Homeschool, private school, public? Education choices and the Ideal Mother

I’m traveling today, so thought I’d re-publish this post from the archives. If you’re wistful or unsure about your schooling choices, I hope you’ll feel better knowing you aren’t alone. – Meagan

As the beginning of the school year draws near, I’m guessing some of you are feeling a little…ambivalent.

I know how it feels. See, I consider myself a homeschooler at heart. Every year when we start the back-to-school grind I look a little wistfully at my copy of The Well-Trained Mind on the shelf and wonder what our lives would be like if I’d stuck with it, seven years ago when we decided to homeschool Jacob for first grade.

I loved a lot about our lifestyle that year, but my attention was just too divided: between a toddler, a new baby on the way, a heating-up writing career and a husband traveling most of the time, I had a lot going on and never really felt like I was juggling it all very well. Plus, I felt like I was constantly under the critical eye of friends, neighbors and family members.

It takes a lot of guts to buck the system, and my confidence was shaken by long battles with a small boy who flatly refused to learn to read. So the following fall, I enrolled the boys at a small Catholic school in town and immediately felt a huge sense of relief.

After two years there, we moved to Chicago. There, I started the angst process all over again. I knew I couldn’t deal with the “lottery” enrollment system at the public schools, where it was entirely likely all of my kids could wind up in different schools across the city (hours of driving a day definitely would not make me a happy mom). Our neighborhood school was not good at all. The boys wound up at a small Lutheran school, which we liked, but not nearly as much as the Catholic school they’d attended before. And as you can imagine, coming up with tuition for three kids–even when kids #2 and #3 get steep sibling discounts–is no easy feat.

Finally we moved again, to the small town where we are planning to stay. For a little while I considered extensively researching the school options in our new town, but finally I just couldn’t do it anymore. The angst, the wondering if I made the right choice, possibly filling out the hefty tuition check…just thinking about it was exhausting. The public schools here are good..very good, by many peoples’ standards. So I went with the path of least resistance and enrolled the boys at the local elementary school.

Looking back, I can see that so much of the stressing out over schools I was doing was an attempt to “make up” for not homeschooling anymore. Since I was giving up control of my kids’ education to some outside entity, I felt obligated to jump through hoops to make sure it was the best school we could possibly find and to prove something to myself.

I’m not suggesting I made the wrong choice in choosing parochial schools – we had great experiences, particularly at our little Catholic school. But finally I decided to choose–without guilt–sanity for myself over scrambling to research every single option and possibly having to come up with a big chunk of money every month.

And while I had a few “was this the right decision?” moments in the early days, three years in, I’m not second-guessing my choice any more. I finally gave myself permission to not do it all, and not do everything perfectly.

So while I so admire homeschooling moms who can make it work, or parents who manage to come up with steep private-school tuition because they believe it’s best for their kids, or those who are willing to drive all over town to get their kids into the best selective-enrollment schools, that doesn’t mean I have to do the same thing. We all prioritize things differently, and that’s okay.

Because really, for many of us schooling choices are not just about education, but about a certain parenting ideal, an image of motherhood we want to live up to. So often those ideals are wrapped up in a specific kind of schooling: Waldorf, Montessori, gifted academy, whatever it is. Or maybe you are a homeschool mom, but have a completely different style than you thought you would.

It’s natural to feel a little sense of disappointment or loss when you change things up – I think so many of us wrap our ideas about ourselves as mothers up with the place or way our children are educated.

I’ve written before about the Ideal Mother I imagined when my big boys were small, and homeschooling played a large role in the fantasy. My Ideal Mother was a nurturing but brainy earth-mama type, guiding her children through magical days filled with art projects and Latin lessons and spontaneous learning moments at the grocery store.

As it turned out, though, I’m a working mother who likes being pretty busy, who never got around to learning Latin during her toddlers’ naps and would much rather the kids learned about perspective and proportion from somebody who knows what they’re talking about or who can at least handle a paintbrush.

I still entertain those homeschool fantasies every now and then. I like having my children around me. I like being in charge. I’m an independent spirit at heart. I really admire homeschooling families. And in so many ways homeschooling suits me, personally…but it doesn’t suit us, as a family unit, right now.

Still, every fall, I get these ambivalent feelings. And there are moments when I wonder if I maybe could still be that mom if I tried harder.

But I try to remind myself that not homeschooling doesn’t mean I have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  I don’t have to homeschool to do cool projects with my kids, or help teach them to read, or collect leaves to press between waxed paper.

I can give up certain details of my Ideal Mother without losing her essence. In fact, when I focus on what I can do more than what I can’t; what I am doing more than what I’m not, I feel closer to my Ideal Mother – the real version – than ever.

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