By Melissa Mayer
On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day I awoke with excitement. The abundance of downtime resulting from the pandemic felt like the perfect opportunity to honor the earth. The reports of cleaner air that I had been reading about as a result of the world being shut down especially inspired me to cultivate action to contribute to the momentum of climate change reversal. The slight variation from the day to day sameness of six weeks at home with my 6 and 8 year old daughters while my husband was working on the front lines at our local hospital made me feel like celebrating (at home of course). I had envisioned baking yet another loaf of sourdough bread with our evolving homemade starter, decorating old shirts with earth day slogans, making colorful signs and perhaps a beach clean up. A few hours later however, I was in tears in my bathroom. These days I’m sure there are many shedding tears in their bathrooms and my tears were a result of various emotions to be sure. In this case, the dominant emotions contributing to this episode of crying was the first few hours of our day being filled with remote learning zoom calls and assignments that had me burned out by noon with no residual bandwidth to carry out my simple Earth Day activities. The emotions went deeper still.
My husband has a doctorate in medicine, I have one in physical therapy. We attended well regarded public schools in an upper middle class New Jersey suburb. I earned income in my 20’s as a substitute teacher and even took some education classes during my undergrad while I briefly considered pursuing a teaching career. The point being, we are both fans of education. We shifted from traditional education and enrolled our daughters in a Waldorf early childhood program. When they aged out and there were no other Waldorf Schools available we shifted again to another independent progressively minded school which has a holistic curriculum, including project based learning and influenced by the Reggio Emilia education philosophy. This school has been great for our family. Several weeks ago, like many others our school had to close their doors.
For me, it was a bit of a shock when school closed. Initially, I thought this closure would be temporary and closely followed the virtual/remote learning program that our amazing faculty put together. The program was assembled overnight in uncharted times which is incredibly impressive. A Google Drive, scheduled zoom calls, and a daily schedule. We were in business! It also came with supportive emails from the teachers and the schools’ co-founders. More importantly the loving emails came with the stipulation to not partake if it was too much during such challenging times. I took note of the wise advice but I also wanted to shield my children from all the sudden changes and keep them up to date with their studies so they could easily transition back to school when it reopened (soon in my mind). So I ordered new ink cartridges, diligently printed daily schedules and worksheets. I stepped into my former role as an educator, teaching one child division while counting coins with the other. I eased my technology restrictions for the sake of education. We are more or less a media free family. I set one child up on a zoom call on the computer in my kitchen while I heard 20 kids shouting on another zoom call taking place on my phone in my other child’s room upstairs. Before long my screen free children were arguing over who gets to have my phone in their room and comparing the number of calls they had each day.
Getting back to Earth Day, I stood in my kitchen looking at my children feeling powerless at a time when more than ever they needed me to be grounded in strength and direction. I had violated my technology boundaries trying to be flexible and my fears came to fruition. It wasn’t just the technology it was that without realizing it I slipped into my old pattern of perfection and we were too strongly adhering to the remote curriculum. I wanted to celebrate the Earth and instead felt completely disconnected from it.
My breakdown led to a breakthrough. I was realizing with all this downtime I should be feeling more freedom, but instead I felt shackled by the schedule that the extremely well intentioned teachers made as a guide. I also realized I didn’t want to carry out their curriculum. I was home with my kids all day every day and the only person that could design the right curriculum for our family during this unprecedented time was me. Furthermore, I didn’t even want a curriculum but wanted to be guided by our own personal rhythms and just hunker down and survive (and maybe even thrive) together. Through the years I have read many Waldorf education books and have been a regular follower of natural parenting blogs. I have also heard many brilliant podcasts, interviews and read books by Simplicity Parenting’s founder, Kim John Payne, on how to “use the extraordinary power of less to raise calmer, happier and more secure kids”. I had the tools and more importantly I have my intuition as a parent.
I finally surrendered. After my long cry in the bathroom I had a conversation with one of the co directors of our small community school, who was extremely supportive. She listened as I expressed my feelings and gave me permission to opt out. She also directed me to an incredibly helpful article published by The Atlantic titled “Distance Learning isn’t Working”. The author, Mandel, makes an excellent point “one-size-fits-all education barely works in a classroom, but it is completely unmanageable with kids spread out across their various households working independently.” I agree. Now that we are facing the reality that school is most likely going to be closed for the rest of this school year, I can’t possibly imagine my children’s teachers coming up with content for two more months that is applicable to our situation at home. Considering these teachers are working from home while also caring for their children, I don’t even want to put them in that situation. The result is that we are taking a step back and opting out and I feel a sense of freedom already. Of course that freedom comes with fear of the unknown and the bigger conundrum of how to spend the free time? I am realizing I do not want to fear and fill the space but rather be with it, perhaps even befriend it.
My 6 and 8 year old daughters live authenticity in the present moment. It often feels like one of the main differences between children and adults. Adults spend an excess of time lamenting over the past and planning for the future. My children don’t fear the space nor worry about the days to come. They report missing friends and occasionally ask questions of when we can eat at a restaurant again. Then they seamlessly go back to the self directed task they are involved in. I learn from them to live in the moment. I try and sit as I sip my tea while they play dress up, climb on the swing set, draw pictures, ride their bikes, and read their books.
Then my mind fills with plans and wants to make lists of ideas and activities to fill the weeks. It evolves into research on the topic of unschooling, the home education philosophy of just allowing children to learn from life itself. I go full circle as I sit again and take another sip of my now cold tea. The children play some more. I watch as they organically lose interest in their play, pause and switch gears to something else. For a second in that pause I can almost anticipate them saying, ‘Mom, I’m bored’ but they don’t. They just wander and wonder. Then I see a spark as a new idea comes to their minds or they excitedly resume an earlier project. The divine spark inspires me and I realize how much learning is naturally interwoven in our daily life. My girls watch me run a home, cook meals, prepare anatomy lectures to deliver via zoom to yoga teacher training students, and hear stories dad shares at the dinner table after a day at the hospital. On the weekend the girls help their dad make pancakes and then help him work in the garden after breakfast while I write or walk. We spend the afternoons facing the cold bay in our wetsuits on kayaks or go fishing. We learn the layout of the town during our bike rides, play endless board games, and slowly assemble 500-1000 piece puzzles over the weeks. The children then feel tired and go up to their rooms to read on their own or play the violin while I prepare dinner or sneak in a moment to myself or edit this piece. We are all learning and doing the inner work of listening to our still quiet voices within on a personal scale. Not to mention learning to survive a pandemic on a macro scale. We will take this deep learning with us for the rest of our lives.
I had wonderful conversations with my children’s teachers about this opt out choice and received lots of support. I laughed when I said I planned on not being too hard on myself in my implementation of the remote learning curriculum, but sure enough I did. We are often the biggest violators of crimes that we preach, as I frequently write and tell people often not to be so hard on yourself, the kids will be fine, all they need is you.
A dear friend recently launched a family blog filled with content of their nature living and homeschooling adventures. Seeing pictures and reading posts written by my friend, her husband and the children reassure my thoughts on how much learning takes place just by living. I am not an expert on unschooling and was reluctant when reading a part saying the children determine what time to go to bed, which I am personally not down with. So, we are developing our own hybrid version. We chose to keep a few of our favorite literacy and math zoom calls and have opted out of the rest. We are free styling in uncharted waters but hey, aren’t we all?
This piece isn’t anti technology, as right now it feels like a lifeline. I will add that the above activities I mentioned, in addition to our handwork and my older daughter’s bed and floor being covered with books do happen as a result of limited amounts of technology making these things more appealing. Above all this is a time to pause, reflect and find our way. I personally have always felt interference from that process by technology which was one of the reasons we chose to limit it in our home. I also believe beyond finding our way, this is time to envision the world we want to live in when life resumes. Opting out has given me more freedom to contribute and be one with the light I see emerging around this time and not cower in fear from the darkness that exists in its absence.
I am a mother, holistic physical therapist, writer, and social activist on a transformation spiritual journey.