Making space in my life for re-discovery
My sabbatical story beginnings
Lots of people feel stuck, at all sorts of moments in their lives for all sorts of reasons. What did it feel like for me? In one word: uncreative.
I was happily married, living in an exciting European city, and taking a 6-month maternity leave with an extraordinary baby girl. Despite having performed the ultimate act of creation, there didn’t seem to be any room for creativity in my life. My life felt like a relentless series of small tasks, the results of which were so short lived that I didn’t have time to enjoy them. A freshly mopped floor was quickly soiled, an empty laundry hamper was soon re-filled, and accomplishing a full-time job in just three working days a week meant I could never go deep into content. I felt uncreative in my work and personal life and paralysed from making changes.
Sitting on the fence
I was right on track according to any conventional life milestones checklist. But convention was never something that I had identified with and I was feeling inauthentic to myself.
A conventional life is just fine if it’s something you identify with. I have plenty of friends who proudly consider their lives as conventional who are much more zen than I am. They would ask me:
- Why do you need to be constantly on the move to feel happy?
- Rather than taking another trip to escape yourself, why don’t you stay here this weekend and instead take the time to turn inward?
- Why not value every moment, every day, exactly where you are?
- Have you tried meditating?
I was undergoing too many changes to heed their words — learning a whole new role as a mother, transitioning into being responsible for other people, and coping with a devalued role in the workplace. I couldn’t apply my usual coping mechanisms: I couldn’t expect my husband and newborn baby to jet-set to Yemen or India with me for a weekend because I was feeling inspired.
I spent my single years as an international traveller living in North America, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, acquiring a new stamp in my passport monthly. Sabbaticals were a natural part of my life in between contracts.
I thrived on a careful balance of knowns and unknowns, constantly stimulated by new places, new ideas and new people, and I felt a tremendous sense of freedom.
My coping mechanism for dealing with anything was to make a drastic change to my environment: move to a new country, travel to an unexpected city, disrupt my world. This always either gave me clarity or distracted me from what had been bothering me. Mission accomplished!
Three years later when I settled into a more conventional life with a partner, mortgage and child, my constant need for change seemed to evaporate, and I began to feel stagnant.
Do nothing day
I made small adjustments to my life-work-me balance. I now had 3.5 days of work, 1 ‘mama-day’ with my daughter, one half day for just me, and two family days per week. But I still found myself having a mini identity crisis every three months.
I spent my ‘half day just for me’ unsuccessfully attacking a long To Do list that included exciting activities like: getting a new mortgage, re-filing tax returns, seeking planning approval for home renovations, setting long-term financial goals, tackling monthly expenses, and looking for a tax adviser and personal coach. In 6 months, I hadn’t gotten anywhere with anything, and I felt guilty about wasting the generous half day off my husband had help make possible for me, despite needing one himself.
Then I decided not to do anything ‘productive’ on my half day off, and to just be kind to myself.
I meditated. I did The Artist’s Way. I painted abstract art. I re-read books I loved and listened to YouTube videos of favourite authors and topics. I found myself quoting Mr. Money Mustache.
I cleared my mind of a lot of accumulated noise and was finally able to make some real decisions again. I prioritised the items on my To Do list and our long-term financial planning to make a more focused list with deadlines, and got through everything important.
And I decided to make space in my life for re-discovery, setting my daughter starting school as the deadline.
Committing to change
First it was my husband’s idea and I was a bit fearful of it. Then when I started to put the idea into action, my husband had bouts of anxiety about it. We had worked hard to feel settled in our lives in this new place. We had growing careers. We had a child. We had a small apartment with an affordable mortgage which we loved (the apartment, not the mortgage).
When I became pregnant with our second child, the nesting instincts began to kick in. I spent joyful hours on real estate sites, viewed properties and imagined how much easier life would be in a larger space with a garden where our children could play.
And then I did the math: my maternity leave would end about six months before my older child would start school. And if we stayed in our current apartment we could save up enough money for a modest 6-month sabbatical. And if we piggy-backed our sabbatical with my maternity leave, we could each take a ‘parental leave’ and keep our jobs to come back to.
The timing seemed almost serendipitous. We drew up a very short list of caveats regarding the health of the new baby and elderly relatives, and committed to each other to begin our sabbatical in December 2016 — when the baby is five months old, and six months before our daughter starts school.