Clippings: Lessons learned from time away from home

I was not exactly looking forward to our family’s sabbatical in Berkeley, Calif. Our five-month sojourn was a year-and-a-half in the planning, so my mind had plenty of time to run through every nightmarish scenario imaginable. I worried that we couldn’t possibly find a comfortable and affordable home for a family of six. I worried that I would be stuck in this uncomfortable and expensive home all day long with four bickering children and no breaks. I worried that I would miss our life back in Vermont and become depressed.
Yet, even as I worried about these things, here’s how I expected the narrative to unfold: We would arrive in Berkeley, and everything would be fine! All of my worries would prove unfounded, and — as has happened repeatedly in the past — I would say, “I don’t know why I worried so much!”
Imagine my surprise, then, when in fact everything I’d worried about came true — and then some! A few weeks into our sabbatical, not only was I depressed, missing Vermont, and stuck all day in a cramped and expensive rental home with four bickering children, I’d also been blindsided by unexpected setbacks. I hadn’t expected to fracture my foot on our second day in California. I hadn’t expected my husband and children to miss Vermont as much as I did. I hadn’t expected to find the Bay Area — where we’d lived for five years — infinitely more challenging than I remembered because we were no longer used to city life and lines and traffic. I hadn’t expected our California friends to be so very, very busy that it would take months to see some of them.
“It wasn’t supposed to go this way,” I told my husband tearfully. “I worried, so everything was supposed to work out.”
It took nearly the full five months for me to realize that sabbatical was an enormous gift to our family.
A sabbatical journey forces you away from the known and the comfortable. It disrupts your routines and habits. This is what’s hard about sabbatical: Most of us like the known, the comfortable, our routines, our habits. But this is also what’s wonderful about sabbatical: By disrupting the usual, it creates space to examine the past, and to plan for the future. It’s no exaggeration to say that our family will hereafter consider our lives to be divided into “pre-sabbatical” and “post-sabbatical” stages.
Whether you’ve been on sabbatical, are going on sabbatical, or never expect to take a sabbatical, here are a few of my takeaway lessons:
1. It’s not all about my personal comfort.
This lesson might also be called, simply, “adulthood.” It’s a lesson I’ve had to re-learn throughout my adult life. I suspect that’s true of many of us, especially those with parents who made us feel like the center of the universe. The centrality of our own comfort is further reinforced by the advertising industry, which tells us that we should never feel sad, sick, hungry, bored, or ugly.
The purpose of our sabbatical was not for me to feel comfortable. The purpose was for my husband’s career to benefit from spending time at a top-tier research institution. It was for our daughters to experience living somewhere else and doing things they couldn’t do in Vermont. It was for our California grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to have us nearby for five months.
These were all outstanding reasons to go on sabbatical, for which it was worth sacrificing a bit of my own comfort.
2. Accept help.
When I wrote that I was stuck all day in a small rental house with four children, that wasn’t entirely accurate. The truth is, I was stuck, except for Mondays and Fridays, when my in-laws arrived in the morning bearing food, and stayed all day to help with the girls and give me a break.
If it were broadcast on prime time, our sabbatical would begin with a voice-over: “This sabbatical was brought to you by grandparents.” My California in-laws not only provided weekly childcare and food, but they let us borrow one of their cars for our entire stay, they bought our daughters clothes and toys that we couldn’t bring with us … and they took us all to Disneyland.
On the Vermont end, my parents walked our dog when our house sitter was away, readied our current home for sale, and kept an eye on renovations in the home we’ll inhabit when we return.
We simply could not have taken this sabbatical without help. I used to think that if I couldn’t do something on my own, there was something wrong with me. Now I’ve learned to just say, “Thank you!”
3. People are pretty much the same everywhere — and also, not.
Live in one place long enough, and you can start to assume that everyone shares your region’s prevailing beliefs, culture, priorities and ways of doing business. Shifting geographies during our sabbatical reminded me that nothing could be further from the truth.
In Berkeley, I was reminded that there are people who choose to spend a great deal of time commuting in heavy traffic, waiting in lines, and working long hours in order to pay exorbitant prices for small houses with no yards. In exchange, they get nice weather, cutting-edge culture and a dizzying array of food choices.
I can no longer relate to this sort of tradeoff, but neither do I judge it. Once I recovered from my initial shock that people would choose to live like this, I began noticing small acts of kindness, people graciously taking care of each other in the midst of the congestion. Whether in small-town Vermont or the bustling Bay Area, communities thrive only if people pull together. What never ceases to surprise me is that, by and large, people do. Everywhere.
4. Time together is precious.
During our five months in Berkeley, our family was together more than ever before. With the exception of a few hours each week, I really was with my four children all day, every day. Our girls had only a handful of playmates in the area, so the four of them played together constantly. And, although my husband went to an office daily, he had the flexibility to come home for lunch and take time off for family outings. We had virtually no obligations: no activities, meetings or social events.
Sure, we had (daily) moments of bickering and frustration, but for the most part all of this family time together wasn’t what I’d expected; rather than feeling like a trap, it felt right. We have all grown incredibly close. We have made memories. We have developed better strategies for getting along. Time together has been the best part of sabbatical.
Our family is figuring out how we can preserve some of our sabbatical closeness when we re-enter Vermont life. My husband would like to continue coming home for lunch when possible. And I’ve done the unthinkable, and offered to continue homeschooling my girls if they wish.
In the end, I suppose, this is my way of saying, “I don’t know why I worried so much.”
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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