People often ask how I get anything done when I’m with the children at home. Surely, life is too chaotic for me to be productive. Is unschooling chaotic? It can feel that way sometimes. Five people moving to their own rhythms in the same place is bound to have its moments. The absence of imposed structure and rules doesn’t lead to anarchy, but it can certainly lead to different sleeping and eating patterns, to wild bursts of energy and nourishing lazy times that have nothing to do with the time of day or the day of the week. And it brings some inevitable clashes of energy, when one person needs a quiet space while the others just want to dance and sing.
So, rather than chaotic, I would say that it has an unpredictable ebb and flow. Because each day is invented from the inside rather than being dictated from the outside, what’s going on in our home depends very much on moods and energy levels. On whether someone is feeling inspired or mellow. On whether they’re looking for fun and companionship or time alone.
And it’s precisely that ebb and flow that’s so enjoyable to facilitate and be a part of. It leads to spontaneous games of hide and seek in the garden, leisurely conversations in the kitchen about the meaning of life, quick-fire history quizzes, moments to connect when someone feels hurt or angry, and silent hours when everyone is just doing their own thing. As parents, unschooling allows us to enjoy life with our children at their pace, and learn a lot about them, ourselves and life on the way.
But, like most of us, I’ve also got work to do, as well as the general paperwork of life to keep tabs on. So, whilst I’m here to accompany and respect my children’s needs, I also need to figure out how to accompany and respect my own. Parents’ livelihoods and wellbeing are an integral part of the family dynamic and key to the family unit staying happy and healthy. Burnout at home often happens because we sacrifice our needs and desires for everyone else’s, but that’s a quick path to resentment. When we don’t meet our own needs, we can’t really meet other people’s with any kind of integrity. And, since ideally we try to live in a way that’s coherent with what we want for our children, treating our own fulfilment and happiness as unimportant doesn’t set a great example. The best way to show our children that they can make things happen is to do that ourselves.
I’ve had those days when I haven’t quite figured out how to make my own things happen, and it ends up being a below par experience for everyone. On those days, I’m aware of all the things I need to do, but I don’t get organised enough to do them. I’m constantly looking for half an hour to use the laptop, and saying no to requests because I just have to get something done. The result is me trying to fit things in where I can and feeling guilty that I haven’t done what I need to do. Then I pile on some extra guilt for being distracted with the children. I may be with them, but my mind is on all the things I haven’t done. And so, I lose track of that ebb and flow as my energy appear to be at odds with everyone else’s. It’s a definite lose-lose.
To avoid the pains of martyrdom and guilt, I realised a while back that I need some solid structure in my life. That’s the only way I can happily live with the ebb and flow, whilst also getting my stuff done and achieving the things I want to. My aim: to stay out of that frustrating halfway house, where you end up neither having fun nor being productive.
So, here’s how I attempt to create structure, so that the rest of life can just flow:
- We try to keep organised with the basics of life, so they don’t take up too much space or time. We do a meal plan and a weekly shop, though I save myself the little pleasure of walking into our village each day for fresh bread, and a market trip for fruit and vegetables every Wednesday. We make sure we have enough wood for the fire so we don’t have to go off hunting firewood – this is a lot of fun, but more enjoyable when your evening doesn’t depend on it.
- I get up before everyone else and spend a little time just having a coffee and getting my head in the right place. For many years, I meditated in the mornings. I’m a bit lapsed right now, but I do make sure to find some calm before the day begins. Then, I write down the specific things I need to do that day. Early morning is when my mind feels most switched on so I tend to do writing or any other work that requires a lot of concentration. I also get any emails or calls out of the way that otherwise would be on my mind all morning.
- Each day is different and generally brings some quiet time that I can use for my own things. I do this in the knowledge that the tide can change quickly, and that when it does change, it’s far better for me to go with the flow than resist it.
- If I know I have to be at my computer for a set time during the day, I let everyone know beforehand. That way, if I’m needed to help out with anything, or someone has something they really want to do, we can do it before. I’m still on hand for anything that comes up, but everyone is usually happy to wait until I’ve finished. If not and I’ve got something urgent to do, I let them know that. Generally everyone gets it and sometimes I’ll even get a cup of tea and a hug, gestures guaranteed to wash away any trace of irritability.
- When I’m done, I’m done. It’s back to being with whatever is going on. I try to keep my mind off things I don’t need to think about and I generally don’t check into email unless I really need to.
I also talk about what projects I’m involved in with the children. I like them to understand why something is meaningful to me, even if my interest doesn’t make a lot of sense to them. Letting them know what I’m up to, and all my little victories and setbacks, gives them an idea of the many parts that make up work and life: ideas and inspiration, deadlines, collaboration with other people, and the inevitable boring bits. And, they also get to understand how mine and their dad’s work affect the family economy.
There are so many factors that make up each family’s reality, and some situations will certainly be more demanding than others. But unschooling is a choice that involves the whole family and, no matter what our circumstances are, finding ways to follow our own pursuits seems to me to be an essential part of the equation. When we fulfil our own needs and can also relax into the now of life, we give and receive so much more. And, sometimes, a bit of benevolent structure is just the thing to make sure that happens.