It makes a difference in our everyday moments how much love we feel from those around us. This is always true. And as mothers who are navigating the unchartered terrains of discovering what family-centered learning looks like for our children, this love is necessary to sustaining a vibrancy, a joy, a hope in our work.
When we feel loved, supported, celebrated, and seen we function differently. We greet the day with more energy. We face the challenges, we find more creative solutions, we hold onto dreams with a more expansive and lasting faith in ourselves and our process. Love matters, and feeling deeply loved matters the further we journey into these unknowns.
I come from a family of educators, engineers, and business owners. Academic achievement was always praised. Sometimes my great-aunt in New York would send us money for getting good grades. The Honor Roll and other merits were the expectation, period. Doing well in school was just what everyone did. Getting into college wasn’t so amazing, as I was a fifth generation college student—something that is phenomenal for a black family surviving generations of racism, violence, and economic oppressions in the United States of America.
For me to have had such a privileged start, for all the sacrifices that were made for me to have a “good education,” my choice to nurture my children outside of that system, and instead within in family-centered learning model rooted in love, experimentation, and passion, is baffling to many people who had a part in raising me. Most often this is expressed as bewilderment. Sometimes its more hostile. It takes a lot to be present with the process. I spend long stretches of time allowing for the slow revelations of truth to happen organically in our family process. Many days I am practicing how to really feel my way through to what and how our family learning lab will be. And on days when there is no clear and tangible love shown for our efforts, it can be frustrating, even heartbreaking.
In my family we communicate on a seven-person text group about all things related to the family. It’s my parents, my husband, my brothers, and my sister-in-law all on one thread. It’s how we stay connected across multiple households. Of all the grandkids, my children are the only ones who are not in a sit-down school. (Yes, I’m experimenting with moving away from words like “traditional” to refer to the dominant school culture.) When my nieces and nephews get rewarded at school, or accomplish something exciting, or do something interesting, there is an outpouring of positive messages from the family. Their goodness, and the value of that goodness, is easily identifiable in the system of standardized education. A report card with As and Bs, an award from a school contest, a certificate from the principal—all of this is familiar to the adults in the family and so the expression of encouragement and congratulations for the children who achieve these things flows effortlessly.
The story is different for my kids. Yes, they get there share of accolades too, but learning-based praise mostly comes when I share something simple and concrete like a picture from them at the library, or sitting with a book in their lap. When I share other types of moments from our unorthodox family learning lab—perhaps an experiment of some sort that got really, really messy, or some dance game that they invented all by themselves— sometimes there’s crickets on the line. I’ll check back all day, and there will be nothing, no acknowledgement of their growth, their discovery, their work to learn something new. They are too young to care about the responsiveness of the adults in their family, but as the mother who is laboring so passionately to cultivate this richly immersive world for them, it hurts to be so unseen in this way. I put so much into shaping this happy, free, creative life for them. And even though I know their happiness is what matters most, I am still grappling at times with the emotional consequences of choosing a path not fully accepted by our larger family.
After almost four years of intentionally growing into our family learning lab process, this is the first time I’m accessing language to articulate how the silence feels. There is a pang of doubt reverberating too: Will my children miss out on being celebrated—on being loved in a certain way—because they are not being educated in the way that is deemed normal and appropriate by their extended family? What risk am I taking in walking this unscripted path with my children, one that is not fully understood or appreciated by others in their family? Is the love and labor I’m seeding into their their brilliant black lives enough to carry them, to carry me, through?
This week the munchkins and I stumbled into a hilarious interpretation of some fun facts about the planet Venus. Reading a book about space that Wonder selected from the library, we came to a page with an image focused on a red-hot planet enveloped in the dense blackness of outer space. Wonder looked at it and said he wanted to know about the “fire rock.” I thought that was such a cool and accurate way to describe what he was seeing, and I told him so.
As I read to them about why Venus is the hottest planet, even though Mercury is the closest to the sun, we started having a conversation about how the clouds are able to trap so much heat. I spontaneously thought up a way to illustrate this concept to them with something that they would love—their favorite super hero blanket that makes a daily appearance in one munchkin adventure or another. I thought if they could feel how being wrapped up in the blanket made them get warmer, they might have a better grasp of the idea that the clouds surrounding Venus made the planet maintain such a high temperature. At first I wrapped them individually, and they took turns getting to be Venus. But then they wanted to be wrapped up together—great, I thought, more heat! This is where the laughter got really good. Every time I wrapped them up they would try to move together as one hot planet, and this was a very comical (and perhaps slightly dangerous, but only one collision with the floor, so yay!) feat for sure.
Watching them laugh so full-heartedly was a beautiful moment. I was like, I LOVE this moment! This right here, this is why I keep trusting the evolution of our family-centered learning practice, for moments like this! It came to me that whether or not they choose to become astronauts or engineers at NASA, they’ll always have this random nugget of knowledge about why Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system. And that little bit of knowing will be anchored in this delicious memory of laughter, of touch, of play, of warmth, of sweet brotherhood, in a bright, spacious, sun-filled room, with their mother and baby sister.
This is what is so sacred to me, the ability to cultivate these lasting moments with such care and tenderness, without any limitations on our time or subject or methodology, and with a lovely and deliberate proximity to my children.
This personal celebration is what I have to hold onto when after 24 hours no one on the family thread has commented on the picture I sent—with a full explanation—of the boys being the planet Venus. When I finally ask my mother, the engineer, if she saw my message, she says she’s concerned I’m introducing things that are too complicated for them to understand. So then I tell her that they wanted to learn about the planets, and the whole thing just happened on its own. But that is the full reach of her interest with this learning moment that is so wonderful for me as a mother.
For a second I am quiet, waiting, longing for her to say more, feeling like the little girlchild who wants her mommy to see she’s doing a good job and to say so out loud. The brief silence is just long enough for me to realize the extent of all I’m wanting from this exchange, of all I’m asking for from my mother, whose definite love for me and my children does not fully eclipse the uncertainty she feels about how her daughter is raising her grandchildren. But even as I can grasp the totality of all that is impossible and imperfect with this moment, I am still holding out for a slight miracle, for a hint of celebration in her tone, for a recognition, a validation of my creativity, my genius, my innovative, on-the-spot, really-amazingly-clever-bringing-joy-to-my-kids idea to facilitate an embodied understanding of the planets orbiting the sun in our very gigantic and multidimensional galaxy! Isn’t that something? I want to ask, but I don’t.
Remember the love! The mantra plays inside my head, even as my mother and I continue to talk for a while about all the other family news. I have to remind myself, again and again, of me and the munchkins’ special discovery, of our complete and fulfilling experience of shared joys and expanding understandings of the world around us. This is the love, this is the LOVE! This is us making our own bliss, even if no one else can see it, hear it, touch it, believe it. This is us, having a really, really, happy encounter with some scientific facts about the “planet of love” itself. This is us, moving through these moments on our own terms, and embracing our connection to all things in this magical universe we call home.