Thinking about it made my heart race and my fair skin flush. I had played this conversation out in my head a hundred times over, but it was actually happening today.
“We don’t have a mortgage. We don’t have kids. We have a lot of freedom,” I said. “I’m not sure I’ll ever have this time in my life again.”
Adam and I are 35 and 32, respectively, and up until this moment, life was moving fast. Two years prior, I moved across the country from Chicago to Portland (the one with breweries and backyard chickens—Oregon, not Maine). I left a team I loved working with, my family and my friends to live in a city where I knew nobody except the beautiful mountains I had hiked a few months prior.
Within two months of this move, I met Adam. Within 11 months, I accepted a fellowship and spent 30 days in the Brazilian Amazon, where they speak Portuguese and I do not. My eyes were opened to cultures and environmental issues one could never fully grasp until seen in person.
The day I returned from the Amazon, Adam proposed. We spent the next year planning our wedding, saving for a house, saving for a woodworking business—Adam’s a craftsman—and working really hard.
I had to fulfill the requirements of my fellowship, which meant writing 20+ pages of web content, building web pages for said content and editing videos. Then, of course, I had to do my regular job, which included writing content for and building a microsite, managing social media channels, marketing campaigns and print publications.
My chest, my neck and my cheeks were pink. It was clear this was a hard conversation for me to have. Born and raised in Illinois, I have been both blessed and cursed with the “Midwestern work ethic.” If you’ve lived in or known anyone from the Midwest, you know what this means. We’re taught to persevere, have dogged determination and be humble through any success, for it is never your own.
Work ethic aside, I had grown accustomed to continually overachieving in order to get noticed. I am the sixth child from a family of seven and a female working in the male-dominated conservation sector. My curly blonde hair has always made me “cute,” not coiffed and confident. My soft voice has made me sweet, not directive.
I’ve always had to take work very seriously so it would take me seriously. Asking for something as selfish as a sabbatical was not in my makeup.
“I can tell you’re nervous,” my boss said. “Take a deep breath and calm down. I’m generally supportive of this type of thing. How much time are you thinking?”
This break in the conversation did indeed calm my nerves. As much as I knew I needed the time off, I struggled with giving myself permission to do so. Everyone around me kept saying, “Wow, that would be nice. I’ve never had that much time off.” I felt guilty and unworthy.
“10 weeks,” I blurted out.
My boss’ eyes opened a bit wider, “10 weeks. That’s a little excessive.”
The nerves came back. Little did he know Adam and I had compromised on 10 weeks. When we first started talking about our honeymoon/sabbatical, we talked about quitting our jobs, driving around the United States and living in our Volkswagen van for a year, or until we ran out of money.
I wasn’t quite willing to leave my job, and we decided blowing our savings probably wasn’t a smart way to begin our married life. We wanted a house, to start a business and have a family.
Acknowledging that 10 weeks was a significant amount of time, I stood my ground. I knew I’d be a better person and employee after taking time off. A lot of life was happening to me. Very quickly. I needed time to take it all in and readjust. I felt like a tornado picked me up, whirled me around and spat me out. I needed some time to gather myself, readjust and take on this new identity.
“We value you and don’t want to lose you,” my boss said. “I’m conditionally approving your 10 weeks, but you’ll need to come up with a work plan and talk to HR.”
Really? In my head the conversation lasted much longer and involved a back and forth with me defending why now was the best time for me to do this and why I really needed to do it. I was elated.
It didn’t take long for me to network and find people willing to step up and fill gaps for me while I was out. I created a work plan, talked to HR and soon got four weeks of vacation and four weeks of unpaid leave approved. The tension in my shoulders was already starting to dissipate.