Mid-life Interrupted: How a year of international travel with my husband and kids saved my sanity
By Megan Barnes Zesati, LCSW. A month before we were to begin our family sabbatical year of living abroad, a curious thing began to happen in my hometown of Austin, Texas. The birds. I’d be at work, where I was supposed to be listening intently to the stories of my therapy clients, but the louder voices would be those of the songbirds outside the office window. Were they really getting louder, I wondered? How had I never noticed this before? It was distracting. It was delightful. It was a harbinger. It was my attention being pulled to some place just outside of the familiar walls of my life. I had to know what was calling.
The birds were a nice break from the craziness of our final days in Austin, a time when I often questioned the sanity of our decision to take a family year abroad. To reduce our belongings to six suitcases and four backpacks. To intentionally grind all of the forward momentum of our family, personal and professional lives to a halt. At a time when it made no sense at all to take a break. We had responsibilities, and we were doing our best at “adulting” in our early 40s. We had two kids, a dog and a house that we owned for ten years and outgrew (by North American standards) eight years ago. My husband and I are both psychotherapists who had spent the past decade building a successful private practice. And yet, in spite of our desire to live an uncomplicated, wholesome family life, the song of our last decade had been “more, more, more, better, better, better, faster, faster, faster.” By January of 2017, we just couldn’t dance to that frenetic American tune anymore.
And me, personally? I was desperate to gain some insight into the internal midlife rumble that had grown louder inside of me within recent years. All I knew was that I quite simply needed time to think. And time to think felt like an impossible luxury. The growing agitation began after an accident left me in some physical pain that failed to respond completely to all of my interventions. I began saying “this life is not sustainable” without really knowing what that meant.
My body told the story of this life not being sustainable, but I didn’t know how to respond skillfully. I did my best. I tried to power through. I tried to keep up. I shared my feelings. I tried to pretend. I tried to get out of my self-focus with volunteer work. I tried to numb out the discomfort, to manage the stress. I tried to cleanse. I went to doctors, therapists and healing experts who offered me temporary feelings of hope and well-intentioned remedies. They were all lifeboats that worked for awhile, but they all had leaks.
As a therapist, I tried to do all of this for myself, while also attempting to help my clients do the same. I was failing. I began to feel like a fraud at work, aware that I had no solution to the problems that plagued both my clients and myself. I had lots of empathy, but I felt useless as an emotional sherpa, navigating the terrain of modern life. I was too lost in it myself. I was genuinely puzzled and surprised that I wasn’t fired much more often by my clients. To date, the best explanation I have for this is the power of feeling understood, rather than “helped.”
The planning of our family sabbatical began with my husband and I taking a weekend away. From within the quiet warmth of a cabin in the Texas Hill Country, we began writing out our vision and values for the year. The mission was fairly simple. We wanted more slow time. We wanted to live in closer alignment with our Buddhist spiritual values. We wanted more time in nature. We wanted rest and play. We wanted to practice our Spanish. We wanted to engage what is different, uncomfortable and foreign in other cultures with open and curious minds. We wanted to be with our children more and relearn from them how to face the world together with fresh eyes, creativity and wonder.
Sounds nice, but how does one actually stop the music of her busy middle-aged life and leave as a family? Are we just running away from reality? Shirking our responsibilities? I quietly wondered: is it really fair to take my kids along for the ride of my mid-life-crisis roller coaster? These were the questions and fears that accompanied our planning about how to step away for a year and to see how our comfortable life looked in the rear view mirror.
We leased our home in Austin for the year, sold many of our belongings, subleased one therapy office and let another one go, planned for the time away with our clients, searched for our home-base abroad and decided on the small town of Atenas, Costa Rica. We sold and saved and planned for financial worst-case scenarios. We exchanged plans to buy a bigger house in our hip Austin neighborhood for a year of travel in countries with lower cost of living.
The experience of purging our belongings was both cathartic and the true beginning of our adventure in my mind. It was surprisingly fun for our family to reverse gears: to shift from a long-term state of accumulation to one of release. My body registered the newfound freedom and lightness with a loosening of the areas of chronic holding and tension.
We predicted and worried that our kids would cling to their belongings and suffer over letting them go, as they did every spring cleaning past. We were wrong. In an epic garage sale/giveaway that lasted 12 hours, our children happily sold and gave away their toys. They saved a few items to bring on our journey — some prized stuffed animals, a box of legos and some art supplies. Not once have my kids mentioned even one of the hundreds of toys that they released almost a year ago. And I struggle to recall the belongings that I most agonized over. In this year, we have all experienced an explosion of creative energy and I believe it is directly connected to letting go of our stuff.
We were fortunate that our friends and family were very supportive of our decision to travel abroad and many even came to visit! As we were planning to leave, the most common refrain I heard from others was how they would love to do something similar but it just felt impossible. It’s true. There are so many moving parts — career, kids activities, schools, financial burdens, medical care, aging parents, and more — that make it legitimately hard to hit refresh at this stage in life, as a family. It really feels impossible when you are sitting in the center of your swirling life contemplating a change, but that is a feeling worth challenging for someone who really longs to hit refresh.
Travelling with a family is different than travelling solo. We move slower and cover less ground. We have a home base where the kids go to school and we maintain an online private therapy practice. It is true that we have recreated another family dance in a different place, but the rhythm suits us well and our daily life aligns with the values that we reclaimed.
As for the travel, we have been able to leverage the different school calendar in Costa Rica to enable slow travel during school vacations. We have embraced last-minute flexible travel adventures in ways that previously seemed impossible and the price of a plane ticket often determines our next destination. We spent the month of December travelling through Thailand and Cambodia, which was the trip of a lifetime for all of us. In January, we lived in Mexico, visiting various cities and spending time with extended family. During another school break, we spent an amazing ten days in Nicaragua, which we wished could have been longer. And we have enjoyed shorter exploratory trips all over Costa Rica from our jumping off point of Atenas.
Now I know what those songbirds outside my office had to offer. I feel grateful beyond words for the year that we have shared. I have been a therapist for almost 20 years now, but like a beginner, I am mainly in touch with all that I do not know about the messiness, confusion and beauty of being human. We return to Austin in three short months to begin the next chapter: refreshed, connected, humbled and ready.
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*This blog post is also published Megan Barnes Zesati Medium Page: https://medium.com/@mbztherapy