“A person who teaches goodness to others while neglecting his own soul is like an oil lamp, which illumines others while burning itself out.” – Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) At Tirmidhi
Giving ourselves personal space to develop God-consciousness and self-awareness is a very Big Girl thing to do. Ironically, once we resolve to become grown up we have acquired so many duties, however joyful they may be, that personal space is deemed a luxury instead of a nutrient. Just a few months ago personal space was not part of my life. I was homeschooling my ten-year old son alongside my kindergartener, plus chasing after my two year old and keeping house. I was resentful which was not very big girlish of me.
The story goes like this: when a mama raises children it is called motherhood, but when a mama homeschools her children it is called motherhood on steroids. (It’s just a joke, and I’m covered by the “unorthodox humor” disclaimer on my About page.)
Folks who find out that I homeschool my kids say roughly the same thing: “I just don’t know how you do it! I know I couldn’t do THAT.” This can mean one of two things.
If another mama gives you this line with her hand on her hip that is code for: I don’t believe anyone can do it, including you! This is true, especially if the next declaration concerns how anointed her kids are because they’ve all tested into elite classes and how much she just, “loves, LOVES, their school!!!” Meanwhile I’d be saying to myself (hand on hip), that thar’ is a bonafide smarty pants! Then, I’d feel so pitiful and petty for fussing up my emotions like that instead of feeling plain old tickled-pink for her brood.
Now, if a mama gives you this line with her hand on her heart, then she really does think you are a saint and she only wishes you the very best. In that case, I’d wish to pour my heart out: tell her how strung out I felt, how exhausted I was, how insecure, and how scared I was to choose otherwise. I wanted to confess that it really is miserable to be potty-training one minute, critiquing a writing assignment the next minute, only to turn around and pretend to eat ‘princess cupcakes.’ Yuck! I’d want to fess up that the thought of waking up in the morning to be mama/teacher for the long haul depressed me to no end. I just wanted to tell her how friggin’ resentful I was. But, instead, I’d just give her some feeble, self-depreciating line like a good, little girl does and go about my day.
I wasn’t always resentful; most of the time, in fact, I was not. More often the satisfaction of being able to provide personalized lessons in a wholesome environment was highly motivating. In addition, I was learning along side my eldest on a wide array of subject matter so it was intellectually stimulating. What is even better, I live in an area where there are a plethora of resources and organizations to support homeschoolers, and homeschooling is not exactly the third rail. There are museums galore and it seems that all of them have a special event set aside for homeschoolers, or a series of classes catered to providing them with a hands-on multi-sensory experience.
Not only that, but I participate in a well-organized homeschool co-op with other families where my children take classes that indulge a range of their extracurricular interests. Even better, the co-op mothers are some of my closest friends and our children share a deep bond. That’s not all; a parent where I live need not strictly homeschool every subject. From science to history to writing courses – there are many series advertised at community colleges and centers which cater to homeschoolers. Minus the end of school year burn-out, homeschooling is mostly a sweet life.
The crisis I encountered was not homeschooling, per se, but balancing my eldest son’s educational foot-path with that of his younger brother and sister. Complicating life further was the fact that I was not using a prefab curriculum; rather, I was tailoring every subject with a special set of resources to try to offer the best mix. Everyday was an obstacle course, but not a course that one could study ahead of time; rather, it was a surprise obstacle course every day – no fail.
Younger children are less predictable in terms of their health and emotions which is why I never knew when I’d get surprised with a feverish child, one throwing a temper-tantrum, or simply one just wanting to squat down and play blocks with me for a while, just for the heck of it. While on one hand my adolescent excelled on structure, on the other hand, my younger children needed me to be more flexible. I was succeeding only by waking up everyday and performing lunatic acrobatics. As a result, my oil lamp was extinguished. For the first time in my life the only thing I could passionately identify with was the common phrase: going through the motions.
Strangely (and clearly a symptom of my condition) it wasn’t the fact that I was miserable that caused me to quit, it was the fact that my son was no longer motivated to study. School was drudgery. He started making careless mistakes on his work and the only clever edge he demonstrated was in trying to get out of assignments.
In retrospect I realize that the reason my son was no longer motivated to study was that I was no longer motivated to teach. My attitude had become infectious and malignant. The obstacle course I was running was stunting my spiritual growth because all of my resources were going just to running it. At the point when my light extinguished, and every day thereafter, I was of no benefit to my family besides taking care of their physical needs. Though I wanted to impart goodness; indeed, the very idea of it kept me on this blistering course, I simply could not succeed because I hadn’t been feeding my soul.
However terminal my condition, in the thickness of it I couldn’t sober up to the reality that no amount of tinkering was going to fix the problem. I felt guilty that I just couldn’t make it work and my guilt was shrinking my sense of empowerment to try something different and trust in Allah (SWT). It did not occur to me that my oil lamp had burned out. Didn’t it have some kind of auto-burn option!? Didn’t good intentions light it? If my ideas and my goals were so right, why did it feel so wrong? Why was it so unfair?! How come some women could do it and I couldn’t? Why couldn’t I just be more like sister so and so? How come my kids couldn’t just be more like her kids?! Maybe this is really my test in life; I need to keep a positive attitude and all will be well. Why can’t I keep a positive attitude for more than one stinkin’ hour!!??
I could only answer these questions after lightening some of my load and looking back on my circumstance. At the point when my oil lamp ceased to incandesce, I could scarcely remember that it once functioned, much less locate the means to light it again. My condition was so severe that it was not the loss of light which caused me to initiate a radical change, rather it was an event which happened outside of me to cause that shift.
The fact that my son was no longer motivated to learn, of which I had tangible proof in the form of his written work- indeed, something out side of myself, made me sober up to the reality that would ultimately save myself. I picked up the phone, called my husband at work, blind with tears and said: “Baby, it’s time to outsource one of the kids.”
He immediately went into daddy-mode- enumerating the means and logistical steps to execute the outsource. Meanwhile, my alarm and skepticism grew under the impression that we were about to ship our eldest off to Kathmandu. What made it especially hard were the pleas of my son who was adamant that he wanted to continue homeschooling with his friends.
Armed with conviction, I steam-rolled the process of getting him enrolled. I made my first stop at a private school run out of our local mosque. I already knew mothers there, and best of all, my friend and former homeschool mom taught at the school. My heart sank when they told me there were no spots available. No mind, I got back in the car determined to go to the public school, which boasts a very good reputation. Two of our neighbors send their children there and since they are all sweet-natured, I was hopeful.
The grounds of the school were very tidy; as soon as I walked into the building on the left was a large, colorful display of a world map with a fanciful marker on every country to note all the places in the wide world where the attending students come from. A quick scan put my heart at ease that my son would not be the only Muslim there. Then, I walked into the front office and proceeded to wait in line. Naturally, no one gave me the familiar, warm welcome of “Asalaamu’Alaikum,” peace be upon you. Actually, I didn’t even get a hello, which is understandable given the busy mass in the office. As time passed it did feel a bit like the DMV, only much cleaner and without any Mountain Dew.
While waiting our turn, my two-year old started flailing because he thought we were in a pediatrician’s office and said he didn’t “want to get shots!” This scene, however embarrassing, did invite them to process me faster. They gave me a shiny stack of papers to fill out and sent me on my way. I asked if there was anyone I could talk to just to answer a couple of questions about the school’s pedagogy and policies, but they reminded me that I would need to first fill out those shiny papers.
I left and went home to do what any aspiring Big Girl would do. I set my kids down to a kid-flick in the basement, proceeded to my bedroom, called a good girlfriend, sat on the edge of my bed and loudly sobbed over the phone. She said she’d come over later, but in the meantime I needed to chill out. The next morning I received a call from the private school that they would be able to squeeze our son in after all. After a prayer of istikhara (special prayer when facing indecisiveness) my husband and I decided to enroll our son in the private school. On the first day, we were all restless and scared, but it did have the edge of making us feel like we were merely outsourcing him to his cousin’s house for the day.
Our son made a relatively easy transition to school and, academically, he has excelled so far. Even better, I see his old ways coming back to him – that of getting excited about his subjects and crafting his own questions. He claims that he wants to return to homeschooling next fall, but he is just as likely to look forward to an upcoming project or period at school. I am still teaching my kindergartener and find that I enjoy homeschooling as much as before. I feel my lamp rekindling a little more each day.
A major life lesson I learned on my way to becoming a Big Girl, was to never wed myself to an idea so passionately that I starve my soul in the process. It is not that I must put my needs before others; it is that I need to prioritize my missions.
When duty calls, I must interrogate my own persuasions to determine what relevancy they have juxtaposed to my daily pursuit to live courageously and authentically as a true servant of my Creator, and in proximity to my Lord. If I cannot truly seep into the pursuit of closeness to The Most Loving (Al-Wadud); if I can only speak of it to my children, whilst hibernating in the cloistered cave of my lofty ideas, then I am useless to them. My light will have gone out and they will, eventually, find no place near me to keep warm and seek sustenance for their own journey.
The resolve to Be a Big Girl is a stranger odyssey than I ever imagined. It is sprinkled with mirages, no doubt. When I’ve mastered my thirst to the point that I no longer cry out for water…when I should be forgotten, at once, large founts of crystal clear liquid burst out, and I am brought back to my center. I remember the spiking, levitating stabs of thirst, which are remarkably more comforting than the narcotic of my former state.
Alhamdulilah. All Praise Be to God.