< Part One
My life during this time was bleak.
I was almost completely isolated, subject to my mother’s personal drama on a daily basis. She lost control of her hoarding behavior, eventually lining the walls of our home with piles of dusty books, magazines, and papers which seemed dearer to her than family living space and respiratory health. She instigated disputes with her siblings and raged about perceived injustices. She spent time planning parties that never happened. Until the last few years, she refused to work outside the home, even though her supplemental income would have enabled me to enroll in music or foreign language lessons. When she finally began working part-time, she spent the income on a new car. She fretted about falling behind in educating me, while doing nothing to improve the situation.
She instructed me to lie about our daily routine.
Despite her awareness that this situation had become quite terrible, she still believed keeping me at home was preferable to exposing me to the horrors of public school. HSLDA purports homeschooling is all but necessary to preserve a child’s decency. It was, no doubt, far easier for my mother to ignore the reality of the situation while consoled with this noble image.
Despite isolation, my mother continued to monitor my behavior, watching for signs of emergent “teenage behavior” and un-Godly beliefs which might have seeped into our household against her wishes. Laughing at the wrong joke in a movie, for example, might unleash a torrent of shaming rage. One day, wearing nail polish would be acceptable and “pretty” — another day, it would be shamefully worldly and warrant usage of the label “slut”. By the age of 16, I became severely depressed and had lost significant weight, but was not offered counseling or medical treatment.
My mother instead chastised me for exhibiting teenage rebelliousness.
For a while I was suicidal, high-risk given my secrecy and feasible plans. No adult in my life acknowledged that this stress and isolation might have negative effects on me. No one asked me if I felt I was being prepared to enter the adult world or to attend college. My father, despite living in the same house, never inquired about my education or wellbeing. Grandparents expressed concern and curiosity but were silenced by my mother’s convicted assertions. More distant family members inquired skeptically but were blown off with her combative resolve. I felt trapped and hopeless, unwanted and invisible.
I did escape this situation at the age of 18.
My mother’s employment during the last few years enabled me to get out of the house more often and, in turn, my mental health improved. I earned my GED, began working in retail, attended community college, then moved to another city and supported myself through university. I somehow emerged with a strong sense of self and the ability to form healthy social relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have always had my doubts about Christianity. Today I follow a self-constructed spirituality stemming from Buddhist philosophy, yoga, and meditation, with occasional dabbling in occult divination via cartomancy.
However, there is a dark side of myself that only a close few know.
For years I have struggled with PTSD symptoms, depression, social anxiety, and low self-esteem. Often I cannot identify with my peers as the experiences of my first 18 years were so atypical and potentially stigmatizing. I mourn the loss of my childhood and the absence of positive parental figures.
These days I can’t imagine away the pain of this long-term isolation and having been physically abused.
I was thrown under the bus to fulfill my parents’ fantasies of the perfect family.
Nor can I align myself with my parents’ perspective that children and teenagers are indentured servants. I can’t stop caring about how poorly they treated me, nor suppress the feelings of disgust and unease that arise when I see them or imagine visiting them.
I am currently no-contact with my parents. My mother flatters herself with historical revisions, presenting my acceptance to a prestigious graduate program as the success of her home education efforts. They have not acknowledged the truth of our shared history, and I do not know how to relate to them as anyone other than authority figures. I have no emotional attachment to them, and for now their presence in my life merely reminds me of the horrible things they did to me.
But, gradually, I am feeling less shame about what happened to me. I am starting to feel less embarrassed by it and more proud of how I overcame the situation. I am beginning to empathize with my past self, appreciating the things I did then to help me survive into the present. Lately I feel more “human” in some vague sense. Specifically, I feel more capable of relating to other people and knowing what I want and need. On that note, my therapist of five years is a total rock star.
At its core, this is clearly a story about growing up in a dysfunctional family and with an abusive mother failing to manage her mental health issues. However, several aspects of the Christian subculture homeschooling movement stand out as fueling the existing fire of my misfortune, or creating the perfect storm of an abusive, neglectful homeschooling situation.
Regulations on homeschooling may have discouraged my mother from wanting to homeschool, or brought outside attention to my terrible situation. Currently, in many states, future homeschool students silently fade away behind a vague letter of withdrawal and intent. Registration with the local school district would require parents to face school officials and engage in dialogue about their rationale and preparations. Annual lesson plan approval and testing would encourage earnest academic investment and would identify on-going cases of neglect. It has become apparent lately that, upon legal emancipation, many homeschooled teenagers no longer desire to attend Bob Jones University or marry into a Quiverfull movement. Documenting grades and filing transcripts with the local school district would expand higher education opportunities for these children. Such regulations would have imposed reality on my mother’s mostly unchallenged fantasy world, one which placed me at a severe disadvantage.
HSLDA’s promoted image of homeschooling provided an ideal fantasy for my mother to latch onto.
She saw herself most importantly as a warrior for Christ, less so a dedicated teacher. HSLDA propaganda, in fact, less heavily emphasizes the importance of proving quality education and social opportunities for children. One can walk away from an HSLDA forum thinking, “the most important thing is that I remove my child from the evil public school environment.” Dispassionate, research-based information about the work needed for legitimate homeschooling would place the value of teaching above “fighting the culture war”. Availability of such information may have undermined my mother’s romanticized image of the homeschool-mom as an anything-goes hero-by-default. HSLDA’s insistence to avoid regulations and legitimate research on homeschooling does nothing to protect or improve home education, only to help obscure appalling cases such as mine.
It’s clear from my description of family dynamics that one may not expect me to have had a “good-enough” childhood regardless of how I was educated. Sometimes I ask myself, “how would public (or private) school have improved my situation?” My parents failed to educate me; it would have provided a baseline education that was, at least, better than nothing. My parents believed that children should not be allowed a voice; it would have provided access to adult mentors who might have listened to and respected me. My parents were socially isolated, lacking friendships; it would have provided opportunities to acquire developmentally-appropriate social skills rather than learning it all at once as a working college student. My parents did not provide extracurricular activities for me; it would have provided a means to expand myself with arts or athletics.
Finally, my parents did not offer a structured means by which I could assess my personal changes and growth. Formal schooling, no matter how angst-ridden it might be for many young people, at the very least grants the student a sense of autonomy in deciding whether they love or hate school, admire or despise authority figures, agree or disagree with society at large.
My parents robbed me of that experience by imposing their selfish whims on me, unchecked by the isolation.
Although I survived with a fair bit of myself intact, going through this experimental phase while an employee and student, alone in a new city, was both risky and terrifying.
A question I continue to grapple with — and perhaps will, for a while — is: who do you turn to when your own mother is trying to destroy your metamorphosis into a healthy, functional adult? When your father ignores your plight?
What do you do?
No adult in my immediate or distant family intervened, nor were child protective services ever alerted to my condition. Family members cannot be depended on to identify and report educational neglect and abusive behavior. Turning a blind eye is easier for many than dealing with a difficult person or sacrificing the perfect family image for a child’s so-called “rights”.
Homeschooling is a dangerous plan when abuse, isolation, and dysfunction already exist within a family. Homeschooling is also a unique challenge when parents or children already struggle to maintain mental health. A first step toward preventing tragedies similar to my own would be access to dispassionate home education information and enactment of regulations that screen for high-risk families.
Until stories like mine cease to appear, influential organizations such as HSLDA owe such efforts to the wellbeing of these particularly vulnerable children.