Make Way for Breaks: Scheduling around Chronic Illness

Ah the beloved break. Spring Break, Winter Break…Summer vacation. Many of my favorite childhood memories are inextricably linked with the nostalgia of school breaks. A nostalgia that I do not want my children to miss out on even though we have the freedom to break away from the school schedules that accompany them. I love the idea of traditions that make their home within a specific break. The feeling of adventure as you look forward to days or weeks of unscheduled freedom, which is why I schedule my entire year around such breaks.

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I absolutely love that as a homeschooler I can control how we set up those breaks and how often we get to have them. I love being able to plan special breaks around family birthdays or events happening in our life. The children love knowing that if one week has been especially hard on us, there is always the option of having a slower week soon after. However, there’s another reason I love being able to schedule breaks whenever I need them at this season of my life. Quite frankly, my health demands it.

My body physically demands some kind of reprieve from the responsibilities that go along with being a homeschooler. I just cannot do it all, all of the time. It is too much for me. Trying to homeschool, keep house, volunteer, be a wife, a writer, feed my creative hungers and intellectual curiosities all while fighting my own body and it’s limitations absolutely requires that I prioritize my time. For me it is a constant battle between the chronic fatigue and body pains of fibromyalgia, the eye fatigue, headaches and migraines of IIH and the debilitating effects of seasonal depression that absolutely demand that I listen to my body and be proactive rather than reactive.

Reactions mean days in bed with no ability to meet the needs of myself, let alone my children. Which  I feel is not fair to them or my husband, who is wonderful enough to pick up my share as well as his own during those rough patches. That is not the kind of mother or wife I want to be, my own personal expectations are far too high for that. So instead of reacting to piss poor planning, I actively schedule and prioritize my time, knowing my limits and abiding by them. Knowing that I need a certain number of down days per week and not over scheduling my time. Knowing that certain situations, lightings or atmospheres trigger headaches. Knowing all of these things and above all, planning for them- which is especially hard when you also enjoy being spontaneous and adventurous.

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First things first. My first step in planning out my time is to plan out a rough yearly schedule based on the times of year that work with me and not against me. We choose to school year round in order to best accommodate my needs in this regards.

For us this looks like a year round schedule that is broken up into six terms. These terms are very loosely based and can last anywhere from six to eight weeks. At around six weeks I evaluate our current mood and condition; if all is well we go ahead for two more weeks, if not then we stop and take a week off. This way we don’t overdo things trying to just push through. However, unlike most term based schedules I make one slight distinction – we have what I call our Holiday Term and Summer Vacation built into the term system.

Our school year looks like this:

Term 1: July &August

Term 2: Sept &Oct

Term 3: Nov &Dec- Holiday term

Term 4: Jan & Feb

Term 5: Mar &Apr

Term 6: May & June – Summer Vacation

During the four regular terms we do the vast majority of our studying, we take field trips, go to plays or performances and take part in local classes. The short breaks between terms allow for little reprieves that are just right for clearing our minds from time to time. On the other hand, the two  middle terms are our big breaks. Rather than me preparing everything and laying everything out we go with what feels interesting. We follow passions and build our independent study ability because my children love learning so much that they just don’t stop, even if I tell them that we are on vacation. I still record our progress during this time but I don’t set up any requirements. I don’t ask the children to do math or copy work, we don’t read off of our scheduled readings. We do check out science books at the library (usually because someone wants to know how something works), we do go to museums, create art, watch documentaries…all things that I record through pictures, receipts and end products but any thing that happens during this time is occurring spontaneously and is done out of pure curiosity or desire.

As much as the kids love all these breaks, the best part about this schedule is that it allows me time during my hardest months to move into survival mode without affecting our overall year.

November and December are very hard months for me. My mind has a horrible time adjusting to the light changes, and the weather changes affect how my body moves as well. During these months I just cannot keep up with everything so instead I plan for my focus to shift away from schooling to things like dishes, laundry, and meals. I know that I can spend the time with my children baking and reading without worrying that I have enough written down for the reviews. The children also love the freedom to enjoy the first snows and the changes of the seasons outside without worrying about written math lessons. In addition, because it coincides with Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Three Kings Day this break allows us to focus on traditions and joyful holiday fun rather than finishing up a test.

On the flip side of this May and June are my best months. The weather is perfect for spending the entire day outside. Gardens can be planted. Nearby nature preserves are full of life waiting to be explored. Most schools aren’t out yet so it is also a perfect time for a family vacation or special outings. We love having the freedom to use these months (and my extra energy) doing the things that are harder to do the rest of the year without thought to school. It also works out nicely that our last few weeks of summer vacation perfectly coincide with the schools release so that we can have fun with cousins as well.

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Now that my year is planned out (roughly), I move my focus on to my weeks and terms. Before this year my terms were based entirely on our interests at that time. I would ask the children what they were interested in and then we would explore those things together- taking every rabbit trail along the way. However, because this year is so different I’ll keep it short and sweet. First of all, because I am following a Charlotte Mason education this year, this part of my planning process is very specific to this style. I have my list of subjects and my topics within each subject for each child that I want to complete over the year. I then break that list into the four terms that I have going on during the year. Because I know that each term can last from six to eight weeks I plan for eight weeks from the get go knowing ahead of time that we may be starting the next term picking up at the unfinished end of the last one. As for subject matter…well that is a whole other post and one that relies heavily on mixing and matching what works for us based on established resources like Ambleside Online, Simply Charlotte Mason, Charlotte Mason Help, A Modern Charlotte Mason, Sabbath Mood, A Delectable Education, and AfterThoughts. This year I spent about a month preparing for our upcoming year but even then I only prepared down to the weekly level of each term. I stop my lesson plans at the week level specifically because I know that each week will require a different rhythm to best fit my health at that time.

 

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So, moving onto the how. How do I plan ahead regarding my day to day when I also know that I am no good at keeping schedules and when I have to plan ahead for any possible unknown flare ups? For me, it means multiple open plans. I never have just one schedule or routine, instead I have a cycle of options that fit together making up the perfect week or term or year.

For this year these are the options for my days.

  1. The out of the house day, Full Day: Basically these are the days when we leave the house. We wake up earlier than usual, we need to have planned meals for the day, outing bags need to be packed the night before, weather needs to be checked… this also means that no other schooling will occur, dinner needs to be easy and tomorrow needs to be at home because this kind of day is exhausting, for all of us.
  2. The out of the house day, part day: These are the days that include some kind of outing that is close to home and less than 3 hours long, including driving time. Piano lessons, Art class, Science class, Playdates, Nature Study, Library trips… all of these options are part of our school day and the rest of our day flows around them. Readings, math and copy work still happen although when they happen depends greatly on the schedules required by outside forces such as other people, open/close times, weather issues, etc…
  3. The home school day: This is a typical homeschool day and normally only lasts 3 hours. We wake up when we wake up and follow a basic routine, which often look like this: breakfast, readings together, math and copy work, lunch, tea time, outside time, free afternoons, tidy up, dinner and family time.
  4. The home chore day: These are the days when I just can’t stand the mess any longer and I need to deep clean. We still do math, copy work and about half of our regular readings but the focus is on our house… these days usually precede house guests and are the reason my children ask who is coming to visit when they see me pull out the cleaning supplies.
  5. The lazy day (I name this with a warm, fuzzy attachment to the term lazy, not at all a negative one): When we have had a particularly harrowing week or weekend we throw one of these days in (usually on Monday or Friday) just to help us refresh. These are usually an anything goes kind of day and we rarely get dressed on them. You will often find mommy in yoga pants, the middle girls in tee’s n shorts (regardless of the weather outside), Itty bitty running through the halls in underwear (her preferred mode of dress) and Little Man is usually in pj bottoms with a tank top (he would also prefer to be in underwear alone but alas being the only boy in a house full of girls requires that he be clothed at lest marginally). You will almost always see a slew of art supplies scattered across our living room, a stack of books beside a crumb filled tea set and more than one electronic device huddled with a blanket. Mommy’s nose is most likely firmly stuck in the pages of a book for a good portion of the day. These are our favorite days.

Mixing and matching these different kinds of days into a week , month or term allow us to focus on the atmosphere of our learning. The flow we had as unschoolers stays intact even if I now have readings or assignments that we want to finish within a specific week. I try to have at least two #3 days and no more than one #1 or #5 days per week. Most weeks we have three #2 days and two #3 days and occasionally we will have a full week of #3 days, these, though not often enough, are often what I feel are my most productive weeks.

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While certain aspects of this plan are specific to CM, it has not always been. This is the same plan that I used when I unschooled. The only difference between this schedule and our unschooling one was that our homeschool days were entirely child led and sometimes looked similar to our lazy days. I didn’t come by way of this over night either. Over the years I found our rhythm. There were seasons where I pushed too hard and crashed shortly after. There were times when I over scheduled our weeks and sometimes months, leading to an in ability to get out of bed. If you look through my past posts its easy to see where depression took over, where fatigue left me empty, where I just couldn’t handle the day to day of life. Every one of those hard or dark times was taken into consideration when I built this schedule over the last three years.

Last year was my first full year without a complete burnout. For me that means I found what worked. What worked was this. As of now this is the way that I can schedule things in the most productive way while also being aware of my own limitations. This is how I get everything to fit without burning myself out. I have to create blank spaces in our year. I have to schedule in room for wiggling. To put it in a nutshell, scheduling for me, is all about how I Make Way for Breaks.

The Year of Uncertainty: Looking back on 2015

The year of 2015 is coming to a close and as I sit and reflect over everything that has happened over the past twelve months I have come to the realization that this past year has been one of never ending tests on my faith and an excruciatingly large amount of unknown.  So much uncertainty has plagued the past year and in turn so much change has occurred over such a short year and in that same time so much growth has happened unbeknownst to those of us in the midst of the trials .

As a family we are a tiny bit stronger than we were last December and as a woman I am a tiny bit braver than I was this time last year.

the year of uncertainty

Going into 2015 we still had no confirmation as to our ongoing position with the Marine Corps. There was still every possibility that they would reject our request for early retirement. We had no idea whether we would be retiring in the area or whether we would be given orders to move to a new area.

We had five months left on our apartment lease but only two months to decide if we were going to stay in that tiny (for our family) apartment or leave. If we stayed it would be another year long lease and rent was rising by several hundred dollars per month. If we left we could find a better deal but how long would we be there? Orders could show up and require us to move out at any time, and while we always sign a military clause I would never want to subject a family to an unexpected loss of renters. We could buy if we knew that the Corps was releasing us but we had absolutely no savings for a deposit and no idea what was affordable because there still wasn’t a job lined up.

Oh yeah, then there was the whole job issue. There were possibilities of jobs, there were companies offering contract positions that sounded great but none of them would start an official hiring process without an official retirement date. See the circularness of this situation?

2015 was already full of uncertainty and it had only just begun.

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In mid February we returned that intention to move out slip to the apartment complex before we received the yes on our retirement. We had no backup plan, unless you count moving back on base and spending more than we could afford a month on housing just to have a place to live as backup. By the end of February we received the yes for the Retirement. We had to move out of our apartment by May 1 and we still had no job lined up. After talking to co-workers who had been in similar situations, the consensus was that buying a house on active duty is infinitely easier than buying one when you’re just starting out at a new job. So the look for a house began and surprisingly we were pre-approved for enough to actually get a decent, if not older home in our area. Still, everything was up in the air and nothing in our lives had any sense of certainty.

School took on the same air of uncertainty. The children knew we were living in limbo. We were all stressed out. We unschooled more than anything else, and it worked far more than I honestly thought it would. The girls started showing more of their giftedness. Little Miss became more inquisitive than ever before, Curly Que picked up everything at light speed and there was never enough information. Itty Bitty demanded even more constant attention and information but her usually great sleeping habits stopped being great. She stopped napping most days, even though her mood needed it, and she would not go to sleep at night, not of her own free will. She would move until she literally dropped, and that was rarely ever in her bed.

I couldn’t stand being in the apartment any longer and we spent almost everyday out and about. We lived out school. We went to the free DC museums several times a month. We went to every $8 performance I could get my hands on just so that we would have an activity to get us out of the cramped apartment. The snow and freezing temperatures didn’t matter, I just couldn’t stand the uncertainty that I associated with the apartment any longer.

We spent whole days going from one wildlife refuge to another, warming up in the library or over fast food. Our diet was as all over the place as our life. The children and I were always just trying to get from one day to the next, all of us were just trying to get from one day to the next.

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Then in May everything fell into place. First the house, then the job and we felt a sense of relief. We thought the rest of the year would be a breeze after that but we never even considered that I could be the one to break down next. My headaches were debilitating and I could not focus my eyes when the sun was up. I went to the optometrist because I had only ever had migraines related to needing a new prescription. Nothing was wrong with my prescription but the double vision worried the ancient man in the lab coat who smelled of moth balls and peppermint. He gave me a referral for an ophthalmologist, which I took to the base clinic and set up a referral.

If your acquainted with military healthcare than you know that a referral can take anywhere from a week to several months to set up. My referral was sent to Bethesda/Walter Reed, the busiest hospital in the military healthcare system. The referral process took a month and it was another month after that when the first available appointment was set up. As I waited the double vision began to go away and the headaches came and went with the weather. I almost cancelled the appointment but the urging of close friends nudged me ahead. Im glad I didn’t since that appointment landed me in the hospital for a week of testing and an ongoing relationship with the neurology department.

Then we found out that everything was changing with our extended family as well. My brother and his family started the process for becoming missionaries. My grandparents moved out of the house they had lived in since I was in high school, and bought a condo in a senior community. My father changed jobs and is still trying to sell his house. My brother in law moved cross country and the other brother in law started a whole new career.

Everything in our life was changing so drastically, and so quickly. Unschooling wasn’t working anymore. By the time that the new school year started my kiddos just couldn’t handle the unknown anymore. My son, especially, just shut down. He couldn’t remember why he walked into a room anymore. He forgot simple tasks. He forgot things that had always been routine before, because the routine had disappeared. Unschooling wasn’t working because we had no constant framework to work within any longer. Too much had changed. We all needed to have some consistency, especially this guy.

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I wasn’t doing well either. My headaches still came regularly. My vision was better but now I could/can predict the weather based on the level of my headaches. Staying inside because of headaches was fueling my yearly depression. I felt a new story erupting from somewhere in my head and I desperately wanted to get it on paper before it disappeared again. My need to paint grew stronger and my desire to read conflicted daily with my heads aching protests to the small print. Usually this is when we take a fall break from school, but we couldn’t this year. We needed the structure. We needed the consistency so I forced my creativity to work in the sidelines.

I tried my best to be more intentional about our schooling. I planned ahead, I read out loud daily, I bought a math curriculum and looked into reading ones. I just didn’t have the ability to continue doing everything from scratch when my head was bouncing between splitting and pounding headaches every few days.  We still only schooled for half of the day, the rest was left open for masterly inactivity and pursuing of passions, but it still feels foreign to me. The children are thriving under the structure, I’m barely keeping my head above water but I’m not drowning. I’m getting better with each new day.

I am exhausted. From it all. From the year. Exhausted, but stronger and happier, even after everything that has happened.

This last week of December is my vacation. The children are watching more television that I would normally be ok with. They are playing amongst themselves and I have retreated to worlds of fantasy. I have read more books this past week than I have all year. I’ve allowed myself time to recuperate. This year I gave the children a real winter break and we are relishing every moment of it. 

I wish I could say that I know what will happen in 2016, but I don’t. Im still being held in the grasp of the Year of Uncertainty. 2016 is a mystery to me.   I don’t know whats lying ahead. I’m still trying to break free of our day to day existence. I am still looking for the joy in every moment, still finding the blessings in the every day but I couldn’t even begin to tell you what to expect from us in the next month- let alone a whole year.

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Itty Bitty has been hinting towards a desire to learn how to read. Curly Que wants to learn how to build things. Little Miss has grown into dolls and sewing. Little Man has lost himself, he’s the oldest and understood the most of what’s going on and needs gentle guidance to find his way back. My husband has expressed an interest in possibly going back to school. I am just trying to learn how to deal with near constant headaches as a part of my normal. We now have family living in Spain and an itch to travel… but nothing is certain. If anything, this past year has taught us how to roll with the punches, keep the faith and like Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Just Keep Swimming!”

Goodbye 2015, Bring it on 2016!