Homeschooling with Headaches (or Chronic Pain)
This post is for the homeschool moms who struggle with chronic pain. You’re discouraged because you really want your homeschool to do well, for your children to flourish, but you are so weak and discouraged that you can barely make it through the afternoon. Your ideals about what you want your homeschool life to look like are completely shot. I’m in the same boat; in fact, I’m writing this book during a headache. I’m curled up with a laptop and the lights low. I’m going to try to get to the point, instead of rambling on for pages, because you’re already tired and it’s hard enough for me to write with this brain fog!
The short story is that I had many kidney stones (and laparoscopic surgeries to remove them) in my 20s, and also had my gallbladder removed when I was 28. That’s when my health really started going downhill. Unrelenting and disabling fatigue, chronic migraines, inflammation, joint pain, brain fog became my new way of life. I sought the opinion of many doctors, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, received chiropractic care, and became a research fanatic about these types of health issues. Lots of people think they know the remedy; trust me, I’ve read the books, tried the diets, used the products. I’m at a place now where I do the best I can with what I have. I pray for help and understanding, and go on with my life. I have four children who I have homeschooled from the beginning - one in elementary, two in middle school, and one high schooler.
Trial and Error
I’m not content to let the pain control my home life. I won’t give in and surrender my goals for raising my children. Time is passing too quickly as they get closer to independence, and I want to make these years really count. So I’m always looking for new ways to thrive amidst these challenges.
What I’ve tried
There are many types of headaches and so there are many different causes. I tend to have tension headaches, food reactive and hormonal migraines so the way I approach relief might be different than if I dealt with sinus, eyestrain or cluster headaches. Over the years, I’ve experimented with a lot of remedies to reduce or eliminate my suffering. It’s important to narrow down the root or the cause instead of just masking the symptoms. Regular use of ibuprofen, tylenol, and aspirin is going to cause other problems with your gut. This isn’t meant to be a definitive guide to healing headaches, but here’s what I continue to turn to for relief.
1. Deep stretching, therapeutic yoga
Because I spent a lot of time hunched over stiff and sore, my muscles have become shortened in some areas, and that can lead to worse tension headaches. Some of the props are helpful, like a large firm yoga bolster pillow. Yin postures ( which are lying postures held for a long time to stretch the ligaments) are therapeutic and helpful over the long term. Lifting light hand weights a few times a week also strengthens the neck and shoulder area. My doctor also recommended doing self massage with a Lacrosse ball, leaned up against the wall. It can work out those trigger points.
2. Firm wedge pillow
I have degenerative discs in my neck, and if I’m inflamed - nerves feel pinched. 15 minutes on a foam wedge takes the pressure off, and helps restore the optimum curve of my cervical spine.
3. A gluten free diet and minimizing grains, tomatoes, and peppers
There’s no place for these foods in my diet, unless I want to feel bad for the rest of the day and for most of the next day. Corn, MSG, and some spices are big headache triggers. Gluten and nightshades just swell up my joints and cause the worst brain fog. Fast food is guaranteed to screw everything up with me. And I always stay away from artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame. If you haven’t tried an elimination diet, start with one type of food, like corn, eggs, or gluten.
For a long time, I knew massage could help me, but I felt like I had to research and get a recommendation for the best practitioner in my area for chronic conditions. I had enough to worry about, and was too exhausted to deal with it. One day while at the mall, I passed a massage station, and was offered a free 5 minute massage to sample their service. Now, I’m hooked on a 20 minute massage focusing on trigger points in my neck, shoulders, and shoulder blades. It’s most helpful to do on a regular basis as you can budget for it, because your muscles can get so tight from the stress and strain, leading to more headaches.
5. Dark sunglasses and sun shades in the car
I always end up with a headache after driving, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is lower. My mom bought me an anti-glare sun visor for my car, and it really helps.
6. Keeping close track of my cycles, and blocking out migraine days on my calendar
I use a period app on my phone that tracks my cycles, and I know a day prior and about four days after I will most likely be laid up from migraines. I don’t plan anything on my calendar during this time. Big responsibilities or projects get planned in the 14 days post ovulation if I can help it at all.
Magnesium is the most important mineral for preventing headaches. I use 400mg of magnesium citrate regularly. I also eat lots of pecans and hemp seeds. Omega fatty acids plus DHA can help with brain fog. Turmeric is helpful for inflammation, and I take it in supplement form. Feverfew (don’t use if you’re pregnant) is said to be useful if taken over the long term, but I had noticeable results within a month. Herbalist Susun Weed also recommends taking two packs of Emergen-C when you feel a migraine coming on.
8. Epsom salt baths and ice packs
I do take Excedrin Migraine when the pain is bad, but usually it doesn’t get rid of it. That’s when I get in a hot bath with epsom salt and put an ice pack on my neck and soak until the water’s cold. This almost always gives me some relief. I like the blue packs you can get from Dollar Tree that go in lunchboxes. I keep two frozen in my freezer at all times.
I’ve just entered my 40s, and some months my hormones feel out of balance. I use Young Living Progessence Plus which helps enormously with eliminating PMS and calming my anxiety. Progesterone helps your vascular system, and can help prevent headaches. Another essential oil blend that is balancing is called Cool Hottie by Aura Cacia. It’s an inexpensive blend that helps reduce PMS and cramps as well as reducing symptoms of menopause.
10. Teas and essential oils
Peppermint has been proven in studies to relax muscles and ease tension. Take a drop of peppermint essential oil with honey in water, or brew a cup of hot peppermint tea. You can also rub your temples and the back of your neck with a combo of peppermint, lavender and chamomile. You can also do a cold foot soak with a few drops of rosemary in water.
11. Removing harsh chemical fragrances from the home
I can’t even walk past a bath and body store at the mall without getting a headache. I’ve become very sensitive to chemicals in general. I clean with vinegar, castile soap, natural dishwashing liquid, borax and essential oils to avoid the overpowering toxic odors of cleaning products.
12. Incandescent bulbs
The flicker of fluorescent and LED bulbs drives my eyes crazy, and if I’m already feeling a headache coming on, it can push me to the edge. Did you know you can still find incandescent bulbs? They are called rough service bulbs, and they’re meant for outdoor use. I haven’t had any problems with them indoors in regular lamps, but they do get pretty warm. You can also use “chandelier” type bulbs that will fit in a standard socket.
13. Cannabinoid Oil Balm
I really like CBD balms (300mg) for neck and shoulder pain. It’s helpful for those tension headache days or when I wake up with a stiff neck. It’s all natural and melts into the skin, relieving pain and relaxing the joints. Hemp oil doesn’t contain any intoxicating effects. It works best directly applied to areas of pain. I use Hemp and Blue from Trim Healthy Mama and this balm from Rawsome.
Dealing with the emotional impact of chronic pain
We know that so much of our home’s atmosphere rests on us, which is so hard to think about when we are struggling with depression, anxiety or a general feeling of uselessness because we are stuck in bed. I’ve found that making the most of my alert hours helps me to not feel as much guilt or anguish about it. It’s easy to look at a normal functioning person and see how much they get done in a day and feel shame about our ‘lack’. There are days when I can push through, accomplish quite a bit, but then I crash and burnout for as long or longer than I was productive . Being able to look back at what my kids and I have done over a span of time - taking photos, writing things down in a journal - helps me to see the bigger picture and follow our progress. Dealing with the sheer amount of work that homeschooling and homemaking requires (hindered by the challenges we face) is very exhausting and lonely work. I hope you have someone you can talk to about it.
My suggestion as you walk out these days with your kids, and doing the things you do - don’t get too tied down to a list of goals for your life. Take things a day at a time - envision the type of person you want to be, and what mental and emotional climate that you want to feel for that day. It removes specific parameters from our lives, but actually gets us to what we’re looking for anyway. When you start thinking along those lines, priorities become clearer. If I’m hoping and praying for a peaceful mood in my home, I have to dig up some peace within myself, and do what sets us up for success the most in this area. Usually that means calmly stating my expectations to my kids. If it’s a bad pain day, I will feel even worse if I haven’t ‘connected’ on some level with the kids, so carving out some connection time - like actively listening to that story they’re telling me, having a laugh about something we both find funny - that’s what my priorities will look like. I can still do that from my bed. I just need to make sure they know I am available for it. I have different priorities for different days though - I’m not always feeling up to ‘keeping the peace’ all day, but instead I want the house clean at all costs!
Encouragement from Scripture
Life is a mysterious journey, full of pitfalls along the way. If I could share two verses from the Bible that help me get out of the despondency of facing challenge after challenge, and not living out my ideal days, it would be these two scriptures. In John 15:5, Jesus says “I am the Vine and you are the branches. If a man remains in Me, and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” That’s it. I can be fruitful, just by abiding in that Vine. Not through straining efforts of me trying to do things in my own (lack of) strength. God is the vinedresser; caring for those branches in order for them to be most fruitful - pruning and shaping. I don’t know about you, but being weak and not in control of my own life has led to a LOT of pruning in my life. I can only be thankful for what was cut away, because my now I can bear even more fruit.
Joel 2:25 says “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.” Those days where you spent the entire day in the dark, lying in bed, with your kids doing who-knows-what because you’re too in pain to deal - those years will be paid back in abundance. I don’t know how it will all work out for me yet, but I’m trusting that those promises are true.
When your body is hurting day in and day out, comfort becomes extremely important. I only wear clothes that are elastic waisted or otherwise unrestricted. They aren’t chic, but my shoes of choice are Crocs flats, because the arch support is great and they are cushiony. Since I’m not a big pants wearer, I like to wear elastic waist skirts with a t-shirt or tank top tucked in. I also like sundresses and maxi dresses, especially if they are supportive enough to wear without a bra. (My ample bosom is a large contributor to my neck and head pain.)
Since I spend most of my weeks at home, I’ve given a lot of thought about making things comfortable and enjoyable. Everything I need is here. I told you about the bolsters and pillows that I use, and I also pile lots of pillows on my couch and bed to support my body. I have incandescent bulbs in lamps, and no harsh overhead lighting. I keep my house cool with a fan on at all times. There are numerous afghans and throws lying on my sofas so that I can prop myself or cover up when watching Netflix. I have nice satin gowns and pajama pants for the days when I don’t feel good enough to get dressed, but don’t want to wander around in an oversized t-shirt. All of my balms, oils, and other remedies are kept together in a basket. Books, journals, and my stocked Kindle are always within reach so I don’t get bored spending ages lying down. I like to buy $1 DVDs at thrift stores to have for bed days.
I always make sure I have the foods I need for my special diet. I have several online subscriptions for items like bulk tea, coconut oil, organic stevia, personal care, and supplements. I like the Trim Healthy Mama baking mix for my morning pancake. I rarely shop in person at grocery stores anymore; I use grocery delivery services 2-3 times a week. I have to conserve my energy for homeschooling, housework, business, and meal preparation.
The ‘Good Enough’ Plan to Get Food on the Table
Foodies, scroll past this part. I know that you would not be satisfied by how we eat!
I have a picky family. I also am done with life by the time dinner comes around - yet my family still needs to be fed. So this is what I have come up with to get hot food on the table that doesn’t leave food waste leftover.
We eat the same things, over and over. I’m not that mom who prints meal plans for 30 days of no-repeat meals. I can’t even fathom the stress I would feel with that kind of pressure to reinvent the wheel every night.
This way, my grocery budget is stable. I know what to buy without dealing with decision fatigue. All of my frequently purchased items are saved as favorites for Wal-Mart and Instacart/Aldi, so it takes me 10 minutes to shop. This is for my family of 6, with four teenagers.
Monday - Spaghetti (grass fed beef, jar sauce, 1 lb spaghetti) and garlic toast
Tuesday - Breakfast (french toast or pancakes, turkey bacon, pork bacon, eggs, OJ)
Wednesday - Some kind of chicken - crockpot, grilled, or breaded tenders, mashed or baked potatoes, veg
Thursday - Tacos (grass fed beef, gluten free seasoning packet, corn and flour tortillas, spanish rice, cheese, guacamole, refried beans)
Friday - my day off - we order pizza
Saturday - hamburgers at home
Weekends aren’t as set in stone. We might be visiting family, bringing food to church potluck, etc.
During the day, my kids snack on soups and frozen fruit/smoothies, bean and cheese quesadillas, sandwiches - all things that they can prepare themselves. I just make sure I have the things they need. They let me know what they would like me to stock up on when I’m placing my grocery orders.
I love the idea of homesteading activities, but I don’t have the energy to do a whole lot of it. I have a hydroponic tower garden that I grow lettuces in, so we get the experience of growing food without the work of tending a dirt garden. I start my breadmaker in the morning so that we have hot bread at lunch. We have backyard chickens and ducks that can provide for some of our needs.
So, how do we make the most of the time we have?
Planning and preparation is key!
Because my cognitive abilities are often impaired by the fog, I write everything down. I have a personal size planner that goes with me everywhere. I also have a home binder where I keep recipes, organizational tips, holiday ideas, etc.
Over the years, I have compiled my favorite homeschool resources that are simple yet meet my need for truth, beauty, and enduring literature. Before each new semester, I evaluate how smoothly we were able to get through what I had initially planned. If we are disorganized, unable to find our materials every single morning, if I don’t know what they’re learning about - we can never really pick up any steam and it is time to try a new approach.
If it’s not intuitive, if it’s not organized, if it’s not SIMPLE, it will not be sustainable. And meeting goals and finding some success in your day is essential to your mental health in the long run. So think of homeschooling with headaches as minimalist, priority-focused, gentle homeschooling. My resources needed to fit my ideals for truth, beauty, and enduring literature - I love a good historical biography. Your priorities might be different - robust science or math for example.
Everyone talks about delight directed learning from the child’s point of view, but what about us? I know it helps me stay the course if I also have an interest in what we’re doing. What are your passion topics? Your kids can tell if you also find the subject incredibly boring.
I was feeling a bit lost and hopeless about our upcoming back to school after a frustrating and tiring summer.
I had lots of curricula that I’ve collected over the years, sitting unused on my shelves because it didn’t work with my limited energy and time. It was hard to be consistent, and the kids never really knew what to do without my explicit instruction the entire time. I determined that I wasn’t going to buy a single book until I figured out how to best use what I already had.
I picked up a comprehension guide from Memoria Press about the Middle Ages, and decided to start from there. We’d read a chapter of Famous Men of the Middle Ages in the morning, the kids would copy the vocabulary words and quotation each day in a composition book. I wrote their work on the white board the night before. I tend to linger in bed for a while in the mornings, and they can eat breakfast and begin copying their work at their leisure. Once everyone is up and has copied their work, I will read aloud the chapter, and follow it up with a video from Youtube that relates as well as a video of Bible teaching. They also work in math workbook - in our case, we use A.C.E. We also belong to a homeschool co-op and 4H.
So that amounts to about an hour and a half in the morning to get schooling out of the way, and I have probably another couple of hours in the evening when I’m at my prime. I don’t expect that I’ll be able to do much at other times of the day. In my experience, teaching my own children as well as groups at co-op, subject lessons really don’t need to take any longer than 20 minutes. That’s long enough to read a chapter of something, and an activity such as copywork, a worksheet, or an illustration after. It also lines up with the average middle school age child’s attention span. I think many homeschool moms simply try to put too much in each day, and if they maintain that pace when dealing with chronic pain, they will hit a wall. Your children can make plenty of progress with here a little, there a little.
My kids have been trained over time to help with chores, and without their help, I would be sunk. Yet even though they do chores once a day, my house is still usually messy, and that’s because I prioritize other things over neatness at all times. I enjoy my hobbies and business ventures, so if I have some time in my day to feel alert and alive, I would rather save my energy for the things I enjoy. We do have clean clothes to wear, dishes to use, and a tidy place to do schoolwork so that’s good enough for me. I’m venturing a guess you aren’t new to the idea of prioritizing and time management, so I won’t go into that. You just have to decide how you want to spend your ‘one wild life’, and for me, that’s being creative.
I hope that you have found at least one practical idea to help you maximize your productivity or find some relief. Sometimes things work for a while, then you have to find a different approach. This is my life too. Thank you for reading!
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