How does the Internet change who we are?

Most of my work boils down to this one question, but today, it’s nipping at me with particular urgency. That’s because it’s my 44th birthday, and as I often do on my birthday, I find myself taking stock of my life, and the past year in particular.

It has been a year in which I’ve made some dramatic life changes — changes that, a year ago, I  would have been loathe to even consider. Chief among them: leaving Vision Critical so that I can work at home, in part to be more available to our kids.

The wheels were set in motion not long after my last birthday, when the latest school crisis forced us to recognize that our highly challenging, highly gifted 8-year-old just isn’t going to thrive in the mainstream school system. After a lot of soul-searching, we opted for homeschooling, and I reorganized my work to support that decision.

A lot of people have since told me that the first year of homeschooling is, to put it bluntly, a disaster. And that has certainly been part of our experience. I started with my usual game plan: staff it out. I have honed the art of hiring great people, and we’ve had some amazing people on both the home and work fronts over the years.

But homeschooling an 8-year-old with a 99.9% IQ, assorted learning challenges and an incredibly stubborn personality isn’t so easy to staff out. “I just need to find a physics Ph.D. with special needs training who’s willing to work for $50k/year”, I joked to friends. Even I — a great believer in asking for exactly what you want in a prospective employee — knew that was a tall order.

As I struggled to balance the interlocking challenges of reorganizing my work and organizing our son’s homeschooling, my wise friend Laura Mogus reminded me: “When you’ve got too many variables, you can’t solve the equation.”

By January, I thought I had solved it. I had a contract with Vision Critical and a recurring speaking engagement that would only take me on the road a couple of days of month — in other words, enough work to keep me happy, and not so much that it would prevent me from working with our son too. I had found a caregiver with special needs experience, who could work with our little guy close to full-time, and full time on the days when I was on the road. We had even found a wonderful private school that had enrolled our son for an hour a day, so he could feed his passion for math and be around other kids.

Then it all fell apart. In the space of 72 hours, the caregiver decided it wasn’t a fit, and the speaking engagement cancelled. I still had work — just not enough work to justify full-time childcare.

But something else happened in that 72-hour period. Our occasional babysitter, a talented undergrad who comes awfully close to that fantasy Ph.D. student, told us she was now available two days a week. Just enough time, in other words, for me to get my remaining work done.

So I stopped trying to solve the equation myself, and let myself take the path that was laid out for me. I’d work during the two days a week when our caregiver was available, as well as during my son’s classes and appointments, and on evenings and weekends. And I’d be his primary teacher and caregiver three days a week.

Unlike some full-time working mothers, I’ve never fantasized about staying home with my kids. I grew up with a full-time working mother, so that’s my normal. And since I finished my Ph.D. during my first year of parenthood, I’ve always felt like I need to put all those years of investment to work — not spend them baking brownies and organizing playdates.

And yet here I am: close to a full-time working mother in terms of how I spend my hours, but nothing like a full-time working mother in terms of how I spend my days. To outside eyes, I look a lot like a stay-at-home mom: shlepping kids to class, coaxing my son through his schoolwork, wearing sweats because what’s the point of dressing nicely if you’re just going to be chasing someone through the park?

The most surprising part: I’ve never been happier. Yes, it can be brutally hard — like this morning, when I couldn’t convince my son to eat, get dressed or leave the house. But it’s also delightful — like yesterday, when I saw my little guy riding a cloud of joy because he’d successfully navigated two back-to-back classes at his new school, and we celebrated with a trip to McDonalds. “Perchance do you have the McFlurry known as Creme Egg?” he asked the baffled clerk.

Here’s where the Internet comes in: allowing me to be happy living a life — living an identity — I never thought would possibly be a fit.  Almost all the challenges that I thought would make this life utterly miserable are challenges the Internet has helped me surmount.

Like the challenge of finding advice and support from people who know how to navigate homeschooling and 2E kids (2E is the abbreviation for twice exceptional: gifted and learning disabled). I found these folks through a variety of Facebook groups, and they’ve helped me with everything from the practical (what classes are available?) to the existential (how will I survive this?) This weekend we met one of the homeschoolers I’ve bonded with on Facebook, and our kids took to each other like old friends.

Or the challenge of earning a living while working from home. I’m incredibly fortunate to have lots of experience working from home, and working independently, so I knew it could be done — but most of that was in my pre-kid life, so I wasn’t sure it would still work. Actually, it’s easier than ever, because my Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn networks (not to mention the colleagues I’ve heard from through email) have been busily bringing work opportunities my way.

And of course, there’s the challenge of isolation: something I’ve managed during previous phases of working from home by making lots and lots of lunch and coffee dates. That’s not so easy to do with a kid in tow, unless you want to construct your entire social life around the tiny circle of homeschoolers with kids, locations and schedules that intersect with your own. So I’m grateful that in between my weekly nights out with face-to-face friends (something that Rob helps me prioritize) I can now use Facebook to stay connected to other adults and friends whose interests and personalities overlap with my own.

By helping me address the biggest challenges I face as an at-home mom, the Internet has opened me to the satisfactions that this new, unexpected life can offer. I’m discovering unexpected reservoirs of patience, as I keep my cool through meltdowns that could curl your toes. I’m discovering a new use for my combined years of education, geekery and psychotherapy, which seem uniquely well-suited to the challenges of raising a brilliant, anxious would-be Apple engineer. I am discovering what it’s like to feel good about my parenting, instead of constantly feeling like I’m short-changing my kids. I am even rediscovering how great it feels to leave the house wearing sweatpants, and to spend my energy on myself and my kids instead of on my appearance. (At least some of the time: those Fluevogs aren’t going to wear themselves.)

These are the most important discoveries the Internet facilitates. Not the instant answer to where a movie is playing, or who won the 1982 Super Bowl, but the hard-won answers to our questions about what we are really capable of, and what really matters to us. Answers we may only find, and discoveries we may only make, when we have access to the people and information that make the quest possible.

That’s what the Internet has done for me this year, as I’ve taken this unexpected road and found myself at a still more unexpected destination. It’s made it possible for me to discover what it feels like to build my life around love: the pure love I feel when I see my son skipping happily out of a class he’s made it all the way through, and experience a soaring happiness unlike anything I’ve experienced.

“Who is this person,” I wonder, “This person who feels like getting her son through class is the greatest accomplishment of all time?”

I’m just getting to know who she is. And I’m so grateful to the Internet for introducing us.