It’s no secret – homeschooling is on the rise. It’s becoming wildly more popular, accommodating, varied, and even – dare I say? – mainstream. Gone are the days of stereotypes and denim jumpers, homeschoolers are as different as they are passionate, and the internet has made it possible for just about anyone to homeschool from anywhere using almost any method they can imagine. New products and programs are unveiled almost weekly, and wide-eyed newbies aren’t paralyzed by insecurity anymore, they’re overwhelmed by choice.
Homeschooling is just about everywhere now, and as the popularity and access grows, so does the diversity of families who choose to home educate. Whereas the assumption (and stereotype) used to stand that most homeschooling families made their decisions for religious reasons, now it is not uncommon to meet families who homeschool for any number of reasons – military families, farming families, families who travel full-time, families with gifted kids, families whose kids have various needs not met by the school, families with medical concerns, sports families, performing families, festival families, or families who just plain want to. Who I want to encourage now, though, are those who largely remain unspoken while feeling emotionally broken – those families who homeschool because of mental illness.
Mental illness is still not very openly discussed without stigma, assumption, or judgement. As a society we tend to be so uncomfortable with others’ emotional and mental discomfort that we shush and silence many of those who are brave enough to discuss their own struggles.
“That’s too personal.”
“What have you got to be so sad about, anyway?”
“I bet if you tried x diet/y supplement/z exercise/positive thinking, you’d never face that struggle again!”
Mental illness is viewed as weakness, as though an imbalance of chemicals that regulate your emotions were so much worse than an imbalance of chemicals that regulate your insulin. We use words like “crazy” and “bipolar” as punchlines and insults. We distance ourselves – out of fear or discomfort – from those who openly battle, then mourn when someone is lost to their illness and ask, “Why didn’t they ask for help?” We, as a society, are not great handlers of our loved ones with mental health issues. Someone suffering from depression is talked over, a friend with anxiety is dismissed as a drama queen, an uncle with OCD is considered strange… and the parent of the mentally ill child isolates themselves in shame.
No parent wants their child to struggle. Social media and park meet-ups are full of highlight reels – aced tests, elite teams, mastered moves, ribbons, trophies, titles, parades. We love bragging about our kids and rarely share their struggles. Or, even more raw, our own struggles with their struggles.
We’re super parents, after all, right? “Oh, I could never homeschool! I don’t know how you do it!” We like to see ourselves as soldiers on the front lines of society, standing tall and doing what we think is best for our children. But when you’re homeschooling because of your child’s mental illness, you’re often also a soldier on the front lines in your own home. You’re not necessarily homeschooling because it was your first choice – often it is your only choice. You’re not really standing tall, you’re slumped and broken. If strangers think homeschooling is hard, they’ve obviously never considered the strain and weight of parenting a child with a mental illness.
Socialization is always voiced as a concern or critique of homeschooling. How will they find friends? How will they ever learn to fit in “normally” with society? These are questions that the parents of mentally ill children ask themselves, too. The trick becomes how to socialize their child. Sometimes the co-op is too overwhelming. Sometimes you have to catch up on school work. Sometimes the doctor and therapy appointments conflict with all of the homeschool events. Sometimes medications make your child lethargic. Sometimes you have to worry about the safety of the other children in the presence of your own. Sometimes you’re just so tired, worn, afraid, embarrassed, or worried that it’s easier to stay home, stay safe, stay where it’s a little easier.
With how much homeschooling has gained in popularity recently, it’s not hard to find homeschoolers near you. Facebook groups abound, meetups take place every day of the week, and local businesses offer discounts and special events, all for homeschooling families. But when you gather, the conversation rarely turns to psychotropic drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy, inpatient, outpatient, impatient. Curriculum reviews, book swaps, funny stories… it’s hard to find a way to fit in when you desperately need to vent about your child’s therapist or you have to buy more pants because their medications caused more weight gain… or loss. They’re talking about manipulatives while you’re worrying over being manipulated. Their kids are struggling with spelling while yours is struggling with leaving the house.
It’s a unique burden, homeschooling a child with a mental illness. You’re a niche group within a niche group, a statistical rarity among a societal scarcity. You have the added worry of helping your child grow into a functional member of society, while already working to make your child a functional member of society. There’s added pressure, added worry, deeper isolation. It’s a big job, a thankless one. Where other parents may threaten to send their kids to public school on a bad day, you might have to threaten to send them to an inpatient program. Where other parents have the option to send their kids to public school on a bad day, you feel the weight of the door that is shut before you. You’re stuck, essentially. You can’t give up. You know your child can’t function in a school setting. You know their needs can’t be met. You know they’re likely to be met with labels and meetings and very little sympathy. You know that your child is just not like the others, and the responsibility of his care – and education – lies on you alone. You know that so much more than math drills and spelling tests are riding on his care.
You know that it took years to get here, to get a diagnosis, to feel like you’re educated enough on your child’s condition that you can actually intelligently advocate for her. And as long as it took you to get here, it’s not likely that a school faculty member or a playground mom will get it, at least not soon. Not quickly. Not in the amount of time it takes to make a friend or between bells at school. You’re as caught off guard by your situation as they are hearing about it. Every day, no matter how long you’ve known what’s going on inside your child, is a surprise, a crapshoot, a gamble. Every day brings challenges you never dreamed you’d face and constantly doubt you’re equipped for. Every day requires a little bit of a grieving period as you’re reminded of just how different life looks from what you imagined. Every day is different, yet somehow painfully the same. Every appointment is different, yet somehow painfully the same. Every fight is different, yet somehow painfully the same.
So here you are, bravely, selflessly supporting your child, nobly crumbling under the weight of it all. This isn’t an issue a new curriculum will fix. Finding a new co-op won’t help much. Your problems lie deep in the mind of your child, burdens too heavy for them to carry alone… but also too heavy for you. Its hard. Really hard. It’s isolating and disheartening and you have no choice but to continue supporting, continue advocating, continue educating, continue loving. Soldier on, mama. Let yourself break a little every day before you jump into the trenches. Let yourself mourn what you thought life would be, who you thought your child would be. Feel the weight of that baby of yours, the absolutely sobering weight of it all, and instead of letting it crush you, let it push you. Forward, onward. Trapped or determined, you must soldier on.
Because you just can’t give up.