meaningful, purposeful, substantial, essential, significant, worthwhile, relevant, important, consequential, valid
As we’ve looked at this month, coming to unschooling as adults is a fascinating journey. Chances are we’ll revisit our childhood and realize that play isn’t “just for kids.” We’ll discover that learning isn’t something you do in preparation for adulthood—at its best, it’s a lifelong activity. We’ll reawaken our curiosity, eagerly pursuing what we don’t yet know, rather than trying to hide our lack of understanding in shame.
So what’s left?
For me, it was to take my new perspective on learning and living and apply it to that other significant chunk of my life: work. Or more exactly, what I choose to do with my time, woven in with earning money for food, shelter, and the necessities—and joys—of life. Once we break away from the societal imperative of school, it’s not long before the “9-5 job to earn money to buy more things” paradigm comes under our scrutiny.
As the principles of unschooling begin to spread into every nook and cranny of our lives, we discover the joy and power of making our own choices. Of doing what is important to us, rather than what we’ve always been told to do. We begin to ask those questions of all areas of our lives. Is what we are choosing to do with our lives meaningful? Does it bring us a sense of purpose? If not, what will?
And we want to find the answer to that question. Now.
But here’s the challenge: that’s still conventional thinking clouding our thoughts, that there is a “right” answer. “What is my dream job?” The job that will bring fulfilment and meaning to my life and make every day a joy to get up and go to work. Not to mention the need for immediate gratification: “I need to figure out what my passion is asap.”
Another thing that might trip us up is that I think sometimes we conflate joy with ease. The work that brings us joy—a deep sense of purpose and meaning—may be some of the most challenging work we do.
One of the most significant things I’ve learned over the years is that I will grow and change. It dawned on me that making a different choice today does not mean that my earlier choice was wrong. And the awesome thing is, I learned this from watching my unschooling children live with the freedom of choice. I saw their choices change over time—yet each time it was the best choice for them in the moment. What happened was that their perspective, understanding, and/or goals changed over time.
And I realized this was just as applicable to me as it was to them. It’s a human thing, not a kid thing. Looking back, I saw my perspective, understanding, and goals changing over time. I wasn’t wrong before; things are different now. And projecting that understanding into the future, I realized that the choices I’m making today may not fit forever. That was a huge piece of the puzzle for me! It released some of the expectation and pressure on my current choices; they no longer have to be “the answer.” Changing my course doesn’t mean I failed. I was learning more about the world, and myself. It’s a journey, not a destination.
I love the idea of thinking of our lives as a body of work, and recently enjoyed reading Body of Work by Pamela Slim. Here’s her definition: “Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created.” (And as an aside, I smiled as I read her dedication, “And for my mom, who has taught me that cultivating a happy, healthy, secure family is a work of art, and a revolutionary act.”)
Let’s branch here. It’s pretty typical in unschooling families (ha!) for one adult to take on the day-to-day parenting and unschooling tasks while the other takes on a job to earn money. Both are work. Both are what we are choosing to do with our time. So now I’m going to talk about each of these roles. Granted, especially with unschooling families, the brilliant thing is that there can be all sorts of machinations around work: maybe both parents have jobs with alternating hours, taking turns at home; or maybe one or both parents work from home, or mostly from home; or there’s only one parent actively involved. Whatever a family’s approach, there will be some combination of these two roles.
the money-earning job role
I think one of the most helpful things to do when you start looking more deeply at this role, is to shift your perspective away from “have to” toward “choose to.” Like we shifted away from the conventional idea that “kids have to go to school.” Really, it’s a choice. We can think so much more clearly and creatively when we take back control. When we aren’t feeling trapped by circumstances.
For example, if you’re feeling trapped by your job, it can help to go to the extreme end of the spectrum for a little wake-up jolt: yes, your family probably has fixed expenses for shelter and food and transportation etc, but you’re choosing to stay, choosing to go to work. You could theoretically wake up and leave tomorrow. No? Still choosing to stay? Great!
With choice firmly back in play, next it can help to take a moment to think about the positives of the time you spend at your job. Enjoying the work itself is only one reason why a person might choose to work at a particular job. What are you getting out of your job? Are you learning new skills that will help you later in your career? Is the product or service provided by the company you work for satisfying a need of its customers? Can you see value in that? Are you earning money that supports your family? Can you see value in that?
Find the value in what you are doing now. It’s a great starting point when you’re searching for meaningful work. It gets you digging into your values, into your goals. You’re building a body of work. Look back and find the common threads that run through the different jobs and interests you’ve had up to now. What drew you to them? Those will be clues to help you define what is meaningful for you.
And going back to the idea of a “perfect” job, whether you want to work for yourself or someone else, I think that the search for “perfect” can paralyse us. Remember, it’s a journey. Take a step forward that seems to be in alignment with your goals and see what happens. Still look good? Take another step. Not so much? That’s not failure, it’s learning. (That’s what you tell your children, right? It applies to you too.) Change direction a bit.
Take small, meaningful actions and stay open to the possibilities. It’ll bring you more information to play with and help tease out the next step to help your work align with your goals. In my experience, after a couple of steps, we often discover something wonderful that we couldn’t even have imagined two steps back.
One other thing to note: there’s nothing wrong with choosing your most meaningful time to be when you’re away from your job. Maybe, at least right now, your job is a means to an end: it’s about earning money to support your family and enjoying the time you get to spend with them. Nothing wrong with that. The point is that it’s your choice.
By choosing an unschooling lifestyle you’ve already shown yourself to be an independent thinker, someone not tethered to convention for convention’s sake. Bring that creative and open perspective with you into the world of work.
the stay-at-home parenting and unschooling role
The at-home parent has likely done, or is in the midst of doing, a lot of soul-searching to be at peace with making what is currently a very unconventional choice: staying home to raise a family.
Before I left my job, I did a lot of soul searching, a lot of digging deep to truly understand what my goals in life were. Who was I without my job? And what was the job without me? Who was I if I didn’t have a nice, pat, and impressive answer to that ubiquitous question, “What do you do?” Were all those years at university “wasted”? Was I “throwing away” my degree? All those guilt-inducing phrases that get tossed around.
To summarize those many hours of turmoil, I came to see that just because I was changing course, didn’t mean those years down a different path were wasted. In fact, those experiences were tightly woven into the person I was today. The person who was now seeing leaving my job as a viable, and fantastic, choice for me and my family, one in alignment with my personal goals.
As I dug into my concept of work, I realized the measure of work is not salary. It’s in meeting my needs and goals. Actually, it’s meeting my family’s needs and goals. Earning money is not a goal in itself—money is a tool to help us meet our needs and goals.
And in the end, I realized that choosing to stay home and actively be a part of my children’s lives did not mean I “wasn’t working.” I am choosing to spend my time, energy, and talents being intimately involved in my children’s lives and learning—that is meaningful work.
And doing it well is my goal.
Remember above when I was talking about taking small, meaningful steps and staying open to the possibilities as you move toward aligning your work with your personal goals? That process works very well for the stay-at-home, unschooling-focused parent as well! And Sandra Dodd’s mantra just popped into my head: “Read a little, try a little, wait a while, watch.” Sound familiar? I love when these ideas mesh so well. Don’t rush, move forward with intention. Keep learning. Keep observing. Re-align your next steps to incorporate your new level understanding of your goals and ways you might meet them.
As my children have gotten older and parenting and unschooling take up less of my time, my meaningful work is morphing again—my body of work expanding. For example, here, with this blog. Unschooling has had a profound impact on my life, and sharing my thoughts and experiences surrounding unschooling with other people interested in exploring this lifestyle feels meaningful to me. And being open to the possibilities, through writing about unschooling I’ve unearthed a deep love for writing itself. Now I’m also starting to play with fiction. A few years ago I could hardly have imagined that. Did I mention it’s a journey? Definitely.
So how is your unschooling journey unfolding?