When you aren’t smarter than a fifth grader
Solo Moms have plenty of anxious moments, so you would think we would be spared recurring anxieties in our sleep. For years after I sold my 1978 puke-green Volvo station wagon, I had dreams that I missed a turn on a winding road, and we all went flying out and got stuck in a tree in the canyon below. Another recurring anxiety dream involves being back at school, looking down at a test, and knowing I hadn’t studied. Unfortunately, the latter happened while I was awake.
Ah, homework: a Solo Mom’s ongoing nightmare.
Remember those days when you complained about having to reread Pigs Aplenty, Pigs Galore! four times before bed? Here’s what it’s like once your kids are in elementary school: you have finished work, made lunch, and cleaned up the dishes only to discover that now you are required to sit down and help your child think about problem sets. You stare at the pages and wonder how you could have forgotten so much. Didn’t you once tutor a girl in ninth grade when you were a senior? And how has the approach to education changed so much? What you remember and how you remember it is like trying to explain analog to them: “The reason it’s called dialing is because the phone was connected by a wire to the wall and had this round . . . never mind.”
It’s so much of a problem that the New York Times recently reported on the negative effects of parental math anxiety. To sum up the article, your anxiety may be creating anxiety in your child. That’s right, more to worry about. Maybe that old car nightmare is appropriate right now.
But there is help, and you can handle this. Calm yourself, and remember this is nothing compared with what you do every day. And you have an advantage as a Solo Mom—you already know you will never get this perfectly right. You will never achieve that perfect balance of supermom, math genius, and “I cut all the crusts off your bread perfectly.” But you’re going to try. You’re going to stare straight down the track of that train leaving Washington, DC, with three barrels of apples and four pounds of grapes, and figure out when it gets to Vegas and how much it weighs.
This is how we do it. Amiright?
Thank goodness it’s now a digital world, and that’s what the Internet is for! First of all, let’s remember that homework, for the moment, is based on the notion that ideas taught in class need to be applied during homework, so the textbook is usually a good place to start.
Please swallow that feeling of panic you get at the sight of that heavy tome, and resist the urge to doodle in it. It’s just a textbook, and it’s not yours. It belongs to that other person who is actually doing the homework—your child. Over the weekend, take a glance at the upcoming chapters so you can be prepared for what’s to come.
Once you have established what knowledge will be imparted to your offspring in the next week, take a little refresher course online so you can feel a little bit more in control of things. You can also check out other math sites that have a broader spectrum on the course if you find the textbook overwhelming. Remember, everyone learns differently, especially older Solo Moms trying to do fifth-grade math again.
Actually these online courses may become the normal classroom teaching as your child gets older and more teachers become interested in flipped teaching styles. Several high school classes, especially Advanced Placement, or AP, classes, are already trying it out. When that happens, you can learn along with your child, listen to the lectures, and discuss . . .
Stop. What am I thinking? Those who have teenagers know that doing homework with them is almost as bad as going to the movies with them. You are really their last desperate choice. But still, when they cave in and ask for help, your heart swells and you think that you will ride to the rescue. Probably not.
If you are helping a teenager, check your ego at the door. Try not to tell him how interesting you found this part of algebra or why the Soviet Union was a lot worse than what the teacher is telling him. If you are lucky, you will be merely subjected to the eye roll. If you insist on correcting more than her grammar or suggesting she include a family anecdote about immigration, you may be sentenced to having the door slammed on you—at which point, it may be time for a tutor.
Many tutoring options are available if you can afford them. One of the best is a local high school or college student. You get enthusiasm, common language, and a sense that this problem is merely a molehill rather than a mountain. Online tutoring services are also available; but be careful as you explore these options, and make sure to check references.
You may feel a bit hurt. Where is that special bond over the calculator? That moment when you both figure out just how the lunar eclipse is calculated?
And then you remember: you are a solo parent, and this idealistic situation is a fantasy. Nothing is ever that perfect. So relax and sit back with a good book. You can even read it out loud.
Margot Kessler, a screen and television writer living in Los Angeles, is the sporadically witty Solo Mom of two lovely daughters.
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