PAM: Hello everyone, I’m Pam Laricchia from LivingJoyfully.ca and today I am here with Melissa. Hi, Melissa!
PAM: It is so wonderful to have you on the show. As a little introduction, Melissa is an unschooling mom to her eight-year-old son, she blogs at Single Mom Unschooling as well as maintaining the Single Mom Unschooling Facebook page. I really enjoyed the glimpses into their lives that she shares.
I am looking forward to chatting with you, Melissa, about your experience unschooling as a single parent.
To start us off can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you discovered unschooling?
MELISSA: Sure. I was born and have lived in the Midwestern United States my entire life. I went away to college to be a teacher because I got the opportunity in high school to work with some first-grade students and I enjoyed it so much, watching those little minds just soak up everything they could. I wanted to do that. So, I got my teaching certificate and I worked in schools. I have worked as a camp counselor, a lot of different experiences working with children. I have enjoyed it a lot.
I was a little later to the game becoming a mom. I do have a son who has definitely given me a lot of reasons to do some research. He is super active and challenging and intelligent, and strong-willed at times. So, I started to see things. Even when I was pregnant and doing research, I hit on attachment parenting which seems to really resonate with me.
I looked into homeschooling because, well I was a teacher, so it seemed logical that I would teach my own child. But then I discovered unschooling through all this attachment parenting reading that I was doing. It made so much sense.
It was all about trusting this little person that you were caring for and following their lead and fulfilling their individual needs and that made so much sense to me. I pretty much decided probably before he was born that was what we were going to do.
PAM: Awesome. As people know it was a long time before I discovered homeschooling and unschooling. Even the phrase attachment parenting, although it seemed to kind of describe what I was drawn to.
But really—I was talking about this earlier today with Joseph—there is a whole shift. Like when you first discover you are pregnant and when your child arrives the whole mothering aspect and that attachment connection and bond was something that really surprised me in how powerful it was. Right?
MELISSA: Oh yes.
PAM: That was amazing.
I was wondering what was it about unschooling specifically that inspired you to choose it as a lifestyle, was it mostly that bond and that trust, that relationship piece?
MELISSA: I think so. A lot of it was my son was born a mover and a shaker and I got to witness from the very beginning how he would push the envelope as far as exploring his environment. The ways he would use is his body and the curiosity of just everything. He wanted to know everything. I enjoyed fostering that so much.
Learning to kind of step back and just watch his reactions. Unschooling made so much sense in that exercise because that is essentially what you are doing those first few years anyways is unschooling if you break it down.
PAM: If you decide to unschool just from you know, attachment parenting, living together, being with them, following their cues and their curiosity and the things they want to do. Your days really do not change much, do they? You just don’t send them to school.
PAM: That ties in nicely with the picture that you recently posted on your Facebook page, which I love. It was a picture of a cake that your son had made and with it you wrote, “It was tasty, especially for winging it, he loves to cook this way and it has been a great lesson for me in stepping back and allowing the learning to happen. Baking is my thing and I like to follow recipes until I get the hang of things. For him I believe it is more of a science experiment mentality.”
That choice to step back and give our child the space to explore and to let things unfold in their own way is pretty key to unschooling, isn’t it?
MELISSA: It is huge.
I think that is why a lot of people have such a hard time with it. We as adults can struggle with letting go our ego and our attitude of knowing better. We want to teach and impart what we believe is this knowledge that we have. If you give them that freedom to look at a situation from their own perspective, sometimes they are going to learn something completely different than what you would have taught them. It becomes so much more meaningful for them. They are in the driver’s seat, they take initiative of it. It sticks with you, it really does.
Most of the things I remember well from my childhood are the things that I looked into or that were interesting to me. It is funny I just had that conversation with my son a couple of days ago about the things that I learned as a child that I am still interested in. It was because I took ownership of it.
PAM: That makes such a big difference, doesn’t it? You are right. I found that was on of the biggest “aha” moments for me, but it is also one of the challenges too because it is so easy to want to jump in because we want to support them, we want to help them.
You want to jump in and say, “Oh, what about this?” And you don’t want them to miss this connection or that connection. But when we jump in and do it, we kind of take it over. We really do not know what direction their mind was going, what kind of connections they were going to make.
MELISSA: And baking is a hard one because it has always been something I really enjoy and he loves it too but in a completely different way. It is all about, “Oh, I will throw this ingredient in and this ingredient in and we will see what happens.” (laughs)
PAM: Yes, I know, I love that.
It has been interesting too because Joseph has been interested for a while in cooking and doing more cooking in general. And some other experiments, he has got an experiment with a couple of different meads brewing. He has been making some soups, so it has been really interesting to watch him because he has always been, I guess, maybe more of a perfectionist tendency.
He kind of wants to know that things are going to work out—he is definitely a recipe follower. So, it is just so interesting to see how the different learning personalities pursue their interest. He was looking for particular recipes and then we went through them and figured out the supplies that would be needed. And he is measuring things exactly and we are talking about some substitutions and trying to get those measurements.
And his brother is more will throw this together, will throw this together. It is something that has been a progression in my cooking and baking that has happened over the years. I was always “follow the recipe, follow the recipe,” and now, with more experience, I’m more comfortable throwing in substitutions and changing up even just flavors for things that I know we like. But it is just so fascinating when you let them take it over. You can see the way they like to approach their learning, can’t you?
MELISSA: Yes. And I have learned a lot from him in that regard.
PAM: It is so interesting, isn’t it? I have learned so much more freedom too in the way that I approach things, and even approach my days, just from watching them. They are just so much more willing to try things out and they are okay with them going wrong, where as I am still feeling, “Oh crap, I did something wrong, it is a mistake, that is horrible.”
PAM: Even when they have different methods you know, if they like to follow recipes or directions or they like to play around and experiment, either way they are still willing to play around and do it and not worry so much about what happens in the end. Because they know they are learning. That is so much fun!
You have shared online that you work as nanny so I was wondering if you could share some of the reasons behind that choice.
MELISSA: I was working as a nanny when I got pregnant and the family was very supportive of me coming back to work and bringing him with me and that seemed to solve all sorts of problems so I was really excited about that. When he came back to work with me he was three weeks old in a wrap and he has come to work with me ever since. I enjoy working with kids so it was an optimal job in that regard. It is also very supportive of this unschooling journey that we have been on.
He has been able to come to work with me. We haven’t had to worry about childcare and in true unschooling fashion it is basically living as if school does not affect us. Him coming to work with me is just basically the same thing as staying at home all day. He is in someone’s home, he is playing with his toys or whatever is age appropriate at that time.
Each family has pretty much accepted him as part of their family. He has got to experience a lot of differently family dynamics and different family cultures. It has been really awesome that I have had a way to make a living and still spend that time with him and support him with what he wants to learn or what he wants to do that day.
PAM: You were originally nannying before you got pregnant with him, so, were you finding nannying to be nice? Because you had your teaching certificate, right?
What took you from your teaching certificate into nannying?
MELISSA: I had moved and taken a teaching job in a daycare and I was helping this family that I started nannying for by filling in some gaps for them in care that they needed. When the daycare would close, I would take their children home. They thought about it and realized that it might just be easier to have me as their nanny in their home. They had transportation and they didn’t have to worry about getting to the daycare by a certain time. So, that is how and why I made the switch.
PAM: That is really cool. Yes, that makes sense what a cool transition, just a way that that worked out even better for both you and them. And you just kind of fell into it.
MELISSA: Yes. There were some definite perks to it because you know, when you are in a school or in a daycare setting you can’t go anywhere unless it is a scheduled thing. Where when you are nannying, if you want to go to the park that day and it is nice you can go to the park. I love that kind of freedom.
There were some other things, since I wasn’t a mom yet and the nanny job afforded me some other freedoms. I did some online classes while someone was napping and things like that so.
PAM: It can be so much more responsive to the kid’s individual needs, right? Rather than them being in a more institutional environment where you have a larger group and things need to be more organized.
PAM: You’ve talked a little bit about bringing your son with you.
I was wondering if you could dive a little bit more into how you weave unschooling and your work together. Like, does your son bring stuff that he is interested in with him when you go to your family?
MELISSA: Yes. We pack things. Pretty much every family we work with we’ve packed at least at a bag of whatever he is interested in and it is probably our biggest difference from other unschooling families who spend most of their days at home, or at least have access to their homes during the day.
There is more planning involved if there is something he is interested in that is a project we want to work on, we have decide ahead of time whether we are going to do it at our house or we are going to do it at work. Some projects are big and messy or take a longer time and they are more conducive to doing at our home, so we have to choose when we do those.
He also has to think a little bit ahead what he is going to want to do the next day. He has gotten older so that is more of his responsibility at this point, to pack things that are interesting for him. I have packed bags of things that I hoped or thought he might be interested in. Sometimes that was successful, sometimes not.
Depending on the household that we are in, they may have more or less toys or activities or things that he is interested in also. Last family we worked with had an infant so they only had rattles and little baby toys so there was nothing there that he was really interested in. It required a lot more packing.
Then as far as our day at work, he calls it his work too. He has done this his whole life and he understands the alternative. He chooses this instead of going to school. So, he helps out as he wants. He helped out a lot with that infant and it was good for him to learn about changing diapers and about bottles and things he had not experienced yet.
We have to work around other people’s schedules. His needs do not always come first and that is okay. As an only child, I kind of like that he has that for those 40 hours a week because he is not the only child. He has had to wait and prioritize. We have to give the baby a bottle right now, well you are going to wait to read that book or whatever. It is how we kind of how we work around the family’s schedule.
PAM: It is nice that he knows that this is his choice, right? He is choosing to accommodate or be involved in that work. That is so cool that he calls it his work too. That he is participating in the income that you guys are making for you to live with. And he knows that he has the option of school but this is his choice.
It sounds like it would help him see better that it is his choice and that figuring out ways to work with that environment and figuring out ways, as you said, to do his projects and fit them around the people and the schedule and that kind of stuff. That sounds like it is really cool for him.
MELISSA: Yes. It was nice with that family in particular how during nap time we scheduled in some one-on-one time because babies are so much more labor intensive and they need you to focus on them, so would take these opportunities to focus on them. We would take those opportunities to do some read-alouds to balance that whole connection when I’m taking care of someone else’s children for so many hours of the day.
Finding those times where it is just us or where we can balance you know, some alone time. Maybe giving him a little hot chocolate when he is allowed or something fun to connect before I would need to pay more attention to their child. That was helpful and has really been more my learning experience than his. (laughs)
PAM: That is true. Actually, we talked about that recently like on the last Q&A call how not looking for, or not feeling like we need to have, big swaths of time for these connections. These connecting moments can just be smaller snippets of the day.
And it depends on if there, I think the comment was that because there were younger children or maybe a baby, that you know they had to take care of and that you didn’t have to try and arrange things for big moments for either with a spouse or with other children, or with whomever, that you can really connect and enjoy moments that are shorter and just maybe more often throughout the day. Yes, that was interesting.
Could you share with us one of your biggest challenges around unschooling as a single mom and how you worked or continue to work through it?
MELISSA: My biggest challenge is not looking at everybody else who is doing it. Especially since I am online so much now with Instagram and Facebook and it is so immediate with seeing what other people are doing throughout the day.
To not compare our situation, ours is different and to let go of the focus on other people and be excited about what we are doing, not, “Oh, the grass is always greener on the other side and I wish I could be at home with my son and we could be doing that.”
It is not necessarily that the grass is always greener it is just different. My biggest challenge working and unschooling is not comparing. But I think the biggest reason that I started looking for more of an online community and I started my blog and I started reaching out to people was because I saw other people who were having similar challenges to mine.
Mostly moms that I have talked to that have been in situations where they didn’t know how they could possibly do unschooling or homeschooling as a single parent and trying to work and balance it all. So, my way of, I guess, bringing it back around so that I am not feeling envious, is doing this so that I am giving hope to other people that may be in these kinds of situations. And showing them it can be done. It is not bad, it really is not, it is actually a lot of fun to be able to work and to be with my son all day and to help him with his learning. That is how I have balanced it out.
PAM: You make a great point about not comparing ourselves because it can be so easy to get overwhelmed when you go online and see what other homeschooing or unschooling families are doing and what they are up to and you know maybe what their kids are up to and stuff and it can be so easy to get caught up in that and start judging our own situations and our own children.
That really does get in the way of us clearly seeing and supporting our own kids where they are. That is why I talk so much about understanding the principles and ideas behind unschooling, but that it is going to look very different for each family, isn’t it?
PAM: I love that you are sharing little bits of your life online because that is one of the huge questions I have had people ask me. Can you have a single unschooling parent come and talk?
Because when you first hear about it, it can be hard to imagine. That one could figure out a way to unschool while being a single parent and I think you are a great example of a way. It does not make it look easy or anything, but unschooling isn’t. When you are enjoying it and you are, it is an effort. It is a choice to do something besides school, and you are doing a great job of bringing that together.
MELISSA: It certainly has been a challenge this last year but we have gotten stronger because of it. That is the silver lining.
PAM: Yes, I know. I think that is another piece that comes up too when people are choosing unschooling. When they first read about it they think it sounds just beautiful, and like, “What a perfect kind of lifestyle.”
But it’s life really, it is real life and stuff happens in life all the time and it is about being available to live that with our children and figure it out together rather than this pretty picture that people can imagine.
MELISSA: My son is very aware of some of the challenges that we have had but he has also got to see how I overcome those and that, to me, is huge. That is a bigger learning experience I think sometimes than, you know, sitting down learning math problems because that is something that will serve him really well in his life, learning how to overcome challenges.
PAM: Yes. Challenges are always going to be parts of our lives, aren’t they?
Last question, I was hoping you could share what one of your favorite parts is about unschooling with your son.
MELISSA: I shared this question with him too so that he can give me a little bit of perspective. He has given me this answer, or similar answer, other times. What I love most about unschooling is the time we get to spend together. It has really made for a kind of intimacy that I would not have had otherwise. Our jokes and his learning and just our lives together. They are so much more intimate because I know where the jokes come from or the video that he watched or where that funny little story came from that he is telling.
I love that I get to see all of his seasons. I am not missing out on several hours during each day. He said that because he chooses unschooling he does not just get to see me at breakfast and for a couple of hours at the end of the day. That is, that is our favorite part it is really the quality time that we get to spend together everyday.
He understands because he seen other households where the kids get up, they eat their breakfast and they zoom out the door and then they get to see mom or dad for few hours until the end of the week. To him, he can not imagine that being the case. I sound like I am tooting my own horn but he really enjoys the time he gets to spend with me, otherwise he would choose to go to school.
PAM: Wow, I never thought of it that way, but it is true. He does get to see both ends of the spectrum, doesn’t he, with the families that you guys are in with and caring for their children during the day.
PAM: I love the word that you used, intimacy, because it is such a more intimate relationship that we get to have with our children, isn’t it? I love the bit about understanding where the jokes come from and the comments because you have seen all the little things that they have come in contact with during the day. That is one of my favorite things because you can see all the connections that have come together to this moment.
MELISSA: That is exactly it, when all the pieces fit together. Yes, that is really fun.
PAM: Well thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Melissa! Before we go where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
PAM: I’ll be sure to have links in the show notes for all those different places and thank you so much for your time today and thanks very much for sharing your experiences with unschooling as a sing parent online. Thank you and have a great day.
MELISSA: Thank you so much for having me and you too.