Taking a Family Gap Year: Reflections from a Worried Mother

Looking through window in wall

After I read Matt’s first post, Wanderlust Meets Life’s Obstacles, it got me thinking about my personal reasons for embarking on a family gap year (or longer). The reasons are similar to Matt’s, but as I was searching my own heart for the deep, driving why? I kept coming up against an almost equal force of reasons why not to.

So here’s a confession: if it weren’t for Matt’s energy behind this family gap year I probably wouldn’t be able to muster enough momentum to make this choice for our family myself. This is not to say I don’t want to travel, or that I am being reluctantly dragged into it. It’s more that as a mother who has anxiety and control issues, the what if? and what could go wrong? questions start to take up a lot of mental space and crowd out the arguably more weighty reasons to travel.

What if? What could go wrong?

The ambiguity surrounding the what if? and what could go wrong? questions are part of why we’ve postponed travel, as Matt mentioned in his article. As parents of three young children (especially when there is one under age two), predictability and structure has been critical to sanity. If I can’t expect to get uninterrupted sleep most nights of the week, it makes me way less likely to subject other aspects of my life to unpredictability – including where we sleep each night and what we’ll be doing each day.

Childcare has been crucial to my sanity as a mother as well. Because Matt has been working full time and I’ve been the one primarily responsible for the day-to-day aspects of our kids’ lives, knowing that I’ll get breaks with regularly scheduled childcare makes the daily grind of caring for infants and toddlers more doable. This is something that will be up in the air while we travel, but will be less of an issue because Matt will be much more involved in our family’s daily routines and our kids will be older and require less round-the-clock supervision.

Then, of course, there are the health and safety concerns. Some of these come from misconceptions about the availability of quality medical care or public safety in other countries. Because we have traveled quite a bit already short-term, we know that—contrary to popular beliefs in the U.S.—health care is not necessarily worse or less accessible in other “less developed” countries. In fact, it’s often cheaper and even more cutting-edge.

One example: Finley (our 4-year-old) will be in the process of orthodontic palate expansion during the year we plan to travel. When we decided to move forward with this multi-year treatment we asked our orthodontist how it would work being abroad in the middle of treatment, and he said that it should be easy to find the kind of therapy that Finley needs (myofunctional) in places like Brazil, because they are ahead of the U.S. in making that a priority.

We also know from our previous travels that when you are informed, aware, and take common-sense precautions, travel in other countries can be quite safe, especially for families with children.

So what’s the holdup then? Though I know theoretically we will in all likelihood be fine, even facing some kind of health emergency, the unknowns feel daunting.

But what kind of health insurance will we have? Will we be able to find a functional medicine doctor or someone who is willing to explore alternatives if some of the health issues our kids have had in the past that conventional medicine seems unable to address recur?

And of course there’s simply the lack of cultural and medical system knowledge that we’ll be navigating. These unknowns are not deal-breakers for me, but—again—if Matt weren’t driving this decision, they might be enough to keep me in one place. Because the thought of navigating them would be overwhelming without his reminders of the positive reasons why we are traveling.

What if travel changes nothing?

Ok, those were only the concerns I could readily name. But there are a couple deeper fears that are harder to put my finger on. They boil down to this: what if nothing changes while we travel? We want our family gap year to be world-expanding and life-changing, but what if all the things that bug me about regular life just come right along, because, honestly, I’m still checking myself and all my emotional baggage onto the plane?

To put this question another way: what if it’s an illusion that we need to change our location and pace of life in order to achieve our family goals (which are having more time together and breaking out of the suburban script for a good life)? What if I keep being anxious and agenda-driven even in the most breathtakingly beautiful places in the world?

Or even worse: what if the personal issues I have and the interpersonal issues that Matt and I have as a couple get amplified during our travels, without the dampening effects of “regular life” and its distractions and outside commitments?  

I suppose, if I think about it, that’s why we’re traveling. To be able to see ourselves more clearly and—if necessary—face our inner demons. But why not just face them now, if we’re already aware of them? Great idea! I think I’ll start seeing a counselor – oh, check! I just started seeing one a few months ago.

Inner Work

As I start to dig through my fears, I’m realizing there is a lot of inner work to be done. I’m starting on that already, in the hopes that unraveling some of my why not? reasons for long-term travel will put a few more resources under my belt to face those harrowing unknowns when they do come up. I’m hoping they won’t be as harrowing as I expect, because I will have named the fears and walked through the possible outcomes.

Yes, I’m afraid someone’s gonna die. And yes, that is a fact of life, even here in the good ol’ US of A where everything’s hunky dory (not!). Yes, I’m pretty OCD, and that’s not going to disappear magically when we live in another country. But even the naming helps with the taming. (Okay, that was a really lame line…did I read that in some pop psychology article? It’s true though!)

Just yesterday I was bustling about in the kitchen getting dinner ready and in my own head with all my to-dos. Then I looked out the dining room window and saw my husband outside with the baby on the swing and the other boys playing in the sandbox. At the same time I felt the invitation in that picture. Come out, Liuan. Come out, Mama. Won’t you play with us?

I felt the million “buts.” But, there’s dinner to be cooked. But, there’s a pile of dishes in the sink. But, I don’t know how to have fun?? (I know, I know. I am a weird, neurotic person. Ask my husband some time why he married me.)

This decision to travel long-term feels like the same kind of invitation. Come out and live a little, Liuan! Everything else can wait. I think I am slowly learning to say yes, at least more often that I have in the past.

A time when I allowed myself to go out and play.
  • Liuan

    Liuan is an author and journalist. Her favorite topics to cover are spirituality, embodiment and environmental issues. Her favorite snack is dark chocolate.

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Liuan is an author and journalist. Her favorite topics to cover are spirituality, embodiment and environmental issues. Her favorite snack is dark chocolate.

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