One of our motivations for maintaining a blog this year was that we benefitted so much from reading the blogs of other families who had spent a sabbatical year abroad. We felt a need to return the favor.

In writing these reflections, we acknowledge that we were atypical in that we began planning this sabbatical many years before we actually took it. Also unusual about our experience was that we decided to dis-save this year (sorry, college and retirement funds), and use whatever financial resources we could to make things go smoothly. Part of that reflected that we had been saving since our last sabbatical, seven years ago, to have a financial cushion for this year. But part of it also reflected our belief that anything that helped ease us into the year, prevent stress, and avoid tearful evenings during our limited time away, was a wise investment.

1. Because we could, we took a full year. Often there are hard constraints on the length of a sabbatical—what percent salary cut a family can afford, spouses’ jobs, cost of living, etc. But if it is feasible, we are strong advocates of making the move for a full year. We have met many families this year that originally planned half-year visits, and they all regretted not planning a full year. It often takes several months for children to settle in, make friends, find favorite restaurants, feel like their room is their own. Second, it takes time for children to become sufficiently integrated that they do not feel like the “new kid.” It also takes adults a while to really find the people who end up clicking as family friends. Our observations are that children end up having a lot more fun when they attend a regular school or day care program with peers during a year away (as opposed to staying with parents all day). It provides an entrée into a new culture that wouldn’t otherwise be available to a visiting family. Best of all, because of an odd legal loophole, people paid in US dollars who stay outside of the United States for over 330 days do not have to pay any federal income tax!! That has helped make this year much more financially feasible for us.

2. We started language/culture exposure early. A year and a half before moving to Rome, we signed the children up for a very casual Saturday morning Italian class. They really enjoyed the games and food. The point wasn’t to learn much Italian—in fact, our kids left the US overconfident about their abilities. But that was the real benefit of the class. With all the worry they had about leaving their friends and arriving at a new school, one thing they were not worried about was communicating in a different language. This alleviated a great deal of worry for them and made the transition much easier. It is true that once we arrived, they realized how difficult it is to communicate in a non-native language. But at least they were familiar with the sounds, could greet people and introduce themselves, order food in restaurants, say please and thank you, and answer simple questions from friendly adults. All of this helped them a lot socially. At the very least, it is good to arrive knowing how to introduce oneself and say “Can I play, too?”

3. Think about the stuff. Packing up one’s house is a tricky maneuver. On the one hand it is good to get things cleaned out early, especially if someone else will be living in your house. We were very glad that we did not wait until the last minute. It was easier for our children to leave their bedrooms when those rooms were no longer filled with cozy memories; starting to pack things up many weeks in advance helped them slowly adjust to leaving. Still, packing up a house can also be distressing for kids and bring up a lot of anxieties about the upcoming move. Here, we tried an experiment that ended up working very well for us. We slowly started to pack the children’s rooms up removing a few items every weekend and filling separate boxes in the attic with items to be saved versus given away. For each child, we made a box for keepsakes with large labels that read “Eli’s Special Things” and “Nell’s Special Things.” One day, Eli came to us very, very upset because he couldn’t find something that was important to him in his room. We took him to the attic and showed him the box, and he stared at it, and dug around looking at his favorite stuff all tucked away. He felt extremely satisfied. Then, about a week later, Nell was in tears believing that we had thrown away one of her beloved stuffed animals. Eli turned to her and, in a very reassuring and upbeat voice, told her not to worry. “In the attic we each have a box where our special things are protected,” he told her happily, “it even says “Nell’s Special Things.’” Then he took her upstairs to confirm that her favorite belongings were safe and would be here when we returned. Everyone lived happily ever after, and not another word was spoken about stuff that would not accompany us to Italy.

4. Given our children’s ages, we tried to make the destination concrete. This is an expensive undertaking that is not always feasible. But a year before moving to Rome, we visited over the children’s spring break. We looked at neighborhoods and schools, saw some sights, and ate a lot of gelato… We thought that the kids might be less anxious if they could concretely picture things like the school playground or have some memories of parts of the city, making it seem more familiar. Indeed, that seemed to work.

5. To help promote buy-in, we gave the kids some choices. Many families that we have met this year at our kids’ international school have been struggling with children who are not happy about having been forced to move. At the beginning of the school year, the elementary school principal met with the parents of all of the new kids. As the daughter of a diplomat, who had to move a lot herself as a child, she had great insights. One of the things she told the group of parents was really helpful. She reminded the adults that we had chosen jobs that we loved that involved international travel, we were advancing our own careers by opting to spend a year in another place, we were fulfilling our dreams of living in Italy, or we had finally gotten that sabbatical we so wanted. And even though as parents we told ourselves about all of the benefits that this experience would confer for our children, these were still OUR dreams and fantasies, not what our kids had signed up for. She reminded parents to chill out, be patient, and not be surprised if our children are less excited about it all than their parents.

We had thought about this type of issue a bit before leaving Madison.  While the option of going away on sabbatical wasn’t up for a vote, we tried to think of constrained choices to give the kids to give them some sense of control over what was happening. For example, we narrowed the list of possible schools down to ones we liked, and let the children provide input into the final decision. That sense of ownership actually helped a lot. If there was one thing the kids LOVED about this year, it was their school. We gave the kids some choices about our home, allowing them to help pick the final apartment once we had narrowed it down to two choices we liked, and allowed them to choose their sleeping configuration (they had really wanted to share a bedroom this year, probably for comfort). We each brought one large suitcase for the year, and we gave the kids a lot of latitude about what they chose to put in their own bag. First we helped them make a pile of everything that they ideally would want, and worked with them to make sure they made good choices that fit (and ensured that they would have some underwear!). We advised, but their own hands took stuff out of the pile of things to be packed and into the storage bins. There were no tears while packing.

Since we had chosen our sabbatical destination, the kids asked if they could choose some of our trips. So we allowed each of them to select a destination for their birthdays, and their Fall Break destination. We had planned on London, but they really wanted to go to Paris for the entire break rather than travel around. So we showed them how to peruse travel web sites and let them set our activities. It worked out really well, especially since it was a destination that we already knew well as parents. They really enjoyed both the trip and the feeling of being in the driver’s seat. For other cities, we found more limited ways to help them feel involved, such as selecting hotels once we had made a short list, or rank-ordering restaurants we might try to visit based on recommendations by food bloggers.

We think activities like this gave them some authorship over the year. Admittedly, this might be too child-centric for some people’s parenting tastes. But we considered it to be in our own self-interest.

6. We laid the groundwork for a smooth landing. This was another expensive decision, but a good investment. About a month before we moved, Seth made a two-day trip to Rome as an add-on to a conference trip. During that time, he set up infrastructure. He opened our bank account, set up our cell phones, applied for annual metro cards, mapped the route to the children’s school bus stop, found the nearest grocery store to our home, turned on utilities, internet, etc. He took pictures for the children of our street, our closest gelato place and chocolate shops, the nearest playground. When we arrived as a family, almost everything was working, and we didn’t need to spend a lot of our time with the kids waiting on long lines and running dull errands. It helped get us off to a fun start.

7. We may regret this later, but we let a lot of things go this year. The adults in our family were getting a treat, a real respite from the regular demands of our daily professional lives. So we thought the kids deserved a break, too. And we told them so, waiving a lot of the rules that we normally follow at home. This year, the kids are allowed to order anything they want to eat or drink from restaurant menus. The kids wanted a break from violin practice—what the heck, it was a sabbatical, so we allowed them to take the year off. We’ve allowed more TV time, more desserts, more electronics, later bedtimes, more impulse purchases. . .all with the idea that it is a special year for all us. We think of it as a way to mark this time as a special epoch.

8. Invest in eReaders. We were a bit dubious about introducing the children to Kindles. But English language books are incredibly expensive and hard to find in places where English is not the native language. Plus, books are very expensive to ship home. Back in Madison, we shuttle books back and forth to our local library every week and we worried about what it would be like not to have that resource. So we decided to buy each kid a Kindle as a buon viaggio gift. Best. Idea. Ever. We don’t know what we (or they) would have done if we couldn’t simply download new books for the kids. . .and all of their favorite books from the year now only weigh a few ounces. Best of all, a lot of the child classics are now free downloads.

9. We made a decision to budget, and then not worry about money for one year. We had a very funny (in retrospect) and humbling experience a few months before our sabbatical began. We had spent hours figuring out the most we could possibly spend on rent in Rome, then stretched a bit more to “treat” ourselves. But when we began looking at real estate, we realized that we had been living in Wisconsin for too long! Our estimates were so far off that realtors all wrote back saying they had absolutely nothing to show us. So we took the view that our daily lives are pretty inexpensive in Madison relative to what they would be in bigger US cities. Given that, we decided to just live in the moment and stress about finances before and after– but not during– the sabbatical year. We reasoned that we only had a year, and we didn’t want an apartment that required us to spend time on a bus or in a car commuting, or having breakfast in a dreary room, or not being able to walk and get a good coffee or gelato or bread. Sabbaticals are special, and so it did not seem worth it to us to cast a shadow over the time by sweating a little debt for one year; we decided to just make great memories. We’ve uttered not a word to each other , or even focused much, about our daily expenses this year. That said, our friends are welcome to join us for beans and rice next year, because our major austerity measures kick in on September 1st!

10. There are many other topics that we wish we had thought more about ahead of time. It is worth considering how much travel is right for your family (too little and you don’t take full advantage of your location, too much and you miss integrating into local social life); How much effort will you make to avoid using English (kids will follow adults’ lead in their comfort level); How can you maximize meeting other parents, even if it cuts into work time?; How can you best find babysitters (Hint: students studying abroad are not allowed to work and often welcome extra cash, local high school students know the lay of the land, and student teachers are young, energetic and in need of cash); How frequently you can accommodate guests so that you can have fun visits and share your experience, but still be available to accept invitations from locals?

But our take home message is simple: If you’re in a job where you have this sort of opportunity, grab it and worry about the details later! Or, as they used to say in Rome, carpe diem! For all of the planning, work, expenses, and anxiety, we feel that our family got out of this year every single thing that we had hoped for.

We hope that some of these thoughts and suggestions will smooth your future paths, and welcome additional ideas from others who have taken a family sabbatical.

And for those of you on the fence about whether you can really pull it off, we offer an unequivocal yes—just do it. . .go!

– Seth & Jenny

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