I have never really considered myself as someone living with chronic pain… I suppose that’s because I’m not actually in pain constantly, just frequently. A recent Facebook thread about homeschooling with chronic pain somehow made me realize that I do indeed suffer chronically. As I read the mother’s question about how to tailor her homeschool around her pain, I realized that I do that… I tailor our homeschool around my pain. Somehow I never consiously realized it until that very moment.
I suffer from migraine headaches. I’ve had them since I was 16 years old. My mother has them, my aunts have them, my cousins… It’s just part of our genetic code. Part of life. Save for a few strange weeks here or there, my migraines have pretty consistently come 2-3 times per week, every week since I first began to get them. The medical definition of “chronic migraine” is 15 or more headaches per month, at least 8 of them being migraines. With 9-12 migraines per month and always a handful of tension or sinus headaches mixed in, I suppose I really DO have chronic migraines. That is hard to accept!
So how do I function on a daily basis? How do I do my duties as a homeschool mom, housewife, tutor, and blogger? Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I frequently don’t. I fail. I fail often. Obviously I don’t get around to posting here as often as I’d like (though I try to make my content worth the wait for my few faithful readers!). There are many nights I go to bed with dishes in the sink, laundry on the piled up on the couch, no lesson plans prepared for morning, and sometimes there are even nights that my kids have to tuck themselves in.
My husband regularly works late and sometimes I’m taken down completely before he can get home. I’ll never forget the first time my older daughter, then 7, had to pick up my slack. In a migraine haze, gesturing wildly in the dark I shooed my girls into the dimly lit bathroom, grunting out directions to wash their bodies and to call for me when I needed to wash hair. I stepped out of the bathroom to lay across my bed in the hopes that the dark, quiet room would finally give me respite from the pain. There, I somehow slipped into sleep. Ten minutes later, I awoke with a start, pain shooting into my eye and across my head. I jumped into the bathroom to save my surely injured/drown kids only to find Bean gently helping Bella dry up. Bean had washed both of their hair, helped dry her sister up and was planning to sneak out and go to bed. And despite my momentary fear for their safety during my short nap, the pain was so intense, I conceded. I allowed my 7 year old to continue with the bedtime routine all on her own. Later, she came to my bedside and told me in a soft whisper, “Mommy, I helped Bella brush her teeth, and I brushed my own. I read her a book and we said our prayers. Is there anything else we need to do? Do you need anything? Are you okay?” I muttered about how proud I was. I hugged her. I thanked her. And I sent her to bed.
Unfortunately, since that first night my kids have had to fend for themselves all too often. Sometimes I wonder how we all made it through those infant years. I suppose my girls got put to bed earlier or perhaps later after Daddy got home back then. There are so many times I can look back to see myself flailing helplessly as the world carries on without me. Maybe I’ve gotten comfortable knowing Bean can handle helping out. Maybe I’m trusting Bella to be responsible for herself too early. But that’s what I’ve got. That’s how we survive the day-to-day.
Migraines certainly make homeschooling more challenging. But with practice, planning, and lots of grace, it can be done. Our first few years of homeschooling consisted of many failed plans, lots of tears, and my own crushed ego. Attempting to plan our days quickly burned me out. I pushed myself too hard through the pain, fed my family too many last-minute junk food meals, and always felt like we were chasing these ridiculous arbitrary deadlines. In general, I consistently felt like a failure.
As I’ve grown as a homeschool mom, I’ve learned that planning looks quite different for our family compared to most other homeschool families. With the limitations set upon me due to my pain, I have to take a few extra steps to ensure I’m not going overboard on my expectations for our homeschool, to prevent those awful feelings of failure from creeping up on me again. I have heard wonderful things about the book, Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakeable Peace, by Sarah Mackenzie, as an empowering resource for those of us homeschooling while grappling with chronic pain. Since I haven’t yet read it myself I can’t personally recommend it, but it is most definitely on my kindle to-read list, as I’ve heard it addresses those expectations we put on ourselves, our children, and our homeschool. Perhaps once I read it, I’ll have a lot more to say on the topic, but for now I can identify a few changes I’ve made to our lives to make our homeschool more efficient in recent years.
I am sharing the little ways I tailor our homeschool around my pain in the hopes it will speak to anyone who is in the trenches with me. If you also suffer from chronic pain, I hope these tips can help you effectively lead your homeschool. I can’t take the pain away, but hopefully I can offer you some encouragement on your journey! These things may sound simple, but all too often those of us with chronic pain end up feeling a little “doomsday” and we shut down before exploring all our options.
1. Make loose plans
Each of my children has a daily routine chart of what should be worked on each weekday as a guide. I do NOT write up something different for each week noting lesson numbers, pages to read, etc. In my experience, making up detailed schedules/plans led me to those deep feelings of inadequacy. Between my migraines, various headaches, field trips, illnesses, and attitude problems (they are kids, after all!), it was a rare occurrence when we could stick to my plans. It was time-consuming and emotionally painful to continually rearrange our schedule to make up for lost time. Making a routine chart instead gives my kids an idea of what to expect without restricting us on exactly how much we need to get done every individual day. I am still working out the kinks on this one, and may turn Bean’s into more of a checklist, but for now, this work-in-progress has been quite helpful.
2. Plan around your pain
Although I am NOT a morning person I concede that despite some grogginess, I tend to feel the best at that time of day. It is important time for me to continue prepping for the day, as it is all too likely that I went to bed before I was completely prepared for the new day. When I first started homeschooling, waiting until the afternoon to do schoolwork worked exceptionally well because my girls functioned best by starting the day with play. Yet this soon caught up with me, as my migraines most often strike in the late afternoon. That left us little time to get things finished up before dinner. Late afternoon migraines have also meant that dinner was often thrown together, sometimes just random items pulled from the fridge, sliced deli meat, carrots, lettuce, maybe some crackers or grapes…
Now we do schoolwork as soon as we can comfortably get started in the morning. That usually means after breakfast is all cleaned up, my laundry is in the wash, and my morning tea has given me the little boost I need to get started. We work until lunch, occasionally needing to return to finish things up in the afternoon. Then, no matter how I’m feeling, I can send the kids out to play to either rest or start making dinner. I like to be “free” by 3pm.
3. Meal plan, prep and cook when you feel good
I know we hear this a lot as homeschool families, but meal planning can make all the difference for someone with chronic pain. Once I started meal planning my stress level decreased dramatically, which is great considering stress is often a significant factor in chronic pain. I actually use a planner called the Happy Planner to keep track of our activities and meals. It makes planning fun and keeps me motivated to fill it out with cute stickers and washi tape. I even made bandaid stickers to mark the days that I get migraines. Since the actual meals are planned, I am now able to prep my foods when I have time and feel good. It makes it much easier to get dinner on the table while I’m in pain if everything is ready for me. If I can’t manage to get a meal together, that’s okay, because I can put it together for dinner or even lunch, another day.
That means that sometimes, yes, I’ll cook dinner for lunch because I feel good and I can. I am more likely to do this on days that I’m hoping to head to a Moms’s Night Out or if I can tell I’m likely to have a migraine later. It’s so much easier to just get it done than to try to struggle through it hours later during a migraine.
There is a hidden benefit to meal planning for those of us with chronic pain: it creates a very basic dietary log. Diet is a frequently overlooked factor in chronic pain. Many people benefit from omitting certain trigger foods from their diet or adding nutrient-rich super foods after discovering patterns within their dietary logs. Meal planning allows me to look back and see what I ate for dinner, and likely the next day’s lunch, which has helped my doctor recommend changes to my diet, such as adding in turmeric and ginger (which has been an incredible addition to my diet, but I’ll save that for another post!). I’m also more likely to stick to the doctor’s advice since I’m planning my meals in advance when I’m not hungry, which leads me to make healthier choices, as I detail below.
4. Get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise
Don’t fall into the trap I have so many times: After going to bed feeling miserable, I’d wake up at 11pm (or some other inhuman hour) feeling better so I would stay up getting more done. I made myself feel it was my duty to close out the day properly. Instead though, I would end up sending myself through a vicious cycle because not getting enough sleep causes my migraines and headaches to get much worse. So getting up in middle of the night to complete unfishued business was only increasing my chances of suffering the following day. 11pm is my cut-off time these days. I admit that I don’t always have the lights out by then, but I am generally in bed or at least in my room getting ready to climb in it by 11. My girls sleep late, until 7:30 most days, so this bedtime works for me. I manage to average 8 hours per night, which has had a significant impact on my pain. Determine how much sleep your body might need to decrease your pain, and do everything in your power to get it. You may have to go to bed shortly after your kids, but remember, if it means you will have more pain-free time the next day, you will be more productive and it will get easier to go to bed on time.
Ask your doctor or look up potential trigger foods for your chronic pain and be diligent about avoiding them. Likewise, find out what foods may be healing for your condition and add them in! My meal plan helps me make good food choices so I don’t have to try very hard at dinner time to keep to up healthy eating. Breakfast and lunch still take some effort though. I keep “bad” foods off my shopping list so that I’m not tempted to eat something bad midday. I know glucose crashes can be a trigger for me, so I always keep high protein foods available instead of junk. If there is no junk, I can’t eat it. Let your children in on your health journey. It’s another learning opportunity for them and will help them come to terms with the lack of junk foods in your pantry.
I know I have to do it, but exercise is my arch nemesis. If I exercise too little, I increase my risk for more migraines. If I exercise too frequently, my sore muscles will trigger a migraine. If I exercise too hard, I’ll develop an exercise-induced migraine. And of course, if I exercise wrong, bam- another migraine. Finding that sweet spot is very hard. So far, I’ve discovered TRX to be fairly easy on me because I can push myself as little or as hard as I want. Some days I focus on getting my heart rate up, while others I work on building muscle. Both are known to be helpful in migraine prevention. At practicalpainmanagement.com, I found this article to have some good advice for migraine sufferers looking for exercise options. I wish I had read it sooner… In an attempt to get in more cardio recently, I tried running. I wound up with a migraine. I will have to tweak my plans a bit to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I’m thinking since it was a morning run, I need more protein and water in advance in order to keep my migraines at bay. Though, it could be that running isn’t for me as the article suggests, and that’s okay. The bottom line is: keep moving! Find something that agrees with your chronic pain and do it! Exercise can benefit our bodies in unimaginable ways, especially for those of us suffering from chronic pain. If you’re thinking you don’t have time for it (and I know you are!), remember that our children need exercise too. Schedule your workout with theirs. Go out for a family bike ride, take a walk, or dance to videos on YouTube. If you’d rather do it alone and feel like you just can’t squeeze it in, make sure you read on, as I will address that concern.
5. Be flexible
Homeschooling is innately flexible, but sometimes we get caught up with how we think it should look. The problem with that is that when pain strikes, you may not think of doing things differently or you may feel guilty about doing so. It is important to remember all the ways you can make your homeschool suit your life. Have a long drive to soccer? Bring some math work in the car. Waiting at the doctor’s office? Get a reading lesson started. Is one child enrolled in an activity, but not another? Complete some lessons while you wait. Using those short blocks of extra time to do school will ensure you have time to take when you’re knocked out by pain. Your kids can have free time or tackle the occasional independent work while you rest and you can rest guilt-free knowing there are other opportunities to get schoolwork done.
Occasionally, I’ve allowed my children to sit in bed with me to complete their lessons. On days when the pain is bad enough to be bedridden but bearable enough to be alert or after my medication has begun to take effect, this has been a saving grace. The girls bring in their books and supplies; then we snuggle up and get to work. It affords me the opportunity to lay back comfortably and close my eyes from time to time while they work and it is a refreshing scene change for them.
6. Keep extra school days on your calendar
We pretty much homeschool year-round. That means I have all those extra days to make up any time we lost over the course of the school year. Summer months, holiday breaks, state and federal holidays, and even weekends can’t stop our routine! My husband works all but one or two holidays and only has one day off per week. That means I have more time at home alone with the kids than most homeschool families. The benefit for us is that we can do work more frequently without feeling like we are missing out on family time. The down side for us is that when I do get taken down by a migraine or headache, there’s no one to pick up my slack.
If your spouse is at home often, they can be a stable crutch to lean on especially if you know they will be around on holidays and typical school break time. Utilize their time and abilities as well. Share the load when you can. Allow your family to do school work together on a year-round basis to make up for any time lost to your pain. My husband LOVES doing all things science with my girls, so sometimes I save the best experiments for when Dad is home. It helps us spread out our work and provides a wonderful opportunity for family bonding.
7. Ask for help
Tell your spouse when you need help with something and try to do so without guilt. You don’t have to be supermom. Let those who care about you know the signs you show when you’re in pain. Sometimes we look quite normal on the outside when we are screaming on the inside. My spouse and friends all know that if I am holding my hair at the top of my head or if I’m closing my eyes more than usual, there’s a significant chance that I am in pain. Without me asking, they often swoop in to help me out. There’s definitely been a time or two when I’ve had to rely on my friends to carry me through. They have covered for me while I tried to tutor for Classical Conversations, they have loaded my dishwasher, swept my floor, and washed my table top after our co-ops, and they’ve even offered to come put my kids to bed for me on my worst nights.
My husband too. He knows that if he comes home and I’m in bed but the rugrats are still running around at 7:30, I need help. He checks on me and gets going on their bedtime routine. After the kids are in bed, he usually comes in again and offers me dinner. If I don’t get up by 9pm, I’m out for the night and I can count on him to clean up the kitchen without me. My husband is already a pretty compassionate guy, but I have learned that I need to be honest and clear about my needs when I have a migraine, as I’ve been known to push myself through them until I vomit. It only took me asking for that assistance once or twice and he forever remembers all the little things that must be done in the kids’ routine and in the kitchen each night. It’s a relief to know that I won’t be waking up to more work in the morning and that instead I can focus on packing up to head out or on organizing our school work for the day. All it takes in that little bit of extra advance communication.
8. Take it easy on yourself and practice self care
This is the most important thing you can do for your kids, your spouse, your homeschool, and yourself! I know it is hard for any mother to understand that caring for herself is, in fact, caring for her children, but this is something that chronic pain sufferers MUST accept. We have to take the time to commit ourselves to our own health. If we knew exercise and healthy eating could free our children of pain, we’d make them do it without hesitation. We KNOW it will give us more pain free time to be with our families, so why is it so hard for us to stop and practice self care?
After suffering through my migraines for as many years as I have, and trying every cure under the sun, I had all but given up. I hadn’t tried a few therapies like acupuncture and massage, mostly because they were costly and I considered them self-indulgent. Finally, after I was told that I couldn’t refill my medication with my insurance because enough time hadn’t passed since my last refill, I started to entertain the idea of trying these therapies. I was having more migraines than my insurance would “allow”! Yet, I wondered to myself if it was just a selfish thought to try these alternatives- who wouldn’t want an hour of weekly massage and acupuncture in a tranquil environment? Who wouldn’t want those moments of peace and alone time? Was I being selfish thinking this kind of therapy would work? And considering the cost, was it selfish to spend so much “on myself”? Pushing past the guilt wasn’t going to be easy.
Luckily (or sucky) for me, one morning I awoke genuinely surprised that I was alive. I turned to my husband and tearfully recalled the intense pain of the exceptionally long, severe migraine from the night before. I told him how I remembered lying in bed, my face buried in my pillow, ice pack on my eye, pleading with God to take my life- the pain was too much to bear. As I recounted the physical pain, I admitted the guilt I felt for leaving him to take care of the children and evening chores without me and he confessed how much it hurt him to see me that way. It was that moment when we both knew it was time to take one last leap of faith. We agreed I’d put in a good effort and I’d see the acupuncturist/massage therapist weekly for three months before casting judgement on its efficacy. I was already seeing the chiropractor on a sporadic basis, but at my first visit with the acupuncturist, she encouraged me to see the chiropractor more regularly. Currently, I do acupuncture/massage/cupping for 75 minutes weekly, and I see the chiropractor for an adjustment every other week.
Yes, it still feels self-indulgent to escape for my “services” and I still occasionally feel a twinge of guilt when I’m relaxing on the massage table. But my migraines have decreased in frequency and severity, and I’ve slowly begun to let go of that guilt. Through these alternative therapies, I have gotten more insight into the core causes of my migraines than ever before. It has been 5 months now since I began “indulging” myself with these services and my migraine medication is lasting nearly twice as long as it used to. I’d call that success!
Taking it easy on yourself and practicing good self-care might just be your ticket to significant pain relief. Don’t discount it by claiming to be “too busy”. Exercise, eat right, take time for yourself, try new therapies, and most importantly, stop feeling guilty about it. Don’t be your own worst enemy. Make the time, even if you have to steal it from your kids or your spouse. Make the time to care for yourself, because in the end, caring for yourself is caring for your family.
If you suffer from chronic pain, I hope these tips have provided you with some new insights into making your homeschool function a little more smoothly, or at the very least have given you comfort in knowing you are not alone in your fight. I am rooting for you and hope you can find relief soon. I am always looking for more ways to make homeschooling easier with my pain, so if you have any additional suggestions, please share them in the comments.
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