Every now and again, I’ll read about the adventures of an unschooling family out there somewhere and feel a little envy. What triggers this is a certain kind of family photograph. They’re all in wetsuits next to a row of kayaks, grinning on the peak of a mountain, or working together on a science project. I wonder at the ease with which these families must navigate their days out and their holidays. They all appear to enjoy the same things. And I can only look on in fascination, and a little envy.
Here, there are certainly lots of areas of common ground, generally shared by a majority of the family. But I’m finding it hard to think of one hobby or activity that we all get enthusiastic about. Hiking in the hills – that’s three of us on a good day. Debating politics – that’s a different three. Museums – all of us, but different museums. Gaming – that’s two (occasionally three) but mostly different games. One of us hates the beach (sand between the toes) and another finds cities overwhelming. Film night? Hard to reach a consensus there anymore. We are two vegetarians and three meat-eaters. We are introverts and extroverts. We are outdoorsy people and homebodies. We are intellectual and fun-loving. And we are all different things on different days as the mood takes us. Plus, like many neurodiverse families, there are also sensory considerations. Within this little group of five there are wildly varying tolerance levels of crowds, ambient noise, and bright lights. Yes, it’s complicated.
Then again, maybe it’s only complicated when we think it should look different from how it does. Or when we compare to something that looks entirely effortless, (even though it surely isn’t). Anyway, if I’m feeling like I wish life were effortless, I have to also remind myself that we are here so each person can be true to themselves and make their journey through life in a way that is authentic to them. So I should probably not get too hung up on us not all going paddle boarding together.
We certainly don’t miss out on time together. And I would say that for such a diverse group of people, we are pretty good at being in each other’s company. Although the shared interests rarely capture everyone’s enthusiasm at the same time, they weave through our days uniting different parts of the family at different times—a muddy dog walk with friends, a TV show together, biscuit making, a loud kitchen-table debate, crafts, shared thoughts, or just the silence of everyone just going about their things—it flows along, the energy shifting with the combinations of people and themes. Intermingled throughout all of this are all the things we do individually outside the house and the different people in each of our lives.
We are certainly enriched by our differences. We’re all familiar with all sorts of knowledge and activities that otherwise wouldn’t be on our radars. From foreign languages to history, drama, politics, music and animals. Each person brings their interests and gifts, and although there may be some frustration that no one cares quite so much as they do about these things, the enthusiasm usually wears off on a couple of other people at least.
Logistically, it has sometimes felt like a complicated task to help each person get what they need and to squeeze our own needs in there too. Trips and holidays in particular can require a lot of negotiation and thought, then some careful splitting of the family in different ways according to the plan. When they were younger there was often no option but to move as a unit, particularly if there was only one parent on hand. Dragging a reluctant sibling along on a trip is no fun for anyone, and so, like many non-schooling families, we adjusted to what could fit us, rather than push for anything too adventurous that would end in tears (theirs or mine, maybe both). Sometimes—probably after seeing photos of harmonious unschooling families hiking up mountains—I would feel some frustration that adventure wasn’t easier to incorporate in our days, but the truth is that the frustration was generally mine, not theirs. Curiously, despite having such different interests and comfort zones beyond the house, at home they have always found ways to make it all work.
Now that they’re older, there are many more options, and there is rarely any need to move as a unit anymore, though we sometimes do. The years of figuring all this out together mean that there is a greater understanding and tolerance of each other. Often, one person will suggest how a trip they would like to do could be more palatable to the others. Sometimes, one is instrumental in persuading another to come along and in making sure they have a good time too.
I guess that part of my family photo envy (besides wanting an easy life) is that if everyone enjoyed the things I enjoy, then I would get to do those things more. I know my children often think the same. That if their siblings liked the things they liked, then life would be perfect. But, it’s not such a bad thing to understand the limitations of relationships and family. That we naturally need to reach out into the wider community and find those people that love the things we love.
This morning, whilst one person was at a drama workshop, myself and the other two took Belle (the dog we borrow) for a long walk. And, this afternoon, as everyone got on with things at home, I went to the beach for a sea swim with friends. We swam as the sun was going down, then warmed up on the beach with our flasks of hot tea. Actually, I didn’t wish I was doing this with my family. I would much rather swim in the sea with this wonderful group of women, and I can safely say that they all feel the same. That this is precisely part of the joy.
I came home to a cosy house and friendly faces, all completely uninterested in the sunset, the tide, or the temperature of the sea. But instead, filled with thoughts on Japanese cooking, recycling, hamsters and juggling. And it occurred to me that curiously, there is just as much togetherness in shared differences. You can’t really capture that in a photograph, but if you could, it would definitely be a family photo to cherish.