I love getting to contribute here at Raising Lifelong Learners. My kids are like your kids and I share a lot about them, what works for their overexcitabilities or anxiety or unique needs that come with giftedness. I’ve shared about discovering their giftedness, their deep feelings, and even how they’re all educated in three totally different ways. I’ve shared a lot about my kids, but until now, I haven’t shared a whole lot about my own experience in raising them.
While our kids may share quirks and needs and even diagnoses, our own experiences as parents are pretty individual, so I haven’t really thought a lot about sharing much of my own walk. That, and I’m pretty boring so there’s not much to say! But recently I was discussing homeschooling with a friend and she made a comment that stopped me in my tracks: “I didn’t know it would be this hard – you make it look so easy.”
This was meant, obviously, to be a compliment. I, however, saw it as a failure on my own part to share this reality: it gets hard. I absolutely love homeschooling and don’t doubt the decision for a moment, but the truth is that there are some days that feel impossible, days that start with tears, days that I just wish I could roll over and let Curiosity Stream handle things for the day. You see, I am homeschooling with a chronic illness.
Some estimates state that approximately 45 percent of the American population has a chronic illness of some kind. While not all of these affect daily life in a huge way, some do, and the odds are decent that about half of you reading this are also battling a condition that won’t go away with a round of antibiotics and some rest.
I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis about 9 years ago, and while there are some treatments, there is no cure. Hashimoto’s is a chronic illness, an autoimmune disorder, that causes every cell of my body to attack itself as though I were allergic to, well, myself.. It was a long road to get a diagnosis and I’m still on a path to find some treatment that will help relieve some of the symptoms, symptoms I feel, in one way or another, every day of my life. There are dozens upon dozens of symptoms and side effects when it comes to living with Hashimoto’s, but some of the most common are extreme fatigue, mental fog, joint and muscle pain, weight gain, hair loss, and brittle nails. While the brittle nails and hair loss don’t affect my homeschool day (though they can do a number on self image), I’d be lying if I said I’d never had a lesson or day derailed by the pain, the mental fog, or the mind-numbing fatigue.
Oh, the fatigue.
Oh, the pain.
Oh, the mental… what was that word? Ah yes, fog.
The triple crown of autoimmune suffering – pain, fatigue, and fog.
Most days are bearable. Most days we can get everything done between yawns and breaks and I’m tired, but finished. But “most days” isn’t the same as “every day”. “Most days” means there are some days that aren’t bearable. “Most days” means there are some days when I can’t grasp what day of the week it is for the first few hours of the day, or when my legs won’t work, or when I’m in so much pain that I can’t speak. Those days aren’t always, either, but those days definitely affect our homeschool. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t. Still, though, homeschooling with a chronic illness is possible, and this is how I do it.
Before I even knew it was a thing or had a name, we found ourselves drawn to literature-based homeschooling – which basically means that we read a lot. Like, a TON. History? We read biographies and historical fiction and records from the time period we’re studying. Science? We read the histories of the methods and travel down rabbit trails reading all we can find on specific topics. Language arts? We read all. the. things. We have read alouds for fun, read alouds that pair with unit studies, read alouds for the season. I’m telling you, we read a lot.
How is that helpful when you’re homeschooling with a chronic illness? It’s flexible. It’s low-maintenance. I don’t have to come up with a lesson plan, don’t have to stand in front of a white board or hang a bunch of posters or set up 15 science experiments that I’ll have to clean up afterward. On good days we can read anywhere; on bad days we can read piled into my bed while I lie on the heating pad. I can hand a book over and be read to. The information is still being absorbed, we’re still talking about what we’re reading, and nothing is ever sacrificed. A stack of books is our school no matter how I feel and allows me to take a backseat, not the learning.
Science is daunting to a lot of people who are thinking about homeschooling. They imagine their kitchens filled with beakers and fires and messes – oh my! Frog dissection looms at the front of the mind and one wonders, “How on earth can I teach science at home?” Because there will be days when I have a hard time functioning, I don’t want to trap myself into thinking science can only be learned by recreating a lab at home. Instead, we do a lot of unit studies.
My kids are obsession-hoppers. Some are over in a week, some endure for years, but my kids are notorious for putting incredible amounts of energy into a single topic at a time. These bursts of enthusiasm are perfect for homeschooling with the knowledge that not every day will be great. Honeybees, alternative energy, endangered animals, even a unit on chocolate – we have learned an incredible amount of science by focusing hard on a single subject at a time. Instead of dreading a daily science lesson, the kiddo is excited about what new thing we’ll discover. Instead of having to have chemicals and owl pellets always on hand, I can plan a hands-on unit – like chemistry – around when I’m likely to feel better. The holidays are rough on a body with a chronic illness, so those months are when we study, watch documentaries, and maybe plan a small field trip around a science unit. March is when I’m not worn out from life’s extras and not yet aching from the spring rain, so that’s a great time to suit up and visit a honeybee farm or explore a local pond.
Unit studies allow me to plan learning around my expected level of health, to plan with a chronic illness instead of just react to it. We’re always excited to start a new unit and always shocked at just how much we learn by diving down rabbit trails. They’re flexible, fun, and I can toss a subject-specific book to a kid and know he’s learning on days when I’m feeling particularly rough.
I’m not a calm person. I’m an extreme extrovert, I’m easily excited, and I get just as anxious as the kids to do and see and learn and touch and explore everything we possibly can when we’re in the middle of a time period or unit study. There’s a whole movement towards slow living that I see all over social media, and I admire it. I follow a lot of families on Instagram who really spend their time wisely, take pride in saying “no” to what will cause them undue stress. People who can just sit and breathe and feel peaceful among their slow-growing gardens.
I’m not one of those people.
I like to jump in with both feet and no looking, take on more than I should, perfect and impress. I feel extreme guilt at saying “no” to almost anything and feel like a failure if I haven’t gotten a week’s worth of stuff done in a day. The problem is that sometimes I can’t even get a days’ worth of stuff done in a day. Having an autoimmune disorder means that the more I push myself, the worse off I’m going to be, and the longer it will take to recover. I can have days where I get it all done and then some, but that usually means I’ll need two days of getting less done because my system rebels. I push my body and it pushes back.
Homeschooling does not have to be done in one day. Homeschooling does not have to be done in 5 days a week, or in 9 months out of the year. We do not attend a co-op for a few reasons, one of them being that I know the hustle and bustle of getting there isn’t worth the toll it will take. We don’t always finish a whole grade level of math before that school year is over. Sometimes unit studies stretch from one week into three. We don’t start at 8am, don’t finish at the same time every afternoon, don’t have a hard-and-fast schedule. If something doesn’t get done today, we pick it up tomorrow. If tomorrow doesn’t work out, we try again the next day. If I’m spent (or the kiddos’ eyes are glazing over), we take a break. Learning is not something that can only happen within the confines of schedules and deadlines, and there is no reason you should pressure yourself into feeling like you must get it shoved in between the bookends of 8am and 3pm.
Go slow. Take breaks. Pick up where you leave off. School in the afternoons. School on the weekends. Take a day off. Don’t attend every homeschool opportunity that pops up. Give yourself permission to say “no”. Don’t do all. the. things… because, in reality, you just can’t, anyway.
Make Yourself a Priority
I know, I know, this one feels counter-intuitive. Homeschooling is about your kids, what’s best for them, making your children a priority and making whatever sacrifices are necessary. But here’s the fine print on that sentiment – making yourself a priority doesn’t mean your children aren’t also a priority. You are allowed to care for more than one person at a time. Having a chronic illness means that your body isn’t taking care of itself as expected, so you’ve got to do the work. Working yourself too hard, be it physically, emotionally, or mentally, means that you – and then your children – will have to deal with the consequences pretty soon after.
You have to rest.
You have to be aware of your limits.
You have to protect and care for yourself as passionately as you do your childrens’ minds. You’re steering this homeschool ship and it will all go down if you do, so invest in yourself in whatever ways you need to in order to keep going. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your homeschool.
This is my least favorite part of homeschooling with a chronic illness. I’m not a natural planner, I chafe at deadlines and outlines. I like being flexible and able to change my mind or explore a topic at a moment’s notice. What I’ve discovered, however, is that planning makes me more able to do these things.
If I wake up in a fog, if my body is rebelling and I’m in so much pain I can’t leave the bed, or if I’ve worked too hard for too long and I find myself sick yet again, then having a plan in place gives me the ability to rest and recover while my kiddo continues to learn. Before our school year begins, I brainstorm and plan what units we’ll likely do that year. I buy what I can in advance and make Amazon lists for what I might need later (and can have delivered quickly). I scour Pinterest for the projects that can accompany a topic, search Google for local places that would tie in as great field trips, and comb through Curiosity Stream for documentaries that will compliment what we’re going to be learning. I always a Brain Quest workbook for the days when I really just need to rest (or for when he goes to work with Dad!). We keep stacks of books on hand, single topic tomes and enormous encyclopedias.
I have most of the school year planned and on hand. Sometimes we jump into units we hadn’t planned, sometimes we don’t finish everything we have (which leaves more stuff for the next year!). No matter what gets used when, we are ready at all times to switch gears and change to something more or less hands-on, depending on the needs of my body.
Our wonderful friend Pam Barnhill discusses what she calls the Minimum Viable Day, the MVD, which is what you can reasonably do in the least possible amounts to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Plan ahead and know what your MVD is for days when you just need to do the bare minimum, but just as importantly plan ahead for days when even that won’t happen. Plan to have days when schooling takes place apart from formal learning. Plan to have days where you catch up, a flex day. Fridays, for us, are planned to be flexible. They’re our shortest days, perfect for when we want to take field trips without skipping lessons, perfect for when we didn’t get everything done earlier in the week and we need a little extra time. Plan and accept that you won’t be at 100% every single day. If your child were in a traditional school setting there would be days lost to field trips, standardized test prep, fire drills, standardized testing, and bad weather. There would be hours lost to class transitions, bathroom breaks, disruptions, and assemblies. Your child is not missing out and you are not ruining their future by taking some time to rest and recover.
Homeschooling with a chronic illness is absolutely possible. It’s not always easy, but then again, nothing is easy when it comes to parenting or chronic illness! In the frustration and isolation that comes with struggling with a chronic condition, know that homeschooling is not one more thing that has been taken from you. You can do this.