This is the second 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). In the first, which you can read here, I summarized the contents of the book. Today I will share some of the thoughts I had as I was reading it.
First, a general comment about the quality of homeschooling scholarship. Before I published my book in 2008 there was only one really good book on homeschooling in print, Mitchell Stevens’ Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement. Now there are five. In addition to Stevens’ and mine, all researchers should read Kunzman’s Write These Laws on Your Children, Murphy’s Homeschooling in America, and now Lois’ Home Is Where the School Is. The field is in a much better place now than it was when I first got started, and Lois’ book adds significantly to our overall understanding. Here I’m going to discuss two insights I found particularly compelling and conclude with a few criticisms.
Without question the most important insight Lois provides is a total revision of the usual discussion of parental motivation. Since the late 1980s almost all researchers into homeschooling have followed Jane Van Galen in finding a basic duality between a small group of homeschoolers who do so largely to escape pedagogical traditionalism and a much larger group who homeschool mostly to indoctrinate their children in their (usually conservative) religious beliefs. Van Galen called these two groups “pedagogues” and “ideologues.” Stevens called them “inclusives” and “believers.” I called them “open communion” and “closed communion.” Hanna’s 2012 longitudinal study found that the distinction still held.
In contrast, Lois claims that there is a more important distinction that better explains the differences between homeschoolers, and now that I’ve read her book I agree with her, but with a slight correction. In my first post I summarized her distinction between “first choice” and “second choice” homeschoolers. For Lois, this distinction mattered even more than religion:
When I asked mothers about their decision to homeschool, they always framed their answers in terms of their mother identities, rather than primarily as Christians or New Agers, for example, and more than anything else, tied their decision in some way to their status as stay-at-home mothers. (p. 47)
But looking at her data, first choicers were almost always conservative Christians, and second choicers were almost always not as conservative, so in that way her groupings do follow religious ideology quite well. Other scholars have found that conservative Christians tend to stick with homeschooling longer than progressives do. Lois found this too, but she also unearthed the reasons why: Conservative religion and unqualified commitment to full-time stay-at-home motherhood reinforce one another. Lois’ conservative religious women had a much easier time talking themselves into homeschooling in the first place and sticking with it despite setbacks and emotional frustrations. When their homeschooling careers reached an end they had a harder time thinking what else they might do, so fully had they essentialized their maternal identity. Second choicers who homeschooled would speak of the “light at the end of the tunnel,” looking forward to when they could get on with their lives (p. 169). For first choicers, homeschooling itself was the light. There was no tunnel, and they wished it would never end.
What is it about conservative religion that helps women stick with homeschooling? Lois notes how the “emotional epiphany” first choicers experience gives them the ideological certainty they need to survive periods of self-doubt. As one mother explained:
I think [you can overcome burnout] if you have a clear feeling that this is what you’re supposed to do. You know, we know why we’re homeschooling. We know it’s the right choice for us. And that makes all the difference. Having a clear-cut call. Feeling that this is what God wants us to be doing with our children. This is what he’s called us to do. And he’s gonna help us do what we need to. That’s a huge thing. Knowing that we’re not really in this alone. (p.107)
It’s as if first choicers haven’t really chosen at all. Rather they were chosen by God to give themselves completely to the task. After that, there’s no more choosing–no more thinking even. The call must be obeyed no matter what. Lois herself seems critical of this voluntary surrender of responsibility, but at the same time she recognizes its emotional power. Mothers who have given over their own wills to what they consider to be God’s will for their lives do not object when their lives get hard, when their children don’t obey, when their husbands don’t help out, when they get tired or frazzled. They view all of these things as trials to be endured for the sake of God’s call, trusting that God will give them the resources to help them through it. Lois doesn’t mention it, but it is no accident that Philippians 4:13 is a favorite verse of Evangelical Christians everywhere, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”
Lois herself seems frustrated by these women’s self-abnegation. But such has long been the Christian ideal. Here’s Paul from Philippians again, this time chapter 2:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant and being made in human likeness. (Phil. 2:3-7)
The point is that the conservative, Biblically literalist wing of Christianity has long been on the side of hierarchical submission. People should obey God and the human leaders God has placed over them. Wives submit to husbands. Slaves obey masters. Children obey parents. This is simply how God organized the world, and to fight against established authority is to fight against God. It is of course this view of Christianity against which the tradition of liberal self-governance has been fighting and winning since the 18th century. Lois’ “first choice” homeschoolers are some of the last remaining holdouts. Lois finds it remarkable that some of these women have even given over their freedom to regulate their fertility, but it is only logical really. If God is truly in charge of every aspect of life, then He knows better than we how many children we should have. It thus makes sense why many of the most hard-core conservative Christians have moved away from birth control.
A second empirical insight emerging from Lois’ study loud and clear is how remarkably unhelpful most husbands of homeschooling mothers are. They don’t help with the homeschooling. On the rare occasion that they do, they perform their tasks so sporadically or incompetently that the mothers have to either constantly remind them to do it or go back and do it again. Nor do husbands increase their share of housework given their wives’ increased workload homeschooling. Lois found, surprisingly, that this held for both the conservative Christian dads and the progressive dads. Both sets of dads loved to talk about homeschooling, and they pushed hard for their wives to do it, but they seldom lifted a finger to help. Here again, first choice conservative Christian women were better able to deal with this, for to them it’s just a natural part of the order of things that women do the cooking, cleaning, and childcare while the husband works and then comes home to read or watch TV. Second choicers, on the other hand, responded more like many American women, with frustration that their husbands weren’t doing their fair share. Over time that was one of the factors that led second choicers to put their kids back in school.
So the two big takeaway lessons for me from Lois’ book are that the way a woman comes to the decision to homeschool (first or second choice) is predictive of most of the rest of what happens, and that homeschooling husbands are pigs for the most part. Let me conclude my comments with three criticisms of Lois’ work, one minor and two not so minor.
First, and minor, I wonder about Lois’ description of all of these maternal emotions as cultural constructs. I wonder especially if the “emotional epiphany” some of these mothers reported having at their baby’s birth might have a biological basis. Here’s an exchange between Lois and one of her subjects that suggests something more than culture may be going on:
Subject: …I didn’t have a real draw to be home until I was pregnant. And then all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, I can’t imagine not being with the baby!” I couldn’t imagine it! And the pull was really strong for me.
Lois: Did it intensify when she was born?
Subject: It really did. And breastfeeding. (p. 51)
I am no biochemist, but I’ve read about the powerful role that oxytocin plays in mother-child bonding. I would love to see an empirical study done of oxytocin levels in first and second choice homeschoolers compared to averages for other mothers to see if there might be a biological component to the profound emotions that lead some of these mothers to have their emotional epiphanies.
Second, a word about Lois’ methodology. Recall that we have here a qualitative study of 24 women, selected via “snowball” sampling from one geographic region. To what degree can we generalize Lois’ findings? Lois herself claims that she continued her interviews until she reached what she called “theoretical saturation,” (p. 35) the point where all her interview subjects were basically repeating what she’d heard other say with no new insights on offer. Thus she can provide us with “theoretical generalizability,” (p. 25) meaning that her generalizations are not scientific but are at least plausible enough to serve as theoretical insights others might use to formulate scientific hypotheses. I like this. Lois is not claiming that her conclusions are true for all homeschooling mothers, only that they were consistently true for this sample and thus are at least worth testing on a broader or more representative group. But for a book like this I do wish she had tried a little harder to give us a more diverse sample, especially in terms of geography. Her snowball method means that most of her sample come from the same group of friends. I wonder if such a limited group might have led Lois to theoretical saturation too soon. Had she included a group of homeschooling women from, say, New York City or Atlanta would the maternal feelings differ? Take the more secular and politically progressive homeschooling mothers who live in an urban metropolis like New York City. Would the first and second choice distinction show up in this population? If so would it correlate so strongly with religion as it did with Lois’ own sample? Or take the community of African American Atlanta homeschoolers studied by Cheryl Fields-Smith and Meca Williams, whose motivations, even though religiously derived in many cases, differ so profoundly from those of white conservatives. Would the first and second choice distinction emerge here, and if so how would it play out? I wish Lois had had the resources to extend her hypothesis to another demographic.
Finally, a word about Lois’ bias. This to me is the only serious weakness of the book. Lois is very clear at the outset that her own background made it difficult for her to understand and connect with conservative Christians. But as I read the book I got the sense that she really didn’t like these conservative women very much. Lois seemed much more interested in the second choicers, because they were more conflicted about their homeschooling roles (and were more like Lois). They thus provided her with richer material with which to work. The conservative women, in contrast, were on the whole more content with their lot. Their homeschooling went smoother. They didn’t complain as much even though their husbands were utterly worthless when it came to helping around the house. They dealt with burnout by praying and doubling down. They didn’t dream about a future where they could do what they wanted to do or yearn for self actualization. Lois, after spending a lot of time with such women, “walked away…with a solid appreciation for homeschooling mothers’ intense and challenging work and knowing that when I did have children, I would certainly not homeschool them.” (p. 27) It’s clear that Lois herself values women’s ability to make their own choices, and she seemed to me to be a little horrified at the mommy mush brain and servitude conservative mothers brought upon themselves when they decided to sacrifice all for their children. It’s this bias as well that I think accounts for her lack of equating “first choice” and “conservative Christian,” though they are in her data pretty much the same thing. Lois’ religious tin ear made it hard for her to catch the religious dimension to her own key distinction and was a barrier to her anthropological work among that group. Her discussions of second choice complexity are thick. Her discussions of first choice religiosity are thin.
But let me rush to say that despite such criticisms, Home is Where the School Is is a beautifully written, thoughtful book that successfully divulges the inner lives of homeschooling women, who are and have always been the key players in the homeschooling phenomenon. Thanks to Lois’ careful work everyone can get to know who these women are, what they struggle with, and how they change over time.