Difficult decisions

Rain Image by Sveta Sunorina

The following message is for homeschooling moms—specifically those of you facing difficult decisions about your marriages and your kids, all while homeschooling.

I’ve had emails and messages asking me for advice in these delicate matters (divorce, separation, single parent homeschooling).

I want to say first that Brave Writer is a writing and language arts curriculum, as well as a philosophy of home education. I am not a therapist nor a lawyer by training, and I don’t want to confuse what Brave Writer is about by tackling legal and mental health issues that are beyond the scope of what I offer through our company.

That said, home education is directly impacted by the context of your family—its warmth, the sense of emotional and physical safety present in it, the shared caring of the parenting team, the security of the financial resources, and the intrinsic experience of happiness and well being of each and every member.

I find it troublesome that we ignore those factors and focus almost exclusively on curriculum choices and homeschool philosophy. If a family and/or marriage is in crisis, no amount of workbook switching will bridge the underlying anxiety that permeates the home. That anxiety/dysfunction must be addressed. Moreover, if you are suffering from chronic rejection in your marriage (in whatever form it takes), it is difficult to be the parent your children need.

I don’t want to articulate a theory about when divorce is justified or not. It’s an enormously personal decision, rarely made glibly (in idealistic families like those who choose to home educate, I’ve never yet met someone for whom divorce was an easy, glib decision—how could it be?). Usually it is the last last exit off a long highway, after every avenue (and both partners) have been exhausted, taken as a kind of defeat—a recognition that there are no more last steps.

The goal in every marriage ought to be: get as much help as you can to have the best marriage that you can for as long as you can. That’s true for everyone from year 1 to year 75.

The usual tools do actually help:

Therapy for you
Developing yourself (school, hobbies, exercise, work)
Reading about how to have healthy relationships

Sometimes just doing these things buys you time—time you can stay married longer than you thought you could, which is often good for kids.

When you come to the point where you know you can’t any more (whatever that means to you), lots of decisions must be made and a clear head (unencumbered by guilty ambivalence) is required.

In most homeschooling circles, a scarlet letter “D” attaches itself to divorce, which leads children and parents who are divorced or separated to feel like they are second-tier homeschoolers—that somehow, the children in a divorced homeschool family are unlikely to achieve the level of success and emotional balance that is available to the other “still-married” version.

It is possible to home educate successfully after a divorce, but it is much more difficult to do for several reasons:

1. Finances: Likely you are a SAHM, without an income. It is also likely you have not kept up with your field. It is much more difficult to home educate and work at the same time—for you, and for your kids. It can be difficult to find work, that fits your homeschool schedule, let alone supports your life.

2. Ex-spouse: Not all exes support home education. Homeschooling might be contested by your ex out of anger, or simply out of disagreement. You may “lose the right” to home educate your kids. It’s not a given that you will get to keep homeschooling, even if you want to.

3. Custody: Today, joint custody (50-50) is common. That means the kids are going between two houses every week. Talk about jumbling the continuity of schoolwork. It also means two sets of routines, two ideas about discipline, two levels of stress.

4. Moving: Not every divorced couple can support two complete households. It is common for families to sell their primary homes (where home education has been happening) and for the kids and mom to move into a much smaller space. The move is disruptive, as is the adjustment to a different standard of living. One study says that the change in standard of living is the most difficult part of divorce for children, even more than the parents living under separate roofs.

5. One adult: With two adults at home, you get a break each day (hopefully). It’s a challenge to be all things to all kids all day every day. It may feel like relief initially (and may in fact be relief), but it is also an enormous responsibility. The immediate relief that comes from not living under the same roof with your alienated spouse today is not necessarily what the long term requirement to live on your own for the rest of your children’s childhoods will feel like down the road.

Think carefully about how you will mitigate these factors. What are your finances? How dependent are you? Will you be able to continue to home educate? How important is that to you and your children? Will your ex support that choice? Will the ex live close enough to you to provide some relief (weekends off, driving to soccer practice)? Is it possible for you to keep the house (it provides enormous continuity for kids, if you can keep them where they are already living)? Is it possible for you to have primary custody?

How emotionally well are you? Are you depressed, checked out, overwhelmed? Can you home educate under these circumstances? What can you do to become a healthier, more stable you?

How are the kids? What emotional toll has the long-term unhealthiness of the family already taken on them? How can you support them in healing and becoming emotionally whole? Just because they seem fine doesn’t mean they are. Studies show that five years after divorce, kids often hit a wall (become depressed, act out), even if they have appeared to cope well before that.

For children, even if they agree that divorce is the right option for their family and experience relief once it is done, there isn’t a single child in the world who is happy to have a divorced family. No one says, “I’m glad that the best option for my family was divorce.” Everyone wishes they had a family where divorce was not necessary at all.

Not only that: problems within a marriage (where it’s clear that there are issues – parents fighting, parents not speaking, parents who take cheap shots, parents who neglect each other) are understood as bumps in the road between two people who love each other. The love is bigger than the problems. Divorce says, “The love is not bigger than the problems.” Kids are introduced to the idea that one parent (sometimes both!) are not as lovable now. That’s a serious idea to introduce to young people who share genes with both parents. We all want to believe that our parents are worth loving, in spite of their flaws.

That is not to say that divorce isn’t the right choice, can’t be survived, and that good can’t come of it. Recovering space for emotional well being is of enormous value for children. Learning to identify abuse or mistreatment, and seeing that cruelty has consequences is important too. Showing your children that they are strong and can stand up for themselves can be life-changing.

Ensuring that the place your children call home is safe, warm, and generous is an act of love and courage. If it can be done while preserving the marriage, so much the better. If it can’t, then consider carefully ways to create as peaceful a transition as possible.

In the end, the most important thing to know is that every life has challenges—married or divorced. Our job is to help our kids learn how to manage the messiness of life, while providing them with strong emotional support as they have their own (different) reactions to our choices than we have.

Homeschooling depends on parents being responsible, emotionally well, stable people who model what it is to have healthy (as healthy as possible) relationships with each other and with their children. It’s your job to become that person for them, however that happens according to your lights.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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