Perfect Homeschooling Parents, Raise Your Hands

By Amy Wilson, Woodbridge
Originally published in the March-April 2010 VaHomeschoolers Voice

Homeschooling can be such a wild ride, in many ways, but I seem to ride one particular roller-coaster over and over in my homeschooling experience: the ups and down in self-confidence and insecurity that homeschooling brings out. It takes real self-confidence to make that leap and decide to homeschool, swimming against the mainstream, and yet, for me at least, nothing quite brings out my lack  of self-confidence like homeschooling.

I find that my insecurity comes in waves, with troughs in between crests of confidence. On a day when things are running smoothly, with dinner in the crockpot, kids happily watching educational videos and playing together imaginatively after a successful field trip that enthuses us all to talk about history or science, and the house in a state that isn’t order but bears some recognizable resemblance to it, I feel great. I can do anything! The decision to homeschool was brilliant, my kids are thriving, our family life is rich yet peaceful, and all is right in my world.

All it takes to crush this confidence is a bad day—even a bad hour in the morning can do it. A son who won’t even attempt to write anything because it’s just “too hard,” or a daughter who “hates math” and announces that she doesn’t plan to go to college anyway, or squabbling kids who reject the art class that seemed like the perfect thing to me—this is a recipe for crushing insecurity. I head to my computer with a cup of coffee, only to be further deflated to read one of my homeschool discussion lists about the amazing field trip that some other (obviously better) homeschooling mom took that same morning. “She’s probably got dinner in the crock pot, too,” I sigh.

It could be that a simple diagnosis from a mental health professional could cure me of these incredible swings in homeschooling mood and confidence levels. I’ve certainly considered that possibility. The right medication might be just the thing. But lately I’ve also been pondering the way that comparing myself to others contributes to my ups and downs.

Sometimes the ways in which I cause myself problems by comparing myself to others is pretty obvious: when I unsubscribe from an email list because all it does is make me feel incompetent and outclassed, because it feels like all of the other homeschooling parents are doing particle physics at home (in Latin, no less), I am very much aware of those comparisons I’m making, and how bad they are making me feel. But there are other times when those comparisons sneak in there under the radar, and I think even the ones that make me feel good are part of the problem.

Sometimes it’s more subtle, like when I realize I am thinking of another mom as “so great at art” or think, “Wow, she’s so organized; how does she do it?” or “She’s got great connections to plan all those field trips,” or even when I visit a friend’s house and have a nagging guilty feeling about how clean everything is or how there is no processed food in evidence anywhere.

I have also realized, though, that when I have those great days, when everything goes well and I feel super-confident, I’m also comparing myself to others. I’m comparing myself to a mental model that I have of “the perfect homeschooling parent.”

This imaginary woman (as a mom, it’s other moms, real or imaginary, whom I compare myself with) guides her children without being overbearing, always nurtures their love of learning, and provides them with exciting opportunities to experience the world, planning field trips to museums, theater and musical performances, historical sites and more. She and her kids volunteer in wonderful ways in their community, and she helps the kids find apprenticeships and opportunities to study abroad. They host exchange students, each child has a sport that he or she excels at (though one might prefer to dive deeply into science or art instead of sports—the important thing is that each kid works really, really hard and independently on a special skill, with great enthusiasm). The familytravels extensively, and learns from life experiences, though the kids are also happy to work their way independently through algebra texts when they aren’t busy writing novels during those car rides. And it goes without saying that this super-woman always provides healthy, home-cooked meals (with organic produce and meats) and keeps the house clean and orderly (she modestly points out that a lot of these chores are done by the children, cheerfully, as she has taught them). To top it all off, she is slender in a very healthy way.

If you think this amazing person sounds like you, raise your hand. (Wave it around, because we are all glaring at you.) Okay, now, everyone who has compared herself to this woman, or to some similarly wondrous specimen of homeschooling humanity, raise your hand. I bet that if we were all in the same room, it would look like an underwater kelp forest, with all this hand-waving.

The point is, this perfect woman doesn’t actually exist, but we all, from time to time, feel bad because we aren’t her. (Dads, change the nouns and pronouns for yourselves—I’m not trying to exclude you, though I do wonder if we moms do this more than our male counterparts, due to internalized social pressures; we women seem to be good at that.) Not just bad, actually; we all feel insecure and incompetent from time to time, and there are even days when we think that we aren’t cut out for this homeschooling gig. Lots of us even doubted ourselves before we started homeschooling; we said to ourselves what so many strangers are moved to tell us when they learn that we homeschool: “Oh, I could never do that; you must be so organized and disciplined to homeschool!”

On the good days, I feel like maybe it is possible for me to be like this woman, at least a little bit. The mere possibility is enough to elevate my mood! More often, though, I see glimpses of this perfect homeschooling parent in everyone BUT me. I see ways in which my friends are like her, ways in which other parents at park day display those qualities that I feel I don’t have, messages on email lists that make it obvious how much better all the other homeschooling moms are at various skills.

On those tough days, I try to remember what I wish I could say to those strangers who say they “could never homeschool” because we homeschooling parents “must be so organized and disciplined”: it isn’t really what you think it is. You are comparing yourself to the homeschooler who doesn’t exist. Not a single one of us homeschooling parents is perfect; no one is always organized, always disciplined, always creative, always patient. Just because you aren’t that mythical homeschooling parent doesn’t mean you can’t do this.

You have wonderful things to offer your kids that no one else can offer them, simply because you are their parent and you love them and know them like no one else ever could. That perfect homeschooling mom is made up of little glimpses of the best moments of many, many parents; like all parents, we’d rather not share our worst moments (though maybe we should).

I also remind myself that these insecurities that paralyze me sometimes, as well as (though maybe to a lesser extent) those brief flashes of elation when I feel supremely confident, are not unique to homeschooling. All parents, no matter what educational approach they choose for their kids, have good times and bad times. We have days when we really aren’t at our best, when we yell and have no patience, when we lose sight of those things that we know are most important. We all have good days when we’re in a groove, when we read to our kids and everyone is happy, when we all eat a healthy meal together as a family, when we share wonderful experiences together with our kids. And I think that we all, especially all of us moms, consciously and unconsciously compare ourselves and those around us to the mythical perfect parent, whoever she may be in our minds.

To the extent that I can set aside this mental construct I have of the perfect homeschooling mom, and not compare myself and others to her, not base my feelings of self-worth on how much I am like or unlike her (and how much my friends seem better than me at emulating her), the healthier I think I will be, and the better model I’ll be for my kids. Hopefully I will also spend less on therapy and medication. It’s a struggle, though, sometimes. I think it must be human nature, or perhaps it’s culturally ingrained, this comparison of ourselves to others. Maybe it’s part of the capitalist competitive model? Maybe it’s Plato’s idea of perfect forms in action, here and now in the 21st century. (Did anyone feel insecure because I mentioned Plato? I had to go look it up, you know.)

If you are having a bad day, it might help to try to thrust this mythical person from your mind (after all, how many extra people do we need in there, anyway?). She’s probably lurking there, making things seem worse than they really are. She’s also likely behind the scenes when you’re having a great day, though I’m not necessarily advocating trying to dial back your enthusiasm on those days when you feel like you’re taking on the world and winning. As humans, I don’t think we can really function without making comparisons, and it’s certainly admirable to have high standards for which we strive, but when this process causes problems, we should probably try to let it go and get off the roller-coaster ride. (I bet you’re better at that than I am!)

About the Author

Amy Wilson homeschools her two children, herds cats, and tends lizards. She volunteers for VaHomeschoolers and for the Prince William County Master Naturalist program. She’s taken on a part-time job in 2010, though she’s not sure that was a good idea. She might be feeling a little overextended lately, but can’t admit it, because she knows that the other, perfect, homeschooling moms could handle it all with one hand tied behind their backs.

Originally published in the March-April 2010 VaHomeschoolers Voice.

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