1,000 Families Project: Karen, Ben, Max and Jay

Choose your own adventure: How one homeschooling family found happiness completely off the map.

When my now-15-year-old, Max, was six, we discovered that he was allergic to school.The academic pressures of first grade set off some serious symptoms, and in that one year he lost 20 percent of his body weight, suffered most nights with horrific night terrors, and was diagnosed with migraine. Worst of all, however, attending school completely transformed our gentle and optimistic son into a shadow of his former self.

Max’s second-grade school year started off better, but by October his school allergies began acting up again. We pulled him out Thanksgiving week and started homeschooling. Ever since we have loved supporting Max and his younger brother Jay, now 11, as they learn and grow.

Those first years of homeschooling—our first years off the map—were fun years. Through weekly park days, pick-up baseball, snuggling up on the couch to read books together, and connecting with other homeschoolers, we learned that there is life outside of school. Max was so much better, which made us all happy. It was like finding out that you could breathe something other than oxygen.

Which is good, because it prepared us for what came after.

Our next years off the map took us into darker territory, that of disability and chronic illness. Four and a half years ago, I developed a mystery tendon disorder, called tendinosis, which can affect every tendon in my body and over the years has meant lots of fear and pain. I lost the ability to walk in 2011, and spent 18 months regaining that ability; in 2014 I lost all practical use of my hands due to my thumb tendons, and I’m still regaining the strength and functioning in my forearms and hands two years later. It’s been challenging, trying to figure out who I am when I can’t do most of the things that mean Mom and homemaker to me.

Coping with this illness, while making sure that the boys’ education didn’t suffer, challenged our whole family. When I first became unable to use my hands, it put tremendous pressure on my husband Ben; now he needed to take on the jobs I had always done and loved, mostly after he arrived home from a full day’s work in his high-pressure, corporate job.

I felt so guilty about everything I could not do that I was blocked from seeing how I really could help. As a result we were a family in crisis—until I realized that I do have important qualities to contribute, and that we have to work as a team. Only then we could begin to make sense of, and react to, the challenges of living with my chronic illness.

All along the boys have helped in whatever way they could. I’ll never forget how good Max got, when he was just 11, at getting my wheelchair out of the back of our car, setting it up, and then pushing me in it when necessary. At nine, my Jay would hear me walk into the kitchen—and be instantly at my side: “Okay, mom, you be the brains and let me be the hands. What can I do for you?”

We also learned that the key for us in this uncharted territory is to have a good plan—a map. It feels so good to work off a plan, to have the thinking already out of the way when you go to do something, and every Sunday we still make a map of the coming week. I support Ben and the kids through being the primary planner and cheerleader, recognizing my place in our team and supporting them in theirs.

I’m really glad that the homeschooling happened first, because it helped get us ready as a family to handle life with a chronic illness. Homeschooling was an unplanned adventure, certainly, but as my friend Shannon says, it’s a fun unplanned adventure! Because we strive to give the kids time and space for self-directed learning, there’s been no map to follow; we had to identify what Max and Jay needed and help them get that.

“What about socialization?” That’s a classic question that homeschoolers are asked all the time, and, while I used to ask it to, from inside homeschooling it seems like such a peculiar question—socialization happens when people connect, and we connect with people all the time.

Our homeschooling- and living-with-chronic-illness-experiences have made our whole family better socialized. As homeschoolers, we had to stand up and create our world (or be extremely lonely). My tendinosis has made us better socialized because we’ve all learned a lot about overcoming challenges, helping each other, fostering the connections that make life worth living, and setting boundaries.

Homeschooling and chronic illness forced all four of us to look into our hearts and figure out a way that works for us, individually and together.

We look very typical—a nuclear family with a mom, a dad, two kids, American middle-class. But you need only scratch the surface to see how different we are, how far off the map we have ended up. Not every family homeschools; not every mom confronts disability and chronic illness. But we found solutions that work for us—and whatever your challenges, I know you can, too.

When you venture out into your own uncharted territory, seek us out! We can form alliances, relationships, and connections all along our borders. We can learn from each other’s challenges and, with any luck, laugh together. Isn’t that what life is all about?

Photo: (left to right) Jay, Max, Ben and Karen.

This is #1000families post number 183. Do you have a family story of your own to contribute to the 1,000 Families Project? Or do you know a family that might want to do so? Learn more about how the series got started and how to get involved here. You can find all of the #1000families posts here.
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Karen Kolp

About

Karen Lock Kolp helps parents worry less and enjoy more with her podcast, We Turned Out Okay, and is the author of the forthcoming book Positive Discipline Ninja Tactics: Key Tools to Handle Every Temper Tantrum, Keep Your Cool, and Enjoy Life With Your Young Child. Karen lives in Massachusetts with the her husband, one teen, one tween, and four extremely well-socialized chickens.


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  1. February 18, 2016 @ 4:13 am The New Family / Podcast Episode 46: Parenting Through the Unexpected - The New Family

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