I spent the summer chasing my girls around, mentally preparing myself for a new school year. Homeschooling was the plan before our children were even born, and six short years into this motherhood gig, I had two school-age kiddos, plus a 2-going-on-12-year-old. With all three of my children capable of walking, feeding, and dressing themselves, I experienced summer with a newfound sense of freedom to explore parks, beaches, and libraries together with all the other kids and families also savoring the three delicious months when daylight lasts forever.
Once the back to school season rolled in, we found the end of August to be unusually quiet at our favorite hang-out spots. Knowing we had nine months of “school” ahead of us and not wanting to do it solo, I dutifully registered on a homeschool community website. There, I connected with a local mom who also had three children, and within days, we met each other for the first time at a nature center nestled in the woods.
I liked Michelle immediately. We chatted about delaying formal education, the merits of outdoor play, and the struggles of living as a one-income family. Funny enough, one of our mutual friends had been wanting to get us together. In short time the three of us mamas were scheduling meet-ups in the woods. Three moms and nine kids. It was only the beginning of a community I never would’ve imagined the day I registered our family on that website.
By the end of September, our tiny informal group grew by massive proportions. A whole crew of us moms, doused in bug spray, carrying backpacks loaded with snacks, and some with babies strapped to our bodies, led our entire gaggle of children through forests, creeks, and prairies. ALL of us hungry for connection with other like-minded families.
Our meet-ups in the woods quickly became the highlight of our week.
My timid first-born watched in awe when Erica caught a toad on one of our walks. I saw her muster up the courage to touch it herself as Erica cupped it in her palm. These days, she hunts down frogs and toads with relentless ferocity.
On a brisk fall morning, our group settled down near a fallen tree. It inevitably turned into a jungle gym. My girls studied how the other kids in our group climbed and balanced on the sprawling branches. It wasn’t long before they joined in the fun too, sometimes getting stuck in the process. Now more often than not, trees beckon to them, begging to be climbed and scaled by agile little hands and feet.
One morning at the playground, the largest play structure was deemed a pirate’s ship and commandeered by the boys in our group. With all of the girls banished from the best slides and monkey bars, they banded together, taking sticks in hand and storming the fortress with battle cries. Fortunately, no one was hurt badly, but the camaraderie formed that day between our sons and daughters carried with us into the following months.
On a cold November evening, all the families in our group met for a Thanksgiving feast. We brought mashed potatoes and green bean casserole, cornbread muffins, and cranberry jelly. Our group of nearly fifty enjoyed sweet fellowship. We stood shoulder to shoulder around a campfire, sharing hopes for our children’s futures while sipping hot cider. We discussed our challenges as homeschool families and the flack we sometimes receive from well-intentioned family members. Our children ran wild and free among the trees with their friends, cheeks flushed pink, and mouths sticky from caramel apples. We all celebrated our newfound friendship and left late that night with full hearts and full bellies.
The year has come full-circle, and our family found a place where we belong. In fact, it isn’t a place at all; it’s the people we belong to. With the wild and free mamas, someone always has a snack, a band-aid, an oil, a sparkling water, or a helping hand. Our worries and joys always have listening ears and tender hearts to fall upon. Some of our homes have become one another’s, we have all become each other’s teachers, and our kids have become the best of friends. Together we laugh, we cry, we encourage, we pray, and we rally behind one another’s passions. We’re often in the woods, but more permanently in each other’s hearts. As families move, as babies are born, and as seasons of life shift, the wild and free mamas hold space for one another at the table. We remind each other about why we do what we do, and none of us is doing it solo. The wild and free mamas with the wild and free children are who we belong to.
Featured image by Hill Smiley Photography
Mary Kate Brown is a homeschooling stay-at-home mama living in the suburbs of Chicago. She is married to her high-school sweetheart Brian, and together they have three daughters. She decorates cakes, is a hobby gardener, and enjoys reading. She is the author and creator of the “Start Your Homeschool” Guided Workbook, and she writes about faith and motherhood at www.choosinggraceblog.com. Find her on Facebook and Instagram.