Ashuti Mathur writes about how she and her husband, Varun, decided to take a 'mid-career break' and travel the length and breadth of the country with their 4-year-old son, Atharv.
As the second wave of the pandemic receded, casual get-togethers over the weekend became a norm at the Verma household. Drinks would flow, everyone was well dressed, the conversations were eclectic, and the kids would watch an animated movie. Then, after the guests would leave, Mr and Mrs Verma would sit down with cups of coffee to revisit the evening.
This scene would repeat almost every weekend as they would discuss work, the past week, the coming week, the social commitments, the expenses, and so many other things that seasoned couples do.
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What they don’t discuss anymore are their hopes, their vulnerabilities, their fears, where they see themselves in 10…15…20 years. Make no mistake — Mr and Mrs Verma are happy. They have a great future ahead of them. Aside from a catastrophe, they are well on their way towards financial independence. They have had pretty successful careers of almost 15 years. They have been married for nearly 10, with a 4-year-old kid, and don’t plan to have another. Their life is set. Or is it too predictable?
We found ourselves as members of this growing band of hole-in-the-heart happy couples. One random and fortunate conversation led us to a radical solution — a mid-career break. One year off from work, security, e-commerce, food ordering and everything we call familiar.
We have 20-25 years of productive work-life left ahead of us. So rather than thinking about how much of a career risk one year of unemployment was, we thought about how educational and therapeutic one year of relaxation, togetherness and shared experiences could be for our family, careers and lives.
My husband, Varun, quit his job. I had left work when our 4-year-old son, Atharv, was born. We sold all the old furniture and gave away our belongings that we did not need but were valuable for others. Then, we packed everything that we planned to use again and set off on an adventure. It took a few months planning and, of course, reassuring our parents — sab acha hoga (everything will be okay).
There were so many questions to be answered, things to figure out and insecurities to overcome. Many fights, soul-searching sessions, reflections and a hundred A4-sized papers later, we were ready. This was also the time when we broke the news to our son. His reaction was somewhat surprising; he ran to get his favourite paw patrol t-shirt from his cupboard and said, “Don’t forget to pack my beach clothes. I mean, just imagine, a break to have fun and learn.”
We are not pioneers of this idea, so we assumed that there would be resources we could leverage. But one thing we realised during this journey was how little support and advice is available online for couples like us who are navigating this path in life.
So, this is an attempt at compiling a few broad directions for couples. We hope to create a more detailed set of resources for such couples in the future.
The Psychological Struggles
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As you go from discussion to decision to execution, self-doubt will grip you on every occasion. Are we doing the right thing? What will happen to our careers we have spent our lives building? Will we get bored in a month and come back? What will our friends and family say? (Please feel free to add your version of doubts and insecurities to the list.)
To make matters worse, our individual insecurities surfaced time and again. We felt like giving up and going back to the way things were at least a few times a day.
But what worked for us were our “why are we doing this” sessions. Every night, we would sit together and remind ourselves of all the reasons we had listed down when we set out on this path. We reminded ourselves that we knew it would be tough. We reminded ourselves that this is the best thing for our family right now.
In the end, there are no silver bullets. Any change brings some level of stress to the family. It is helpful to be aware that you will have differences, and the only way to deal with them is to discuss them openly.
Destinations and Journeys
Once you’ve decide to take the plunge, one of the first questions to ask yourself is – “Where should we spend this year?” Each family may have different ideas regarding this depending on their circumstances, resources and interests. Some may be fortunate enough to have a family home or farmhouse where they may want to set up a base. Some of us may have enough resources to spend a few months abroad. Some of us may be so bitten by wanderlust that we may not want to spend more than two weeks in a place. There are no right or wrong answers.
After much debate, we decided to divide the year equally into four destinations. That would give us enough time to know the place well, do some volunteer work, and give our son a semblance of stability.
We are spending the first quarter on a farm stay in the Nilgiris. I volunteer at a local NGO while also dabbling with making homemade soaps, shampoos, and cleaning liquids. My husband spends his time writing and taking long walks. Before moving to North India, we plan to head towards coastal Maharashtra/Goa to spend six months in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand. We considered the North East, Gujarat, Odisha, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh but had to park them for shorter visits or our next sabbatical.
Engaging the Children
A lot depends on the age of the children, their interests and the parental goals of the couple. Irrespective of whether or not you want to engage the children in formal education, you will spend a lot of time alone with the children. Have a plan for how you want to use this time. It is best to prepare before you start because it will be challenging to find the right tools and toys once you are on the road. Also, do not get too fixated on your learning plan for the child. They will often find ways to learn and enjoy, which you may not have anticipated earlier.
Our 4-year-old loves painting, Lego and monster trucks. We loaded up on colouring kits, Lego sets and many more toys, but once we reached Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, we saw him spending most of his time digging and building mud castles.
In short, have a plan, but go with the flow. The success of your sabbatical is directly proportional to how much fun the children are having.
We have been homeschooling our son until now, so it was natural not to admit him to any online classes or a local school. However, some parents, who are planning to spend extended time in a place, may think about a local school; otherwise, continuing with their existing online classes is always an option. Children, in general, enjoy a set routine and pattern, and their ongoing classes may be an excellent way to stay connected with a stable life once you start travelling.
There are a few logistical points to take care of as you plan your move.
1. Existing furniture and household items – We took a hard look at all that was outdated or unnecessary and sold all of those things. The rest were packed and stored with a storage services company. In cities like Bengaluru, these are relatively economical, and you should be able to store all the things in a typical 2 BHK house for under Rs 5,000 per month.
2. Travelling – If your car is your primary mode of travel, you should get a full servicing and battery change before starting. Getting a roof carrier fixed on our car also helped us a lot for carrying the extra load. Having a car on the trip is very useful, though it is easy (and maybe more enjoyable for some folks) to do without a car altogether.
3. Electronics – Have a good look at the current electronic assets you have like phones, portable speakers, cameras, internet dongles, headphones, e-reader, etc. You will most likely use these things a lot during your trip. Based on your hobbies and requirements, make sure you plan to have good quality electronics with you when you start. It is usually expensive to buy/repair stuff when you are on the road.
Finance and Budgeting
The financial aspect of sabbaticals can be tricky. The immediate loss of income, combined with a potential slowdown in future income, needs to be dealt with diligently. It is difficult to advise people on this because everyone’s circumstances are different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that is likely to be helpful. However, here are a few tips:
1. Create a realistic estimate of your monthly expenditure while on the sabbatical. Add a 50 per cent buffer to it. Make sure you have enough liquid assets to survive at least 18 months. If you are not there yet, start saving and investing smartly.
2. Do not have any outstanding loans. If that is not possible, take the cost of EMIs into your monthly expenditure.
3. Invest in health and life insurance. Most of us are covered by our employers, but it is critical to insure yourself adequately while not employed (and even when you are).
4. Create an emergency fund. Again, there is no science behind how much would be enough.
5. Do not plan on part-time work during the sabbatical. If you earn some additional income, it is a plus, but do not count on it. The idea is to not burden yourself during your break with similar concerns that you are looking to escape.
We currently don’t follow a set schedule and plan our activities daily, based on the weather and our mood. Our only goal is to read, write, pursue our hobbies, and do silly and random dances whenever possible. Often, we just let it be and enjoy the view of the valley as the clouds roll in while our son plays games that he invented himself. On the weekends, we interact with other guests. We have had a chance to meet people as varied as nuclear scientists, environmental researchers, an athletics team on their high-altitude training, Army Officers etc. We are very excited about our next destination – a road trip through South India. Wish us luck!
If you would like to know more, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow their journey here.
(Written by Ashuti Mathur; Edited by Yoshita Rao)