This is the first of two posts dedicated to Jennifer Lois’ new book Home Is Where the School Is: The Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering(New York University Press, 2013).
Lois, a sociology professor at Western Washington University, has published two articles on the subject of the emotional lives of homeschooling mothers that I reviewed here and here. Twelve years in the making, this book represents the culmination of this line of research for her. Oftentimes the articles that are published prior to books contain most of what the researcher has to say. That is happily not the case here. The book contains a wealth of new findings and interpretations. In this first post I’ll summarize the book’s contents, and next week I’ll make some comments about Lois’ methods, findings, and interpretations.
Lois’ book is the most extensive look at the mothers who homeschool ever published. She began her research early in 2001 by immersing herself in the homeschooling community in Western Washington. Though she herself was not a homeschooler and did not even have children of her own at the time, she faithfully attended weekly meetings of an organization she calls PATH (but in reality is the TPA, or Teaching Parents Association. Throughout the book she uses pseudonyms), shadowed several homeschooling conventions, and subscribed to several leading homeschooling periodicals. Once she felt familiar enough with the homeschooling community to engage, she tried to recruit as wide a sample as possible of homeschooling mothers in the Western Washington area. To do this she used the “snowball” method of asking mothers who had already declared their willingness to recommend others. She also went out of her way via public notices to recruit homeschooling fathers, secular homeschoolers, and homeschoolers of older children. She ended up with a sample of 24 mothers (no fathers, despite her best efforts), who tracked very closely to the standard estimates of homeschooler demography. 21 of the 24 were Christian, 14 of whom were very conservative in their religious and political beliefs. 21 were white, 2 Hispanic American, and 1 African American. Number of children ranged from 1 to 12. Most were middle class and held 4 year college degrees.
Lois forthrightly acknowledges her own limitations as a researcher, the chief one being her unfamiliarity with the world of conservative Christianity. Her own lack of Biblical literacy or familiarity with the nuances of Christian theology and rhetoric made interviews with the largest group in her sample somewhat awkward, especially at first. Her subjects were also distrustful of her given the fact that (at the beginning of the study) she herself was not a mother and was a professor at a secular university. Nevertheless, with a couple of exceptions most mothers grew more comfortable with Lois over time. After her original round of interviews in 2002, Lois went back for a set of follow-up interviews in 2008-2009. Because of various extenuating circumstances she was only able to obtain follow-up interviews with 16 of her original 24 mothers.
What makes Lois’ project interesting is the questions she asked of her subjects. She didn’t care about the actual homeschooling itself–its academic or social impact on children, for example. She cared about how the homeschooling mothers felt about their lives and the choices they were making. She calls this subject “emotional culture,” and thinks homeschooling mothers have important things to contribute to the larger scholarship on the identity of American mothers and their emotional lives. Much has been written about the regime of “intensive mothering” that is so pervasive in middle class American families. Well, homeschooling mothers represent perhaps the most extreme version of this ideology, devoting their entire selves to the project of educating their children. Lois was curious how these homeschooling mothers dealt with some of the tensions other American mothers feel between their identity as mother and other identities (professional lives, leisure activities, relationships with adults, etc.).
Her key finding is that it all depends on how a mother comes to think of herself as a homeschooler. Lois identified a clear and stark distinction between mothers in her sample, a distinction that explains most of the variation between the women she interviewed on a wide range of issues. Some homeschoolers were “first choicers,” who had either known all along or come to a dramatic realization that the only possible choice for them would be to homeschool their children. Other homeschoolers were “second choicers” who didn’t necessarily want to homeschool but felt like it was the best option given their child’s special circumstances at the time.
The book has nine chapters. In chapter one Lois explains her methodology and describes her sample. In chapter two she explains in detail her distinction between first and second choice homeschoolers. The first choicers often spoke of their decision to homeschool as what Lois calls an “emotional epiphany” (p.48) and sounds to me a lot like Evangelical conversion–an instantaneous, transformative experience. These mothers “experienced an emotional conversion, whereby they suddenly embraced stay-at-home motherhood and rejected working in the paid labor force.” (p. 50) First choicers who thought like this were almost always conservative Christians, and they had a hard time understanding why any other mother would not feel the same way–they tended to universalize their own experiences. Second choicers, in contrast, had more ambiguity about their role as homeschoolers. They “were often emotionally conflicted about staying at home, but they homeschooled because they thought it was in their children’s best interests, given limited alternatives.” (p. 63)
Chapter three describes how homeschooling mothers defend themselves against various charges leveled at them by critics, some of whom are friends and family members. This chapter tracks closely with an earlier article Lois wrote, of which you can read my review here.
Chapter four describes how homeschooling mothers deal with all of the extra work homeschooling requires while still trying to run a household. In short, it is hard, and mothers often experience “burnout.” All kinds of negative emotions confront homeschooling mothers, from feelings of failure when children don’t perform like mothers hoped they would, to stress coming from an inability to keep up with cooking and household chores, to frustration with husbands’ lack of help. Lois describes a three stage development here. First, new homeschooling mothers feel ambiguous about their competence to homeschool. They solve this problem by research and networking with other homeschoolers. Second comes frustration when their children resist or fail at homeschooling tasks. Mothers solve this problem by trying harder. But this only leads to stage three, burnout. Burnout is solved in two ways. Some mothers figure out that something has to give–perhaps they lower their standards of household cleanliness, eat more prepared food, or lower their expectations for their children. The other way burnout is handled is through prayer–relying on God gets many of these women through the rough times.
Chapter five describes how mothers deal with the lack of “me time” homeschooling creates. This chapter is very similar to the other article of Lois’ that I’ve reviewed before. Read that review here.
Chapters 6-8 lay out Lois’ longitudinal findings based on her follow up interviews with 16 of the original 24 mothers. In chapter 6 she updates us on the demographics, finding that first choicers were far more likely to stay with homeschooling for the duration of a child’s education than were second choicers. For all mothers, as children got older homeschooling got easier, though the time crunch often did not given the many extracurricular activities to which mothers had to transport children. Mothers also felt the “sandwich generation” effect: as their children left the home, mothers’ parents (and in-laws) grew increasingly dependent on their care. First choice homeschoolers were typically able to handle such emotional challenges by telling themselves that this was a stage in their lives (“sequencing”) and by consciously thinking about the happiest parts of homeschooling (“savoring”). Second choicers, however, “never achieved peace with putting their own lives on hold, and thus kept trying to find alternatives, much like many women in the contemporary United States, who feel torn between choosing work or motherhood.” (p.149)
Chapter 7 asks the degree to which homeschooling mothers feel like their efforts were successful over time. The short answer is “yes.” Mothers here engaged in a lot of what Lois calls “counterfactual” reasoning–claiming that homeschooling was responsible for whatever academic, social, or professional success their children attained even though there’s of course no way to prove whether students would have done just as well, better, or worse had they had a different education. Even children who were not particularly successful in worldly terms were still deemed to be successful by these mothers, who shuddered to think what their children might have become had they attended institutional schools.
Chapter 8 asks what homeschooling mothers plan to do with the rest of their lives once the children are all gone. Here again a solid distinction between first and second choicers emerged. Second choicers had clear plans and were excited about their futures as relatively independent women. First choicers, in contrast, “often shrugged and said they had not given it serious consideration.” (p.170) Most were not thinking about returning to the work force and spoke vaguely about volunteering at church, taking up hobbies, or especially about being grandmothers. Some spoke about trying to have more children despite their advancing age or possibly adopting. Lois summarizes, “The second-choicers felt excited about the next phase of their lives, whereas the first-choicers expressed more nostalgic feelings and a greater desire to extend their mothering careers.” (p. 179)
In chapter 9 Lois wraps it all up and provides some analysis. The “emotional epiphany” that led mothers to first choice homeschooling she interprets as a way for these mothers to escape the burden and responsibility of choice itself: “choices can be wrong; ‘knowing’ is infallible.” (p. 183) She also notes that the intensive motherhood homeschooling requires results in a “time-sensitive identity,” meaning that mothers are keenly aware that this time in their lives is only temporary, that it will end. Some can’t wait for the day (second choicers) and others wish the end would never come (first choicers). Regardless, all of them participate in an arrangement that “maintains the gender order…by teaching mothers to suppress their frustration and resentment and to accept their subordinate positions relative to their husbands and children.” (p.192)
And that is the book in a nutshell. Next week I’ll share my own thoughts about Lois’ material.