The subject of the elusive “work-life” balance generally revolves around the challenges facing working moms. And for good reason: although fathers today do more household work than prior generations of fathers, mothers—even full-time working moms—still bear the brunt of childcare and household labor. This “second shift” makes attaining work-life balance difficult for working moms, and along with other challenges, it gives rise to the debate (or myth) about “having it all.”
Some argue a movement of “new domesticity” is growing from the disillusionment that can arise from these debates. In her book Homeward Bound, Emily Matchar describes how many young women are re-embracing lost domestic arts like gardening, canning, knitting, and raising chickens in the backyard. If you can’t have it all, why not turn toward home and make the most of it?
Although Matchar’s book is journalistic and anecdotal, and it’s difficult to know if this is really a sizable movement, one facet she connects to the new domesticity—homeschooling—is clearly growing rapidly.
Accurate figures are hard to come by, but 2 million homeschooled children is to be a safe estimate. (The federal government puts the 2011 number at 1.77 million, up from 1.1 million in 2003; see Tables 7 and 8.) For reference, about 55 million children altogether are enrolled in school (preschool through twelfth grade), including 5 million in private schools.
I am in the middle of an interview-based research project on homeschooling, part of a larger study examining how school cultures form the moral and civic outlooks of their students. I’ve interviewed about twenty homeschooling families thus far (I interview a parent, usually the mom, and a teenage homeschooler), and though I’m only partway through the project, I can’t shake a rather counter-intuitive observation: homeschool moms may strike the elusive work-life balance in ways the rest of us could never achieve.
But that’s impossible, because homeschool moms don’t even “work,” right? Yes, technically the work-life dilemma only applies to those employed in the paid workforce, but homeschool moms may be pushing us to reconsider the framing of the debate.
What strikes me about many of the moms in the twenty families I’ve interviewed thus far is this: they are talented, well-educated women who have willingly and happily chosen to homeschool their children for a variety of reasons, and though they’re very busy, they seem to find fulfillment, balance, and rhythm to life that’s rare in the modern world.
Homeschool moms may strike the elusive work-life balance in ways the rest of us could never achieve.
Let me offer some support for the claim, and then I’ll offer some caveats.
First, in most cases, a family’s desire to homeschool, or their initial interest in the possibility, was driven by the mother. It was not something suggested to them by their husbands, or their parents, or their churches, neighbors, or friends. Quite the contrary—in the majority of the families I’ve interviewed, the wife has convinced a somewhat hesitant husband that homeschooling was worth a try. This is a largely female-driven decision and, for many of these women, it is an empowering one.
Though many of the homeschooling families I’ve interviewed are religious, few have chosen to homeschool from ideological commitments of a theological, political, or social nature. The choice was often more pragmatic or exploratory, driven by a curiosity about whether this could work, or the hope that it might create a family lifestyle not driven by the tyranny of a school schedule. Some choose to educate their children themselves because they are former teachers and experienced a less-than-ideal learning environment in the classroom, some because they were impressed with homeschooled children they encountered at La Leche League, some because their kids had special needs, and some because they weren’t ready to part with their child for six hours a day (more on “intensive mothering” later). In other words, these homeschool moms are actively choosing this option because they believe it can offer their children, and themselves, something better than the alternative; they are not reluctantly succumbing to it.
Second, homeschooling provides a specialized focus for these moms’ energy, talent, and skills. The homeschool moms I interviewed are certainly doing more than the ordinary cooking, cleaning, and child care that make up many parents’ days. Many of the moms I spoke to had careers of some sort—in education, marketing, engineering, social work, law enforcement—prior to their decision to homeschool. Many left these careers completely, some continue part-time, and others have found new part-time work. Some look back on their “former life” with fondness, but they all feel their current life is better. Homeschooling doesn’t involve earning money, but it offers women an opportunity to focus their energy, creativity, and talent on the education of their children. They plan units, study curriculum, explore museums and historical sites, organize co-ops, teach classes, and more. These efforts are not part of the paid labor force, but many of the moms I interviewed put their skills and interest to excellent use (which may create its own intriguing wage gap).
Don’t get me wrong. These women are busy. It’s not all fun and balance and happiness. There’s the mundane task, the challenging lesson, and the moments of self-doubt. But these women may be pioneering and re-navigating gender roles and modern motherhood in surprising ways. Although it’s a different kind of “work-life balance,” I think homeschool moms may have something to offer the conversation.
Homeschooling provides a specialized focus for these moms’ energy, talent, and skills.
Now for some caveats.
First, the families I’ve interviewed thus far are not necessarily representative of all homeschool families. Not all homeschool moms fit the description above; I’m talking about a particular subset—relatively wealthy and well-educated moms who would likely otherwise be in the professional working class. (While the homeschool population is more educated than the general population, note that 60 percent of homeschool parents do not have a bachelor’s degree.) Remember, however, that most of the work-life balance, “having it all” discussion is directed at this highly educated minority.
Second, there’s no doubt that many of these women are subject to norms of “intensive mothering” that dominate the parenting culture of certain social classes. Some homeschool moms may indeed be “controlling” in their efforts to craft and individualize their children’s instruction, or overly attached in their unwillingness to part with their child when kindergarten time comes. In her excellent book about the emotional labor involved in homeschooling, Jennifer Lois found that intensive mothering brings anxiety and challenging time pressures to many of the twenty-four homeschool moms she interviewed. I have not yet encountered the more oppressive, anxiety-ridden pressures that Lois seems to find. I’m sure they’re there, and do not wish to downplay the intensive mothering–homeschool link; I simply suggest that homeschooling can also be empowering for some homeschool moms. (See here for one example of a mom who doesn’t necessarily fit Lois’s description.)
A final caveat: Homeschooling could be framed as another form of the “concerted cultivation” of children practiced by middle- and upper-class parents. Annette Lareau, who coined the term, argues that parents use this strategy to reproduce inequalities and ensure their children’s economic success. It is certainly possible that this desire is present among some homeschooling parents, and it could always be operating at some deep level of the subconscious. But economic, material, or academic success do not seem to be the main motivating factors for the moms I’ve interviewed—they don’t seem to be homeschooling to help their kids get ahead, or stay ahead. Rather, they are motivated by deeper moral commitments to form and shape their children in a certain direction. Undoubtedly, there are social class implications here, but the decision to homeschool is about more than just that.
I don’t think the homeschool moms I’ve interviewed would say that they “have it all,” and I know none would say it’s easy. But their choices, and their work, have a contribution to offer the work-life debate, even though they’re not rewarded with wages. For some moms, homeschooling may serve as an outlet for balancing emotional intimacy, investment in their kids, purpose and fulfillment—all while putting their creative and intellectual resources to work.
Jeffrey S. Dill teaches in the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University in St. David’s, Pennsylvania.