A Creeping Sense of Distance: Nastia’s Story

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Nastia” is a pseudonym.

I knew from a very young age what I wanted to do with my life. “I want to be on obstetrician,” I would tell anyone who would listen. At three years old, it was baffling to me that at least half the adults I met had no idea what that was. “It’s a doctor who delivers babies!” I would tell them, “Like Daddy!” The profession runs in my family. My grandfather and great-grandfather were both OB/GYNs, and my great-grandmother was a midwife. And yet, I have never felt pressured by others to take up the “family business.” It is purely my decision to pursue this path.

I had a rather unusual upbringing in this way. I come from a conservative evangelical family, but my parents are well-educated and open-minded, and they wanted nothing more than for me to be happy and successful.

While for many, “homeschooling” has an emphasis on the “home,” my parents put the emphasis on “school.”

That I was going to college was not up for debate; every step we took was made with the goal of stretching my mind, teaching me how to reason, preparing me for a lifetime of learning and a professional career. At the same time, they pushed me to pursue my own passions and dreams. I had a say in my own curriculum and was allowed to explore any subject I found interesting. While this may sound like an undisciplined teaching style, it kept me at least two grades ahead of my age in every subject and taught me to be self-motivated and proactive about my education.

That mindset was the best thing that I could have learned in preparation for higher education. At age sixteen, I entered community college through an early-entrance program in my state. This program allows students to complete their junior and senior years of high school through the college for free. My parents were hugely relieved that I would be able to earn my high school diploma and get real transcripts before applying to university.

I loved college. My transition was the easiest it could possibly have been. I excelled in my classes and quickly accumulated a diverse and quirky group of friends. Sure, college was a lot of work. I was taking twenty-one credits every quarter in order to finish all the pre-med requirements and earn an Associate’s Degree in Chemistry. There were ups and downs, sleepless nights, and failed experiments. But I had expected that, and my time management skills, self-discipline, and eagerness to learn benefited me enormously. Through diligence, the entire endeavor was highly successful. My confidence and enthusiasm soared.

But I soon found that going to school wasn’t the hardest part.

That came when I had to deal with the backlash of my (and my parents’) academic choices from a variety of different people.

The first came from my aunt, with whom I’ve never gotten along. A vehement socialist (and incidentally, a community college English teacher), she is viciously anti-homeschool, and it was clear from the beginning that she wanted me to fail in college to prove a point to my parents. When it was obvious that I was succeeding, she tried to tear me down emotionally, telling me that I was going to get sick because I was working too hard, that I had a mental disorder causing me to be a workaholic, and that success in school wasn’t worth my time because there was no way I could be successful in the real world.

That hurt, but as my relationship with her had always been a bit antagonistic, I turned it into a motivating factor. My goal became proving her wrong.

The pushback I received from homeschooled families in my church was much less motivating and much more painful. This didn’t really start until I applied and was accepted into a highly-ranked university, directly into the competitive Bio-engineering program.

In the view of many mothers especially, that was the point where I sold out, where I gave up my soul.

Going to community college, where I was living at home and going to school in a smaller, more job-like environment was acceptable. Entering university, where I would be in a co-ed dormitory with non-Christian students and exposing my mind to science and philosophy, was the equivalent of surrendering the battle for my soul. And it was difficult and depressing to deal with that because I was and still am very much a Christian.

The strange thing about it was that the criticism was never overt – it was a vague sum of micro-agressions, a creeping feeling of distance and disapproval that built up over time and poisoned my (albeit not-close) friendships with many homeschoolers in my church. I have a hard time pointing to clear examples, because the gradual alienation was caused by attitudes more than words or actions. I’m not even sure why I felt so hurt by it; I had never felt like I was a part of the “Christian Homeschool Culture.” My closest friends were actually homeschooled kids I met through music, not through my church. I never went to co-ops or conventions, never used A Beka or Bob Jones; I was always an outsider looking in on a culture that was as foreign to me as was the culture of public school. All the same, I had never felt so isolated as I did when I went to university.

I guess I had expected those I had always considered “my people” to be more accepting of me, even proud of me. That was the myth I had told myself growing up – that the homeschooling families in my church were “my people,” even though I was always outside their cliques, and that the reason I was always ahead of them academically was because I was simply smarter or my parents were better teachers. I was naïve; I thought we had similar lifestyles and values. And now here I was, succeeding in the world, spreading my light in the darkness. Isn’t that what those same families had taught me in Sunday School? That I didn’t even have to necessarily talk about Christ all the time – I just had to let my actions speak for themselves? I thought my honest and hard-won success, my healthy friendships, and my clean lifestyle made me a godly example. Instead, I was dismissed. People didn’t talk to me, or would abruptly end conversations when they heard what university I was at or what I was studying.

Previously-friendly parents would look at me critically and tell me things like, “Well, that’s not what God has in store for my daughter.”

That I was in STEM made it even worse, it seemed.

My parents were not immune to this stigma, and I think one of the most telling instances was when my mother was asked to speak at a monthly “Homeschool Moms’ Night,” when the subject of discussion was “Homeschooling Through High School and What Comes Next.” It was run by a sweet lady who has a very different homeschooling approach than my family does. Still, she wanted to showcase the range of options available to parents of younger kids.

Each of five women gave a speech, and then other moms were told to strike up a conversation with whoever seemed to match their own philosophy. Out of forty people, my mom had one person who wanted to talk to her, a woman from Hong Kong who didn’t like the state of American schools and was relieved that homeschooling could provide a more rigorous and comprehensive path. The other moms completely ignored her. I remember the rejection in her voice as she recounted the story to me. These were people she considered friends, but they completely dismissed her when she spoke passionately about helping her children make the most of their talents and aspirations.

After this, a small piece of a baffling puzzle fell into place for me.

Maybe my mother’s goal was not shared by others the way I had always assumed. Maybe the reason that nearly all the homeschooled girls my age were not going to college was something more than the fact that they just weren’t “ready” or weren’t “book-smart people.” Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that the few who were pursuing higher education were going to community colleges or the tiny local Christian university aligned with our denomination; nobody was going to a secular university or anywhere out of state. It wasn’t an isolated instance that a girl decided to take up babysitting instead of going to college – it was widespread. It became normal to see friends drop out of college before taking a single class, or decide to live at home rather than stay in the dormitory; “she’s scared,” was always the chuckled explanation. It was commonplace to hear about another girl whose main goal of going to a barely-accredited Christian school was to find a husband and become a homeschooling mother.

This is an institutional problem, I realized.

It is still not clear to me whether parents are actively discouraging college for their daughters in particular, or whether the daughters are internalizing the idea that education would corrupt their hearts and minds and distract them from their duty of being wives and mothers. It had never occurred to me that this type of pressuring was occurring, as this is not the mindset of the majority of (non-homeschooling) people in my church. It is certainly not the doctrine that my well-educated and highly-rational pastor holds to. Yet, as I learn more about fundamentalism and about the situations of particular families, I am starting to put the pieces together. Talking with my mom now, there’s a reason that I was never put into co-ops and never used typical homeschooling resources. She realized what this sect was about long ago and tried to shield me from it.

For this reason – strangely – going to university broadened my perspective in yet another way; by putting me firmly on the outside, it gave me a clearer picture of the culture that surrounded me growing up, and an appreciation for how masterfully my parents handled my education. I will be eternally grateful for the unique opportunity they created for me and the generous support they constantly offered (and still offer) in continuing my education.

As for improving the cultural environment for college-bound homeschoolers, I’m not entirely sure what needs to be done, nor what one individual can possibly do. I realize that not everyone is cut out for higher education, and respect the right of families to pursue their own homeschooling path. However, the fact that I am an anomaly in my engineering school (because I was homeschooled) and an anomaly in my homeschool cohort (because I am an engineer) is very telling about the dichotomy that has grown between the academic and Christian communities.

It’s not a healthy divide, as the mistrust between the two groups makes understanding and progress extraordinarily difficult.

I’ve also grown to see that despite the opinions of many in the Christian homeschooling community, gender equality has not been achieved.

“Equal but different” is not good enough; there is still much work that needs to be done in providing the same education and career opportunities to women as are provided to men.

This by nature cannot be a policy issue, but a cultural reform. Parents must be honest with themselves when examining their daughters’ goals, and provide the necessary mental and emotional support for whatever path they are drawn to. It’s not logical to assume that a woman’s only contribution should be in the home, nor is it Biblical.

I’m not sure yet what it will take to bridge that chasm between Christians and academia, or the division between girls’ aspirations and their parents’ ideals. I’m not sure yet what it will take to change homeschoolers’ minds about science, higher education, and a woman’s place in both.

However, as a problem-solver by nature, rest assured that I will be trying, and I hope that some of you may join me.

My Father, An Enigma

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on November 21, 2013

“Libby, you could be an engineer. You have the mind for it.”

My dad made this comment while we were in the car, driving by a factory of some sort. I was probably around sixteen. My dad’s comment was completely offhand, and I didn’t bother to respond. Inside, though, I was baffled.

Why would my dad suggest such a thing?

Didn’t he realize that my lot in life, the lot God had designed for me, was to be a homemaker, raising children, caring for my husband, and tending the home? Couldn’t he see that engineering was not even remotely related to homemaking, and that if I were going to learn a trade it should be something feminine like teaching or nursing?

Why would he even suggest that I could be an engineer? It made no sense!

I wrote recently about something similar regarding my mother. I grew up seeing that Above Rubies magazine on the counter, in mom’s bedroom, or on the stool in the bathroom, and I myself read it voraciously. It was clearly approved reading material, and I never heard my parents contradict it or disagree with it, so I assumed that my parents believed everything in it. I adopted its beliefs myself, and it shaped my conception of myself as a woman and my dreams for my future. And yet, my mother told me several months ago that she had never believed everything in that magazine.

I had had no idea.

Every so often I am reminded of my father’s offhand comment and I am bothered. When I was growing up, I was immersed in the literature of the Christian homeschooling movement and was surrounded by the patriarchal ideas I found there. These ideas shaped my understanding of the world and the trajectory of my life. But did I miss something? Did my father not actually hold all of these beliefs?

Did he honestly think that being an engineer would have been a perfectly legitimate life choice for me?

The mothers and fathers of my parents generation of homeschooling had no idea what it was like to grow up homeschooled in the Christian homeschooling communities they saw as so safe and godly. They may not have realized how deeply we children were imbibing and embracing ideas the that flowed through the Christian homeschooling movement—ideas they may not always have agreed with. Perhaps our parents took many of these things with a grain of salt—but if they did, unless they were vocal about this we had no way of knowing it. And so we believed.

As for my father, I honestly cannot say for sure. When I was in college and things started going haywire, he very clearly expected me to obey him, and very clearly believed that he was my male authority and that I was bound by God to submit to him. But was this perhaps simply the way he responded in his fear of losing me? How deeply did he actually hold those ideas? At the time, I took his reaction as confirmation that he bought into the entire slate of patriarchal beliefs that so characterized the Christian homeschooling world of my childhood and youth.

Now, I’m not so sure.

Now, I wonder.