Meet our Kick-Ass San Francisco Host: Sarah Lavender Smith
Re-Entry: A Whole New Family Journey
About a year ago, our family experienced the shock of re-entry when we moved back home after nearly a full year of traveling around the world. Our big house felt so oversized, and the four of us felt so natural being close together after months of sharing small spaces, that we spent the first night huddled in sleeping bags on the floor of one room.
The thoughts swirling around my head back then included, I don’t want us to move back into our own rooms and separate offices, where we’ll be out of eyesight and earshot of each other. I don’t want to unpack our household stuff and fill up this space with things I no longer feel we need. I don’t want to lose our closeness and feel stuck in one place. I don’t want to go back to work, and I have no idea what we’ll do for work …
Renting out our home, leaving a business partnership, pulling our son and daughter out of school, and living nomadically on five continents with only as much as we easily could carry was the most meaningful, rewarding, transformative and mind-expanding thing we have ever done.
But I won’t sugarcoat the fact that ending travel and starting a new chapter professionally and personally is just plain hard. Instead of writing about our year away, I decided to focus on re-entry to show how we’ve managed—and why using extended travel as the jumping-off point for a major career/life transition ultimately is so very worth the effort.
In many ways, the year after the year away has been a journey, too. My husband Morgan, successful for over a decade at a law firm he co-founded, spent several months at home while trying to figure out what he would do next. Losing his income as well as jeopardizing those close professional relationships felt incredibly risky and put us both on an emotional roller coaster.
Thanks to the year of travel, however, we felt much more capable of working closely together in our house and living frugally to stretch our savings. (Budgeting for travel is a topic for another post, but suffice to say we’re proof that most people need a financial cushion upon return. My advice: Save for re-entry as well as for travel.)
Meanwhile, I felt adrift and highly ambivalent for months after ending our trip. I missed my “job” of homeschooling the kids and blogging about our travels. I resented the return to household-related chores and monthly utility bills that disappeared during our year away. I spent five months unsuccessfully developing a manuscript and felt like a failure when I shelved it indefinitely.
Our daughter and son fared better, since they were happy to reconnect with friends. Entering 7th grade, my 12-year-old daughter met the academic rigors and sidestepped the social landmines with an inner strength and easygoing attitude that I credit in part to our travel, which helped her develop self-reliance, intellectual curiosity, and an ability to get along with all types.
Our 9-year-old son had a bit more trouble transitioning to 4th grade, however. When we traveled, his core schoolwork of math and language arts boiled down to just an hour or two a few days a week—and then he’d learn a great deal experientially about our destinations. He found it difficult to go from the one-on-one, self-paced nature of “road”schooling to being one of 27 kids stuck in a classroom for six hours. Ultimately, though, he adapted and did fine.
Fast forward six months, and Morgan and I find ourselves working side by side on a new business he launched in early 2011: a litigation graphics and consulting firm. He is leveraging his favorite part of being an attorney—the creative and strategic side of case preparation—in a way that he hopes will help others. I’m handling the marketing and assisting with business development. As much as possible, I also carve out time to develop a new blog that combines my twin passions of long-distance running and travel.
Our business venture sometimes feels like the kind of seat-of-our-pants adventure we experienced around the globe. We’re forced to adapt to change, cope with risk, work collaboratively, keep odd hours and learn as we go—skills enhanced by long-term travel.
I honestly don’t think Morgan would have had the vision for his new business—or could have mustered the courage to change his career—without taking the round-the-world departure from our “regular” lives. As he wrote last year in a post reflecting on how the trip changed us:
“Taking this trip was seizing hold of an opportunity to do something different with the remainder of my life. … The process of travel allowed me to slowly change my focus from the past to the future. Travel forces ‘the new’ upon you on a daily and moment-to-moment basis. Trying to figure out how to order in Spanish, or work a foreign ATM or get a phone card in another country, all combine to make change a constant in your life—and a pleasure.”
On days when all four of us feel harried, disconnected and overscheduled, I ache to be on the road again, when we had a common, relatively simple mission: get from Point A to Point B, learn about the destination, and figure out where to sleep and buy groceries. But I also value relationships in our hometown and getting involved in our community so that we feel we have a real home.
I have no doubt that the year of traveling as a foursome—an experience I sometimes call “radical marriage and family therapy” or “extreme quality time”—bonded the kids as siblings, Morgan and me as spouses, and all of us a family in a way that will keep us close for life, no matter what happens. Instead of getting sick of each other, feeling homesick and “needing our space,” we grew closer together and made whatever apartment, motel or campground we spent the night in feel like home.
Our goal now is to establish a new career with flexibility and financial success that allows us to take off for extended periods. Rather than be digital nomads who work on the road, we prefer to try to establish a home/travel cycle where we work hard and take long breaks away—easier said than done, but a goal worth striving for.
And if it doesn’t work out? Well, at least we had that year!