Over-involved parents

Today in an unschooling Yahoo group someone writes in – I’ll call her Jean – about about getting her PhD while her children are young. Her question is, Does anyone have experience unschooling when both parents are out of the home working? She says,

“I do want something in my life that is my own because I don’t want to be one of those over-involved parents that lives vicariously through her children as they grow up and have their own lives (or have the empty nest syndrome).”

I replied:

By all means get your PhD and do what you need to. But please don’t trot out the “over-involved parents who suffer when their kids move out.” I think it’s a strawman (usually a straw-woman) – I see it invoked often but do not personally know hordes of these people. I hear this often by those justifying their work (usually work away from their kids) and I think it can sound rather insulting.

First of all, mourning our children moving or growing doesn’t seem like such a bad thing (my mom was widowed and she mourned that – I mourned the loss of my father). “Living vicariously” through children’s lives has nothing to do with work and everything to do with traditional parenting schemas of child as Performer (which I find less prevalent in the life learning families I know than traditional schooling ones). One doesn’t necessarily need to perform any ONE particular career move (or even have a career) to make sure the eventuality of child-obsession is avoided – nor will such a career pursuit guarantee a fully-lived life of self-actuated integrity.

I have a chemical engineering degree and had quite a little career going. I loved it. I put that aside years ago and became involved in work in the home, where I am now eight years later with my wonderful kids. Even if you were to surgically remove my kids and their influence from Me (which is silly to think of) I still have something “of my own” -or rather many things. My intelligence, my bodywork, my writing, my sewing, my personhood, my integrity, my volunteer work, my marriage, my friendships. My life with my kids has informed me far more than my career did. Note I am not speaking prescriptively but about me and my family only.

We need more smart and awesome people who are fulfilled in the work they do. If a PhD is what you need, go for it! You have my support. As for unschooling, there are as many ways to go about this and most unschoolers are a creative lot. If you do return to school, reaching out for ideas will help you navigate and do what’s best for you.

Tangentially, I wrote about the so-called “overinvolved mom” if you’re interested: “the over-involved Momster, a convenient premise to continue the laydee-hatin”

Good luck in whatever you go forth with!


A few minutes after posting I decided to delete my message because I wasn’t sure how link-friendly the Yahoo group was (I hate breaking posted rules of online groups, and I am a member of many so I’ve sometimes muddled it up). While I re-downloaded the group rules list I emailed Jean and asked if she’d like to hear my thoughts off-list. As I waited other group members began to engage and I’ve watched the conversation flow. Jean responded in kind and I observed as her assumptions about life with kids began to issue forth…

For instance: one can’t travel unless one has money from a second income. Spending time with children while not pursuing a career is life “on hold”. “You need your own life”. “There is a big difference between interests and having work you are passionate about”. Self-sufficiency requires two incomes. And perhaps most illustrative:

“I don’t like the idea of having to put my own life on hold entirely, I don’t think that would be fair to me and my kids.  I don’t want to teach my kids that once they become parents they have to put their life on hold for 20 years!”

I don’t mean to pick on writer Jean because, whatever choices she makes and family structure she has, her reported worldviews are common enough in the USian adult sphere (and therefore continue to get passed down to children). I also, upon reflection and reading the conversation unfolding within the group, see she is struggling with these very problematic assumptions she puts forth as Facts Of Life (as opposed to personal and owned realities). For now I shall leave aside this person’s specific claims because at root the fallacies and fears that dwell within many American parents and carers, perhaps most especially mothers, are worth addressing here.

A brief point before I start talking about work for pay (“career”) vs. work without pay (“staying home”). Women are, unfortunately, pressured to justify their work, career, reproductive life, ambitions, and activities (or lack thereof) in a way men are not required to do. Full stop. In fact in today’s supposed egalitarian society this disparity is so striking and so deeply-ingrained it is really quite something to consider when we open the discussion.

If men ignore the conversation – fine. I can’t force them to care or put some time in (which begins by: listening to women’s related experiences, not rushing in and mansplaining or trying to “relate”). I’m not going to talk much more about gender disparity in questions of “work” (income) and family life. But I’d like to give a moment and pause and express my gratitude for the women, especially working mothers (by this I mean all mothers) who struggle with these questions, often without afforded status and proper support while being mocked for their struggles (yeah. Don’t make me link to the Hate).

For now I’d put forth the following:

The careful societal delineation of working for pay versus work required for living is a false dichotomy that has no positive results and ultimately disproportionately hurts women, children, and other marginalized parties.

This false dichotomy enforced by kyriarchal standards punishes every parent (especially mother) no matter what choices she makes (make no mistake, mothers who work out of the home are still judged and socially policed heavily). She is truly damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.

People work-for-pay for all sorts of reasons. Many work-for-pay because they simply have to in order to survive. Many work-for-pay because they can’t stand to have fewer material possessions, or delay ownership of Nice Things. Many work-for-pay because the external validation of status and pay are essential to their sense of well-being. Many work-for-pay because they like to.  Many work-for-pay because working in the home is disparaged. Many work-for-pay because they are afraid to consider anything else, ever; money and job represent a Security either abstract or more concrete – for instance medical benefits or retirement benefits – they cannot fathom finding anywhere else and have good cause to suspect won’t be supported by our culture today. Reasons vary far more than I could list and obviously there are many combinations therein.

Most of us Work whether for-pay or not. And some find work because they can and they have the extraordinary privilege of making their life about work they love through-and-through. These are the fortunate ones. I am one of them.

I’ve been working without pay for most of a decade and this “housewife with no life and no security” bit has been beaten on my head ad nauseam. The idea that living a life with our children alongside means we “have no life”, or that while we are full-time parents “nothing can get done”, or that we will be husks of people when our kids one day move out, is not only supremely insulting to those of us who thrive in such work, it is demeaning to children themselves and I’d say at odds with the natural order. For instance: human beings eat and shit and make messes; younglings need TLC and food and instruction and protection and – really – love.  Some of us deal day-to-day with those realities and quite well (and in my case, not because it came to me “naturally”). The idea that our work is not “real” or it’s kind of pathetic or short-sighted or unintelligent fodder (my mother used to call women who thrived in in-home work “cows”) is insulting and in the end analysis, sad and limited. This does not, of course, only extend to female carers. I’ve long thought it ridiculous that words on a memo could be esteemed as Important while the shiny floor my father procured day in and day out as a janitor would be disparaged and his ilk mocked.

The kids and I spent part of yesterday in our working-class fishing/touristy town on the south beach of Grays Harbor. While following the children as they ran along fishing boats, I had a whole new respect for the men and women working hard at their jobs. These workers let us run in and about and, because they were on their boats and not on the floats themselves, we were able to observe one another without hindering one another. The unselfconscious and bustling aura of Work was one I felt entirely grateful and exhilerated by virtue of being around, and I was glad my children were exposed as well.

I reflected: we have a class and job caste system in America that is complex and remains largely undiscussed. I am familiar with worldviews that place my so-called “mundane” bum-wiping stay-at-home work on the lowest tier of worthwhile daily fare, the working class fisherman getting the chuck on the shoulder of being “a good American” who tries hard at least and pumps money into our tax base, God-bless-’em, and one’s own illustrious sciencey- or brainy-whatever Work much higher on the Worth continuum.  This has always irritated me (even and perhaps most especially when I was an engineer and surrounded by other engineers, many of which clearly thought themselves the apex of human thought and performance). Worldviews may differ but the myopic analysis of worthwhile exploits flourishes within those who don’t actively reject such narratives.  I’m reminded of a Facebook friend L. who posted a rant about the “modern domestic” woman who was taking too much joy and pride in her at-home married and kidlet life. According to L. women needed to farm out their kids, get Master’s degrees, and get into the workforce to advance Feminist Agendas! Coincidentally the exact same pursuits L. had recently embarked on.

Funny how it all works like that for some people.

As for another key aspect to the worldviews demonstrated in Jean’s original message (in the Yahoo group), it seems rather obvious that “living vicariously through children” is not at all the territory of those (women) who work in the home.  Please don’t make me immediately Google the high-profile adult children who have cracked under pressure, with sometimes tragic results, in response to a lifetime of familial training and expectations of high-status careers or “work” or societal esteem. “Living vicariously through children” (which we charge with pitying snarkiness on the futures of vast numbers of women, not men), as I understand the author to mean, is important to discuss and safeguard against but will not be precluded by bringing home a paycheck.

Bringing it to the personal sphere with regards to charges brought against homeschooling and/or life learning families, I’d posit that those of us who’ve embraced the autodidactic lifestyle for our children – which usually ends up influencing family life far beyond the role of an educational model – are some of the least at risk of the “vicarious” living so often thrown about as a potential Parenting Danger.  In the unschooling Yahoo group I mention moderator Meredeth writes, “If anything, I think unschoolers do this less than any other parents because we’re actively working on Not projecting our own needs and hopes and fears onto our kids.” (I don’t know if the capital “N” in “Not” was intentional but I rather like it.) No life strategy is a guarantee for Better Thinking, but personally our exploration of unschooling has been instrumental in my partner and I developing better parenting strategies for our children. Should my children attend school again some day, we have already reaped many benefits from these studies and life pursuits.

The truth is, really – and I am not going to touch on this much further for now – in some ways I am that pathetic mother some want to flesh out as being a Social Wretch. I have give-give-given to my children over the years, beyond what I ever thought I would want to, or ever thought I could. The results as they stand today are not what others might predict.  I have found the more fully I release to this giving the more I absolutely have my own life, the more my children are walking and breathing and joyous demonstrations of healthy nurture, and the less struggle Parenting is for me (I’ve been surprised to see my children reaching remarkable self-sufficiencies when not submitted to schooling and authoritarian schema). I am beginning to undo the damage I did them and myself in earlier years when I had internalized the “scarcity” model I was raised on (especially with regards to society’s messages), when I was suffering and overwhelmed and couldn’t believe how much work young-kid-rearing was (and when, I hasten to add, I was ill-supported by society at large as a mother to young babies, and when also our financial circumstances were far less sound). Life circumstances were hard for me and I did not perform well as a parent. Life circumstances are better now – due to my work a bit, my husband’s work a bit, the support of a few friends and my own mother, and good fortune. My parenting and the Work in my life is a font of inspiration and happiness – for now. I am enjoying this while I can.

I’d add one caveat: “give and give more” (a quote from the below-posted Sandra Dodd article) is not possible for some people without further inflicting self-harm.  I have been relatively fortunate in my resources and my privilege. So I write here primarily for those who are not so different than I, those who aren’t in immediate danger (any more than any of us) of losing their homes, those who are not struggling with a legacy of abuse or mental health issues or poverty or debilitating life changes. It isn’t that my writings would have nothing to offer anyone else; it is that in offering my experiences I do not want to be experienced as delivering prescriptives to all who read. Rather I want to testify change is possible from the garden-variety damaging legacies we were delivered. For some, parenting is miserable and scary and claustrophobic – and it used to be for me. Undoing the damage has been a lot of hard work but I want to help those who are able and willing.

For now I will say I am tired, TIRED of the oft-mocked “no life” housewife caricature. You can’t invoke it and say Well, I don’t mean YOU Kelly. Yeah, but, you do, you mean me and all the carers who love their Work and take it Damn Seriously. It’s time to let this trope go and stop talking about her ghostly wretched form.

Let’s talk about you.  Let’s talk about me.

Honestly, it’s a better conversation.


A great tongue-in-cheek but entirely heartfelt and awesome read: Sandra Dodd’s “Precisely How to Unschool”

8/26/2010 Edited to add:
This post was in response to the oft-repeated stereotype of the lifeless, boring housewife with no personal autonomy and agency, etc. It occurs to me as I write that since many at-home carers have been victimized by these assumptions and narrow views they may have developed vitriol in reaction and might be tempted to say something negative about other types of parenting/caring strategies (specifically, moms who work outside the home). I ask anyone commenting comb through their intentions and words before posting here; nothing said should in any way further laser in on and/or negate choices of mothers, “working” (for pay) or otherwise. If you have doubts, don’t post, or send the comment to me first. Thank you!

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