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Even in the best of circumstances, being a homeschool mom requires giving yourself lots of grace, right? But when you also struggle with depression, you need it even more. At least I know I do.
I’ve dealt with depression since high school and have been treated for it off and on since then. When I told my friends and family that I wanted to homeschool the children, many of them expressed concern, not for the kids but for me and my mental health. So I had to find a way to reassure them and also myself that I could indeed teach my children and teach them well, even while struggling with the unpredictability of depression.
Let me be clear. When my husband and I made the decision to homeschool, my depression was (and still is) being managed well. So I did not start on this adventure from an unhealthy place, which would have been much harder.
Even though my depression is generally under control right now, it’s always lurking under the surface, always waiting to appear when I start to get overwhelmed, over tired, over scheduled. So I’ve established several self care activities and principles to help me safeguard my mental health.
So here they are — my top 5 tips for self care for the homeschooling mom with depression.
1. Wake up early OR stay up late.
You can’t do both. I know as homeschooling moms we tend to burn our candles from both ends. Or pour out our cup until it’s bone dry and forget to refill it. It can be so tempting to stay up late to prep for the next morning’s lesson or finish the dishes or start the laundry. But as a mom with depression, exhaustion can send you to the depths.
For me, overtiredness is a trigger. As Bilbo tells Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Rings, I start to “feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread” if I try to be both a night owl and an early bird. And my mental health suffers. Like a child who misses her nap and stays up too late, I start to lose control of my emotions and my thoughts. So just like with that child for whom “sleep begets sleep” holds true, for me “sleep begets sanity” is just as true.
2. Build lots of Grace into your schedule.
I am a recovering perfectionist and an overachiever. Which means I’d prefer for our school mornings to be filled with all the subjects and supplements while staying perfectly on-schedule, as if to prove to myself and anyone who cares enough to pay attention that we’re busy over-achieving and learning and having all the fun over here. Come join us! We have a perfectly running homeschool machine over here!
I started out homeschooling this way. And struggled. Feelings of failure and frustration began to overwhelm me. Maybe I shouldn’t have homeschooled them. Perhaps they were better off in school where they always stay on track (ha!). And those irrational thoughts that my depression bombards me with didn’t stop until I stopped forcing my little school to chase perfection — by building grace into our school days. I no longer needed to ring the digital bell at 8 a.m. to signal the start of school. If the kids were playing happily, I could let them play for a bit longer. Pretty soon, our school day wasn’t starting until 9 a.m. and no one seemed to be suffering.
I stopped trying to cover every subject every day (except history and science which I alternated). We could push that fun math supplement until the next day or the next week. We could skip handwriting and spelling one day a week and not fall behind. Our pace had slowed but our learning had not.
I had to let go of striving to meet expectations set by curriculums and strangers. And instead let the grace and freedom of homeschooling my children flow through our days. When I lifted the self-imposed pressure, my depression retreated back below the surface.
3. Be honest about who you are.
Don’t focus on the kind of homeschool mom you wish you were. That only leads to jealousy and dissatisfaction and possibly depression. Instead, focus on the kind of homeschool mom you actually are. You are that way for a reason. You have weaknesses, yes, but you also have strengths. Strengths that other homeschool moms wish they had. Strengths that you don’t even think about because they come so naturally to you that they don’t feel special.
Make a mental list of all of your strengths. Or better yet, write them down. Go ahead and grab a pencil and paper. I’ll wait.
Now, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your school days, look at that list of strengths and set about arranging your school day in ways that complement your strengths and incorporate heaps of grace. Sarah Mackenzie, in her book Teaching from Rest, encourages us to “base our homeschools on those truths [about ourselves], playing to our strengths and providing for our weaknesses” (p. 57).
And be sure to add in plenty of margin, which is breathing room for your school days. Sarah Mackenzie advises filling only 80% of your schedule to leave time for the unanticipated and the spontaneous (p. 39). In this way, you also give your mental health time and space to cope with the unexpected stressful moments that can trigger those not-so-helpful dark times.
4. Be honest with your kids.
On days when you are struggling, tell your kids, in an age appropriate way. My kids are 9 and 7 years old, and I’ve found that every single time I tell them I’m having a hard day, they respond as well as or better than the adults in my life.
Kids have such an incredible capacity for generosity and kindness. What they sometimes lack in empathy, they make up for with affection and concern. As in other areas of your life, being honest and communicating is worth it. If I explain at the start of our day that I’m not able to do ___ as we’d planned, they give me grace. Every. Single. Time. Plus, it sets clear expectations for the day. But if instead I try to cope and power through on my own, I often end up losing it and having to apologize later.
So I encourage you to tell your kids if you need extra help or care or grace on any particular day. Kids are natural helpers and remember, they love you. Give them a chance to show you by being honest with them and asking for (age appropriate) help. Just like you would if you had a physical injury or physical illness. Just because our illness is invisible, doesn’t mean you have to hide the symptoms from your kids.
5. Give yourself 10 minutes.
Every single day, when possible, set aside time for some self care. In fact, I encourage you to commit to at least 10 minutes of whatever gives you rest. Drink a cup of tea, listen to a podcast, scroll Pinterest, take a short walk, close your eyes for a power nap, or read a few more pages in your book. Whatever it looks like for you to truly rest and relax, do it.
Self care can sometimes be taken to indulgent and selfish extremes. That’s not what I’m advocating for here. Rather, for your mental health’s sake, I urge you to carve out time for an activity that fills up your cup, restores peace in your mind, and renews your spirit. Once you choose your possible self-care activities, tell your kids that for the next 10+ minutes you will be busy. Set a timer if you need to so the kids know when they can come to you. Do whatever you need to do to make it happen. Just like you would if you had an important phone call to make or meeting to prepare for. Prioritize your self care and make it happen. You and your mental health are worth it.