Homeschooling, feminism, & the third way

Recently I had the opportunity to see a bunch of moms from my old homeschooling days. We talked about our adult children, how and what they’re doing, and we engaged in some reminiscing. One mom and I discussed how we feel now that our kids are grown and we have more time on our hands. It’s not as though homeschooling and raising kids was all we did — part-time work, volunteer work, and hobbies like singing, gardening, community activism, and more helped fill our days then as now, but there’s no mistaking that a huge part of our life’s work has, if not ended, shrunk, diminished, subsided. It exists now in the realm of happy, meaningful memories, and lives on in the lives of our adult children.

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Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

My friend and I talked of transitioning to a life with a different focus, and how we feel about ourselves in the aftermath of choosing a lifestyle that prioritized motherhood and family in a way that society doesn’t acknowledge as valuable. Women’s work, whether in the workplace or the home, has long been undervalued, but modern women choosing not to work outside the home, or to pursue a non-traditional form of work in order to stay home with their children, is dismissed by many as backwards, nostalgic, too traditional, and in some circles, anti-feminist. A blog on feminist legal theory from the University of California, Davis School of Law, for instance, concludes that homeschooling must be anti-feminist if only because in the majority of families the woman stays home and the man works. With a passing acknowledgement of the fact that such an arrangement is more practical because men make more money than women, the post goes on to say that “Returning mothers to the home to devote the entirety of their selves to their children subordinates women” and that women who choose to homeschool weaken the “social, familial, and political advancements” women have made.

Here we go again with the women against women narrative, which does a lot more to hamper our advancements than my choosing to homeschool ever will. If we could stop pitting ourselves against each other, we might genuinely try and understand the choices of others rather than spout ignorant statements like, homeschooling requires that a woman be “tethered to her children at all times,” and that it “teaches children that education is inextricably linked with being mothered.” The latter assertion demonstrates not only a profound ignorance about how homeschooling worked in my family and scores of other families I know, but also a disrespect for the intelligence and personhood of children, who are fully capable of learning and making choices in the world independently.

While the author makes legitimate points about the potential perils of economic dependency for women who are supported by their husbands, she fails to look at broader issues like, when parents work, who minds the children? In her wonderful essay “Unschooling as a Feminist Act,” Wendy Priesnitz talks about working in daycare centers as a young woman and noticing that the primarily female staff members were both underpaid and undervalued. While one set of women liberated themselves by pursuing careers, another set paid the price. It led her to ask the question, “Does one have to have a paid job in order to be a feminist?”

The “third way” she discusses involves considering not only the rights and needs of women, but also those of children. It is that third way that I and my friends chose, one that upends the notions that children are vessels to be controlled rather than nurtured by adults, that caring for children is menial and unimportant work, and that success and happiness are measured by material acquisitions rather than relationships, community, and other non-tangibles. Our choice was not based on lack of ability, qualifications, or opportunity to pursue paying careers. Nor was it based, as some believe about homeschooling parents, on a desire to control and mold our children’s lives. Like most mothers, we thought about what we wanted to provide and model for our children, and what kind of world we wanted for ourselves and for them. For me, that decision making process led to slow homeschooling, a way of life that emphasized respect, relationships, personal responsibility, community, and enjoyment of life.

I would be lying if I said the social judgment of my work as a mother and homeschooling activist never got to me. Yes, sometimes I do feel less than for not having a “career,” for not being able to produce a sterling resume of degrees, jobs, and other socially honored accomplishments, but all in all I have no regrets. That third way, whether one calls it unschooling, slow homeschooling, life learning, or something else, was the right way for me and my family, and while the path is ever changing, the opportunities for joy, learning, connection, and growth are never ending. Onward I go.

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7 thoughts on “Homeschooling, feminism, & the third way

  1. A wonderful and thoughtful piece. I suspect women with some professional backgrounds struggle with this issue more than others, and that’s a function of the work environment they are intellectually trained to prioritize more than anything.

    My husband and I are software developers and produce financial and operations management software for large corporations. We work remotely for corporations all over the world, and that professional flexibility makes it easy to homeschool our daughter. There are a lot of folks in the tech industry that choose to homeschool now because it is a brilliant match for how we live and think (whereas traditional schools are certainly not). Most of us spent our childhood bored in classrooms waiting for other kids to catch up and we do not want that for the next generation if we can afford to provide them with a better and more academically challenging education. There is not the same gender imbalance either. My husband works with our daughter on math and computer science and reads with her every day. We share the responsibility of educating our daughter.

    However, if you look at women who went into law or medicine, for example, which are deeply inflexible work environments, they can’t get away from the prison of billable hours to spend much time with their children, let alone educate them. Those industries are unlikely ever to change either, because adding more work-life balance (for men or for women) would involve radically altering their entire compensation model.

    I remind myself of this whenever I hear a woman from those walks of life criticizing homeschooling as “un-feminist” and suggesting that outsourcing parenthood is the only way to be a “real” woman. That’s the insecurity they live with as a result of the trade-offs they have made and will continue to make in exchange for a title that really is not that special in a nation full of professionals. It’s silly and illogical for them to suggest that those trade-offs must necessarily be made by all parents (male and female) as well. There are industries that are simply more intelligent about how they do business and support a life well-lived (which is ultimately what we are talking about here).

    It would be nice if instead of talking about who is more or less “liberated,” women spent that time advocating for more flexible work environments in general, which shouldn’t even be difficult in the Internet age. The problem isn’t that women must compete with men in their careers. It’s the antisocial nature of some business models that pit family life and cash flow against each other unnecessarily. Ironically, this is a completely modern problem too. In previous generations, children were regarded as apprentices (worthy of parents’ attention) rather than cost centers that have to be carried well into adulthood.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. This is so true. The linked UC Davis Law blog made me really mad, so I appreciate your perspective in this comment of having empathy for people who feel trapped in their choices and therefore project judgment on others.

      “I remind myself of this whenever I hear a woman from those walks of life criticizing homeschooling as “un-feminist” and suggesting that outsourcing parenthood is the only way to be a “real” woman. That’s the insecurity they live with as a result of the trade-offs they have made and will continue to make in exchange for a title that really is not that special in a nation full of professionals. It’s silly and illogical for them to suggest that those trade-offs must necessarily be made by all parents (male and female) as well. There are industries that are simply more intelligent about how they do business and support a life well-lived (which is ultimately what we are talking about here).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a bizarre world for women now. I made an effort to keep up with old classmates for a while on social media. It was a strange amateur sociology project watching how they reacted to news that we decided to homeschool our daughter. Some women who were thrilled to be connected to me when I was a government economist and bond analyst got weird when we founded a financial technology company and were suddenly no longer tied to a physical office. That’s the ultimate luxury, right? Then we started homeschooling, and one of them started referring to me snidely as a “housewife.” “I earn fully twice as much a year working in tech as you do at your white-shoe law firm and I have time to hike daily with my kid. Please tell me about the evil degradation of wanting a home-centered life in the modern world and how staying home is preventing me from having it all,” I finally said. The idea that I was not sacrificing these things made her think of my job as less prestigious even though I was more successful on paper – that’s how dysfunctional their logic is now. What are objectively perks are liabilities to them because being a “feminist” means being a martyr to a career even when it’s not worth it. The best thing we ever did was stop assuming that ambition and a home-centered life were mutually exclusive. Frankly, though, I find myself getting along with women who are, in fact, willing to sacrifice a career for family more than women who will put their marriage, parenthood, aging parents, etc. on the back burner so they can make the latest inane meeting. I seek out the people who genuinely want to flourish (in an Aristotelian sense), whatever form that takes. Sometimes flourishing requires making unconventional choices when culture has deviated from what it takes to live a good life. I love the community of homeschooling moms too. It’s a community of lifelong learners, which is not something you tend to have with aggressive careerists. That’s not even a distinction the women griping about having it all would understand. Friends who are good for the soul.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Sounds like the cultish thinking I found in academia. I agree, i’ve found beautiful friendships with other homeschooling moms. They tend to be people who’ve really carefully looked at their lives and what it means to flourish.

        Liked by 2 people

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