Radical Homemaking

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So it seems that out there in the real world beyond my house there is already a term to describe what I am trying to get at with matriarchal homemaking – domesticity without the gender inequality….and a whole heap of other stuff.

I’m still trying to get a real grasp of what I really feel and think about these things so today I’m going to tell a story and this story will provide context and make sense of the questions I am trying to answer. It’s a story about gender, culture, spirituality and religion. It begins in my childhood home where feminism was espoused but not necessarily fully  lived. Still a home in which gender norms did not necessarily prevail – a mother, a (gay) step-father (the marriage ended when I was twelve), three small half-brothers. A home full of art, culture, music, discussion, intellectual argumentation. Unconventional and in some ways brilliant, sometimes dysfunctional (aren’t we all?), hilarious, difficult, enriching and stimulating, challenging and tough. In many ways it was a fabulous life and in some ways it was heartbreaking.

We were, for all intents and purposes, homesteaders before it became trendy. We raised our own meat, my step-father had a beautiful jersey cow that he milked. We churned our own butter, we drank the milk raw. We grew vegetables, we ran food related businesses, we worked. He preserved fruit and made jams and fruit cakes. My mother spun fleece from our sheep and knitted it into beanies and thick woollen sweaters. Tasmania is cold. We lived in one hundred year old farmhouses. We worked. Life on a farm is hard, running your own business is difficult. It was all hard work, it wasn’t really intentionally gender specific. It’s hard to remember but my mother washed the nappies and did the bulk of the cleaning and childcare. I think.

She also read Germaine Greer and I wore overalls.  The women I encountered as a child were feisty and loud. Most people we knew laughed at religion and laughed at the idea of the home being the domain of women, we were people of equality or so it seemed.

By the time I got to university I was adamant that I’d never have children. I lived within a small subculture of art students all with similar ideals. Gendered oppression was something I read about in books, I couldn’t recognise it in its more subtle forms at that stage, I thought it belonged to faraway worlds. It was not part of my life or my conscious thought.

Because of this ideological basis (which I did not recognise as an ideology) I never considered motherhood as a viable career choice. It was lesser, you couldn’t just be a mother, you had to be something else. I went to art school and I wanted to be an academic. I wanted to live in the inner city and surround myself with bookshops and art galleries.

Our family hit a series of hurdles and I experienced fairly severe clinical depression. I was diagnosed with PTSD but I didn’t know what to do about it so I did what many soul searching young adults in the first world do, I travelled. I found myself in Morocco and I became fascinated by Islam. When I wrote about my first trip to Chefchaouen I described it as a town which was filled with a sense of ‘in-placesness’ , a tangible stillness unable to be expressed in words. I filled my sketchbooks with my new ‘obsession’ layering and pasting Arabic and Persian newspapers with text and drawings of my own, it looked like a kind of orientalist exoticism but it was building as something so different than that within me, I just did not have the language to articulate it and I had a conditioned resistance to considering that it was something spiritual. Five years later after a move to Melbourne I met a Muslim man and my curiosity about what he believed led me to look into Islam more deeply. Quite astonishingly within months my ‘research’ became a personal quest and I became a Muslim. I didn’t know what I was doing. Most of me recognised it, resonated with it at a deep non-verbal level. The other bit railed against it, rejected some of it.
It was, to say the least, turbulent.

I was occupying that cultural no mans land that often happens to Muslim converts. I wasn’t sure where my culture ended and Islam began. Often people assume that I converted to Islam because I fell in love with a person but it was the other way around, I got married because I had fallen in love with Islam.

Immersed in a world that was the complete opposite to what I was used to, a world in which there were distinct roles and expectations for men and women my reality was turned on its head. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, I didn’t know what the religion really indicated about these things , I loved the idea of being at home with babies. I was filled with a warmth that I wanted to pour over things and gift to my family – love. I thought our expectations and wants were in alignment.

Needless to say it was the utmost naivety and a recipe for conflict. Our expectations of each other were way out of whack. I wanted to be at home, I wanted to be with the children but not the way he wanted it. Both of us felt like we were experiencing injustice.

My experience of domesticity within the framework of strict gendered expectations is what has made me a true ‘feminist’ . It was all theoretical before, lived experience is what creates a fire in the stomach. Yet motherhood has also seasoned me and brought me into being a woman in a way that is in conflict with some aspects of feminism. I don’t want an equality that is a sameness. I believe I have the right to be with my babies when they are small, it’s more than a right, it’s a known…the small child belongs to the woman’s body and space, psychcically mother and child are one in the infant years.

So what exactly is my feminism and my homemaking, my spirituality and my womanhood? These are things I am fleshing out. I know what I don’t want, I know what I feel is harmful, not just to women but society as a whole.  I’ve a large family to raise, they are my purpose. I love order and cleanliness but I’ve learned that I can’t do it all without killing myself. I protect my physical health now and I prioritise the education and guiding of my kids into adulthood over a superficially perfect home.

My roots have me seeking out the ways and methods of my childhood. I want to grow my own food, I want to handcraft. There’s a fullness in me that wants to nurture the world, I long for beauty and calm and peace. I’m attracted to fully-fledged home keeping.
Yet, not as some kind of insipid pandering to systemic male power, so I guess I am radical.

A visit to a Waldorf school

Today we visited the Sophia Mundi Steiner School Spring Fair. I’ve been past the school plenty of times on the way to Collingwood Children’s Farm but this was the first time I have been inside. I took one step into the Prep and Grade One classrooms and just felt I was at home!

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I realised that in all these years of being attracted to Steiner, I have never actually been to a school. I’ve read about Waldorf, I’ve attempted to create a Waldorf influenced homeschool but I’ve never actually been out there and seen how it works in the world. The beauty of it almost brings me to (good) tears.

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Of course it is about more than lovely wooden toys and soft colours and handmade things, there’s an energy to these spaces and an energy to the people I encountered. It’s a wholesome, enriching way that brings children through and into the world softly and in a gentle, subtle way draws them towards becoming full beings. It’s everything that I long for my children and all children. I came away wondering why aren’t ALL schools like this? Why can people not see the difference between this and mainstream education? I wish so much that we could create schools that combined aspects of Steiner education with Islamic spirituality.

Lili was in awe of the classroom spaces. I think it really helped her to be able to see Waldorf outside our own home. She begged me to please let her go to this school! It isn’t possible but it IS possible to immerse ourselves in our Waldorf homeschool. I feel inspired.

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Spring 2016

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The year is drawing to an end already and this space has remained largely empty. I haven’t had time or free hands for our usual arts filled approach to homeschooling. It’s been a bare bones/skeletal kind of year and I’ve really just focused on the dry necessities such as literacy and maths. That been said the way these things are folded into our days kind of organically is far from dry and nothing like the way a school would approach it and our experience just leaves me marvelling at how easy these things are when children want to learn.

When Lili turned seven we started spending time learning to read more earnestly. I purposely delayed pushing academics with her before this age ( in line with both Waldorf philosophy and the advice of our faith) but it turned out that her interest really increased in natural tandem with reaching these milestones anyway so our approach has still been mostly child-led. She enjoys it immensely and it’s a beautiful process to watch unfold. We are half-way through ‘Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons’ and whilst it took a little while to really get into this method of teaching/learning we are finding it so straightforward now. We spend about twenty minutes per day plus story time and letter writing practise.

I’m continuing to use computer programs for Maths. Future School is my favourite as it has video tutorials on all topics. Tom has finished his program for his ‘year level’ this year,  not that we stick to year levels entirely but it’s nice to know where they are ‘at’ according to the system. There are still some topics that need to be brushed up on so we will go back over them. I don’t like the Future School Gr 1 curriculum so we are using IXL practise for Lili.

We’ve been doing a lot of reading out loud since it’s so easy to pick up a book and listen to Tom read while I’m busy with the baby.

Zeph (who has always been my child most suited to unschooling) is preparing for high school next year. Mostly I am letting him pursue his interests and passions which largely revolve around technology since this is what he will be able to follow up in detail once he starts Year 7 at his new school. Unlike his siblings he has always resisted more formal learning so it will be interesting to see how things go next year. He teaches himself to do a wide range of stuff and I know with the right guidance he will be able to flourish.

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It hasn’t happened, the garden until yesterday was an overgrown jungle. At least now the grass is no longer one metre tall! It’s time to plant the Summer crop of tomatoes and cucumbers, I really want to do it early this year so we make the most of the season.

I’ve been reading a lot about gut health and whilst I’ve known that I have ‘gut problems’ for a long time, it is daunting taking stock of what really needs to be done to attempt to heal it (leaky gut). I’m deeply concerned that I have passed these issues onto Ollie as he is already experiencing repeated ear infections. I’ve been reading up on the GAPS diet and I think we need to do it, the question is when? I can’t do it now, I don’t have the hands or time. Plus I eat a mostly plant based diet and it is SO meat based, I can’t handle that aspect of it, very challenging. I can bring myself to cook chicken as long it is as ethically sourced as I can muster but this is very expensive. I’m thinking to start with two special organic chickens per month and make bone broth with them.

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I am making our  own yoghurt using the machine from GAPS Australia which is a long ferment, up to 24 hours which hopefully means the yoghurt is almost casein and lactose free.

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It’s takes about thirty hours all up to make including the setting time in the fridge. Twelve small jars will last our family about one week. I use Schultz organic milk so it’s not any cheaper than buying pre-made organic yoghurt but hopefully it’s softer on our tummies.

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Ollie has been diagnosed with ‘Failure to Thrive’ which basically means he is not anywhere meeting his milestones in growth and it is currently unexplained. He needs to see a Geneticist to work out what the underlying problem might be. It’s very worrying and I’m really grateful for my faith because it’s a source of strength. He is now eight months old.

Montsalvat Arts Festival

When I was a little girl my Mum had a book about mud brick architecture in Eltham and it included a lot of photographs of Montsalvat. I loved looking through it and imagining building myself a house and studio in the same style. We didn’t live in Melbourne and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to visit the place properly.

Today we went to the Montsalvat Arts Festival. The weather forecast was terrible but it didn’t end up raining, it was a beautiful day.

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There were live bands, exhibitions and various children activities. We drank hot chocolate, ate gluten free cakes and drooled over a vegan paella that ran out before I had time to return and buy it. The children played with friends and I enjoyed the gardens and buildings.

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I’d love to have a studio here, it’s such a peaceful place. I love Eltham, it’s like a little bit of Tasmania in the middle of Melbourne.

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“Create” said her soul. “About time” said her heart.

Simple joys that emerge from nowhere

It’s dusk. Outside two of my children are playing basketball. The air is chill and my fingers are cold. The street is quiet, it’s winding down time. Families at home together winding down, eating, the end of the day. My baby is sleeping beside me but I know if I try to move into the kitchen and start cooking he will wake up. How many years have I spent like this I wonder? Immobilised by the power of a sleeping child!

The last few months have been a soporific, milky blur. We have been unschooling through necessity, there just hasn’t been time for structured activities but this week we made a tentative start towards incorporating more planned learning. Really the kids have done just fine in the last six months even without strewing, life is a teacher and children are curious, they want to learn, they want to know their world. That being said I love the Waldorf curriculums we have and I’m looking forward to suggesting some projects. Lili is now seven so it’s time to get more serious about learning to read.

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At times recently I’ve felt overwhelmed by what is happening in the world, by what is happening in my country. Raising the kids amongst so much doom and gloom has felt like a burden. Somehow I made choices that situate me between a potential war of civilisations, if I fall for that rhetoric. I won’t fall for it though and I won’t succumb to fear. I turn from negative thoughts and focus on the beauty. Small things like a shelf of loved objects or laughing with the kids.

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Zeph is preparing for high school next year and I will keep homeschooling the younger kids. We will be spending a lot of time travelling but I think it will be worth it, the school curriculum is great, it’s kind of Sudbury style but a bit less alternative.

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So while we plan ahead and whilst the outside world gets ever madder and ever more destructive I reaffirm my commitment to giving my attention to all that is good. There is absolutely no point in being worried about outcomes, what matters is our present, what matters is simply to keep trying. And this is the curious paradox, the more rotten things seem, the more likely we are to surrender our expectations and then simple joys just emerge from nowhere.

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I tell my children all the time to ‘just be the best version of you that you can be‘ and it’s about time I applied the same logic to myself. It’s so easy as a Mum to focus on what we are doing wrong, I need to focus on what I am doing right. Our daily life is full of simple pleasures, simple beauty. And the hardships are just there to orient ourselves towards what is important.

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Our Homeschooling Journey

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I didn’t know that homeschooling was an option when I was a child, it was fairly unheard of where I grew up. It wasn’t until my oldest child was soon to start school that I started to look into it properly. I knew that I preferred alternative models of education and so I had started to search for schools based on the kind of pedagogy that I liked such as Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Steiner schools. But we didn’t live near any of these schools and many of them had fees that were outside our budget so I started wondering if our children could learn using these methods at home.

I started to talk to a few people whom I knew were homeschooling, I borrowed books and within a short period of time I realised I was fairly ideologically opposed to the school system. I read John Taylor Gatto and started to really doubt that I could comfortably put my children into school. I looked into homeschooling requirements in my State and I registered us for homeschooling. But my partner wasn’t convinced and when I fell pregnant with my fourth child just months before my daughter was due to start Prep I lost confidence and decided she needed to go to school.

I enrolled her in a nearby State primary school and it certainly wasn’t bad and my daughter loved her first year. I stopped thinking about homeschooling because it seemed to be going so well. But I still experienced a gnawing concern over where I would send my children for high school, the State high schools in my area being totally dismal.

When my oldest son started Prep I decided it was better to transfer them to a private school that continued through to Year Twelve. And this turned out to be a terrible decision as it didn’t work out at all well for my son. After a period of attempting to persevere with it we withdrew both children and the following year they went to the local state school. By then we had moved to another area and it was a much larger school. By midway through the year my son no longer wanted to go and I was struggling to get him out the door in the morning. I had continued reading about homeschooling and I felt so uninspired to continue pushing him to attend an environment that to me just didn’t encourage a real love for learning. By then I had convinced my partner that we should try homeschooling and so finally four years after I had wanted to do it the first time, we began.

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I still didn’t have much confidence so when I heard of a nearby homeschooling co op we joined and this is how we homeschooled the first year. Three days a week we attended with several other families. It was very involved and I found it difficult to balance my parental commitment with my housekeeping tasks but it was a great first step into schooling outside the school system.

I then decided to continue on my own.

I had noticed a stark difference in my children’s behaviour, they were much calmer and much less hyperactive. One of the key benefits of homeschooling was making our own schedule and spending time together. The kids attended taekwondo classes.

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I had investigated curriculums and decided to invest in materials from Oak Meadow, an online School in America that is Steiner influenced. I was also quite drawn to the Unschooling philosophy but not so sure about pursuing something so unstructured.
Over time I also discovered Charlotte Mason and I found the idea of Unit Studies really helpful for homeschooling multiple children. I realised that I am too eclectic to follow any one method by itself. It is this freedom and flexibility that I love about homeschooling. We follow what we find inspiring.

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Our journey is still only really just beginning. Homeschooling is an ongoing adventure.