Okay, okay—I know, the title is a bit bonkers, right? It sounds completely improbable, and to be honest, I’m not sure I even understand it still myself. But hear me out here. Hear me out about the most unexpected thing that came out of the COVID pandemic for me: self-care, in the form of homeschooling.

As a single mom, self-care has always looked and felt different for me. There’s no partner to take the kid while I go to dinner with a friend, or sleep in, or anything like that. Pre-pregnancy, I worked out 4-6 times a week at a gym. After my son was born, I couldn’t do that, for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here. My self-care was usually a trip to the bookstore… with my son. What I’m trying to get at is that self-care, for me, has mostly been about enabling my day-to-day life to go a little more smoothly. It’s been about reducing stress a smidge, about redistributing the juggling act to keep it going a little longer.

I found self-care in the most unlikely of places: homeschooling.

Prior to the pandemic, my son would go to preschool, and you can be sure I nearly skipped out of the school every day after hugging him goodbye, because I had several hours of quiet in which to work. I work full-time from home as a writer. Preschool was necessary for my sanity and productivity.

But there was also a downside. With three speech therapy sessions each week for my son’s speech apraxia, after I would pick my son up from preschool, we’d go home, grab a snack, rest for a little bit, and then run errands and eat dinner out before speech. The drive there or back inevitably landed us in rush-hour traffic. On non-speech days, we’d come home, eat a snack, and then I’d finish up work for a bit before making dinner. It was basically go-go-go until getting him bathed and ready for bed.

I first looked into homeschooling in Fall 2019. We’d had a horrible experience with a local public preschool, from which I pulled him, and I wasn’t thrilled with our district’s competitive academic culture and emphasis on early academics. But as a single parent, I didn’t see how it was possible to homeschool. Regardless, when I would pick my son up at his regular preschool, the director and I would talk and talk about homeschooling, John Holt, unschooling, and alternative approaches to education.

Then came COVID. Friday the 13th brought the news that the preschool would be closed for the next two weeks. I was due to start a new medical writing project on Monday, and I had no idea what this would look like.

We started to ditch the crafts and zooms pretty early on. The Zooms were hard for my son because of his speech issues, and he started refusing to wear his glasses because he could see on the screen that he was the only one with them. He acted out in speech teletherapy.

Once we ditched remote learning, things got better. He wore his glasses again, started talking more, and was back to his old self with speech. I started revisiting the homeschool books I had, scrolled Instagram all night after he went to bed, and ordered some activity books for him, along with more books on homeschooling and education for me. We slowly got into a routine. In the morning, we’d do some “school,” take a nature walk, and do sensory play. After lunch, I would work while he was playing independently or watching a movie, and finish up any other work after he went to bed.

Slowly, it started to dawn on me: I was less stressed, despite the world being on fire. I was, possibly for the first time in a long time, at ease with motherhood. Before the pandemic, I’m not sure I was enjoying motherhood very much. Yes, I love my son, but I was burning out. The constant motion and the lack of quality time with him wasn’t helping.

Before the pandemic, there was also the near-daily, subtle ableism. My son’s apraxia meant that, at the time, he didn’t have many words. Every morning, we’d get to school early and my son would cheerfully say hi to any kids and parents he saw. Some would return the greeting, but there were always kids (and parents) who would look right at him and say nothing—and then say hi to everyone else. When the kids played in the gym before going to classrooms, I would see some kids turn their backs to my son if he approached them. He would then go to the scooters and ride around, but it was painful to watch. There was the time shortly after Thanksgiving where the teachers had to talk to his entire preschool class about being nice and accepting differences, because things had gotten not so great in the classroom. My son never seemed bothered by it, I think because he did have some adults who loved and cared for him at the school and several kind friends. For that, I am grateful.

Homeschooling also meant we didn’t have other parents and kids to compare ourselves to. Because let’s be honest: we all know we’re not supposed to compare our kids or parenting, but I don’t know one person who doesn’t. And parenting can become super competitive, whether we want to admit it or not.

For kids who don’t fit the “typical” mold and their parents, it makes you want to scream. At least, it made me want to scream. (And I often did, in the privacy of my car.)

But all of a sudden, the environment of performative achievement was gone. The pressure to meet certain milestones or keep up was missing. All that mattered was where my son was at that moment, because it was just us. I cannot overstate the impact this had.

My son could work at his own pace. His Zoom speech therapy was going great. There was no one to talk over him and he wasn’t self-conscious about starting to talk more. For the first time, I realized how creative he was. He would build whole worlds out of our loose parts tray and his wooden toys and play independently for hours. I never got to see that before because we were always on the move, always running behind, always had to be somewhere or do something.

As odd as this sounds, we started to really get to know each other again. Things were going so well that I decided to continue homeschooling him this past school year, and we’re homeschooling again in the fall.

I found self-care in the most unlikely of places: homeschooling. I’m not domestic. I’m not one of those moms who loves all things motherhood. I love my work and it’s a large part of my identity. I am still trying to reconcile all of this. Self-care, for me, turned out to be removing myself from the competitive parenting and the culture of schooling. (And as someone who was a high-achieving student, the daughter of two educators, the kind of kid for whom school was made, this was the last thing I expected). There’s been a lot written about the culture of competitive parenting and how detrimental our culture of achievement can be, but most of that has focused on the children.

It turns out it can affect parents, too.