15 December 2017

"Sometimes, I wish I was never born."

We had just finished our 1 hour of math and reading at the kitchen table that morning.  Bennett had just finished crying (some of the time actually screaming) through it, an increasingly common behavior for him at the time.

In so many ways, homeschooling had seemingly been going so well since we began homeschooling in May.  But now, in the middle of October, it was becoming increasingly unbearable for the both of us.  I kept trying new things - slowing down the work, giving him more support, giving him more independence, giving him encouragement, being patient with him at all costs - but nothing seemed to help.  He had the skills to read and to do the math being asked of him.  But it was like he was shutting down on himself.

After that particular morning's work was deemed complete and his crying had stopped, I made an effort to engage Bennett in a deeper conversation of how he was feeling about himself.  I sensed a deep sadness that I wanted to relieve.

I asked, "Bennett, what do you like about yourself?"

Still sitting at the kitchen table, Bennett looked down, shuffled his feet for a minute and then asked, "you want to know what I like about myself or what I hate about myself?"

I paused to think of what to say.  Those words were like a dagger in my heart.  I tried to move on. But I knew his question was really a statement.

I said, "I want to know what you like about yourself."

Bennett looked down again, still struggling to find an answer.

He finally replied, "I don't really know what I like about myself...but I know I hate - that I have dyslexia.  And I hate that my body doesn't work right, that I have CF."

And then he said, trying to hold back tears: "Sometimes, I wish I was never born."

I looked across the room at Bennett, this time intently listening to what he was telling me.  All of the sudden, I took greater notice of him sitting at the kitchen table as we spoke.  There he was, sitting  while connected to his feeding pump, which was silently pumping supplemental nutrition into his belly.  He had just had to endure an hour of math and intensive multi-sensory Orton-Gillingham reading tutoring (that all kids with dyslexia must go through to eventually master written language).  For me, our work was done.  But for him, the work had just ruined his day.  And he couldn't even play until his pump was done.

My heart broke for him into a million pieces.  Even when he wants to pretend he doesn't have cystic fibrosis or dyslexia, he can't.  They are always there, a constant reminder of how he's different and constant whisper that somehow he's broken.

Despite that I had spent hundreds of hours trying to address Bennett's learning needs, researching curriculum, evaluating new ways to teach basic concepts, speaking to him about grit and just seemed like that the more that I tried, the more I saw his self-confidence deteriorate, even when I thought we were addressing the core issue at hand.

I brought this to my own therapist the next day and had good ugly cry over it.  There's little more painful for a mama to hear than her young child, so pregnant with potential, articulate he sometimes wishes he hadn't been born.

When I shared this with her, my therapist, always a calming voice for me, agreed that my intuition was right: I needed to stop what we're doing and do something else.  She recommended that I look to maximize what Bennett is good at and to focus on building up his self-esteem, even at the risk of backing off the school work that we were doing.

Should I just stop completely formally teaching him anything for a while?  I wondered to myself, but didn't voice outloud.

Later that day, I chatted with Bennett's play therapist on the phone during our routine weekly check-in.  She shared with me how Bennett seemed to be doing, based on her observations of his play in the therapy room.  I shared with her that Bennett's interest and effort in schoolwork has not improving, quite possibly deteriorating.  I shared that I felt like he was giving up and maybe not even benefiting from what work I was doing with him.  I shared with her Bennett's conversation with me from the day before.

I asked, a bit rhetorically, but this time out loud, "Should I just stop teaching him for a while?"

To my surprise, she replied, "yes. I definitely think you should stop."

My heart skipped a beat.  All kinds of thoughts flooded my mind:  Wait, I can't actually stop school...Can I? I'll be a bad mom. I'm going to screw him up.  Maybe I've already screwed him up?  He's never going to learn how to read and do math.  What if he gets behind?  He probably already is behind.  How do I catch him up if I just stop?  What about Oliver, do I stop teaching him too?  How do I quit teaching one child but try to convince the other child to keep doing formal learning?  Why do we have to deal with both dyslexia *and* cystic fibrosis?  Is this the best thing that just happened to us?  Or is this the worst?

With my internal thoughts swirling, I needed to sit down.  I grabbed my purse, abandoned my Target shopping cart and sat down on the little bench in the children's shoe aisle.  Moments before, I expected this call to be just a brief chat with Bennett's play therapist when, in fact, this became a game changer conversation that would effect everything.

I agreed with her that Bennett stopping formal learning could be beneficial for him.  But, I worried...was this all my fault??  I'm his teacher now.  If he's struggling at this point, is it because of me?  I hid my fear and aching question behind a less personal question.  I asked, "So, if he was in a traditional classroom at school right now, would you be recommending that I actually pull him from school?"

Without missing a beat she responded unequivocally, "yes. absolutely."

Bennett's therapist shared how her observations of Bennett and my feedback about what was going on at home indicated that Bennett needed some time to gain back his emotional health, to see himself in a positive way and to experience success.  She explained that she didn't think we'd need to stop formal education for a really long time but for a long enough period that he could really gain some inner strength.

"How long are we talking about?  Are you thinking 6 months or a year?"

His therapist replied, "I imagine no more than six months.  But I think we'll know when it's time.  He'll start to show us both inside and outside of the therapy office."

On one level, this information felt surprising.  And yet, another part of me felt like this was exactly the what I needed to do.

It hadn't been that long ago that Bennett was going through multiple surgeries and faced an unexpected colostomy.  It certainly made sense that he might need more time to heal from such a traumatic experience.  And while we enjoyed our summer, the reality was that we had been working on school work practically every weekday since the end of the school year last May.

A well-known recommendation in the homeschooling community is that when kids move from traditional school to homeschooling, they should be given a break of 1 month per year the child had been in traditional school.  This break is often referred to as "deschooling" as it's intentional time to disconnect and decompress from the traditional classroom's expectations of learning.  The goal of "deschooling" is to give the child a love for learning again and to allow the child to pursue their own interests.

Not realizing how incredibly important this "deschooling" process is, I chose for us early on to not take a break.  Looking back, it's no wonder we hit a wall.

I decided that day in Target that I would begin "deschooling" both boys until after the Christmas holidays.  I needed to give myself a "deadline" so that when fears crept up within me about my boys "getting behind" in their education, I could remember that I had made the intentional decision to have peace about it for several months.

Interestingly, many families who "deschool" actually begin to love the process so much they decide to adopt the philosophy full time, which is often called "unschooling".  I don't yet know what homeschooling will look like for us after our "deschooling" experience, but, the one thing I do know is that in the 8 weeks since Brian and I started caring more about where our kids are emotionally than where they are academically, I have never felt more peace within our family, I've never felt more satisfied in my role as a mother and I've never seen my kids so consistently balanced.  Finally, life finally feels symbiotic.

Instead of worrying about whether Bennett's reading skills are "on grade-level," I'm more interested in getting to know Bennett deeply and finding out what he is most intrinsically motivated to learn.
Instead of worrying about Oliver's mastery of rote multiplication facts, I am now paying attention to whether or not Oliver is getting enough uninterrupted play time outdoors or how I can feed his love for all things World War II.  There is incredible freedom that comes from being able to get off the conventional educational treadmill.

CF and dyslexia both suck.  But they are the two things that God has consistently used to prompt our family to slow down and to rethink what we are doing and why.  Like strategically placed road bumps on a busy street, they continually force us to ride our breaks and notice the landscape around us.

I remember tearing up in the principals office of the boys' school last May, when Brian and I shared with the principal that we were planning to homeschool.  Even though I knew it was the best decision for our family, I felt like a total failure - like somehow my kids had flunked out of life for needing a different support system for learning.  I expressed to the principal that I wished my boys were typical.  Essentially, I tried to apologize for their being different.  I wanted them to fit in the box.  Deep down, I just wanted to be the same as everybody else.  I didn't like these continued situations that were bumping us off to side-roads.

And yet, now, having found ourselves on a quiet dirt road, away from the busyness and chaos, I keep thanking God for the huge ways CF and dyslexia blesses us.  Bennett's needs are different.  Oliver's needs are different.  That's ok.  In fact, it's very very good.

My response to Bennett's conversation with me several months ago, when he told me he sometimes wishes that he hadn't been born was, "Bennett, I would rather have you here, even if you had to have CF and dyslexia, than to not have you here at all."

And that is true.  But if I could go back to that moment, I would add, "Bennett, how grateful I am that you were born and you are here.  My life is significantly enriched because of you."