TBR List Declutter, Issue 43

Tangent: Attachment Parenting

My daughter is considering residential camps for this summer. She’s done day camps since she was five years old, but sleep-away camp is uncharted territory for us, and we’re all kind of feeling our way around with this one.

When we were expectant parents, my spouse and I made a conscious decision to embrace attachment parenting. There are a lot of different ideas attached to attachment parenting, but for us it meant ensuring that our daughter had a primary attachment figure in her life (I tacitly accepted the unspoken nomination to the position). Her father and I would both do our best to anticipate our daughter’s needs and either meet those needs or be there to support her if we couldn’t (or chose not to) meet them (i.e., it’s not our job to stop her from crying, but it is our job to be there with her while she does). As best we could, we viewed our family as a unit, an integrated whole greater than the sum of its disparate but complementary parts. The goal was and is balance, respect, and a base of support from which our daughter—and later our son, as well—can feel confident moving into adult life.

The data aren’t all in yet, but so far it seems to be working as advertised. When they were little-little kids, they would toddle away from me and do their own thing for a bit, but they always looked back to make sure I was there, always came back for that physical reassurance of my presence before venturing out again. As they’ve grown, it seems like our relationship has continued to be a variation on this theme. They test out their confidence, and I stay attentive to determine when they need a nudge, when they need reassurance, when they need a hug, and when they just need me to stay our of their way. I’m there to listen to their questions and sometimes to answer but mostly to ask questions back. And when they don’t need me, I’m still there, off-stage, but always ready.

Sleep-away camp feels like part of this progression, but it also seems different, more like a leap than a step. In my discomfort, I’m finding it necessary to be careful what I say. It’s important to me that I help my daughter identify her fears and find the answers she needs to feel comfortable—or comfortable enough—without projecting my own fears onto her. It’s important that I reflect back her feelings, not tell her my own. My experiences with sleeping away from home, whether positive or negative, are irrelevant to her experience. Moreover, my experience of her going to sleep-away camp for the first time is for me to work through, not something in which I should involve her. I am the one who supports; she is the one supported, and even then only to the degree that she needs/wants to be.

And there’s the dance: knowing when to step in and when to wait in the wings and watch her live out her experience. I hope I’m up to the challenge. I expect there’s much more of this sort of thing to come.

Visual Interest:

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Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.


Titles 571-590:

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Nursery Song

Today, my daughter recounted for us a story she’d read about a pregnant woman who put headphones on her belly so her baby could listen to music. When my children stopped laughing, I told them I’d done just that when I was pregnant the first time.

I’d read somewhere that if you play a song for your baby in utero, it will help soothe her after she’s born. Something with a strong beat was recommended so baby could hear it through the white noise of the womb. It seemed pretty low-risk, so every night before bed I would put the headphones on my belly and play this song for my daughter:


After she was born, it did work pretty well to calm her when she was crying. So did running the vacuum or the hair dryer, but this way was more pleasant for her dad and me. As a toddler my daughter called it her “crying song,” but the actual title is “Captain Badass” by Songs: Ohia.

Today, my children giggled at the title, of course. When I played the song for them, they weren’t particularly impressed—“Okay. Can we eat lunch now?”—but I loved it as much as I ever had.

“Will you stand up for your one chance? Will you stand up for love?”

Everyday Blessings by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn

I borrowed this book from my friend Melanie ages ago (about three years ago, I think). I started it right away after I borrowed it, and while I appreciated the Kabat-Zinns’ perspective, the book didn’t really hold my interest. I’d been through those difficult early years with my kids, and while the suggestions were good, I didn’t really need them anymore. It felt like old news. But there was enough there that I didn’t want to give the book back to Melanie unread, so I put it on my TBR Challenge list for 2015—and actually read it.

This time the book spoke to me, probably because I started 2015 with a view toward more mindful living, which, because I have young children, is essentially the same as mindful parenting. Apparently right now is the right time for me to be reading this book.

In the months after my first child was born, I used to pick up the La Leche League staple The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, not because I needed help with breastfeeding—I’d paid the lactation consultants for that and was finally nursing nearly pain-free after six weeks—but because the tone was so supportive. I would dip in after my daughter had nursed herself to sleep but wasn’t ready to latch off yet, and the words would wrap around me. I would feel, for a few minutes, like I wasn’t alone.

Reading Everyday Blessings this month, I was reminded of that feeling of embrace. Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn provide an open and honest look at the challenges and benefits of being present with our children. They don’t offer anything I didn’t already know, but they did offer reassurance. Here were people who had engaged in the same type of parenting to which I aspire, who tried and failed and tried again, over and over, and not only lived to tell the tale, but reaped benefits even from their imperfect parenting. This is comforting to me because, as much as I hope for perfection, there’s no such thing as perfect parenting. I will always make mistakes; I will always have regrets. There will always be times when I’m confused and have no idea how to proceed, but I’ll have to proceed anyway because that’s my job. Everyday Blessings reminds me that this is okay. This is just another part of the process.

Even with all of these warm fuzzies, I found myself dreading the last section, “Darkness and Light,” about the loss and grief inherent in parenting. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there after being buoyed gently along on the rest of the book, but it turned out that this section pulled everything together well. Here is where they talked about their own fears and failures, and as much as I don’t like looking at those in my own life, it was helpful to see them presented so gently. Practicing empathy for the parenting mistakes of those who share my parenting intentions helps me have more empathy for my own shortcomings.

Summer Lessons

A few weeks ago I was tucking my daughter into bed when she said, almost in tears, “Mommy, this has been an awful summer!”

Bike Lesson

Bike Lesson

That afternoon, I’d made an error in judgment and let her ride her bike up the hill on our street. She’d only learned to ride a few days before. When she asked to ride up the hill, the fact that this meant she would be riding down, too, didn’t register with me until I saw her careening around the curve with a look of terror on her face. Read More

Motherhood and Planned Obsolescence

People write about “leaning in” and “opting out,” and I just feel entirely outside of that conversation.

Ever since I was a little girl, the only thing I’ve really aspired to is motherhood. I had other careers in mind—waitress, clown, firefighter, long-haul truck driver, writer—but those were always secondary to being a mom. Read More

Homeschool – A Day in the Life, Part III: Balance

In Part I, I gave an overview of our homeschooling lives. In Part II, I provided information about the materials we use and how we chose them. In this post, I tackle the thorny issue of maintaining balance while the kids are learning at home.

One of the biggest difficulties I have with homeschooling is balance.

There’s the balance between child-led activities and parent-led activities. There’s the balance between the time I spend with my daughter and the time I spend with my son. There’s the balance between education and play. And then there’s the oft-neglected balance between the time I spend with my children and the time I spend meeting my own needs. Some of these are easier for me to manage than others.

Child-led vs Parent-led Learning

Child-led versus parent-led is one about which I feel fairly confident at the moment. At my daughter’s age, things are naturally more parent-led, and my daughter makes this fairly easy. She’s enthusiastic about learning, and while she has subjects that she prefers to other subjects, so far she accepts that they’re all part of the package. I provide the basic structure and clear expectations, and my daughter has her wiggle room within that basic structure. I encourage her to give me feedback on and input about subjects and materials, but I avoid changing things too quickly. When she doesn’t really like something, I encourage her to stay with it long enough that she can distinguish between an actual dislike or lack of fit and the natural ebb and flow of her interest and enthusiasm. Sometimes we can’t rely on our initial reaction to a new experience and need to give it some time to grow familiar before we can judge whether it’s a good fit for us or not. I try to encourage this type of reflection in my daughter. It’s like when she or her brother tries a new food: I tell them to try three small tastes before declaring it “yucky.” I have them take these three tastes every time they try that food, too. I want my children to be flexible and to allow themselves to respond to change in their own tastes and preferences. This is also my primary goal in balancing child-led and parent-led activities and education.

Son-Time vs Daughter-Time

The balance between son-time and daughter-time is more difficult. Ideally, I would like both of my children to feel like only children in regards to the time they spend with me and their father while at the same time experiencing the benefits of a sibling relationship. This is, I realize, unrealistic. If one has one-on-one time with me during the day, the other one is going to be on his or her own during that time. Most days, this means that my son has a lot of time to play by himself while I do instruction with my daughter.

CIMG7809For a while I was using each evening to plan activities for my son to do the following day. For a while I tried to follow the weekly activities in June Oberlander’s Slow and Steady Get Me Ready, mixed with ideas for independent activities from parent blogs (like Hands On: As We Grow) and Montessori resources. I would set up an activity (for example, tongs + pompoms + muffin tin, or  painters tape shape outlines on the floor + cars and farm animal toys) so he could “play school” at the same time I worked with his sister.

This, however, proved too labor-intensive for me to do regularly. Now I occasionally set up a project, but mostly I just let him do his own thing. He’s much better at entertaining himself than his sister was at the same age. His imaginative play is rich and varied, and he can occupy himself for stretches of time that aren’t incredibly long but which are usually long enough that I can get through a subject with his sister before he needs anything really involved from me. Still, I run back and forth between helping my daughter with math or Latin and helping my son with a fire truck puzzle or with a phonics activity he’s requested. Sometimes this back-and-forth frazzles my nerves…and sometimes I pay for a quiet moment by later cleaning paint off of the walls or mourning the toys that have been permanently personalized with a Sharpie pen, but it’s all part of the price of homeschooling, I suppose.

On Mondays, however, this is different. On Mondays, a friend from church comes over and acts as a stand-in grandma, playing with my son so my daughter and I can focus on our lessons. This allows me to devote my attention to my daughter for a couple of hours. It’s so much fun for my son, and I love that we’re all deepening our relationship with a trusted member of our community (and a very fun person to be around). It’s a huge help, and really reduces the pressure I feel to be more to my children than I am.

Kid-Time vs Mom-Time

And then there’s the toughest one: the balance between kid-time and mom-time. I used to have this kind of figured out. When we were in Utah, we had a lovely young woman come over and watch the kids for two three-hour stretches each week. I would run errands, work out, or just go to the library or a cafe and write. And then we moved, and I’ve not been able to find someone to do this same regular babysitting for me. We’ve tried to arrange for Mommy Time on the weekends, but even that has fallen by the wayside as our weekends have become busier and busier. Saturdays are now Daddy-son and Mommy-daughter time, which is fun, but which doesn’t meet my need for balance.

What I’ve been doing that helps to a degree is getting up early and exercising each morning. I had been meditating, but I’m less likely to fall asleep while exercising, and it gives me an endorphin boost to get me through the morning. I get up and immediately put on my workout clothes, have a drink of water, and head down to the basement to do a 30- to 60-minute exercise video. It’s not as nice as getting out for a long walk in the woods would be, but it helps keep me sane.

I’m also active in several church activities. I sing in the choir each week, and I facilitate a small discussion group that meets once a month. This month, I hope to try out a local mothers’ group. It’s not ideal because it’s yet another evening activity, but I hope it might yield a stronger sense of connection and community.

I also get in some alone time by staying up until 1:30 or 2:00 a.m each night. However, I do not recommend this technique. It’s fine in the short term, but it’s not sustainable, especially when I’m getting up at 6:00 a.m. or earlier to be able to exercise before my spouse goes to work and leaves me at the mercy of our children. After several consecutive nights of this, I need two or more nights on which I fall asleep with my son between 6:30 and 7:00 in the evening.

Balance, it seems, is a moving target.

What do you do to maintain balance, whether it’s between parenting and alone time or between work and personal time or between time for a spouse or partner and time for yourself?

Related Posts:

Amateur Parenting

I think my parents misrepresented adulthood. I grew up with the sense that adults knew things. Adults had answers. They not only understood the way the world worked, but they also possessed some level of power over the workings of that world. But as an adult myself, I find this not to be the case. With few exceptions, I see adults (including myself) just kind of flailing about, trying to make things work either by copying the ways we’ve seen it done before or by actively rejecting those lessons, not taking a conscious role in designing the world.

We adults are a bunch of amateurs, and that’s disappointing to me, especially when it comes to trying to figure out how to raise my kids and especially when there’s a particular childrearing issue that needs tackling. Like now.

My son’s three, and he’s begun hitting, punching, kicking, pushing, and head-butting. His sister is his primary target. When his sister was three, she went through the same stage, only she had no siblings so she had to beat up on the cats (our poor, patient cats). We tried many, many solutions (including ones that were not in line with our parenting philosophy) but never figured out an effective way to deal with her cat-injuring behaviors. Eventually I gave birth to her brother and she started beating up on him and we ended up seeing a child psychologist and her behavior improved and we had a blissful two years until her brother entered the same darned stage and we’re left scratching our heads about how to manage this yet again.

My spouse and I reject corporal punishment in raising our children, but spanking and yelling were both parts of our own childhoods, and I still have those scripts running through my head. When my son hits his sister, the first thing that comes to mind (after the panic that my toddler is hurting my daughter) frequently involves corporal punishment. I don’t want to spank so I yell (because I have some (admittedly illogical) sense that shock effect is important). And by the afternoon when he’s just injured his sister for the seventeenth time that day, I’ve worked myself into the thought that yelling isn’t enough so I need to YELL LOUDER because what else am I supposed to do?

And no, I don’t think that screaming at my three-year-old is a reasonable way to handle the situation. Not only does it leave me feeling like a big, awful bully, screaming at him doesn’t stop the behavior. It’s just what I come to when I feel utterly out of options.

So, I decided to try and give myself more options.

I re-skimmed several parenting books (Positive Discipline for Preschoolers by Jane Nelsen, Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids by Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson) and figured out a new plan to try. It feels a little touchy-feely to me, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, so I’m giving it a go.

When my son hurts his sister (or is about to, if I can catch him beforehand), we do four things:

1) Hit pause. I stop whatever I’m doing and hold him in my lap to gently restrain him to stop the behavior in the moment.

2) Talk about his feelings and needs. What was he feeling when he hit/punched/slapped/scratched? What need was he trying to meet?

3) Talk to my daughter about her feelings and needs. What did she feel when her brother hit/punched/slapped/scratched?

4) Discuss alternatives. How can my son meet his needs in a way that doesn’t hurt his sister?

My goals with this intervention:

1) Connect with my son. I don’t want him to feel alone with his Really Big Feelings.

2) Develop awareness and compassion. In all three of us, I hope.

3) Teach that there are alternatives to hurtful behavior. A lesson I’d like to internalize more thoroughly myself.

By focussing on feelings and needs—both his own and his sister’s—I hope my son will get into the habit of self-compassion and empathy. I’m convinced that people only hurt others if they themselves are suffering. By helping my children learn to identify their feelings and needs, I hope they will gradually learn to do so without my help and that they will be less likely to hurt others (and themselves).

I’ve been doing this for one full day. Already my children have changed how they speak to each other about my son’s hurtful behavior. The hitting hasn’t stopped, but I try to remind myself to be patient. It’s only been one full day and this is a major shift in how I’ve been handling this particular issue.

Why am I blogging about it? I know there must be other parents out there who are flying by the seat of their pants with a parenting style that’s not the one they inherited from their parents, and I guess I thought reading about someone else’s fumbling attempts to raise compassionate children might resonate with somebody. And heck…maybe I can get some ideas.

Do you have/did you have a hitting kid? How did you deal with the hitting, and did it work?

“These Are My People.”

This post was written as a response to this week’s Weekly Writing Challenge from The Daily Post.

I’ve been asking around, both in person and online, for people’s opinions about children in public. The consensus seems to be that children are people and should be permitted to go to any place that people are allowed to go (barring a few places that children should definitely not be (strip clubs, NC-17 movies, etc)). There is also agreement that there is a certain expectation for behavior in each public space, and it is the parent’s responsibility to judge whether at that moment his child is prepared to meet that expectation. For example, if adults are supposed to be quiet in a particular venue then children should be quiet, too, and their parents or caregivers are responsible for making sure that they are or removing them from the public space.

I agree with this idea, too, but I find that it’s not always easy to discern what other people’s expectations for a child’s behavior are.

Back in Utah, the university put on productions of favorite plays for children. Homeschool families were invited to buy tickets in the nosebleed seats on the days that school children were being bussed in for daytime performances. I took my 5-year-old daughter and one-year-old son to a performance of Frog and Toad: The Musical. We made a day of it, taking the bus and light rail to the university, always a thrill for my kids. At the theater, the school kids down in the seats below us cheered and groaned and bounced in their seats as they responded to the action in the play. My daughter loved the performance. My son was mostly interested in smiling at our friends behind us and across the aisle. When he started to get fussy, I nursed him and he fell asleep. He napped for most of the performance.

It was a raucous scene, but that was to be expected with an audience full of kids. Besides, it was fun and none of the raucousness seemed to disturb the actors or diminish anyone’s experience of the play. But someone must not have appreciated it because after that performance, word went out that future performances would be for school-aged kids and their parents only; younger siblings were no longer invited to attend.

The restriction against younger siblings seemed strange to me. Were they sure it was the siblings and not the school-aged kids who were noisy? Could they have taken care of the problem had they made their expectations for behavior more clear ahead of time so parents could understand better how to encourage their children to act? There’s no way to know because the people behind the program jumped right to “no younger siblings” without trying better communication about expectations first. We didn’t attend another performance, so I don’t know what effect—if any—the restriction had on the chaos. For our family, the restriction against younger siblings was effectively a restriction against my older daughter as well.

Another example of clear versus unclear expectations happens for us at the library. In Salt Lake City, the expectation for behavior at the library was clear. The Main Library was set up with the noisiest areas—children’s, circulation, the coffee house—at the lowest levels. As you went up towards the fifth floor, the atmosphere got quieter and quieter. Patrons knew that if they wanted to focus on quiet research, the fifth floor was the place to go. But if they were down in the children’s level, they should expect laughing, playing, jumping, skipping, and singing. My children knew that this was the expectation, and we all acted accordingly.

Our town library here is much smaller. There are two levels, a children’s level and everything else. When I’m picking up holds or checking out “grown-up” books upstairs, my kids get noisier and rowdier than I’m comfortable with. Every time I shush them, however, the librarians always say, “Oh, no! They’re fine! Really, don’t worry about it.”

This is a situation in which the expectation for my children’s behavior—and as a result my behavior as their parent—is unclear. It’s also different from the expectation for grown-up behavior (at least I think it is; I’ve never actually tried tackling other patrons or throwing my construction helmet on the floor and yelling, so I might be off-base about grown-up behavior expectations, too). Since what seems to be acceptable to the librarians is different from what feels acceptable to me, I have decided to explain my stricter expectations to my kids before we enter the library. (I mentioned this technique at the end of yesterday’s post.) It works pretty well provided I remember to do it, and I’ve not taken the toddler out when he’s overly tired or hungry.

But even in situations where the expectations for children’s behavior are clear and I’ve outlined them ahead of time and made sure everyone is well-rested and well-fed and not overstimulated, sometimes my kids just act like heathens. In those situations, I welcome a little understanding from my community.

I have a friend who gave birth last month to twins. They are absolutely adorable, but they’ve been keeping her up literally all night long. She’s had mastitis, troubles finding childcare, and now her husband’s employer is requiring him to work 12-hour days to make up for the couple of weeks of paternity leave he took. She’s running on fumes and is having trouble seeing a way to make things better. The first day her husband went back to work, she attempted to mail two boxes of baby and birth items to friends who were expecting babies of their own soon. With her newborn twins and her three other small children, she trekked to the post office. Things started great, with the older kids helping each other carry one of the big boxes. Once they were all inside, though, all Hell broke loose. Her children did not act at all according to expectations. She went home consumed by tears and hopelessness, even though—as far as I know—no one complained to her about her children’s behavior.

Even with just two kids, I have experienced similar mortification and the sense that I’m in way (WAY) over my head, and in it entirely alone.

The parents in my social circle are well-educated. Most of us have participated in parent education programs and consulted child psychologists and read libraries full of books about childrearing techniques. Many of us come from larger families or have nannied or babysat other people’s kids, so we came to parenting with experience caring for children. We’re not idiots, and we’re not inconsiderate. We’re merely overwhelmed. No one needs to reprimand us for our parenting; we’re already doing that to ourselves.

Blame, shame, restrictions, and complaints don’t help. Being worried that we’re going to be kicked off a commercial flight if our toddler has a tantrum doesn’t help. An idling vehicle impatiently vulturing our parking spot while we’re trying to wrangle children and groceries doesn’t help. Getting the stinkeye at a restaurant doesn’t help. Being asked to pick up our kids and our winter coats and leave in the middle of a church service doesn’t help (this happened to me when my 6-month-old was making happy-baby noises during the pre-sermon portion of the church service—in compliance with my expectations for his behavior but apparently not in line with the minister’s expectations).

I agree that parents should take responsibility for their children’s behavior. But I also believe that the other adults in our community have a responsibility to recognize that there might be extenuating circumstances or unclear expectations that might inhibit a parent’s ability to enforce appropriate behavior.

So, what can we do when we’re faced with behavior that irritates us?

Last Sunday, I heard a guest minister speak about community and connection. She told about a time when she was on a flight that had been delayed on the tarmac. For more than an hour, she and her fellow passengers sat in the stuffy airplane, unsure if they were ever going to take off and worrying that even if they did, it might not be safe to do so. People began to get irritable, snapping at the flight attendants and worrying aloud about their connecting flights.

The minister took a breath, looked around, and thought, “These are my people.”

As soon as she thought, “These are my people,” she felt calmer. A smile relaxed her face. And even though she’d said nothing out loud, the atmosphere in the plane seemed to relax, too. The people around her seemed to grow kinder and more patient. Whether this was just a function of her shift in perception or if the people were actually responding to her shift in mood, it made the wait more tolerable for her.

If we could look at parents and their children and think, “These are my people,” could that ease some of our irritation? Children are, in fact, people. So are their parents. If we could look around and recognize that not only are children people, but they are our people, maybe we would have more tolerance for them. Maybe we would have more compassion for them. And maybe just through our compassion, we could help them feel more empowered as parents.

Parents might be making different choices than we might and their children might be acting according to a different set of expectations than our own, but they are still people. They are still our people. Treating them as such will likely ease their difficulties and our irritation as well.

What is your expectation for children’s behavior in public spaces? What is your reaction when you see a child behaving badly in public? What do you think of that child’s parents? What do you think of that child? What do you do?

The Hidden Gifts of Homeschooling

The idea of being with my children all of the time was one of the things that gave me pause when I first considered homeschooling. I was convinced of the value of homeschooling based on all of the logical reasons I outlined earlier, but I doubted whether I would be able to rise to the challenge of being the parent I wanted to be without the daily break that sending my children to school would provide.  I hesitate to admit it, but I sometimes find their company…tedious. At the same time, I worried that being with them would be even more challenging if we spent most of our waking hours apart and lost the rapport and understanding that comes from being together.

I took a deep breath, and we started homeschooling.

While it’s taken some getting used to, some relinquishing of the notion of what “homeschooling” looks like and some revising of the picture in my mind of what a “clean house” looks like, and while I do occasionally envy Julian of Norwich and fantasize about walling myself up in a cell and having people drop food (and books) through a hole in the ceiling (“What bliss that would be!” I think on the really challenging days), I’ve been surprised to find just how much joy I derive from being with my children. I revel in their creativity and imagination, the way they take the seeds of an activity and make it into something elaborate and unexpected.

I feel grateful for the chance to watch them struggle with a new challenge and gradually…gradually…meet that challenge and look back at the starting point, amazed at how far they’ve come and with greater confidence in their ability to learn and grow in the future.

The more I witness these little wonders, the greedier I am for them.

In addition, I’ve discovered unexpected benefits to spending a large amount of time with my kids. There are wonderful things that sprout during the extended “nothing” times.

The other day as we walked along the suburban streets on our way home from the library, my daughter outlined for me the steps she performs to make up and then act out her “stories” (her favorite pastime).

“Step One: Read, read, read,” she said. “Step Two: Gather all the information and decide how you want your story to be. Step Three: Put all of that into words and act out your story until someone tells you it’s time to eat or it’s time to do something else.”

She lamented that she’s not been able to teach any of her friends how to do stories using her method. She worried that she might not be able to teach her brother how to do stories when he’s older. We talked a bit and brainstormed ideas about what kinds of modifications she’d need to make to the plan for a collaborative story rather than a solo story. By the time we got home, she’d devised a five-step plan and seemed confident that this plan would lead to many hours of sibling story-making.

Yesterday on a walking errand to spend a small fortune on our elderly cats’ prescription cat food, we talked about hiking the Appalachian Trail. I told her what I knew about it and she got very excited about the prospect of taking on a family thru-hike when she’s 18 and her brother is 14. I think she especially liked the idea of carrying our food and shelter on our backs. She seems to really like the term “bedroll.” She decided we’d thru-hike from Maine to Georgia (rather than the more common south-to-north direction) so we’d finish the most difficult part first. We hashed out some of the details and made plans to pick up some Appalachian Trail books and see if I could find the National Geographic special about the trail that I watched a while back.

It’s on these walks that my daughter often reveals to me her secret fears and dreams. If we didn’t have this “boring” time together, if we were rushed by a schedule of ferrying from activity to activity in the few hours we had remaining between school and bedtime, would I get to share these fears and dreams with her?

I’m not always the parent I want to be, but I don’t fall too far short of the mark most of the time. On the balance, this choice feels like the absolute best for us in this moment. Logic and reason got me into homeschooling, but it’s the joy that’s kept me here.

The Well-Known, Unknown Homeschooler

As a homeschooler, I’ve been feeling a little nervous with all of the news reports and blog posts (like this one and this one) that are coming up making a big deal about the fact that Todd Akin and his wife homeschooled their children.

The argument goes that the majority of homeschoolers are evangelical, ultra-right-wing wackos who keep their kids home because they’re afraid their children are going to encounter some scary secular ideas at school, like that gay people are okay and that conception isn’t intentional (even when the act that leads to it is, as thousands of couples suffering with infertility can attest) and that evolution actually makes sense and forms the basis for all of modern biology.

But where are the numbers behind this claim?

I’ll tell you where: They are nowhere. They don’t exist. Most states only have ballpark figures about how many families are even homeschooling at any one time and can only make the roughest guesses about the demographics of those families.

Data on the demographics of homeschooling families are simply not collected. We know a bit about how many homeschooled children matriculate at specific colleges and universities, but without a total number of homeschoolers with which to compare it, this number is fairly useless.

So, when someone says, “The majority of homeschoolers are ‘X’,” on what are they basing this statement? On their own fears about homeschoolers? On the couple of homeschoolers they might have met in person or heard about from other people? On famous homeschoolers on prime-time reality TV shows?

And when they meet me and talk with me, they say, “The majority of homeschoolers are [whatever radical group scares them the most], but you are the exception. I feel totally comfortable with you educating your own children.” And I say, “Oh, thank goodness I pass your judgment because my decision to homeschool is based almost entirely on what random people think.”

If I were to define homeschoolers based on my personal observations, I would say the majority of us are progressive, liberal, or libertarian, and we come from a wide variety of religious traditions (I personally know homeschoolers who are Atheist, Buddhist, Pagan, non-denominational Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Quaker, Mormon, Catholic, and Unitarian Universalist). I would make this guess simply because these are almost the only type of homeschoolers I encounter. From where I sit, the two groups that seem to be most vocal are the radical unschoolers and those with radical right-wing religious viewpoints. But we should not mistake “loudest” with “most numerous.” Anyone who considers themselves part of the vast, creamy middle of the U.S. political spectrum should recognize this.

Homeschoolers seem to be doing something different, but that’s only because of humans’ short memories. We’re products of two or three generations of public school being the norm, which makes us think this—or something that looks like it—is the only legitimate way to school. The founders of the United States weren’t schooled in “traditional” schools as we know them today. They were homeschooled when they were young and then sent to boarding schools or educated by hired tutors until college. This was the norm until Horace Mann’s ideas took hold and we entered the factory-model era of schooling.

Homeschoolers remain a minority in the United States, and like any minority, we are viewed with suspicion. In a way, I can understand it. I mean, we’re largely unknown. You don’t know who we are or what our politics are, where we live or where we go to church (or even IF we go to church). And we shift. One year we homeschool, the next we have our kids in the neighborhood school, two years later we’ve got them at home again.

I think about a scene in A Single Man, which I watched twice this past weekend while crocheting a baby sweater. George, a university professor, is talking to his class about fear. The conversation starts out about anti-Semitism and how it is a hatred based on fear of an imagined threat. The conversation then expands to encompass minority groups in general, the unspoken minority group being the one that George himself, as a gay man, belongs to:

Let’s think of another minority. One that can go unnoticed if it needs to. There are all sorts of minorities. Blondes, for example. People with freckles. But a minority is only thought of as one when it constitutes some kind of threat to the majority—a real threat or an imagined one. And therein lies the fear. And if that minority is somehow invisible, then the fear is much greater. And that fear is why the minority is persecuted. And so you see, there always is a cause. The cause is fear. Minorities are just people. People like us.

You can’t pin us homeschoolers down because when you try, some increasingly numerous “exception” messes up your stereotype. Because you can’t pin us down, because you perceive us as a threat—real or imagined—to the institution of public education, we are all the more scary. But we—even the wackos among us—are just parents trying to make the best choices for our families.

Todd Akin is an elected official with inaccurate and misogynistic views. If he sent his children to public school or even private school, no one would even bring his children’s education into the discussion. His views are not inaccurate and misogynistic because his family homeschooled their kids; his views are inaccurate and misogynistic because they simply are.