Matthew and I went to couples therapy this week. I have a long history of going to couples therapy.

This post is potentially offensive to everyone’s sensibilities. I’ll just start right now and tell you that if you’re a little kid being sexually abused by your dad, you are living in a messed-up but really close, special relationship. So in hindsight, when my dad and I went to therapy with a child psychologist (because for some wild, mysterious reason that no one could figure out I was a difficult child), it felt like couples therapy.

And then there was the boyfriend who was so dysfunctional that our couples therapist told him to wait in the hall and she told me I had to leave and she was very concerned for me.

Then there was my ex-husband, who told me we were going to couples therapy but it was really a divorce lawyer.

And then there was the couples therapist who tossed me and my current husband out of couples therapy because neither of us was trying.  He was right.

So last week when we went to couples therapy I took a Valium. I hate writing that I took a Valium because I know it’s not a very hip drug. One reason I know it’s not cool is that it makes me think of Mike Jagger singing Mother’s Little Helper and I’m the last person in the world to be called a raging feminist, but think he’s making fun of women. The other reason Valium makes me feel outdated is that I read an article in New York Magazine about what drugs women take to cope with their lives, and none of my favorites are on there. Xanax is. But it puts me to sleep. And I can’t be a hipster if I’m asleep.

So I take a Valium and I get ready for Matthew to complain about me. And say that I am not appreciating him. Or not making time for him. I can’t actually even guess what he’s going to complain about. But that lack of imagination only makes things worse. And I put another Valium in my pocket. Backup.

Oh. And I am late. Because I was at physical therapy with older son and didn’t leave enough time to drive in between appointments. So I get to the couch—there’s always a couch—and he has already given the therapist background. She asks me, “How are you feeling about how things are going for the two of you?”

I say, “We never have time for each other. I really love Matthew and I have no complaints about him, but the marriage is not going to work if we don’t make time to have the marriage.”

She said, “He said the same thing. He is very happy with you, too.”

I couldn’t believe it. I’m in a therapist’s office with my husband and we are saying the marriage is good. I want to cry from happiness. I’m so proud of myself, because I have never been good at relationships with anyone and I have been trying so hard for so many years.

Then we get down to business.

I drive to Chicago twice a week. I drive to Madison twice a week. I’m only home three days. Matthew drives to Madison once a week and takes care of whichever kid I have left at home. We have two parents who have full-time jobs and we have two parents who are full-time homeschoolers.

You’d think this would be a dream situation. We love our jobs and there’s always enough money. But there is no time. We cannot actually sustain the homeschooling life we’ve set up.

You’d think it would be so great to live on a farm. But what if you have kids who want stuff that is not on the farm? All that stuff is very far away. And a farm is a very specific offering. It’s nice. It’s just not sufficient.

We spent the whole time in the therapists office talking about what we provide for the kids and what we provide for the family unit. The therapist agreed that given the circumstances — an eight year old who wants to be a professional cellist and an eleven year old who has Aspergers and needs various activities — there is not a lot of wiggle room in the schedule we have.

We could hire people to take them places. We do that. But at some point, my son said to us that he gets lonely for a parent. So we cut back a lot on that, since obviously it wasn’t working well.

The therapist did say something really useful, though. She said in our lives it is difficult to decrease the negatives. We have a difficult situation in terms of schedule. But we can increase the positives. We can add one more family game of Uno. We can do an extra walk in the woods, even if it’s a little too dark. We’d all like it. We can pick the pumpkins. It only takes a few minutes, and they are still there in the garden waiting for us.

The therapist told us to focus on the small things that will make us a little happier for a short period of time. That’s something we can do right now.

I don’t think we are a lot different than other homeschooling families. I think homeschooling is very parent-intensive. So if a parent wants to homeschool and work full time, there needs to be someone helping manage the time. For so long I have studied productivity to be better at my work. At some point I realized that productivity advice is geared toward thirty year old men trying to balance work, dating, and going to the gym. Productivity for someone taking care of kids is much different. If nothing else, all the challenges are less predictable.

So it turns out that what I needed was someone to help me with time management for homeschooling. I needed someone to help me figure out how to think about time in a new way, from a homeschooling perspective. The most important thing we realized is that we don’t need to have a date night, or a two-person getaway. We can’t be away from kids and work for that long if we want to keep both of them on track. But we can have a walk in the woods that lasts fifteen minutes. That’s progress for us. And I think it might be for other people too.

29 replies
  1. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    I am looking this in the face right now. Two parents who work full-time, with one (me) who is the primary homeschooling parent and teaching 3 writing classes/week.

    I decided next school year to cut-out co-op…that’s one more day AT HOME with kids. It is also one more day when makeup and clean pants aren’t an issue.

    My kids are with me ALL DAY, but when Jeff and I say we’re headed to the movies or out to eat for a date night, they are disappointed. They want to be with us–even though we have been together all day.

    I realize it is because the “togetherness” has a different tone at different points in the day.

    When I’m working, the togetherness is muted by my focus on what I’m doing–even if I can stop to dance to a song, watch a video, or listen to a story.

    When we’re schooling, the togetherness is mostly a physical proximity, or a sharing–but it is more tailored (we do not unschool).

    When we go out to eat or to a movie, the togetherness is about engaging in likeminded “entertainment”. It is about the banter, laughter, or shared experience.

    So Jeff and my “together” time has changed. Less one-on-one date nights and more quick captures as you described.

    I’m not entirely happy with that yet–but its just for a season.

  2. mh
    mh says:

    “focus on the small things that will make us a little happier for a short period of time.”

    That would be one of my four pieces of advice to any young person.

    Want to know the rest?
    1) Be thankful for what you have
    2) Once a day, do small things that bring you happiness right now.
    3) Wear comfortable shoes that fit you.

    4, for new brides) Shut up and put out.

    (Not a raging feminist here, either.)

  3. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I love all the links, Blueprint for a Womans life and Generation Z will revolutionize education. Reading and re-reading them because they are awesome.

    Have you considered buying a second home in Chicago or renting a home so that during the week there are cello lessons you stay in Chicago instead of driving insane hours, then stay at the farm the rest of the time. Maybe the farmer could hire some more farm workers to help free up some more time for him. I just feel like there is a solution somewhere to give you guys more time together…

    :)

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    And I’m not intentionally ignoring the part about your father, I just don’t know how to respond to it, I did read it on your career blog though so I was aware already and I don’t want to say anything cliche’. I just think you are amazing.

  5. laura
    laura says:

    I came across your blog through a friend on Facebook and I’d love to continue following along. Do you have an email sign up for notifications of new posts?

    Laura

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hi, Laura. There’s a button on the sidebar of this page, up toward the top of the page. Click GO and you’ll get to the subscription page.

      Penelope

  6. Ali Shanti
    Ali Shanti says:

    I’m wanting to hear more about your schedule — how you get all your work done, what you actually do in the businesses you are involved in, and homeschool the kids and be actually involved in the education part.

    My son is homeschooled, but I have him in two all day programs that meet 3 days a week, then I have with a tutor 4 hours a week, and I try to find other activities for him.

    For the most part, his dad (my ex who lives with us), drives him around and makes his food. Also no schooling happening there, although he can manage to enforce a math worksheet every now and then.

    Last week, his dad took him out to our farm (that will still own even though I haven’t paid the mortgage there in over two years) and he shot a rabbit, which we then skinned together. That was fun.

    Otherwise, I’m here at my computer,writing and on phone calls, and he is trying to get me to let him play on the iPad or watch Netflix. He’s not getting schooled, that’s for sure.

    How does it work for your kids?

    I’ve missed connecting with you.

    Ali (was Alexis last time we talked.)

  7. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    “We have two parents who have full-time jobs and we have two parents who are full-time homeschoolers.

    You’d think this would be a dream situation. We love our jobs and there’s always enough money. But there is no time. We cannot actually sustain the homeschooling life we’ve set up.”

    To me it does not sound like a dream situation, it sounds obviously unsustainable…

    You’re not going to do all these things well and your kids’ education is pretty important. There’s a reason why “teacher” is a full-time job. The post doesn’t address the unsustainability of it.

    That the therapist is telling you to ADD to it is astounding.

    • Brynn
      Brynn says:

      When homeschooling, teacher does not need to be a full time job. If the children are actively engaged in what they want to learn, they will learn.

      I was a teacher in public high school before coming home to homeschool my son. It is a full time job there, because you have 30 kids in a room who all don’t want to be there and you are trying to convince them that they should be learning things they don’t ever use in their regular lives. You aren’t a teacher; you are an entertainer, and a law enforcement officer.

      As a homeschool parent, my son needs me far less than even part time the moments are just irregular. Even at 9 he is actively engaged pretty much all day long. My job is to keep the ball rolling with transition assistance, and assist him every once in a while when he can’t remember how to write a capital letter in cursive, spell a word, is confused by the wording in his math problem, or pronounce something in Latin correctly. Even then, if I am busy, he knows how to figure it out himself, because he has chosen those subjects. I’m secretarial and a mentor. I find library books, and do curriculum searches when he decides he wants to learn Arabic through independent study…that sort of thing. This isn’t necessarily the way it is in every homeschool, but it is highly possible to homeschool and work full time. Erratic, chaotic, but possible.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Brynn, I love your comment. Thank you for reminding me that homeschooling does not have to be me interacting with my kids 100% of the day.

      Gretchen, I do not consider myself a teacher. I do not force my kids to learn stuff they don’t want to learn. My kids are smart enough to choose what they want to learn, (and so are everyone else’s kids, for that matter.)

      I think what I mean by homeschooling taking a lot of time is that parenting takes a lot of time. But Brynn’s comment reminds me that parenting is mostly about being present for the kids, and sometimes I get caught up in thinking I need to do more. I want to stop that. I want to be more calm day to day, just being there for the kids.

      Penelope

      • Brynn
        Brynn says:

        Penelope,
        You have so done much to ease my moments of overwhelmed comparison and crazed homeschool frenzy of doing more. As well as informing me I’m not crazy (I’m an INTJ female who is on spectrum). I am glad I could reciprocate.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      OK…well your responses have reminded me about some aspects of homeschooling. I get that managing a classroom of kids is different than managing one, or a few…

      I still wonder about so much of the self-directed learning, and “they’ll learn what they want”…I think SOME of that is good, but I think there’s more to it. Kids don’t know what they don’t know. And one parent, with one perspective (or even two) don’t know all there is to know…

      Part of me thinks the idea of homeschooling is kind of neat, but another part is very skeptical…not sure of the true feasibility of a full-time working parent being able to do it well. I personally don’t think it’s possible, but then again, I am not a type-A high achiever. I must have my downtime.

  8. carmen
    carmen says:

    Spending a little time every day convincing each other that we want and need each other…nurturing each other’s sense of purpose.

  9. CL
    CL says:

    This post was profoundly beautiful.

    Most of the time, you write interesting, slightly wacky stuff and your extensive research brings me back.

    I think that this is the first time that I’ve read something on your homeschooling blog that completely belongs on your career blog. I know that you’re supposed to put all of the homeschooling stuff on this blog, but this post all about time management and happiness, which are major themes of your normal blog. It’s about self determination – not for your kids, but for you. Given bounds x and y (the needs of your kids), what can you do to maximize 1) happiness, 2) marriage stability, and 3) the best outcomes for everyone involved?

    I’ve said before that over the long term that much driving isn’t sustainable. You already know that. I know that Zehavi is going to be a wonderful cellist and that music is inside of him.

    However, I think that driving to Chicago twice a week is getting in the way of his childhood. It makes him and you miserable, since what he wants is more time on the farm and you wish that you weren’t driving so much. I know that he’s a city kid and that he needs interaction – but you’ve also written before that what kids really need is love.

    Zehavi can and will get to the 10,000 hour mark in good time. A choice that you need to make with him is how much those 10,000 hours steal from the rest of his young life.

  10. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    Perhaps you should hire a driver, so you can get more out of all these long drives? You could be more involved with the kids or do some more work, freeing up kid time later.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I got a driver! I drive myself to Chicago one day a week and I have a driver the other day. And it’s great. I never would have thought it would work, but so many people told me to do this in the comments section, that I finally tried it. And it’s great. I get so much work done.

      Penelope

  11. Annie
    Annie says:

    This post made me tear up.

    First, happily, that both you of you are happy in this marriage.

    Second, because this struggle is so close to my heart. I actually say, all the time, that there is just so little I can actually change about our situation — difficult to decrease the negatives is right on. So much out of our control, b/c our youngest has nursing care at home, and with four nurses, SOMEone’s always calling out every week, and it throws the whole, tenuously-crafted “schedule” out the window.

    And so, the advice to do one small fun thing is so, so good.

    We have our kids in school right now (two older brothers, 8 and 5) but we still feel the way you do, desperately so. I think having them home would actually in a way make it easier.

    Where now the end of the day there is all this pressure to connect, with so little energy left to do it, and so many chores left; with no school we’d be present to each other so much more, even if work and the responsibilities of caring for medically complex child takes the same amount of energy, we could be doing this work side by side.

    Anyway, really lovely post.

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The best idea/advice I could come up with is to take some of these ideas you have written here and others and post them on your refrigerator and/or other places in the house as a constant reminder to yourself and all family members.

  13. Dave J
    Dave J says:

    I always get a little scared about therapists advice, mostly because I am, by training and profession, a therapist. The piece about increasing the positives is great but I could have got that from a book – or a blog. I don’t want people to think that therapy is about getting good advice, it’s really not. It’s about developing insight and understanding relative to emotional processes. Which insight is best understood in terms of your relationship with your therapist. This takes time. Good therapy isn’t getting good advice face-to-face, but trusting that another human being can create safety in a relationship and then learning how to do that yourself.

  14. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Love it from both the fly-on-the-wall therapy session and the endless battle to find the right balance. I’ve had to learn alot about productivity since I had kids but it always keeps you on your toes.
    A couple of years ago my partner and I did our first stint of couples therapy. I was really reluctant, and it was hard work, emotionally draining but super useful – we were able to both clearly see and agree on the areas we would constantly have to watch for and work on for each of us.
    Now whenever I feel those areas are approaching critical point I try to do some clustered attacks to get back in the black so to speak. I’m super motivated by knowing if I don’t I’ll be back in time-consuming therapy.

  15. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    Time management is the great new struggle in this world we are creating, as homeschoolers moms who do everything. The missing piece of this puzzle, and really the only way that I think it can really work, is through community. Maybe you buy that community by hiring help or maybe you arrange with a close homeschooling mama to trade off sleepovers so you can get some real work done. Our social networks are one of our greatest strengths. As for your schedule, dear Penelope, it is insane. Or at least, I would lose my sanity. I suggest consuming lots of bone broth for your kidney qi.

  16. Robin
    Robin says:

    I have been so busy over the past 10 year that I never even thought about looking for homeschooling blogs, even though I do blog and spend tons of time on the computer for my day job. This was a lovely, reassuring post that totally speaks my current life. We have an incredible homeschooling community where we live that has been very supportive. However, when I made the choice to pursue my career by working full time away from home, we made a huge, difficult transition as a homeschooling family, that is still working itself out. But, my children are thriving as they see and live the idea that mom must also pursue her interests. I consider my going to work full time (my husband also works full time but away from home) and figuring out how to continue to live a quality, alternative lifestyle, to be a huge component of helping our children think creatively and learn to make important decisions that ultimately affect their happiness.

  17. Cecelia J. Barrett
    Cecelia J. Barrett says:

    I think you are an amazing person considering all the hardships you went through as a kid and the divorce. Anyway, i think it’s all about time management and i think you and your husband is doing a great job. It’s good to know that there’s progress and i’m absolutely sure you can handle it and not wanting to be away from home or from your kid is a great choice. You’re on the right track.

  18. Edna G. Anderson
    Edna G. Anderson says:

    I completely agree with focusing on the small things that can make you happier. We usually focus on other things, on a bigger picture nd when things will not work out the way we want them to, we get disappointed. It’s good to know that you are making progress. I think you’re getting there. It’s all about time management and i know you can do that.

  19. Elliot
    Elliot says:

    The mere suggestion of couples therapy is enough to send any guy into a tailspin, whether he’s happy with his relationship or not. The idea of airing dirty laundry and seeking advice for problems you and your girlfriend are having isn’t exactly your idea of a great way to spend the day.

  20. Julia Snyder
    Julia Snyder says:

    It is a great thing that you are getting somewhere with this, the roadblocks sometimes really slow us down. I am in therapy with my husband, we are getting answers slowly but surely. They suggested we read Wendy Brown’s book Why Love Succeeds or Fails. Seems pretty straight forward and it is for the most part. It’s been a helpful resource for us through this. I recommend it, whylovesucceeds.com is her site. Good luck with your journey! I really took a lot from your post and I thank you!

  21. Kenneth Hong
    Kenneth Hong says:

    We’re not homeschoolers, yet. But this post is completely on target for what we need to be doing, namely, creating small moments of happiness as a family and a couple.

    Anyways, I’d write more, but I have to go attend to the three boys…

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