Today marks the fifth week since my kids have gone to school. What the teachers cutely call distance learning, I refer to as: “involuntary homeschooling.” Maybe because it reminds me of my years working in Community Mental Health when we involuntarily committed patients against their will during a crisis. Homeschooling my 5, 7, and 10-year-old boys is something I swore I would NEVER do. I doubted I could do it. Yes I adore my children, but I am not trained in teaching. And let’s face it: teaching our own children can be painfully hard. And yet here we are- the governor announced last week that students will not return this school year, and the plan is to continue distance learning until summer. Five weeks in, and five months to go before my kids return to school. And that is IF they return in the Fall.
And I am one of the lucky ones. I acknowledge the large amounts of privilege I have; I am a stay at home mom whose husband has a job. I am not trying to work a full-time job while also navigating new apps, computer programs, choice boards, google meetups, and what feels like 7,000 emails a day from the teachers. My children enjoy schoolwork and do well academically and I am very grateful for all of this. And yet, I still feel like I am in over my head.
As a rule follower and recovering people pleaser, it is not surprising my transition to involuntary homeschooling has been a messy one. My immediate response was to tackle this new challenge head-on. My desire to achieve has roots beginning deep in my core. My mom once demanded a meeting with my 3rd-grade teacher to ask why I was spending 3 hours/day on my homework. To her surprise, the teacher replied, “I don’t know what she is doing for 3 hours a day, but I am not assigning any homework!” Apparently, I was just practicing what I learned because I really wanted to do well in school. Now suddenly responsible for three children’s education during a world pandemic, I felt this need to excel awaken inside me, and without even realizing it, I hyper-focused on doing everything correctly. My already elevated stress level due to the pandemic soared to new heights. The first week of homeschooling I had a panic attack, broke down into tears daily, and cried that I was “messing up my children.” I almost suffocated under the pressure to “do it right.” Thankfully skills I’ve learned through years of therapy along with the support of my husband and some wise friends helped me come to find a new way to approach our new reality.
During this very uncertain time, there is one thing I for sure believe: this is a period in history we will all recall for the rest of our lives.
My children will remember when life as they knew it came to a screeching halt; when the size of their classrooms shrunk to fit within the walls of our home, and their only peers became their two brothers.
This time will be etched in history and moments of it will be etched into the chapters of their childhoods. Painfully aware of my shortcomings as a “teacher,” after my first week in charge of their learning I knew something needed to change.
Rather than obsess over doing distance learning perfectly, I decided to focus on the real lessons I want my children to learn. Because they are much more likely to recall how they felt during the pandemic than actual facts learned. Thankfully, my recovery from an eating disorder has helped me recognize and focus on what I value most in life. I choose to teach my boys by example, some of the values I hold highest in my heart. Children learn more from interacting with and watching us than they ever learn from any choice board or video lesson. And so, I have decided to take what works for us from the teachers and to let the rest go. I have decided to start each day fresh, to work diligently on self-compassion, and to try my best to remain patient. And despite the rigid thinking that comes naturally to me, I am working every single day to remain flexible and open to what the day brings. And in doing so, I hope to teach my children THESE lessons that I value the most:
- There is so much in this world and our lives that we can not control. It is human nature to want to control our destiny. And while I do believe in free will and the power of choice, it can not be denied that much of our world around us is outside of our own control. Nothing brings this lesson to light more than a pandemic that silently spreads up to two weeks before any symptoms appear. I hope my boys learn that even though they can not control what others think of them, when they will die, or what other people choose to do, they CAN put trust into a higher power. Trusting that we are growing as we go through change, that we are resilient, and that we are never truly alone can help even during the ordinary days. It allows us to let go trying to control that which was never meant to be in our hands anyway. Which can then free us up to focus on what we actually DO have power over.
- We can control where we focus our energy and attention. The way we treat other people and ourselves, the words we choose, and the actions we take are in our control. We can work to consciously seek out the beauty around us, even during the toughest times. We can find the moments that ignite our souls amidst the chaos and uncertainty.
- Practicing Gratitude Matters. Finding even the most simple things to be grateful for can mean the difference between sinking vs learning to float among the chaotic waters of life. And no matter how small it may seem-there is always something to be grateful for. I never wanted to homeschool and I will be thrilled the day they finally go back to school. But in the meantime, I am learning more about how my boys’ brains work, I am spending so much additional time with each of them one-on-one, and we are finding many moments of joy in between the tantrums and tears. We have amazing loving teachers who are able to use the incredible technology to stay connected. We are healthy and we are safe. As a family, we are sitting down together for meals multiple times a day.
When I choose to focus on the blessings in the moment, I teach my children, by example, the magic of gratitude.
- We are all connected. This is not only obvious in the way the COVID 19 virus has spread, but also in the way we are learning new ways each day to connect. We are a social species and we need connection, love, and nurturance to thrive. Even though we have differences, we all are experiencing the same human condition and it can feel scary and messy. But we are not alone in it, and our actions and connections also affect each other. When my children are upset because they want to see their friends or grandparents, it is an opportunity to teach them our actions affect others as well as ourselves. Even if we are not likely to become sick from this virus, if we expose others, we may inadvertently spread it to people who could become very sick. Teaching my boys that sometimes the “right” thing to do is also the hard thing to do is one of the biggest lessons I can gift them.
- Everything happens in cycles, which include a beginning, middle, and end. Basically: this too shall pass. None of my boys slept through the night until well after a year. My middle son had silent reflux, and we spent 9 months before he was diagnosed, wondering why he couldn’t sleep. In the middle of those dark nights, it truly felt like the sun would never come up and there was no end in sight. But every single morning, the sun rose and the day began again. Everything in life is part of a cycle. You can look to the moon, to a seed you plant, or pretty much anything in nature to see this truth. And so, as we now find ourselves in a dark time, it is so important to teach them that this is not permanent. And that we can and will get through it. Our quarantine and social distancing will eventually end and until it does we are doing our part now to help everyone stay safe. More struggles, suffering, and challenges are inevitable as a part of life. But so is the rising sun.
- It is ok to make mistakes. In fact, mistakes are how we learn. I CANNOT expect to teach this lesson if I don’t embrace it myself. And I’ll be honest- this one is hard. When I realized I somehow missed part of their assignments the first two weeks of distance learning, my gut reaction was to feel like a failure. Thankfully I have been taking a course in Mindful Self Compassion and was able to practice some of my new skills. By giving myself the same amount of compassion I would give anyone else, I was able to stay calm and use this as an opportunity to show my children that everyone makes mistakes. And what I learned from this one: It helps to read emails completely, especially when they come from school.
- Flexibility is an important life skill. My children, like most, respond really well to a structured schedule. I learned the first day of distance learning that my middle son wants to stick to the schedule down to the very minute. And honestly, so do I. But sometimes the internet cuts out during a pandemic, often little brothers have tantrums, and moms who are overwhelmed with emails may need a few extra moments to find the correct link or choice board. I know from my own experiences in life that when we get stuck in rigid thinking, it can be very difficult to navigate life changes. And so, on the second day of our new schedule, I erased the times beside our afternoon activities. It is not a strict schedule, but more of a guide. Multiple times a day, I now remind my boys (and myself) that sometimes we may get off a bit but that is OK. We are all learning through this.
- Going outside and connecting to nature is both spiritual and vital. One nonnegotiable in our new schedule is recess. Every single day (weather permitting) they will have some unstructured playtime outside. Because they need it. Because I need it. Because nature is a way to connect spiritually, to stay grounded, and to focus on the natural miracles that occur every single day around us. As the world clamors in fear, I notice the new buds on our blueberries, the sounds of the birds singing, and how it feels when the sun shines on my face. Focusing on the present not only brings mindfulness, but also peace. And it is so much easier to do this in nature.
- Science is real and should not be ignored. There seems to be much debate over the seriousness of our current situation but if you look to the scientists who have spent their lives studying and learning, you will see this virus is deadly to many and is a very real threat. I heard one doctor say that in the best-case scenario, we are able to say “nothing horrible happened” meaning safety precautions and social distancing actually worked. While some people are criticizing the medical experts and, we are following their lead. Regardless of what others are doing, my boys understand that we believe in and respect science.
- Laughter is magical. If I chose to focus on making sure my boys were “on task” every moment of the day, it would be difficult for me to embrace a smile, much less laughter. Long before we found ourselves in this involuntary homeschooling situation, I realized that being silly and creative takes me much farther with my boys than trying to force anything. Choosing my battles helps me focus on my nonnegotiables, but in the midst of the day, I do everything I can to work laughter and silliness in. My name during “mommy school” is “Mrs. Noodletoot” and on the Fridays he is off work, my husband becomes my assistant “Professor Winky Wonk.” When my middle refused to read out loud in a phonics game last week, suddenly we had four stuffed animals at the table playing with us. Any time I can work some potty humor into our lessons it goes a long way. Being able to laugh, especially during stressful times, is not only healing but also magical.
- They are blessed to have siblings. And I am blessed to have them. As hard as it is sometimes to wrangle three different personalities of three different ages, I am thankful every single day that my boys have brothers to go through this experience with. They miss their friends, of course, but they have built-in playmates for life right in their own home. I am grateful I can send them out to play together and most of the time they won’t draw blood. I hope this time in their lives will not only help them form a lifelong bond, but it will also remind them of the magic of brotherhood. Because every now and then, when I catch them interacting, I know that there is something beautiful and unique shared between brothers.
- Art and music are important. While I appreciate the time and energy their teachers put into creating choice boards for specials, I have decided we are not strictly following them. It’s not that I don’t value the specials- it’s actually the opposite. I have always loved music and art, and our “special” part of the day is my favorite. But by engaging the boys into activities we love, I am making their learning experiences not only fun, but also a time of bonding. We have learned art from their favorite author Mo Willems, we have had a blast just drawing freestyle, we’ve practiced teamwork as we play games. Our new favorite hour can be classified as a mix between PE and Music. Long after this pandemic is over, my hope is my boys will hold tight the memories of dancing around the living room with their mom, listening to the Top 50 All-Time Best Super Mario Brother songs.