I lost the home-school burnout battle—and I'm OK with it

Sep. 28, 2010 at 5:37 PM ET

Evidence suggests that home-schooling in America is a growing trend. In a weeklong web-only series, TODAYshow.com reports on the challenges and creative opportunities presented by this approach to education.By Simcha Fisher What does it take to be a great home-schooler? Passion, energy, creativity, high ideals and whole-hearted devotion to your kids. What does it take to spoil home-schooling? Passion, energy, creativity, high ideals and whole-hearted devotion to your kids. OK, not always. But many home-schooling moms find themselves burned out after a few years, exhausted by the very things that made the whole enterprise possible. Some parents home-school for negative reasons like fear or mistrust. But others, like us, do it because it just feels natural to stay together as a family — and because we’re dying to pass down to our children the delightful world of knowledge and culture that makes our own lives rich. We started home-schooling when our oldest child was 6 years old. We now have eight children, and have home-schooled for six years. Now, we are ready to let someone else do all that wonderful sharing! Why? Because passing down a whole world of knowledge and culture is a pretty tall order for one set of parents. It’s a huge undertaking with even one child, never mind six or eight. And then there's curriculum envy. Someone's always blogging about the interactive origami diorama her second-grader made with homemade rag paper and saffron dye. (And all we did today was reading, writing and arithmetic!) We want to prove that home-schoolers aren't the backward, tongue-tied ninnies they're rumored to be. Striving against stereotype, our kids can't simply be as good as public-schoolers -- they have to be better — smarter, happier, more sociable, more ambitious — more everything. We want to impress ourselves, too. We've given up a lot to invest this much time and energy in our children's education, so there’d better be a darn good payoff for that mountain of neglected laundry and the loony-looking tic in our eyes. Guilt is also an issue. If your public-schooled kids are unhappy and haven't learned a thing, who's to blame? The teacher, the taxpayer, the government, the air quality in the classroom —you name it. But if you're home-schooling and things aren't going well, then who's at fault? The mommy in the mirror. Constant anxiety about living up to high ideals? Check. Comparison to other families? Check. The haunting fear that you're failing your children, and everyone will know it's all your fault? Check. This list should sound familiar to moms, because home-schooling is just like motherhood, only more intense. All the worst doubts, frustrations and paranoia that haunt the modern mom are multiplied in the mind of the home-schooling mother. And it is exhausting. Or it can be, if you let it. Some parents manage to teach their children without losing their minds. Some parents are sane and reasonable, make rational goals, maintain order, and they know when to push and when to back off. There are many, many varieties of home-schooling families, and some of them turn out the smartest, friendliest, most grounded children I know. I, on the other hand, burnt out. I remember finishing up a math lesson one day. Usually, the little kids do everything they can to derail the other kids’ lessons, but this time, there was peace and quiet, not a peep of protest. I marveled, until I found out why. The toddler had clambered up onto the kitchen counter, where, after stripping off all her clothes and decorating her face, belly, arms and legs with wild tribal magic marker, she proceeded to have a private little pantry party: Cornstarch, popcorn, cinnamon, tea bags, toothpicks and fruit snacks, peanuts and chicken bouillon all came pouring down. And she did a little dance in the wreckage. Well, we’d had worse days than that, but somehow this particular stunt summed everything up for me. Once I stopped laughing, I realized I just couldn’t do it any more: I couldn’t handle everything I needed to handle. The constant tension between soaring ambition and crushing guilt finally wore me down, and I took a good, hard look at where our family was. I still love home-schooling. I just don't love it right now. My four oldest kids have started going to a charter school, and the transition has been a little bumpy — but they are happy, they're making friends, they are learning ... and they are still my kids. I can still teach them about the things I love, but I can also relax, and let someone else sweat over math drills and sentence diagrams. I'm still home-schooling my first-grader, and we're actually having fun! Families go through seasons, so your schooling choice should be based on what's best for your particular kids, with your particular strengths, for their particular needs, at this particular time in the life of your family. To be honest, I was afraid of what the other home-schoolers would say. I know that some families who quit home-schooling are criticized, even ostracized, by their former friends, who see them almost as traitors. But that didn’t happen to us. We had good reasons to home-school in the first place, and now we have good reasons to take advantage of the school system — at least for this year. In the end, it's not about being a great home-schooler or a terrible one — it's about being a good mom. The transition from home-school to traditional school can be a challenging one. Has your family had to make that switch? If so, how has everyone adjusted? Join the discussion. For more from Simcha Fisher, click here.