more creative with our schedule and our social life, but it has more than paid off. I can honestly say that my kids have never lacked for friends, activities or support.

And, thankfully, neither have I. The support just keeps showing up, in one form or another. Local, long-distance, and bloggity ... it's out there.

(Postscript to the online friend who got me thinking about this post: Please know that I'm not trying to talk you into homeschooling. Really, I'm not. I never presume to know and understand all the nuances of someone else's family, so that's not what this is about. I just wondered if our journey might be helpful or encouraging to someone -- anyone -- out there. So. I'm not as obnoxious as I might seem.)


Jane Ramsey said...

Great topic, Karen. We all need to look for that support. It would be very difficult to survive without it!

Liz said...

Karen, We too went through the years with no kindred spirits, to years of many kindred spirits, to essentially losing those kindred spirits when we became Catholic. Our homeschool journey was nearly done at that point anyway and we still maintained tenuous ties until Abby finished high school. Ironically, the only close friends I have within our parish are now homeschooling (they weren't even open to it when I became Catholic, but sought out my support when they decided to begin) and I teach their kids weekly through the school year.

I think that your experiences with homeschooling and the struggle to find supportive friends has paralleled our experiences in the Church. Perhaps if all of us had become Catholic together, if we were doing the typical parish stuff, it might be different, I don't know. I know that Abby has found a far different experience in the Burlington area where she has people she knows in nearly every parish. She finds our parish to be not very friendly and feels no particular connection to our priests, while she feels a great connection to various priests in Chittenden county.

I think that for me the lack of a truly close friend in the area is sometimes one of the most difficult things. However, this is really not so much due to being Catholic, or being a homeschooler as it is due to the fact that I am simply more bookish than most of the people I know. The few people who are readers at all are more interested in the current book on the NY Times best seller list than in Chesterton, Wangrin, Belloc, Lewis, Williams, Howard, Sayers, or even Tolkien. I have had to create among teenagers and twenty somethings a group of people whom I can talk with about those authors and their ideas. This group is not a formal group, it's simply young people whom I occasionally get together with (individually, not collectively). As nice as that is, the fact is that twenty-somethings lack the experience of life to really be the sort of kindred spirit that I could sit down with over a cup of tea and a piece of chocolate cream pie to commiserate, to talk about mystical theology, romantic theology, the nature of poetry, the relationship of fantastical literature to our spiritual lives, etc. (oh and maybe the difficulties of changing bodies and the joys and pains of life with adult children as well).

What I find, like you in your homeschooling adventures, is that there isn't one person who can do all that, but that sometimes there are numbers of people who can do some of it. So I live with the twenty somethings for discussions and fall back on other people for the more mundane conversations. I also probably simply have fewer of the supportive encounters than I did as a young mom in La Leche League.

It is possible to homeschool without much support outside of the family other than books. I know because that's the way our early years were. It's great to have the big supportive group. I know because we had that as well. There truly are advantages to each scenario. Having no particular group can keep you from isolating from the rest of the world or it can lead to isolation. Having a support group can bring opportunities or it can become a millstone around your neck as it creates too much busyness or becomes a social clique.

I suspect that the same is true in my case. It would be far too easy to escape into a Catholic ghetto with my one or two good friends and let my other acquaintances simply go their own merry pagan or Protestant way. As it is I'm simply too social to isolate and so I have to continue connections with people who are often less than kindred spirits. I don't have the option of going to a more favorable location because I am as locked in place as a monk vowed to stability.

We find support and friends where we can and when the encounters are infrequent they are cherished all the more.

Beck said...

Hee! Am I the online friend? I loved this post. And I love how much support people have shown me for my desires to homeschool - that's wonderful. This is an imformative, helpful post - thank you so much.

Momto5Minnies said...

I really needed to read something like this. This year is very "different" for me. I have two in school, three at home (well only 2 school-aged). Many days I feel all alone. I do have 2 friends that really understand my decisions, but most probably can't see it ... even the priest at our parish/school. I do belong to the local "Christian" homeschool group, but I don't feel like I fit in their either. When I first started the homeschool thoughts, I met a few Catholic homeschoolers ... very nice, but also "different" than myself.

It's such a struggle sometimes to find ones place in the world. Most days I feel like I need to make my own path.

Momto5Minnies said...

I just had to add that today my one "supportive" friend came up to me to ask about homeschooling. Her oldest daughter who is the same age as my oldest is struggling in the school environment (same school that we use). I finally felt confident and knowlegeable enough to let her know my experience so far.

Today was a good day. Somebody verified my own struggles with the school my childen were in(2 still attend). It made me feel empowered!

Karen E. said...

Thanks for all the feedback and great comments! And, yes, Beck, you're it. :-) And here I thought I was being clever and discreet.