Eleanor had never intended to home-school her kids. She always thought mothers who home-schooled where difficult types who sought out an alternative lifestyle. She thought they were people who had no faith in the educational system, who thought the teachers were less knowledgeable than themselves. That was, until a home-schooling syllabus was thrust into her lap. William was seven years old. He had autism. He couldn’t cope with a lot of things, particularly in school life. She’d always known William was socially withdrawn, a little different, very sensitive. She’d thought of it as a good thing until the school principal called her in one day, telling her things weren’t working out. He’d have to be moved to a special needs school or sent home. The school couldn’t discriminate; he’d be allowed to stay on, but his behaviour was a distraction to the rest of the class, she said. Eleanor knew he wasn’t happy there. When she picked him up from the childminder every day, he was agitated and unsettled. He never had his homework done. He had too many interests he pursued obsessively at home to have the time; homework was at the bottom of his pile of priorities. It was always shoved to the bottom of his bag, like he hoped if it was well enough hidden, it would cease to exist. Eleanor always found it untouched and sat down with him to help him through it. She ended up doing it herself, with him just making the pen marks on the page. He stared out the window, dreaming of other things. Eleanor’s other children were studious and engaged in their classes and with their classmates. William liked to be alone with his Lego, making structures for hours. Eleanor had faith that he would find his own area of interest. She had done, after all. Only with her, it had been literature.
Eleanor worked for a literary agency, editing books. It was her life’s dream. She couldn’t believe her luck when she landed the job straight out of university. Then, she met her husband and things became more complicated. Juggling family life and a career required some skill, especially since Keith worked such long hours at the hospital. He was a surgeon and his hours were as unpredictable as the length of his patients’ operations. Eleanor had to whittle down her hours to three days a week to fit work around her family. They had three kids, aged seven, nine and eleven. The pre-teen years needed a lot of parental involvement. Still, Eleanor loved to escape to work on her days in. She liked to sit, stationary, behind her desk and open her email, never knowing what work of art might find its way to her inbox that day. She loved to uncover a new story, one that she could disappear into. For that morning and afternoon, she forgot about life’s stressors, about what she would make for dinner that night, about the three loads of unwashed laundry waiting for her in the over-spilling basket.
When they had their third child, she and Keith had discussed the possibility of her becoming a stay-at-home mum. She had thought the costs of childcare and the demands of parenthood might take over for a few years. But she had been happy to find a balance that worked for them; until the issue of home-schooling drew a question mark over the current arrangement. Eleanor’s work wasn’t just work; it was a creative outlet for her. It was a chance to employ the under-utilised side of her mother-brain. She didn’t get time to read in the evenings anymore; the two older kids stayed up as late as she did, interrupting every TV show she tried to watch with Keith with their questions. She spent most nights ironing school shirts, packing lunchboxes and signing off homework books. Work was the only place where she used her imagination.
The day that she left the school office, Eleanor decided home-schooling was the only option. It was too late in the year to get William a place in a school for special needs. She went home to research how to go about it, where to find a syllabus. It was never something she thought she’d find herself looking into. That night she discussed it with Keith. The decision was final; it wasn’t their decision so much as the only available choice.
“Maybe you can work from home?” said Keith. It felt like a word of consolation more than a likelihood.
One week later, Eleanor was slowly coming to terms with her new lifestyle. Her value lay in looking after others, like a nurse with longer shifts. She watched every cup of coffee she made turn cold without being drunk, made few visits to the bathroom alone and her posterior only glazed the surface of chairs before she was called upon to complete another task.
She was learning things about her son she hadn’t known when he was in school. She’d always thought that William had a scientific mind. He only seemed concerned with assembling structures and counting how far away he was, pocket money-wise, from the latest Lego set. At least, until Eleanor cleared out a cupboard while he built a structure at her feet. She found a dust-coated box of her childhood books inside.
“These were yours, Mum?” he asked, pausing his game. She nodded. “Will you read them to me?” He clambered onto her knee. Eleanor realised she might not be reading the stories of new authors, but she was rereading those of the ones who made the greatest impression on her, the words that had made the first imprint on her little mind. As she watched William’s imagination coming to life and taking flight before her, she could see that what she was doing had more creative worth than the publication of every new novel that came her way. In the end, she could always go back to it later. But she couldn’t fill in the blanks in motherhood later in life.