HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on September 2, 2013.
Several people have asked me about actually leaving my parents. It’s kind of hard to explain exactly what happened, because there was not one day when I decided to leave.
When I was 16, I was still attending a conservative church with my parents. In my family we were still expected to wear head coverings all the time, but the church we attended only expected them in churches. So in December of 2004 (when I was 16) I decided to stop wearing one at all – to me you either follow that verse 100% or not at all, and I wasn’t going to be the only one. I also secretly purchased jeans and changed into them on rare occasions when I was allowed out with church friends.
The summer of 2005 around my 17th birthday, I went for a week to visit my very secular grandparents in another province. They asked me some questions about what I wanted to do for a career.
I had not been asked that question, as my destiny was to get married and be a homeschooling mom even though I didn’t want that.
My grandparents mentioned that I couldn’t go to university without a high school diploma, and explained that I probably couldn’t even get a GED with how little schooling I’d had. This was news to me since I’d always been told our way was the best way to do anything, but it had the ring of truth.
When I got home, I looked into schools. I found I needed to have parental signatures to attend at age 17, so I privately convinced and cajoled my mom to sign, which she did, although it is my belief that she thought I would give up. My father refused to sign when he found out, and no one told him my mom signed, and the school accepted one signature and none for the bus (as I recall) because by then my mom was too scared to sign anything else. What is confusing about this is that in the summer my father drove me to take an ACT test (useless in Canada) which seemed to encourage academia, but it was with a bunch of homeschoolers so maybe it was the in thing to do for homeschoolers.
Miraculously my parents did not physically prevent me from going to school on the first day, I think because they knew it would probably be noticed if I didn’t go after all the trouble to sign up and get placed into many different classes across all four high school grades. I was expected to wear dresses. That lasted for a few weeks, and then I pulled out the secret pants. My parents tried to force me to change but I refused, and I ran out to catch the bus in a whirlwind of shame.
I quickly made friends with Christian kids at school that were mostly my age, some a bit younger. Two friends I made were sisters, and I would go to their house sometimes for ‘homework projects’. We were on the same bus route so it was easy to do, and their parents drove me home if they asked.
I was invited by other friends to a youth group at a mainstream Pentecostal church. I asked my parents for permission and they said yes sometimes and no sometimes and sometimes would drive me and other times refused when it was too late to find another ride. This was about November.
During this time I opened up a bit to the family I mentioned above with the two sisters. Once at their house I mentioned how hopeless life was with my family and that I was very upset (I didn’t really know what depression was). They told their parents, and somehow I ended up staying at their house for the weekend and just never went home (about November or early December 2005). I know that their dad went to several meetings with my dad and his church friends, and the consensus from my dad’s angle was that at 17, CAS would not force me to return home and it was better not to get the police involved to try and get me back since I was too far gone in rebelliousness anyways, and CAS might take a hard look at seven younger children who were not attending school.
I was able to get a few things from my parents’ home, but my father didn’t waste any time to completely pack up my room, junking most of it and putting lots of my stuff into the damp garage. I basically started life over with the family, I continued going to school, getting decent grades, going to church and youth group, and spending time with friends.
I’ve never really talked publicly about this before, but I need to talk about mental health here. I believe that I spent my first 17 years in some kind of survival state of mind. When I got out and was living with another family, I experienced a whole different lifestyle. The parents worked and provided for the family. I had a few chores like some laundry and dishes, but my job as a student was to do school.
There was also this whole unconditional love bit, and for the most part the emotional state of others in the home was predictable.
Children got pats on the back for doing something well. There was a certain expectation for behaviour and no one really crossed it- it just wasn’t optional. There were no out of control behaviours, because they were taught how to behave when they were younger.
One big problem I had was that I was so used to being told no that I assumed that parents just said no to be nasty. I had to learn at 17, at home and at school, that some stuff was ok and other stuff wasn’t, and how to tell the difference. I had to learn in a flash how to use judgement because I was never taught that. My philosophy had just been ‘do whatever you need to do to stay out of trouble and try to enjoy life’. But in school and normal family life there are rules to follow so that you don’t violate the rights of others and everything runs smoothly.
I didn’t know that.
It was very hard on me to experience this “culture shock” and to realize how bad I was at relationships.
I had to go to grade 9 math, which I found very shameful. I didn’t know what the bells meant at school. I didn’t know how to share tasks at home. I realized I was very selfish after years of looking out for myself for all those years, and it was impossible to just switch that off when I was in an environment where there wasn’t too many people competing for too few resources. I also realized by comparison how chaotic, unreasonable and toxic my home environment had been. I didn’t know. And then it hit me that I still had siblings there.
It was a very difficult few years. I fell into depression for a while, but I somehow continued school because in this family school wasn’t optional so thankfully if you weren’t sick you went. The family also supported me in making regular calls to CAS over the next two years, so by the fall of 2006 my next brother and sister were enrolled in school at CAS’s recommendation, and the following fall my father was forced to leave the home by CAS for non-compliance and all the siblings were enrolled in school.
I also had many excellent teachers over my three years in high school who seemed to look for the good in students and were compassionate as long as I was trying. Between being granted some credits and earning the rest in three years, I graduated at 20 with a real diploma and I was given a plaque from the principal at commencement – a student leadership award. After graduating high school I was able to go to university and get both a BA and a post graduate degree in four years, and graduate from university on the Deans list.
I no longer have any kind of relationship with my father at all, and my relationship with my mother is complex, as do many of my siblings still live with her.
There is no one reason why I left. Obviously I had quite a bit of help, and there must have been a certain obstinate streak for me to seek out that help.
I have been free for 8 years now. It’s great.
So much of what you experienced is reminiscent of my own story, not in specifics as to leaving, but in the realm of how you had a hard time understanding that “No” wasn’t always said for pure meanness sake, that looking out only for yourself could be selfish at times etc.
That is the thing so hard to explain, that being homeschooled was in many ways the same for us all, but at the same time completely different for every single family. It is as if our experiences where all the different kinds of soups and stews in the world, in many ways they share the same characteristics (water or milk based, cooked in a pot etc. ) but they also are completely different in many of their ingredients.
But they are all still soup at the end of the day. Not cake, not casserole, but soup. What I mean to say is this, while nearly every single person I have ever talked to who was homeschooled had a different story as to HOW and WHY and WHERE they where homeschooled, nearly all of them suffered from EXACTLY the same problems I have suffered from.
Depression. A sense of not belonging anywhere. Problems with fitting in. etc. Different ingredients but never a balanced meal.
Interesting analogy, Greg. Yes it does seem that there are some common threads in many homeschool grads’ stories, and I think it’s terrible that something is being ‘done to’ children that they have to recover from and overcome. I’m not saying all homeschooling is bad, but many people I know who were homeschooled now view it as something to be overcome.
I love your soup analogy! Saving it for future use.
Thank you for sharing your story! I am so happy for you!