A few weeks ago, I got an email from another special needs mom, someone I don’t know directly but who knows many of my friends. She got in touch with me because someone had suggested taking her son to Lourdes, which made her remember our upcoming pilgrimage, which made her get in touch to ask about the Knights of Malta. I always treasure our conversations because she is, I think, the only person in the universe who can speak to every side of our situation: Catholicism, large family logistics, homeschooling, special needs, epilepsy… even down to the ins and outs of particular neurologists in Austin.
Mostly we talked about Lourdes and medical mumbo jumbo, but at the end of the conversation I told her we were discerning our plans for the next school year. (Ah, March.) I asked, “How do you homeschool so many kids when you have a son like N in the mix?” And she shot back instantly, “Oh, we unschool. It’s the only possible way I could do it.”
Unschooling. This word has come up SO many times during our homeschool years. In particular, I have always been a big fan of unschooling the early years. Books, books, art supplies, singing, more books, and hours of unstructured play, preferably all outdoors. Our single, solitary fully-homeschool year, in Minnesota, was Charlotte Mason-ish and unschoolish.
In 2015, we decided to take a break from our part-time, three-day-a-week school, and we intended to homeschool in that manner again. But I got pregnant and panicky, so we went to our parish school. When we were ready to leave there, after a single year, Todd suggested homeschooling, but by that point we had a newborn plus two preschoolers, along with three grade school kids, and I was beyond exhausted. “No way,” I put my foot down. We settled on a classical, Catholic hybrid school as the next best option — its classical model was almost the anti-unschool in its adherence to structure, but it was gentle and peaceful.
Then a trainwreck happened in the middle of all that classical structure and we spent this year trying to keep our footing amid the flaming wreckage. Badly.
We spend two days a week on campus at a tutoring center. Those days went peacefully, smoothly. We felt surrounded and loved by our community. We hired help for the three days at home, so we could get to all the appointments and lessons while home assignments still happened. And it hung together. But just barely. As long as not a single thing went wrong or was added, we could get through a week (and when I say “get through” I mean collapse exhausted on Friday, either yelling at each other a lot or unable to speak coherent sentences). But guess how often we had a week when not a single thing went wrong or was added?
When my friend spoke the words “We unschool,” it was like the tiny breeze that created the thunderhead that converged into the hurricane that demolished the city so carefully built… on sand.
That phone call was Friday. Saturday was The Retreat. And for the rest of the weekend I was useless, more or less unable to speak without crying. I got dressed in actual clothes Sunday and that was the pinnacle of my accomplishments. I got us all to school on Monday and kept the nursery children alive. I had run straight into the immovable obstacle of my suffering, so carefully disguised and managed all year, tied up with duct tape and shoestring and set up on a high shelf. When that time bomb exploded, there was no putting it back.
For the first time in so long, though, I had had at that retreat a very powerful, direct, tangible experience of God’s love for me. I knew He was in this mess. I knew this weekend was the mess he had to create to get my attention. So I called another friend, one who knew me and also knew the woman who had whispered “unschool” to me days before. She talked to me for an hour and a half, both about our Year of Doom and about her experience unschooling her children.
At one point, she noted, “I don’t know what other choice you have.”
Goodness knows, I was already living proof that sheer force of will and discipline was not enough. Our house ran like a glorified police state, where we oversaw the kids’ every decision. Food. Screen time. Math homework. Politeness of speech. I felt like a warden and nearly every day involved contentious arguments and high tension. Our sensitive kids (of whom we have more than our share) were succumbing to daily meltdowns of spectacular volume and duration. We were focused on results, not relationship.
There was no joy in Mudville.
So the retreat, my collapse, these side conversations, our daily life all pushed at my subconscious until I recognized a tipping point. I tentatively floated it past Todd. “What if we… just… unschool next year?”
I was prepared for a flat-out refusal. Instead, he surprised me by pointing out, “We’ve been saying we should homeschool for years. This seems like a reasonable way to try it. It worked in Minnesota.”
I was floored by his response, but I assumed the kids would all balk, each for different reasons, but each definitively. I tested the waters in casual conversations with them individually: “What would you do if you didn’t have to do any schoolwork next year?”
To a one, they almost couldn’t speak fast enough to tell me all their ideas. Swimming. Math. (I kid you not — more than one child gave that answer.) French. Minecraft mods. Horseback riding. Creative writing. Gymnastics. Reading. Legos. Acting. Choir. Not one of them expressed the slightest hesitation or regret about missing their classmates or missing out on school. Their shoulders visibly lowered and their breath eased at the very mention of the idea.
Todd and I continued talking and decided to move forward with the idea, trying it out in our minds for a few days at home. Would it also apply to chores? Food? TV? Bedtime? Were we really committing to letting go of the wheel entirely? We tested the theory outright one night as it pertained to bedtime. The three oldest kids were drawing and painting happily at the table. It was 45 minutes past Miriam’s bedtime. I called from the next room, “Miriam, bedtime!”
She didn’t answer. And didn’t answer. And didn’t answer.
My skin was crawling by the 30-second mark, and by two minutes I was literally squirming. Finally, I asked, “Hey Miriam, when do you think you’ll be ready to go to bed?”
“When I finish this picture?”
“When will that be?”
“I don’t know… two minutes?”
Two minutes later, without another word, she closed up her art supplies, pranced into the living room, kissed us good night, and went to brush her teeth.
Before I tucked her in, I noted all the toys on the floor of her room and mentioned casually, “I’m worried someone may trip on those in the dark.” She joyfully bent down, picked them up, put them away, and crawled happily into bed.
A bedtime this peaceful had, as far as I remember, never happened once in the entirety of her earthly existence.
The rest of that entire week proceeded without tantrums or noteworthy arguing, yelling, or fighting. Again, an unprecedented feat. And when we finally officially suggested unschooling one night at family dinner, the suggestion was met with resounding cheers. It was as if the sagging oxygen in our house had been replenished.
So why the title, a Sabbath year? That is our mindset about this experiment. We all of us, littlest to biggest, just need a break from our regular work to recharge, reconnect, and recommit ourselves to a life of faith. These were all the reasons we started homeschooling in the first place, but gradually, imperceptibly, the schooling became an idol unto itself and the ideals behind it fell by the wayside.
This is a year to remember those ideals. To have fun together. To attend Mass together. To pray and eat and love and laugh together. To make sure Oscar gets the care he needs, and that the other kids aren’t just getting the leftover scraps of time and attention. And to learn, joyfully, while we do these most important things.
Since the decision, so many little signs and consolations have confirmed it as the right course. A prayer shared at the retreat: “I renounce the lie that I have to have everything figured out. I trust that God will give me what I need to know when I need to know it.” Someone referring me to the book Abandonment to Divine Providence. A song playing on the radio: “Through it all, through it all, my eyes are on you. Through it all, through it all, it is well. Let go, my soul, and trust in Him.” It’s time to take our hands off the wheel, my friends.
We need the silence and space in our lives to hear and respond to God’s call. We need close relationship to teach our children to do the same. He knows where He wants them. Our goal this year is to help them listen and discern, provide the tools they need, then get out of the way. As St. Catherine of Siena put it, “Be who you are meant to be and you will set the world on fire.” But first, you have to learn who you’re meant to be.