Unschooling Is My Job

by Ruthe Friedner Matilsky

It isn’t easy being me.

For the last several weeks I have been telling people that I must be doing something wrong because “It was supposed to get easier.” Two of my five kids are out of the house, everyone’s way out of diapers, we sleep through the night and _they all know how to read_. So why am I so frazzled?

What I’m starting to understand is that I’m a victim of my own rhetoric, insecurity, and lack of respect for anything that remotely resembles “women’s work,” especially when I’m the one who’s doing it. And, bottom line, I have not really understood that unschooling, while stimulating and satisfying for all of us, takes a tremendous amount of _my_ creative effort and _my_ time. Being an unschooling mother is definitely a job, albeit unpaid.

My life feels so fragmented. No two days are the same, my kids are traveling all over the map, live-in guests stay for various lengths of time, and on top of everything else we’re all going back and forth between up-state New York and our home base in New Jersey. And as the kids get older I am getting more - not less - involved in their academic life.

Maybe we’ve taken the unschooling idea to extremes here.

When I’ve talked about our life, I’ve always emphasized that we are mostly unschoolers. “I couldn’t possibly do lessons every day,” I tell people, “It’s just too stressful.” I’ve implied that I just don’t know how those families do it when they adhere to a curriculum. The fact is, up until the moment of clarity I reached about five minutes before starting this essay, I have secretly believed that I am taking the easy way out by choosing to unschooled. After all, I’m not tied down by an outside structure. When people say:

“You must have so much patience.”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“You must be _so_ well organized!”

I wave away the compliments. I tell people that really, unschooling is just part of life.

And then I launch into an explanation about how when you unschool you just - in the immortal words of John Holt - provide your children with a stimulating environment and trust in their innate desire to earn what they need to know to get on in life.

“But what do you _do_?” people invariably press on, and then I carefully explain that we just go about living our life, but we do it by including our children. I say that if we did _lessons_, that _that_ would be really stressful, but I just go about pursuing my interests and include my kids.

“We work at the co-op together and we make music together and we garden and prepare food together - everything we do in life is an opportunity for a learning experience.” _Tra lala lala_.

Oh, that is so lame.

By working so hard to convince the world that unscholing is really not so much work, I have done myself the disservice of convincing myself that I don’t really do all that much. I have been seriously puzzled when other parents have expressed their doubts - I have honestly thought that anyone could do what I do. However, recently, when I was having a hard time figuring out logistics and just getting more and more overwhelmed, I thought about a three-month cross country camping trip we took when Sara was five and Jake was two. Our car had broken down for the third time and we were stuck in a horrible hotel somewhere in Nevada where there were no vegetarian restaurants and no decent grocery stores. I called my mother for solace, and in the middle of telling her my woes I remember saying, “I think I’m starting to understand why not everybody does this.“

She just laughed. She’s still laughing today.

That trip could be a metaphor for my life.

When there are things that I absolutely have to do because all other choices are unacceptable, it seems like a waste of time to ponder future difficulties. Why bother to think about how difficult it will be when I have to do it anyway? So when we examined homeschooling and decided that it would be the absolute best thing for our children, I did not spend time agonizing over its impact on _our_ lives. Our minds were made up, and analyzing the potential complications would only have paralyzed me.

Now, however, I think that I need to face honestly the implications of this job I have taken on so that I can give myself the respect I deserve. What i usually leave out of my explanations of unschooling are the complications. Sure gardening is satisfying. Our garden has provided us with some peak unschooling experiences. There was the year we had a super abundance of tomatoes and finally learned how to use our special gadget for making sauce. And there was the year that Jake and Sara learned about raised garden beds from another unschooled family and Jake came hoe and dug us a wonderful garden.

But usually there is only one child at any given time who is interested in gardening, so while I’m engaged in that activity there’s another child who is waiting for me to do something else. Or the child who was originally interested decides it’s not his thing and I’m still knee deep in dirt and resentful that the only way I can get some help with the cucumbers that _he_ wanted to plant, is to nag an unresponsive child out of the house and into the dirt with me.

If I were an Unschooling Mom in the purest sense of the term, then I really would be going about my business and trusting that the kids would find their way. Maybe I wouldn’t even make dinner. Maybe I wouldn’t be organizing the kids into making dinner. So now I realize I’m not pure. But there probably is no pure sense of the term.

It sounded so simple when John Holt said all we had to do was to nurture their interests and make our home a stimulating environment and their education would fall into place. I have repeated those sentiments countless times to countless people and I am the only one in the crowd who has not acknowledged how tricky that can be.

Let’s talk about that stimulating environment.

In Utopia a parent wouldn’t have to give this a thought. I’ve pictured Utopia for years - it’s an intentional community where the adults are all involved in meaningful pursuits and there are no housekeeping burdens because it’s all shared equally and there is always someone available to take care of the smaller children while the older children are able to pick and choose which adults to join in their meaningful work. There is never a deadline that prevents the adults from being anything by patient and charming with the children and there are no stupid television programs or mindless computer games to distract the children from the joy of real community. The environment in Utopia just naturally gives the kids much food for thought to stimulate their brain cells. The kids don’t have to be shuttled around to experience nature or to encounter people making music or playing chess or doing karate because it’s all around them.

Unfortunately I don’t live there. So, in my experience, a tremendous amount of thought and care has to go into creating the unschooling environment that stimulates curiosity. It’s not a bad thing, it’s often creative and fun to do, but the point is that in our house _environment isn’t left to chance._ That’s definitely not pure.

From the books in the bookcase to the pictures and maps on the wall, I have given great thought to stimulating my kids’ minds. The coffee table in our living room has an ever changing set of books that I put out in the expectation that a family member will sit down and notice. This means much time spent in the library. Sometimes I stagger home with a cart load of twenty-five or thirty books at a time. And then we have to read them. I look at reading out loud as one of the perks of the job. I just have to remind myself that even though I enjoy reading, it does count as part of the job description and does take up a tremendous amount of time.

So our home has maps and gloves and musical instruments. We have art supplies and math texts and a shelf full of books that tackle algebra. Making room for these things and keeping them in some kind of order is, at times, challenging. I have seen those stickers that say that a clean house is a sign of a boring life, but, speaking for my own bourgeois self, being in a cluttered house make me nervous. Unlike a school teacher, who has one room to organize and a janitorial staff to do the scrubbing, i have an entire house as my classroom, and I have to live in it even when the science experiments have taken over the dining room, and the living room has become a dance hall.

I know we’ve tried to impress upon the world that we homeschoolers don’t spend all our lives at home. Heaven forbid we should let folks think that our children are tied to home, but let’s face it - we do spend a whole lot more time in our homes than the average American family. We eat most of our meals at home and very often have guests. I find that I am keeping house, Big Time.

Yes, I’ve organized my children into cleaning crews, and, of course, they have chores, but someone has to be in charge, and someone has to be the motivator when a child’s internal rhythm doesn’t seem to encompass housework. Back in utopia the children see the adults tackling the daily chores with gusto and good spirit and long to throw themselves into the fun, but Terry and I aren’t always the most enthusiastic home organizers, and the children don’t necessarily follow even when we are. So a lot of bossing around happens. We may be unschoolers academically, but I do not rely on my kids’ instincts to tell them when it is time to feed the cats. This bossing around uses up a lot of my emotional energy.

No, I’m not a pure unschooler.

Now that I’ve complained about how difficult life is because we’re home all day, I should mention that of course we’re not _all_ always home all day, and in some respects it would be easier if we were. It seems that as soon as the kids got old enough to be useful around the house we were racing to get out of it so we could go to Lessons and Sports.

I’m no longer as neurotic as I was when Sara was little and I felt if she weren’t exposed to everything by the time she was six she would be washed up. Having five kids forced me to slow down. But at present we’re involved in dance classes and snowboard and ski classes and piano and theatre and chess and don’t forget the very occasional trips to the skateboard parks. How wonderful it would be if all three of my at-home children were involved in the same activity at the same time. Since they’re not, it means a lot of juggling, making sure someone is home with the youngest one when I’m out driving the oldest one, and constantly changing the chore schedule so that someone is making dinner when I am on the road in the late afternoon. I know that schooled children get driven around a lot also. But homeschooling means you need to drive to the things that other kids can do in school _as well as_ the “extracurriculars.”

What I am also learning is that unschooling doesn’t stop just because they move out. Both Jake and Sara have been e-mailing me compositions to peruse and edit. Last week Sara called up with a request to please read her 300-page manuscript and give her suggestions because she needs to submit it in three weeks. Now this really is a scenario to die for. Of course I am thrilled that my adult daughter is doing something so worthwhile as writing a book, and I am ecstatic that she wants my opinion. And truth to tell, it is one of the more enjoyable things I will attempt to do this month. But it will take much skill to figure out when to do it.

What makes unschooling so hard for me is its very nature. Incredible things happen, but I don’t know when they are going to happen and sometimes the timing is disconcerting. Occasionally I hunger for a schedule that is written in stone. I want us all to get up at the same time in the morning and do our chores and start on our activities together at the same time. I want us all to eat at the same time. I want the kids to want to read when I want to read and I want them to need my help when I have scheduled it into the day. There are moments when I’ve had enough of spontaneity.

I’d like to think that unschooling is not a “thing,” it is just life. And perhaps if we were homesteading and training our kids to take their place besides ours in the struggle for survival, it _would_ be an organic part of life. But we’re not. The reality is that this home is a temporary way station for my kids to live in before they go off on their own. And on subtle and not-so-subtle levels they feel the difference. They love us, and especially as they get older, they do seem to feel a genuine desire to help us out, but they don’t have a real _stake_ in our present community because they know they will be leaving it.

Knowing this has made my job as family manager all the more complex. It has been my repeated hope that when the kids are adults they will want to come visit us because of what we share, and not out of some form of guilt. In the families of the past, I believe that spirituality and hard work bound people together. If you didn’t pull your weight in the garden or on the hunt, everyone went hungry. For this family, at this time, that is not the case. Since we ware not struggling for survival, the question comes up: “What are we doing here at all?”

So, always on my mind is the hope that our daily living will provide us with interests that hold us together when everyone is grown, and it seems to be happening. This past week Sara gave me a cookbook that I have used every day. She recommended two books on nutrition that I am buying for our library. She and April are working on piano duets that they play when they get together. Sara is out of the house but her relationship with all of us continues to grow. It is the same with Jake.

How do I quantify the kind of hours of work that went into creating a home where this is the outcome? It is a thrilling outcome, but it is not always so easy to see when I am bogged down in the daily routine of getting someone - _anyone_ - to just clean the bathroom and be quiet about it.

Being a mother is the first job to which I every felt completely, totally committed. If I were to analyze it, I would say that I looked at the work that needed to be done and wrote my own job description. I had to take into account the century in which we live and the geographical location in which we find ourselves as well as our means of monetary support. I also had to define what my purpose is in raising children.

I will not win the Nobel prize for this job, nor will I earn any money for it. Whether I homeschool or unschool, the reality is that I will not be able to follow up on all the great writing ideas that come into my head. Nevertheless I will try, because part of my job description is to have my own interests and eventually phase myself out of my job.

For my own sense of self I need to take the time to recognize that I am indeed working a high pressure job where the hours are erratic and the demands are unpredictable. My children need me to do this job, but more and more I recognize just how much society needs me to do this job. By homeschooling my children I have managed to influence many parents and affect the lives of a good many other kids. They in turn are going on to make homeschooling an option for many others. We are showing the world that there is a better way to bring up children. John Holt would call it Meaningful Work, and so do I.

——

(Previously published in Home Education Magazine, September-October 2002. This bio followed the original article: “Ruth Friedner Matilsky is a lifelong artist and writer Before her children were born she taught skills of daily living to newly blinded adults and congenitally blind teenagers. She lives in Highland Park, New Jersey, with her husband and three of her five children, whom she has homeschoooled for the past twenty-two years.”)