Q&A: One Family’s Sabbatical—Plus, Win the Book!
Travel writer Jennifer Wilson not only considered it, she saved her pennies and did it, abandoning her cushy Iowa life for the tiny Croatian mountain village her ancestors fled decades earlier.
She chronicled her family’s adventures in “Running Away to Home,” just published by St. Martin’s Press. Wilson agreed not only to a frank Q&A on her family’s sabbatical, including tips on how to take your own, she’s also promised a signed copy of her book to one lucky Love & Diapers reader. (Details below.) Her graciousness may or may not be attributed to the fact that we’re friends—she comments here at L&D under the handle anti-jen.
A story-setting excerpt from the book:
“Jim and I looked at each other across the shopping cart one Saturday afternoon, both of us holding the Starbucks that accounted for $150 of our monthly household budget, SUV idling in the parking lot, kids grousing that the Lego set they’d chosen was somehow lacking, and asked ourselves: Is this the American Dream? Because if it is, it sort of sucks.”
L&D: Did you at all feel somewhat loony, lifting your family up out of its comfy Midwestern existence and plopping them into a relatively desolate Croatian mountain town?
Jennifer Wilson: Often times, yes! I appreciate how delicately you put that, Berit. We were at a point in our lives where we had everything we supposedly wanted—good jobs, nice house, sweet kids—but things felt weird. We didn’t feel very connected to any of it. I think we spend a lot of time talking about what we want from marriage, from work, from friendship. But how often do we talk about what we want to be as a family? We wanted a time-out to recalibrate, and frankly, the fantasy of the Croatian mountain village just hit at the right place at the right time in our lives. And off we went for some family recalibrating!
How did the kids feel about that?
Weeeeeell, my son Sam, who was 6 at the time, flat-out refused to go. We had to blatantly bribe him. Zadie was almost 4 and had no idea what “going to Croatia” meant. So of course she agreed—she’d be spending all her time with her family, and so it was awesome!
What was the reality of village life like?
The village was small … and quiet … and that intimidated me a lot at first. I describe it in the book as a handful of gnome houses in the crease between mountains. The backyards all melded together into giant fields and meadows, and my kids got to run free all day every day for the first time in their lives. For them, it was heaven, from climbing trees to eating wild strawberries in the field. They were more independent than they’d ever been, and I realized just how much face time parents and kids are forced to have these days. Sam and Zadie really thrived with the freedom, knowing that we were always close by if they needed us.
Sounds as if you hit the jackpot in the simplicity department. Was it the cure-all you hoped it would be?
Having a much smaller place was great. We live in a big renovated house here in Des Moines, and it can be a bear to keep up. So having just one big dorm-like space was pretty heavenly. It was also great to have our own schedule—no playdates, no practices, no real work deadlines. The simplicity of time was so freeing in that way. Our time was all our own. It made us realize how much we sort of manufacture our own schedules, and how overscheduling separates us from connecting with each other.
On the other hand, simplicity can also be a nice way of saying “boring.” Having huge tracts of uninterrupted time was weird for me. The kids and Jim relaxed right into it. Sam and Zadie were so happy to have nowhere to be, ever. When Jim got bored he’d pick up the atlas and plan a drive, or embark on an epic cooking adventure, or just accept the boredom. One day he decided to make burgers, and it took him all day just to find all the ingredients.
But for the busy mom here, huge tracts of do-nothing time made me feel almost agoraphobic. I am the captain of our home schedule, and when nobody needed my services anymore, I didn’t really know what to do. I admit I had my fair share of panic attacks at the beginning. But the more we became enmeshed in the village, the more things I had to do: Learning old recipes with the neighbor ladies, interviewing people about history, learning how to be really good at hanging up laundry on the line, sleuthing down old family members. Still, this experience made it very clear that I’m the restless one in the family. I don’t do downtime very well. It’s just my nature.
In what ways did these revelations change your family life back here?
It’s more of a priority to stay connected, as a family. We still have activities and tend to run around, but I’m quicker to put on the brakes and make everyone get in pajamas to read “Hatchet” together on the couch. Being present with each other is a daily priority.
Being connected to our food source has remained a priority and gotten more important. We eat clean local food as much as we can. We have our own garden and chickens. We buy fresh food daily, in season. Although the kids won’t appreciate that lesson ‘til they’re older—they want junk, and can’t figure out why we have to eat things that look so close to original form. So we still take plenty mac and cheese or fast food intervals.
Any advice to a family thinking of taking their own similar type of time-out?
Get “The Family Sabbatical Handbook” by Elisa Bernick. It is essential, comprehensive, and we followed it to the letter. It was infinitely helpful.
Also, take a scouting trip first if you can. See the lay of the land, make some contacts that you can email with questions, whether it’s the tourism person or a landlord or friends you meet while visiting.
Last, prepare for a challenge. A family sabbatical isn’t for the weak of knees. As with all travel, it’s 90 percent work, 10 percent glory. And of course, buy “Running Away to Home” to get some idea. I write about the good, the bad, and the in between. I don’t sugarcoat it, yet you’ll get an idea of the unique beauty of taking this kind of leap with your family.
Win your very own SIGNED copy of “Running Away to Home” by leaving a comment below by the end of the day on this Friday, October 28th. Anonymous comments and those without a valid email address will be disqualified. The winner will be chosen at random, then contacted via email. If I don’t hear from a winner within five days, a new one will be chosen. Please enter/comment only once. Good luck!
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