I had always wanted to try homeschooling. As a mom with a background in education and early childhood research, I felt strongly about the benefits of self-directed learning and learning through play and nature. So, when the pandemic forced public schools to offer either fully remote classes or a combination of remote and in-person (the hybrid model) last September, I decided to give homeschooling a try. Doing school on our own schedule would allow me to work without trying to keep a high-energy kindergartener focused on activities in a remote classroom.

Thankfully my two girls, ages 4 and 6, had each other. And we had a few groups of homeschool friends with whom we could hike and socialize and share ideas. My job was demanding but flexible, allowing me to devote a couple hours during the day to homeschool. We could do this, I thought, and, who knows, maybe I would homeschool the following year as well.

I started waking up at 5:30 a.m. to work, while my girls were still asleep. I would read rapid-fire through emails, and when the kids woke up we made breakfast, got dressed, and hit the books. After searching through expensive homeschool curricula, I was thankful to find a world geography and culture-based program that only required me to purchase a workbook. Thanks to New Bedford Free Public Library curbside pickup, I could get the rest of the books free of charge.

Some days were really good, maybe even great. We laughed and learned in our backyard classroom. The bond my daughters shared deepened, and they became increasingly independent around the house. I truly cherished the extra time I had with them.

However, just one month in, things started to crack.

When I was working, I worried I was not giving my kids what they needed. When I was homeschooling, I worried about the emails that were piling up. Zoom meetings proved nearly impossible with two young kids in the house. I was stressed when I woke up and, worrying kept me up many nights. I was short with the people I loved and felt like a failure in everything I did.

Finally, after several days of a fair amount of crying and some deep contemplation, I gave notice at my job. My husband was temporarily out of work with an injury at the time. This was not a good time to quit, but we knew that for the sake of my mental health it was the right thing to do, mortgage be damned.

Many women have had to make this difficult decision in the past year. Millions have left the workforce to be full-time caretakers, and many have not yet returned. Two months shy of my 40th birthday, I did not want to be another woman-in-the-workforce COVID casualty. However, I knew I could not do what so many women around me were doing and be a good parent and teacher. I could not give equally to work and home. My kids needed more, and a sacrifice had to be made.

Some days were really good, maybe even great. We laughed and learned in our backyard classroom. ... However, just one month in, things started to crack.

Though I managed to find very part-time work with a fully flexible schedule, some days are still hard. I work from the dining room table in the middle of my house, while my kids play or just run wild. Interruptions are abundant. I still wake up at 5:30 to work in peace, if only for a little while. Homeschooling has morphed into unschooling, and many days I still worry I am not doing enough. My mother recently retired and is able to help, but after raising four children on her own and spending over 20 years as a nurse, I try not to place much of the burden on her.

As this school year winds down, I can look to the future. My daughters are registered to return to public school. I know I will miss them. I know I will have days when I think I should have continued our homeschool journey.

This year I have witnessed the many benefits of homeschool. As unstructured as our days can be, my daughters are thriving academically. We learn science through nature, hiking the many beautiful SouthCoast trails and observing the wonders each season brings. We volunteer for Buzzards Bay Coalition as land stewards and citizen scientists, collecting water samples to test the water’s health. Flora B. Peirce trail in the North End has become our extended classroom, where we have learned about vernal pools, observed frog eggs, and built fairy gardens.

Though forever worried about too much screen time, I have given in and found some excellent learning apps (no more tear-covered math worksheets). My girls are learning to cook, and we practice reading and math by following recipes. They have had so much more time to be creative — drawing, dancing, performing and writing stories — than they would have had at school.

In recent months, I have started bringing the girls to their school playground when school gets out, so they can meet with friends they will see next year. It is at the playground that I witness the importance for children to learn to navigate relationships with all types of people and personalities. I watch kids learning to take turns and resolve conflict. I see my girls’ faces brighten when greeted by a friend, and I think how special it will be for them to maintain these friendships over the years.

And teachers. I think of how important it will be for my daughters to learn from other adults who have different backgrounds, experience, and expectations. I believe there is a benefit to learning from someone who may not think you are as magical as your mom does.

Now, when things get stressful, I daydream of hugging my girls when I drop them off and pick them up from school next fall. I envision a time when I can work in uninterrupted silence and not feel pulled by the constant tug of need. I dream of a house that is not an endless mess. When I can work a little more and worry a little less.

This has been a trying year for everyone around the globe. Jobs have been lost. Lives have been lost. And for the first time in most of our lives, the future has never been so uncertain. I have tried to shield my young daughters from much of this reality. And, I can only hope that when they look back on this dark time, the year that we have spent loving and learning together is the light they see.

Rachel Dzengelewski is a writer, educator, and nature lover raising two strong girls in her hometown of New Bedford. She can be reached at rachel.dzengelewski@gmail.com.

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