Motherhood & Words

Thanks to everyone who submitted a haiku for the Annual Mother Words Haiku Contest. Laura has a challenging task ahead of her! I’ll post her choice for winner in the next day or two.

On to books: I just finished Kathleen Melin’s lovely book, By Heart: A Mother’s Story of Children and Learning at Home, which tells the story of her family’s journey from public education to home schooling. But this book is about more than mothering and home schooling; it’s about the kind of life a couple chooses for their family. (Instead of a bustling urban life (mine?), Kathleen and her husband embrace rural living—wood burning stoves and maple syrup collecting and all.) This collection of essays explores how one family navigates the choices they make, choices that are sometimes outside what society considers “normal” and “expected.”

Melin questions what socialization is and who it serves. After an encounter with a neighbor who thinks Melin’s three children are missing out because they don’t “go” to school, Melin writes:

It was my first encounter with the question most often asked of home school families: socialization. […] Our (society) accepts as natural rather than strange that the proper socialization for children is institution-based rather than home-based.

We’ve come to doubt that a family, regardless of its plunge into the society around it, can pass on the necessary values and behavior modifications in order to ensure the stability of the social group. We’ve come to suspect parents, the indoctrination they might execute, the things they will do to their own children in their private homes. This frightens us.

Melin dives into history and research and discusses how compulsory school attendance began and to what effect. This aspect of her book was particularly fascinating to me.

Her prose is also lovely, and I found myself wanting to linger with her story. I wish it had been 100 pages longer, so I could have immersed myself more deeply in scene and character, so I could steep myself in her lyrical language.

In my favorite chapter, towards the end of the book, after a fight between Melin’s son, Jack, and her husband, Cy, Melin tries to comfort Jack. Jack says, “Dad hates me. I know he hates me.” And Melin writes:

I want to remind this child of the days he cannot remember, of the days when Cy carried him newborn through the winter woods in the South, showing him the trees, the red clay creek, and explaining the sudden neighing of horses. I want to tell him about the summer I lay in bed two months during (my second) pregnancy and watched as Cy guarded his son’s climb up the ladder in the old orchard where he picked cherries, and how afterward, they swayed in the hammock and feasted on the red fruit.


I am not a home schooler, nor do I want to be. I am a much better mother for the hours I have at my computer, away from the girls I love so dearly. But I love to peek into others’ lives, into other ways of being in the world, other ways of mothering. And for that I’m very grateful for Kathleen Melin’s book.

Kathleen Melin lives on her ancestral farm in northwestern Wisconsin, where she operates a retreat for artists and is at work on a young adult novel series. If you’d like more information about Kathleen and her work, you can contact her at kathleenmelin{at}centurytel{dot}net.

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Elizabeth on April 26, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    The book sounds fascinating. I've always been intrigued by homeschooling and sort of, kind of, wish that I had looked into it a bit more. Thanks for the review!

  2. Anonymous on April 27, 2010 at 12:07 am

    Thank you so much for the review. It sounds exactly what I'd love to read right now! I'm strongly debating homeschooling, and I'd like to see how she handles outside society while still sticking to her values and the importance of family.


  3. Andrea on April 27, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Sounds like a wonderful book (I love that you wanted it to be longer…that's always a good sign when you don't want a book to end, rather than wishing they would just get on with it already).

  4. unfinishedportraitofsam on April 27, 2010 at 9:39 am

    oh, this book sounds lovely. i'm passing this post on to my sister, who would like to read this, i think. she's been home-"pre-schooling" her toddler and will probably homeschool both kids as the years go.

    thanks for the review.