Home is Where the School is: the Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering - By Jennifer Lois. Reviewed by Rachel Tabachnik **Note: This review originally appeared in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 30, No. 6, November/December 2013. Republished with permission.
The number of children homeschooled in the United States was estimated in 2007 to be at least 1.5 million and is likely more than two million today—more than three percent of the school-age population. Exact figures are unknown, since data collection varies by state. Nearly one quarter of states have no requirement for registration or notification and, according to the International Center for Home Education Research, ICHER, only half of the states have any requirements for testing or student evaluation. What is known, and has been shown repeatedly in research on the topic, writes Jennifer Lois, the author of Home Is Where the School Is, is that homeschooling is a mother’s project.
Mothers overwhelmingly bear the burden of the “immense emotional, temporal, and physical workloads required to homeschool,” Lois explains. This, she devotes her ethnography to these mothers, bypassing the more commonly researched homeschooled students. In her unique study, she examines the emotional lives of the mother-teachers and what she describes as a mothering experience fraught with “temporal-emotional conflict.” Homeschooling, she says, has the potential, particularly when fathers fail to share the load, to “ratchet up the standards for intensive mothering to historically unprecedented levels.”
The “ideology of intensive mothering” is a term coined by sociologist Sharon Hays in her 1996 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996). Hays identifies the paradox of the escalation of cultural norms of good mothering simultaneous with the influx of the mothers of young children into the workforce. “Good mothering” as defined in contemporary culture, writes Hays, requires a woman to play dual roles: she must be warm and nurturing at home, yet cool and competitive at work. Homeschooling mothers face a different set of challenges, including having little or no discretionary or childfree time, while bearing the responsibility for the education of one and sometimes many children. Referencing Hays’s research, Lois examines the homeschooling subculture and the sacrificial version of intensive mothering that requires women to “achieve near self-obliteration for their children.”
The book is the culmination of years of field research on homeschooling by Lois, an associate professor of sociology at Western Washington University, that included extensive interviews with homeschooling mothers and, in some cases, husbands or other family members. The original interviews of 24 mothers took place in 2002; these were followed in 2008 and 2009 by interviews with sixteen of the original interviewees. Of Lois’s 24 original interviewees, 21 were white, two were Hispanic American, and one was African American. One was a single mother, and one was a widowed grandmother. Lois describes 21 of the mothers as “identified with a Christian-based religion” and fourteen as highly conservative evangelicals. The numbers of children in their families ranged from one to twelve. Lois describes homeschooling as a class issue from both above and below. It is largely limited to middle-class families who can afford to have one parent remain out of the work force, but it is also a choice made by families who cannot afford private school tuition.
The most thoroughly studied aspect of homeschooling is motivation. The subculture is usually described as consisting mostly of those labeled by some researchers as ideologues and pedagogues, who are often stereotypes as religious zealots, alone with a smaller group of left-wing “unschoolers.” Although the majority of homeschoolers may indeed fit into one of these two categories, the most prominent homeschooling organizations certainly do, homeschoolers also comprise a wide range of religious adherents and nontheists who choose to homeschool for a variety of reasons. Lois’s interviewees, for example, include the mother of an academically gifted son with Asperger’s disorder who was not succeeding in a conventional classroom. Although Lois objects to simplistic stereotypes, she too divides her interviewees into two broad camps, albeit with different labels: “first choicers,” or mothers who are determined to homeschool their children; and “second choicers,” or those who homeschool because of a lack of acceptable alternatives. Lois is interested in discovering how the women chose to homeschool; how they defend their choice in the face of criticism; how they manage the workload and emotional demands; and how they deal with burnout.
She entered her research with little knowledge of religion or of conservative religious culture, admitting that she had to look up the significance of the Bible verse John 3:16 after seeing it on a mother’s tee-shirt (The verse says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”) This was a handicap to understanding both the majority of the mothers in her sample, who self-identified as conservative evangelicals, and the minority who self-identified as religious progressives. As a researcher who has written about homeschooling curricula and the role of religious organizations in the promotion of school vouchers and the privatization of education, I would have been interested in the responses that Lois could have elicited if she had been more religiously literate.
Her lack of exposure to religious communities may have contributed to the assumption she makes that homeschooling mothers must defend themselves from stigmatization and accusations of “emotional deviance” by mainstream society. In 2002, many of the homeschoolers she interviewed were defensive about their roles. However, with the dramatic growth in homeschooling over the last decade, the dynamics of peer pressure may have been reversed, with the stigma directed towards those who send their children to public schools. It’s easy to imagine this taking place, particularly in some religious communities, which are hubs of homeschool participation. If so, the decision to homeschool may be less a matter of challenging peer expectations and more about fulfilling them—presenting mothers with a different set of emotional challenges from those faced by Lois’s early interviewees.
Despite Lois’s limited ability to speak the language of her religious interviewees, her book opens a window onto the lives of homeschooling mothers. Throughout her observations, she explores differences between first and second choicers’ responses to challenges. The first choicers generally approach homeschooling as a calling; several describe a moment of ephipany or a sudden realization that God wanted them to homeschool. The second choicers were more ambivalent and continuously struggled with their decision. They were more likely to homeschool only one of their children and to make attempts to return to conventional schools. Lois sums up the difference, writing, “[C]hoices can be wrong; knowing is infallible.”
Most of the mothers had no precious teaching experience. In Washington state, where Lois did her research, the law requires a homeschooling parent to meet only one of the following guidelines: complete one year of college; attend a fifteen-hour homeschooling course; or meet with a state-certified teacher for an hour each week. The mothers’ lack of experience leads to an almost universal fear of failure, intensified for those new to homeschooling. Lois’s research included attendance at conferences, including a session at one statewide convention on Total Failure Syndrome, or the fear of failure in all areas—as mother, teacher, and wife. The speaker recommended that the mothers suppress problematic emotions and feelings of deprivation by comparing themselves to those less fortunate. “Do it with a servant’s attitude and a joyful heart,” she suggested , and celebrate the subordinate position. “Homeschooling subculture relentlessly pushed mothers to sacrifice more,” writes Lois.
Margaret Talbot, in her 2001 Atlantic review of Mitchell Steven’s Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (2001), describes homeschooling as “souped up domesticity with higher stakes and more respect.” Referring to the rejection by homeschooling mothers of the “idealized domesticity” of the 1950s, Stevens claims that although homeschooling may appear to be reactionary and antifeminist, it actually “bears clear imprints of the liberal feminism that was blossoming when many of today’s homeschooling mothers came of age.” Lois found that many of the mothers in her study dealt with their overwhelming workloads by prioritizing mothering over housework. Her interviewees—from those in patriarchal settings to the self-described nonreligious, left-wing moms—shared an almost universal complaint: they were disappointed in their husbands’ lack of participation.
If feminism has made an imprint on homeschooling, it has no resulted in gender equality in the area of household chores and childcare—at least not for the subjects of this study and others. Lois’s interviewees report that their husbands, including those who insist on having their children homeschooled, do little to help relieve mothers of their workloads or to provide them with discretionary time. First and second choicers generally responded differently to their disappointment, however: the first choicers felt they had to protect the fathers’ free time and invalidated their own claims to “me-time”; while second choicers generally had greater expectations concerning their husbands’ participation and felt resentful when these were not fulfilled.
Readers expecting Lois to tackle the controversies over homeschooling’s role in American society will be disappointed, at least if they don’t read the endnotes. There, she debunks widely publicized claims that studies show homeschool students outperforming their public school counterparts on achievement tests. As she explains, the subjects of these studies are self-selected volunteers, who do not represent a full range of homeschooled students. Families holding the most antigovernment beliefs, for example, usually do not agree to participate in studies. In addition (although Lois does not mention it), the achievement test cited in these studies can be administered at home. As ICHER notes, “Not surprisingly, wealthy homeschoolers from stable two-parent families who take tests administered by their parents in the comfort of their own homes outscore the average public school child by large margins.”
Despite the overwhelming workload and the obstacles, most of Lois’s interviewees reported that they were happy to have homeschooled and would continue homeschooling. When Lois looks at outcomes, she measures the emotional responses of the mothers rather than the more-often measured achievements of the students. Again, she looks at the differences between the first and second choicers. When their children “graduated” from homeschooling, the second choicers were excited about entering the next phase of their lives, while first choicers were anxious to extend their experience of intensive mothering. Several reported putting their family planning “in God’s hands,” and three of the mothers, all first choicers, gave birth between Lois’s first and second round of interviews. Another mother, 41 years old and with three boys, reported that she wanted to make herself “open to life” and to have surgery to reverse her tubal ligation.
On the ICHER blog, the organization’s co-founder Milton Gaither, an academic and a homeschooling father, describes Home Is Where the School Is as “the most extensive look at the mothers who homeschool ever published.” It may do little to alter readers’ perceptions of homeschooling, whatever they may be, but in studying the mothers behind this growing trend, it id an invaluable addition to the sociological record.