Lessons Learned During a Family Sabbatical

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— courtesy of the Bernick-Roehr family

Elisa Bernick, author of 'The Family Sabbatical Handbook', spent 18 months living in San Miguel, Mexico, with her husband and two young children. Here she shares anecdotes and advice from the experience.

Q: How did you settle on Mexico as the place for your sabbatical?

A: We didn't originally intend to land in Mexico. We actually had our sights set on Europe. But after researching the costs of living anywhere in Europe for 18 months, we quickly realized that given our rather paltry budget, choosing a European destination would force us to abandon a critical goal for our family sabbatical—that of living abroad for an extended period without either of us working. Mexico also met our family goals of being kid-friendly and a place where English was not the primary language, and it was accessible enough that family and friends could come and visit without great difficulty.

This notion of developing a list of family goals is an important aspect of planning a sabbatical. It generates discussion from the start and helps everyone get on the same page regarding different hopes and dreams for your adventure. Refining this wish list will leave your family with a sense of the essential requirements for your sabbatical, and it will help you cull the potential sabbatical locations to find a place that's right for your family.

The most important thing to keep mind about choosing a sabbatical destination is that ultimately, this type of family adventure is less about where you are and more about where you are not. It's about shaking up your family's routines and predictable responses to the world and to each other.

Q: How far in advance did you begin planning the sabbatical, and what were the key financial considerations?

A: Obviously, the earlier you can start planning your sabbatical the better, particularly in terms of the bottom line. Our planning started three years before our departure date. During that period we salted away any extra money in a special savings account, we paid down our debts, and we lived more frugally at home. These are the three most important things you can do to make your sabbatical a reality. We cut out all extraneous spending like eating out, vacations, and any large purchases that weren't directly applicable to our sabbatical. Not eating out or buying anything new did get tedious at times, but all we had to do was remind ourselves how delicious those south-of-the-border tacos and margaritas were going to taste, and the whole thing became more palatable.

Although our family's goals included not working, in many families we know one spouse kept working during the sabbatical, or both spouses worked sporadically via the Internet or as private consultants in their sabbatical destinations. Another excellent way to generate passive income is to lease out your house back here in the States. We did that and the rental income covered all our expenses back home, which allowed us to spend our savings on the actual costs we incurred abroad. During our 18 months abroad, we spent a total of $35,000 in savings, and that covered everything—transportation, health insurance, private schools for the kids, language tutors, relatively luxurious lodging, trips during our sabbatical to other parts of Mexico—you name it.

At first glance, coming up with enough money to fund a family sabbatical may seem like an impossible dream. But it's really not. If our family can do it, any family can do it. It just requires sacrifice and preparation along with a little grit and determination. For us, it was the most gratifying exercise of delayed gratification in our lives.

Q: Could you share some tips on how to prepare children for the trip and help them feel at home in their new surroundings?

A: How children react to this type of adventure depends on how old the kids are, where the family is headed, and how long you'll be gone. Older kids may feel anxious about leaving their friends, teachers, and familiar surroundings behind. Younger kids will be less aware of the changes in store, and will feel fine as long as you reassure them that you're all going on this trip together. I would encourage each member of the family to bring along a few small items you consider to be essential. These are comfort items for those first few weeks abroad when the isolation and sense of foreigness are most extreme. Things like a personal CD or MP3 player, a favorite mug or cup, a blanket, or favorite sheets and pillowcases can help kids stay relaxed and open to their new surroundings. I would also bring along some nonperishable food items (dry cereal and snacks) to tide the kids over until you can find something similar (or a brand-new favorite!) in your home away from home. Also, if a family is going to be spending a significant holiday away from home, don't forget to bring along a few decorations. These can really make a difference in how genuine a holiday feels and also helps keeps homesickness at bay.

Most importantly, involve the kids as much as possible in the conversation and preparations. It's critical that they feel it's their sabbatical as much as yours. Describe in detail what the trip to their new home will involve. Being able to imagine the process of leaving home helps normalize things and makes the whole adventure feel more real. Are you flying, driving, or traveling by train? What do your children need to pack for the journey? What food will you eat along the way? Will you need to sleep in a car or airplane? Talk about waking up in your new home and what sorts of activities that first day and week might include. All of this conversation is excellent preparation for the unknown and exciting time ahead.

Q: How did you respond and keep busy once the initial thrill of landing in a new place wore off?

A: It might sound weird, but after the first few weeks of nonstop novelty, the most critical problem we encountered in Mexico was our profound inability to relax. After coming from such stressful and high-achieving lives back in the States, we were completely unprepared to live in a world where our main goal in life wasn't achieving results. It was really hard to figure out what to do when we suddenly had all this time at our disposal and nothing constructive to fill it with. I call this the "distraction void." Back home, we filled our days with almost nothing but distractions—working, vacuuming, ferrying kids here and there, calling around for the best price on health insurance, and all the other myriad tasks we exhausted ourselves with. In Mexico, we rented a house, so we had almost no house maintenance; we had no car and thus no car maintenance; and we had minimal have-to-do-this or must-get-this-done-by-Friday. That whole mundane, chore-ridden level of existence had been removed in one fell swoop, and it left us feeling anxious and confused about what exactly we should be doing with the months of minutes that ticked off ahead of us. Although we understood that confronting this void was a large part of the idea of the sabbatical, it was still a difficult transition emotionally.

After a bit of nervous hand-wringing, we realized that we felt more relaxed when there was a sense of structure to each day. So we created a routine (albeit a pretty loose one) that we could all plan our days around. We also started carefully inviting activities back into our lives. These included things like hitting the library every afternoon and signing up for a language class. The kids got to choose one extracurricular activity each week, and we found ways to connect with the community by volunteering at the kids' schools.

Ultimately, we all learned how to consciously slow our lives down. The kids went through a period when they complained of being bored, and then that eventually passed and they found many things to do alone or with each other. We read books for hours at a time. We slowly extricated ourselves from the need to be constantly distracted. After a few months, we were able to get up every day and look forward to the lazy hours ahead of us with relish instead of dread. We'd stand up on the roof deck with a cup of coffee in hand musing about some bit of writing, a chord progression, or nothing at all. And eventually, one us would catch the other's eye and say with a hint of amazement, "Hey, can you believe it? We're living in Mexico!"

Q: What did you miss most about the U.S. while you were away?

A: It seems like the younger kids are, the less they miss about life back home. That's the amazing thing about traveling with kids; they really do live in the here and now. Our kids were 2 and 7 when we left the States. They were 4 and 9 when we returned. The youngest missed almost nothing except certain snacks (Goldfish crackers and rice cakes) that we just couldn't find in San Miguel. Our oldest, however, suffered from a couple of serious bouts of homesickness mostly tied to missing friends and family during special holidays and on her birthday. My husband and I suffered a bit of homesickness as well, although ours seemed more seasonal. For example, the first spring we were gone, I became fixated on the garden I'd left behind. I kept plying my neighbors via e-mail for details about when the lilacs were blooming and whether my roses had made it through the winter.

But as our lives filled up with new friends and activities, we missed less and less about home. We thought we would miss friends and family more, but ultimately, many of them came down to visit. And one of the most wonderful surprises we encountered was how many incredible friendships we made abroad with other expats and native Mexicanos. We never anticipated meeting so many interesting and like-minded people. The majority of those friendships endure to this day, and they are truly some of the most precious and unexpected treasures of our time in Mexico.

Q: Did you feel that 18 months was an appropriate amount of time? How would you suggest that a family determine the length of the sabbatical?

A: Determining the length of a family sabbatical depends on a variety of factors, such as job flexibility, financial obligations, available income, school affairs, your family's goals for your sabbatical, and your sabbatical location. Staying in one place for the duration of a family sabbatical is more economical than traveling around, and that will impact the amount of time you can afford to take off. Also, if one of your goals is to learn another language, anything less than a year will leave you surprised and disappointed at how little language ability you return home with. Of course, the reality is that you and your family will benefit no matter how long your sabbatical. You'll just have to adjust your goals accordingly and be realistic about how much you can do in the time you have available.

Eighteen months was exactly the right amount of time for our family given our goals and available budget. One of our top goals was learning Spanish. It took the kids six months to reach the most basic comfort level with the language and another year to really achieve fluency. It took us hardheaded adults the full 18 months to reach something resembling acceptable conversational skills. Another primary goal of ours was to work on creative projects. Having a year and a half to write, read, play music, and truly get to know ourselves and our children was an incredible experience.

Q: How easy was it for you and your children to learn some Spanish?

A: Not as easy as we'd thought. My husband and I both spoke other Romance languages, so we thought we'd pick it up without much trouble. We'd also imagined that our kids would be like little sponges who would just absorb the language from the world around them. It didn't work like that on either count. Even being immersed in Spanish every day, learning a new language is a relatively slow process (even painful at times for us adults), and we didn't have a realistic sense of that at the start. It took our kids a couple months to even express interest in learning Spanish. It took a couple more for the oldest to commit to working with a tutor and to speak it without us pushing her. Eventually, she was the one pushing the rest of us and enforcing the "Spanish only" rule at dinner time. Surprisingly, the younger one was the most resistant. It took him nine months or longer to speak Spanish willingly, and even then, he spoke it only with people who he knew couldn't speak English.

Michael and I quickly realized that learning a new language at age 40 was different from learning it in high school and college. Our brains were just not as flexible, and we had to work hard to discard our French and Italian to let the Spanish find its way in. The first few months, if the telephone rang we'd either ignore it or do our best to make the other one answer it. Understanding what someone was saying over the telephone was really hard because there was no sense of the context and we couldn't see the caller's eyes or body language. Whoever got trapped into answering the call would have these long, hilarious conversations with some official stranger and then hang up and tell the other, "I think it was something to do with water."

Learning another language was definitely challenging and took serious work on everyone's part, but now we can all speak Spanish, which is incredibly rewarding. The kids speak it without an American accent, and when we go back to Mexico, Mexicanos hear our kids speak and wonder why these Mexican kids are hanging around with a couple of gringos like us.

Q: What are some of the challenges you faced in dealing with a different school system?

A: We faced a variety of challenges; however, nothing ever felt insurmountable. In fact, both kids had terrific school experiences in San Miguel, and we were surprised at the quality and variety of private preschools and elementary schools that were available. The options diminished in quality during the middle school and high school years, and expat families we know did have to work harder to find schools that were acceptable for their kids at those grade levels.

Originally, we had envisioned sending our kids to Mexican public schools; however the public school system in Mexico is sorely lacking funds and infrastructure, and it just wasn't a learning environment we wanted for our kids. Because we had the luxury of time on our side, our daughter did the last half of second grade in a private bilingual school, and she met with a Spanish tutor twice a week. Once she was fairly fluent, we moved her to a private Mexican school for all of third grade. She was the only gringa in a school of 500 students, and there were 45 students in her classroom. Our daughter was initially quite challenged by the sink-or-swim approach, but after a few hard days of feeling like a duck out of water, she loved it and did well. She made wonderful friends, she liked her teacher very much, and we were impressed with the general quality of the curriculum.

The primary challenges we encountered mostly had to do with different philosophies about parental involvement in school activities (almost none), homework assignments (more than at home and more rote memorization), school uniforms (many different kinds), and the type of teacher-pupil interaction that was acceptable. There was an initial transition period that was frustrating for both the kids and us, and we experienced occasional misunderstandings with school officials that we chalked up to language and cultural differences. Nothing, however, was ever too dire, and eventually everything worked out fine.

The thing to keep in mind when considering schooling abroad is that taking a family sabbatical is an enormous learning experience in itself and the most educational aspect of attending school abroad is simply being in another country. We made it clear to our kids that academics weren't the important thing about going to school in Mexico. The point was to embrace the culture and the language, make friends, and have fun!

Finding the right school for your child depends on your child's learning style, your family's sabbatical goals, and the academic options available in your sabbatical destination. There's necessarily a lot more give-and-take between schools abroad and visiting families. Oftentimes, you'll end up cobbling two or more schooling options together (with a tutor or two thrown in) to come up with something that works. Don't be surprised if you finally hit upon something that works only after trying one or two things that don't.

Q: What was the experience of reentering the U.S. like? And how did it compare to the experience of acclimating to life in Mexico?

A: The reentry experience was both exciting and difficult. We returned home to a long list of chores and concerns that required our immediate attention. We were inundated with invitations from friends and family. Driving a car made us feel strangely cut off from our environment, and the kids experienced an odd sense of foreignness that made them feel different from their friends for awhile.

We experienced a sort of transition shock in reverse, and we found ourselves homesick for the friends and lives we had left behind in San Miguel. In particular, we felt uncomfortable with the pace of life here in the states. American culture is fueled by a pervasive, transparent tension, and while we'd been away it was obvious that we'd been fueled by something altogether different. We loved seeing our close friends again, but they had a wound-up edge to their energies that made us uncomfortable. At times, we felt like astronauts returning from 18 months of weightlessness and having to learn how to negotiate gravity all over again.

As in Mexico, once we took steps to establish a loose structure to our day, we all started to feel more relaxed. And we also began to make conscious decisions about how much American media and culture we would allow back into our lives. We continue to resist the "warp speed" many families fall victim to here in the States and try to pursue a more family-centric lifestyle, but it isn't easy. It means working less, wanting less, and actively resisting the most potent and seductive aspects of American culture. But we try. We limit our activities, we don't use shopping as a form of entertainment, we cook rather than eat out, we try to walk and ride bikes whenever possible, and we make sure to carve out a great deal of family time when we just hang around and play cards, read, speak Spanish (poorly), and pretty much do nothing.

Q: How has your sabbatical experience changed the way you travel now?

A: One thing we do is to try to take longer trips with the kids rather than taking a few short trips during the year. This isn't always feasible, of course, but we have managed over the past few years to organize our lives so that we've taken several family trips that have lasted a month to six weeks.

We also travel differently together as a family. We laugh and enjoy ourselves more because we have a much more realistic view of what it means to travel with kids. We always build swimming into our travels. Always. Whether it's a beach, a hotel pool, or running through a sprinkler, water is the big equalizer. We are also more flexible about changing the rules on the road when necessary. Sometimes an ice cream cone right now instead of after lunch can turn a bummer into a blast. And we plan our schedule with our kids' interests and energy levels in mind. We don't try to do more than one activity per outing, and if we do a museum in the morning, the afternoon is going to be a picnic and a swim or some sort of park adventure. This kind of schedule can be a bit disappointing for us adults at times, but it also makes for a more relaxed and enjoyable trip for everyone. When things do get tense with the kids, we try and remind each other that maintaining a sense of humor can save the day when maintaining a sense of perspective is impossible.

Q: What do you know now that you wish you'd known when you set out for Mexico?

A: Ummmm...not to eat pig eyeball tacos? Michael insists they were actually heart valve tacos, but they tasted like pig eyeballs to me. Sorry, this is a really hard question. I guess I wish we'd known even earlier in our lives how important it is to embark on big adventures such as our sabbatical and to not be daunted by the challenges, internal doubts, or naysayers along the way. We had an inkling of this before we went on our sabbatical, but this adventure has certainly heightened our sense of mortality and made us more concretely aware of the fleeting amount of time we actually have together as a family. It has instilled in us the self-confidence to push ahead with our dreams and to take some significant risks in our lives. We are more interested in making larger gestures in the world similar to the sabbatical itself. Since we've returned, we've designed and built an unusual 1,200 square foot addition onto our tiny house, and we did the majority of the work ourselves. Michael started his own architecture firm this year with a partner, and I wrote this book and pushed hard to get it published. Perhaps we just dream a bit bigger now and believe more fervently in the potential of those dreams.

Q: Have you stayed in touch with any friends you made while in Mexico, and do you think you'll return any time soon?

A: We are still extremely close with many of the friends we met in Mexico. The bonds created by sharing this sort of adventure are really strong, and it's been important to keep those ties alive. We've visited these friends here in the States, and we've been back to Mexico numerous times and stayed with our friends who still call San Miguel home. We are actually planning another visit to San Miguel this winter. These ongoing relationships remain a touchstone in the story of our life as a family and are constant reminders of what our family accomplished in the past, and of the potential adventures that we can look forward to in the future.

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