Yes, there is one downside to homeschooling. Does it happen to everyone? Are some moms more prone to burnout than others? How can you cope, and more importantly, how can you prevent it? To find out, I asked my team of experts -- dozens of homeschooling moms -- if they experience burnout, and how they deal with it. Their answers may surprise you.
Nearly every homeschooling mom interviewed has, at one time or another, found herself "at the end of her rope." Homeschool organizer Nancy Plent (Unschoolers Network) said it best: "Most of us are the authors of our own stress. We want everything to be perfect and go according to schedule, everyone in the family to be happy all the time...well, life just doesn't run that smoothly." Even so, for homeschooling moms it's essential things at home "run smoothly." Home is both our work place and family place. When something disrupts that environment, trouble can arise.
Symptoms of Burnout
The moms I spoke with discussed a variety of symptoms:
· Crying easily
· Lack of patience
· Overeating or no appetite
· Overreacting to minor issues
· Making irrational decisions
Often you have no sense of priority, and what usually does not phase you, suddenly does -- in a big way. One mom described her burnout: "I just wanted everyone (in my family) to go away!"
Homeschooling moms report being hit particularly hard by the "non-negotiables" -- those situations in life over which we have no control:
· New baby
· Added responsibility
· New job
· Change in routine
Then there are stressful circumstances you can control: Over-scheduling activities, unrealistic expectations, rigid adherence to a curriculum, lack of support, and too many commitments. In short, trying to be a homeschool "Super Mom." Surprisingly, the solutions to stress factors that are either in or out of our control are very similar.
What You Can Do
Most moms agreed that burnout, while unpleasant and difficult, was not necessarily a bad thing. It's a signal that something needs to be changed, and changed quickly. Homeschooling author Micki Colfax (Homeschooling for Excellence) advises parents about burnout: "If you're feeling stressed, you're doing too much. Cut back. Lighten up. Time is on your side." Along with that advice, try these tips:
1. Lower your expectations. My 82-year-old mother broke her pelvis earlier this year and moved in with us. It was very stressful maintaining our routine and caring for an elderly parent. Organized learning was just about impossible. Fortunately, I saw "burnout" on the horizon and let go of any ideas of formal learning. For over two months we did nothing that resembled schoolwork. Watching my two girls learn to care for their grandmother and seeing the love grow between the generations was a far more valuable lesson than anything I could have taught them.
Lowered expectations apply to all of those non-negotiable situations that arise. Housework really can wait; sandwiches are fine for dinner. Children learn from watching their parents. As they see you cope with difficult situations, they learn to draw from their own inner strength. Whatever organized learning the kids skip this month they can make up next month, or even next year, if necessary.
2. Be flexible. If something isn't working, be willing to try something different. Remember: There should be no tears on either side. If tensions rise, put aside whatever work you're doing (or thinking about doing) and head for the park or the skating rink, or go for a bike ride. Try playing a board game or reading a funny book together. Remember why you're homeschooling: You have the freedom to choose what, when, and where your children will learn. Today's cranky child will be tomorrow's eager learner if you allow some space when conflicts arise as you homeschool.
3. Change your teaching style. Dr. Raymond Moore, author of Home School Burnout, believes: "The most frequent cause (of burnout) is the use of conventional 'packaged' curricula, keeping the mother and children tied to books for hours a day." Re-creating school at home is a mistake many homeschoolers make. When dealing with younger children, this can spell disaster.
Mary Pride (The Big Book of Home Learning) suggests asking yourself: "Am I overdoing it? Am I making simple subjects too fancy? What can I eliminate? Do I need to be doing this at all? Is my child too young for this subject? Should I give it a rest? Are there other worthwhile things we would like to study or do and come back to this later?" Then read anything by John Holt. Start with Teach Your Own or How Children Learn.
4. Limit scheduled activities. Homeschool moms schedule too many activities under the guise of "socializing" their kids. This ultimately produces grouchy kids and a worn-out mom. Debra Newby wrote about the Super Mom phenomenon and decided: "My new philosophy is to say no to the good things, and yes to the great things." Other moms suggested allowing kids to pick two activities and drop the rest.
5. Get support. Homeschool dads play a big role in alleviating or eliminating homeschool burnout, with one caveat: They need to be told to do it! Just about every mom agreed -- dads didn't pick up on the extent of the mom's difficulties. This, in itself, was often the cause of additional stress. So don't hold your breath waiting for your mate to lift the burden -- tell him exactly what you're feeling and what you want or need him to do. My group of moms reported that dad helped by taking the kids for the day (out of the house, of course!) and by assuming a little more responsibility while mom recovered.
Dad working extra hours or not available? Join a homeschool support group. I also found help and support by joining homeschool email groups -- there are groups for every interest imaginable.
Remember to schedule time for yourself, paying someone to stay with your kids, if necessary. I try to get up at 6 a.m. to have some quiet time. Sometimes I read, exercise, go through my mail, or write a friend. This helps clear my mind before our busy day begins.
Learn to distinguish between what is essential, and what can be put aside for the time being. Know what your priorities are and try to stay focused on them. As your children grow and become more independent, homechooling becomes easier. (Trust me on that one!) Most importantly, remember that those "rough" times are just temporary.
Success will come when the realization finally sets in that the direction of this homeschooling adventure is up to you. It's not about what the school-kids are doing or what your mother-in-law says your kids should be learning, but what you and your family have decided will be your path of education. That is learning in freedom. And when you're there (it took me several years), "mother overload" will be just a memory.