“What do we do with Jenna?” I asked my husband on a spontaneous evening walk.
I’ve been homeschooling the oldest since 2016 when she entered kindergarten and her sister was in pre-k. That year went poorly (I started it with a 6-week-old, a 1-year-old, and some Very Intense Curriculum), but we’ve found our rhythm in the years since.
Lately, she and I are butting heads. While she’s definitely an introvert, she’s the most extroverted of the introverts in our house: she has social needs that I’m simply not cut out to meet. Also, there’s conflict with her 17-months-younger sister Katherine, who has long been my big, physical reactor. At small provocations, she yells, hits, kicks, and throws things. When she gets wound up, I often hold her to protect her, me, and her siblings for half an hour or more. (I refer to this as “disciplinary cuddle time.” She is not amused.) Jenna doesn’t only want my attention; she wants her siblings’ as well, and she frequently gets it by needling Katherine, resulting in a full disruption of everybody’s day.
We’ve been kicking around the idea of sending her to public school for a little while—we have to change something, and this may help. We live two blocks from the elementary school she would attend, but I hesitate—quitting homeschool feels like defeat. Maybe I’m not good at this and should just give up? Maybe I should stay the course and keep trying? I know this is a privileged choice—keep my kid home or send her to the great public school down the road. These are two decent options. So why does this all feel so heavy?
“I can’t make this decision,” I tell Andrew as we mosey toward home. “It’s too personal and too fraught for me to have any objectivity. I need you to just decide.”
“Okay,” he responds, having listened to me obsess for months, thus being well aware of the pros and cons of each option. “Let’s try public school.”
We start the school year in August with much fear and trepidation. I worry she won’t be ready for the sheer amount of stimulation a classroom entails. I worry her teacher won’t approve of my choice to homeschool her until now and will judge her behavior as she adjusts to a new environment. I worry kids will be mean, or she’ll fall into some soul-deadening pursuit of “cool.” I worry her relationships with me and her siblings will drift apart as she spends hours away from us each day. I worry that I am worrying too much and she’ll pick it up and worry more than she already does.
It works. My worry effectively prevents each of those things from happening. Her teacher is kind and encouraging and very chill. Jenna regularly jabbers on when she gets home about all her friends (an improbable number of whom are named Noah) and the fun she’s had.
Actually, the biggest struggle comes after the second day. Mrs. Friedrich pulls me aside at pick-up: “Jenna’s having a hard time being quiet when she needs to be listening. I keep reminding her, but she’s still a chatterbox.” She is making friends too enthusiastically. We address the whole “no, really, you have to listen to the teacher and talk to your classmates at appropriate times and volume” and now she’s thriving, both personally and academically.
The biggest wins haven’t been solely Jenna’s, though. She comes home worn out from a day of interacting and needs reconnection and alone time. I spend some time connecting with her heart and then she finds something solitary to do. (Let’s just be honest here: she zones out on her tablet. It’s fine.) Just as stunningly, Katherine has blossomed. Where there was great frustration and often violence, a kind, thoughtful second-grader has emerged. Without her big sister calling constantly for my attention and poking at her for reactions, the need for “disciplinary cuddles” has subsided more than I imagined it would. She’s kinder to her younger siblings, she and I communicate better, and even the rivalry between her and Jenna has cooled as they’ve had space to develop as themselves, rather than functioning as one clump of kids, Jennaandkatherine.
Back in June when I was agonizing over the kind of school Jenna would attend, I didn’t know a change would bring so much calm to our home. Now, as we head toward the end of the school year, we’re thinking through options for the next one. Jenna seems straightforward enough: it’s been delightful to watch her thrive in a class full of peers and a few not-Mom grownups. But this coming year, we will have three school-aged kids and, again, decisions must be made.
One night at dinner, Andrew brings this up. “Is kindergarten at Jenna’s school full-day or half-day?”
“Full, I think. Why?”
“I think Brian might do really well with the structure.”
I agree, and tell him so. Up to this point in the conversation, we’ve been talking above the children, as parents do, and they’re involved in their own conversations [squabbles]. None of them is paying attention. But then Katherine pipes up: “Mom, I think I should stay home this year.”
“I’m kind of leaning that way, but why do you think you should stay home?”
“Well,” she says, sipping her milk to buy a moment’s pause, “It’s a lot of people. And I don’t know if some of them will be mean. And usually, when there’s a bully, you know… I become a bully. NOT that it’s my choice. I’m not telling you what to do.”
She’s right: this is her struggle. The honest, shame-free self-reflection coupled with her clear awareness that she’s not the one in charge (but expects, still, to be heard) show me just how much she’s grown the last several months. I imagine she’ll face this particular challenge before long with grace and maturity, but this coming year may not be the time to try. She’s flourishing at home for now.
The school choices don’t feel nearly as heavy now as they did a year ago, but each decision has a shelf life. I don’t know how long they’ll each work for my various children, for my family, or for me. I don’t need to know, either. For now, we’ll continue to choose year by year, child by child what school is going to be.
Robin Chapman captures both the gritty experience of motherhood and the grace of God as it carries her despite her many imperfections. She writes with humor and vulnerability, sure to make you laugh and breathe a sigh of relief, knowing you are not alone. As an editor and writer for KindredMom.com, Robin is a cheerleader for moms in the trenches. She educates her four children at home (well, except for that one) in Alaska, where she lives with her ridiculously good looking husband, Andrew. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and her blog.