HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Phoebe” is a pseudonym.
It was awkwardly quiet in the car as my words settled. They echoed in my own brain, I could only imagine what Michael was thinking.
“I have the highest respect for you, but I don’t think we can keep dating. I feel like I need to find someone who is more like-minded.”
The problem was, Michael was not a homeschooler and did not come from an evangelical background like I did, just the opposite in fact. His family was laid back about spirituality and never addressed it with structured religious custom. Pressure from my homeschooling family and friends and internal guilt had brought me to this point. I was sitting in the car with him having this awkward conversation because I felt there was no other option. I had grown up in a cloistered, homogenous community and I needed to find someone who would help me create the same kind of community for my own future children. This had been made clear to me when my family found out what kind of man I was dating.
When he graciously hugged me despite his confusion and left the car without looking back, I felt the old loneliness unpacking its bags and moving back into my heart.
For me, the story of being homeschooled was a story of being told to sit down and shut up. “An ideal woman is quiet and submissive,” I was told time and time again. As a weird, geeky, slightly tomboyish girl, I certainly didn’t fit that description at all. I ran around in the woods for hours at a time, I loved competitive debate, Cheese-Its and oversized cargo pants. My stubborn, goofy personality did not fit well in the sheltered, pressure-cooker that is the homeschooling culture.
My family followed the Quiverfull doctrine, which meant I was told that I was an arrow in my parent’s quiver, to be shot out into the world for God’s glory. As time went on, I began to realize that girl arrows get a much narrower, more specific target than boy arrows. They are to become wives and mothers or celibate missionaries. End of story.
At the local homeschooling meetups, it was hard for me to find a place in the circles of thin, whispy girls who were being groomed to be homeschooling mothers and wives. The pressure to be quiet, mousy and seemingly perfect was very high. I tried. I wore dresses and grew my hair out long. I read and quoted books about meekness and godly womanhood, and did my best to avoid hugging boys.
Ultimately, I wasn’t happy. I would hear the adults debate about how women were to be silent in the church. I would hear my dad yelling at my mother, telling her she was not a submissive wife. I would hear girls and mothers gossip about each other and use nasty words for whoever wasn’t ladylike enough. I saw the thousand mile stare and deadpan look on my mom’s face when she opted yet again to check-out, bottle up everything she was thinking and let her bitterness grow. I watched as other homeschooling mothers picked our family apart, criticizing us and pushing my mom around, spreading lies and rumors about each of us that my mother refused to refute. After years spent in this oppressively judgmental and chauvinistic environment, I listened to what I was told. I shut up just to avoid attention and judgment. I hoped to go unnoticed so no one would point out how inadequate I was. The silence and submission I was pushed into was ultimately a place of loneliness, bitterness and almost crippling insecurity. I wanted to get out, but I didn’t know how.
I went to the local college despite my parent’s discouragement. College (especially for women) is clearly contrary to the beliefs of many very zealous home-educators. In class, I met women who spoke up when they had something to say (sometimes even when they didn’t) without anyone thinking anything of it. Women who taught and led classes with passion and a certain touch of oddness that was all their own. They didn’t fit the submissive woman cookie-cutter shape I had grown up with. They were themselves. They were more feminine with their pant suits, unkempt hair and unabashed geek-out sessions than anyone else I had met. I wholeheartedly believe this is true because didn’t feel judged by them and I didn’t feel like less of a woman myself when I was around them. In my mind, that is a huge part of being truly feminine, letting other women feel comfortable being themselves around you. I cut my hair short, I got clothes that fit and I raised my hand in class.
Then I met Michael and we started dating. Michael is goofy, he is curious, he asks questions. He drew me out of my shell, took my hand and encouraged me to stand up and say something. We got into debates and he never once told me to shut up or submit. He was one of the first men I met who didn’t feel like women were solely meant to be homemakers; he helped me build a new confidence in the possibilities that were ahead of me.
Things got rough for Michael and I when my family and friends in the homeschooled circles realized what was going on. I was encouraged to dump him. I was told the path I was going down was dangerous. I was told our future children would go to hell, for sure. Michael was aggressively witnessed to by my family and friends almost constantly. He and I began to argue about religion and conservative beliefs almost every time we went out. I desperately wanted him to sit down with me, to shut up with me, so we could just quietly carry on and go unnoticed and free from judgment. Maybe if he would just nod his head in public and let the judgment pass us by.
He wouldn’t have any of that, so I tearfully dumped him. I decided in that moment that I would rather be comfortable, miserable and silent than be with the man I loved.
It took time, but we stayed in touch and slowly our friendship grew again. It became obvious that he was the man I wanted to be with and that the homogenous, fear-based homeschooling environment I had lived in for so long was holding me back from the life I now knew I really wanted. I wanted to be part of a family that could be open and honest and be married to a man who treated me as a true partner and an equal and respected my thoughts and goals. Two years later, on a pleasantly chilly day, we were married. My family and friends are still unhappy that this arrow went off target, but slowly they are learning to accept my husband and I for what we are and I am learning to stand up for myself around them.
With time I came to understand that my purpose on earth is not determined by my parents or the judgments of the homeschooling community. It can be hard to think and decide for yourself when you grow up without any autonomy, stuck at home with all your life decisions and friends carefully picked out for you. Sometimes, I get overwhelmed and slip back into passivity or dysfunction. I know this is frustrating for my husband to see, but he encourages me to step out of it. Slowly, I am discovering how to communicate and take charge of my own life.
I am grateful to be away from an environment where women are told to sit down and shut up. Michael and I are slowly building a new family culture from the ground up, one that’s founded on mutual respect, openness and love. I hope if we ever have children, they will never feel like powerless arrows that their parents just shoot at set targets. I hope they will know that they are free to choose their own future, and that they will be prepared to take responsibility for doing so.
After homeschooling, this next phase of my life has become more than just a love story. It is about breaking the silence and learning to speak out for myself.