Radical Unschooling

The Next Family

By: Julie Gamberg

I’ve recently become a fan of The Diet Soap podcast. The podcaster “unschools” his kids, as he mentioned when he had the guest Dayna Martin on his show to discuss her book “Radical Unschooling – A Revolution Has Begun.” Since hearing their talk, I have begun to fret that if I don’t unschool my baby she will grow up to be an authoritarian/obedient cog in the capitalist machine, blinded by the illusion of consumerism and never experiencing “the real” (if “the real” is not already “dead”). And that outcome would occur even if I gave up on public school and somehow managed to send her to the hippy private school that holds bake sales with quinoa-agave brownies to repaint their crumbling buildings but actually costs, literally, about as much as I make in a year. But what’s particularly great about my latest mental obsession with unschooling and all things equally obscure is that the more I talk about that, the more people might not even notice I’m a single mom!

Yes, unschooling is not the only obscure or alternative parenting idea that I obsess over, or actually do. Perhaps you read my recent article about elimination communication. I was not surprised that the first couple of comments were of the that’s crazy! ilk. Along those lines, a new friend recently wrote an article for Salon about eating her placenta. The comments she received make crazy seem like an endearment. They were plentiful and for the most part really vitriolic. Salon told her she received amongst the most irate and negative comments for any piece they had ever published. Impressive. For cooking and eating her placenta and writing, I feel, very eloquently and descriptively about the experience.

And speaking of eating, my mom just shared with me that she had been kicked out of a casual restaurant for breastfeeding when I was seven weeks old. She and I were completely covered with a shawl, neck to hips. Yet another diner complained to the manager that the sight was making him lose his appetite and the manager asked her to leave. Due to general lack of support, my mom was only able to breastfeed me for another six weeks. No wonder!

Although that was nearly forty years ago, we still seem to have a real squeamishness at the corporeal aspects of parenting, as well as any type of parenting outside of the mainstream. And at the same time, I hear over and over again that mainstream, or conservative, parents feel bullied or intimidated by alternative or crunchier parents. Yet mainstream parents are in charge. Mainstream parenting controls the agenda, the conversation. I keep hearing about the “breastfeeding Nazis,” but almost all the new moms I know have inadequate pump-at-work situations; out-of-hospital lactation consultants are still not paid for by insurance; and I can’t remember the last time I saw truly public breastfeeding.

This sense of the mainstream feeling threatened by the alternative is reminiscent of my twenty plus years’ of vegetarianism. Although I am an ethical vegetarian, I am not an animal rights activist. I’m pretty picky about what goes on my plate, but totally relaxed about what goes on yours. The majority of vegetarians I come across are similar (obviously animal rights activists are in a different category being, well, activists). Yet I can barely get vegetar— out of my mouth before someone is rolling their eyes, apologizing for ordering meat, explaining my wrongheadedness, or telling me how they’re sick of being attacked for their choices.

I don’t know how many of you who eat meat and either secretly or not so secretly think you shouldn’t. But I do know that I do loads of things, like drinking frappuccinos at Starbucks, or watching crappy sitcoms, that some imaginary better self wouldn’t do. And I know the feeling of running into someone who grows their own coffee beans on their organic patch of community garden and would never walk into a corporate chain, and who hasn’t seen TV in twenty years, and feeling instantly attacked by this sanctimonious zealot with no sense of humor and no tolerance for ambiguity, who dared to say “Hi!”

And sometimes I feel that way just hearing about this person secondhand. You know her. She works in a homeless shelter. She grows her own food. He’s reduced his garbage output to one bag a month. He gives away 90% of his income. He also meditates and exercises daily, and only reads serious literature. Any “vices” are so prettied up that they are nearly virtues. For example, she brews her own scotch using an ancient recipe which otherwise would have been lost. She eats meat from roadkill.

So here is where y’all go ewwwww! in the same way folks did for my friend’s article about eating her placenta or, to a lesser degree, to mine about EC-ing lite. Or how the customer did to a mother trying to feed her baby. And this is what I’m wondering: Is that ewwww reaction all really and truly ewwww, or does some part of us feel guilty, judged and even attacked for not being in touch with something more earthy, more authentic, more squishy, and somehow more real?

I have a friend who does not feel bad in the least about going to Starbucks, or watching crappy TV, or buying $600 boots. She would not cook, nor encapsulate, nor even probably want to hear the word placenta. And I imagine she does not think that her ewwww is anything other than a real ewwww. The same one we would all have if asked to snort raw maggots.

And I’ll give that to her about my imaginary zealot who eats roadkill. Maybe even about elimination communication. But the ewww that I am having trouble believing is the one about unschooling, or not using punishments/rewards, or nursing toddlers. I’m worried that ewwww is how we express a vague or complex relationship to guilt and confusion that we have about how we should be doing things.

As a working, single mom, it is very unlikely I will be able to unschool. My schedule is flexible enough that I could probably participate in a co-op, but one way or another, I’ll likely have to find some sort of public school situation. There is a part of me that wants to identify and fixate on all of the real or imagined things that might or must be wrong with unschooling. Yet what would it be like to come to terms with believing that there is a much better way to parent, but I am choosing not to do it? Or that my circumstances prohibit it? To appreciate those who are doing it, and to mourn its loss for me?

Every once in a while I run into a carnivore who says something along the lines of they’re pretty committed to meat, but they’re very vegetarian-friendly. Or they’re working toward becoming a vegetarian but they’re very much not there yet. I am so much not an animal activist that my heart rejoices nearly equally at both. Simply not being harassed for being something outside of the mainstream is such a pleasure.

These are extraordinarily dense times and I realize we all have trouble keeping up. We fib and fudge, and are too tired, or overworked, or not in the mood, or overwhelmed. I know how much pressure women feel, for example, when they can’t, or don’t want to breastfeed. And yes it would be good if no one were made to feel like a pariah because of it. Yet I do think when we feel most attacked or judged for our parenting choices is when we are most ambivalent about them. It seems that when we acknowledge that ambivalence, it’s a lot easier to say “I’m not there yet, or may never be, but good for you.” A hard and heavy look at the truth behind our attitudes could be just we need to feel lighter.

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