Some fortunate professions, most notably those in higher education, enjoy the enlightened tradition of the sabbatical, a periodic time away from regular duties of employment.
While the word implies a break every seven years, the time between sabbaticals varies from one institution to another. Sometimes there is an expectation that a product—research, writing, additional education—be produced during the time “off.” In other cases, the only expectation is that recipients allow themselves to be refreshed and rejuvenated in whatever ways best suit them.
While I have never been given a sabbatical (it might help if I stayed in a job long enough to have the potential to earn one) my pastor husband did gratefully receive a sabbatical after five years in a former church.
Most of us would happily accept a sabbatical from work. A book published in 2002 promoted a different kind of sabbatical, a temporary break from marriage.
The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home indicates that women in particular may need such a reprieve to renew and rediscover themselves. Cheryl Jarvis describes an intentional time apart, during which a wife could undertake individual being and doing that ultimately enhances the marriage to which she returns.
No doubt many of us women (and some men too) have sacrificed big parts of ourselves and our personal dreams for the good of spouse, children, family and might do well to focus on self for a time.
Though hardly qualifying as a sabbatical, I know how great it has felt for me at different junctures—not frequent enough—to get an evening, an overnight or a weekend away from all family obligations. These have been varied, revitalizing opportunities, from which I have returned better prepared to love my family and fulfill my commitments to them.
When it comes to married couples, especially those with children at home, we have all heard of “date nights” as a way to ensure spending regular, quality, focused time together. My husband and I never really did do that. But when our children were younger, at least once a year we would leave them with grandparents for a long weekend. Living in Connecticut at the time, islands—Nantucket and several lesser known Maine retreats—became our typical retreats. These were restorative times of sleeping in, hiking and biking, admiring the ocean, enjoying fresh seafood, and rediscovering each other sans enfants.
As the children have gotten older, we have felt less of a need to escape from them (although I must say that our 20th anniversary tropical island trip was outstanding). More recently, we have come to enjoy family getaways, especially with some built-in adults-only time included. With children now adolescents, we know we do not have many more family vacations left, and that it will soon be the children who want to escape from us!
Right now, however, my husband and I are together on an unplanned sabbatical from children.
What we thought might be a one-week absence is being extended to over a month, as my husband is receiving distant medical evaluation and treatment. The children are being cared for by grandparents, with the help of friends. By all accounts everyone is doing fine. But I worry. I want to be there. I would prefer to be the one taking care of them.
On the other hand, this is both a necessary and a precious time for my husband and me. Away from the children, we can focus on his treatment and recovery. When he was in a local hospital, I was overwrought with trying to do everything for everyone, notwithstanding the many offers and exercises of help from others. Now I can rest. So this time apart could be seen as a gift that is restorative for both of us, individually and together. At least I am working toward that view.
In the process, I am learning to trust God more for my children, rather than putting faith entirely in me. I am reminded that my children are resilient. I recognize that a strong family and faith foundation will likely carry them along for at least a little bit longer. And, while I know they want their father and me home, I suspect that they do not miss me quite as much as I miss them.
There will be future such sabbaticals for my husband’s continuing treatment. They will no doubt still be difficult for all of us, but perhaps we will become accustomed to the ebb and flow of a new rhythm they introduce to our family.
For my husband and me, it will be some time before we take a non-medical trip away from the kids. No romantic islands—New England or tropical—in sight! But for those who are not challenged as we are these days, I continue to encourage parents—whether couples or singles—to find some time away from their children. It can be an hour, a long weekend, or a genuine vacation—whatever you need, whatever you can manage. Simple or complicated, ordinary or exotic, inexpensive or a splurge.
Sabbaticals are not built into the “profession” of parenting. Some unusual individuals thrive on continual immersion in the lives of their children. But for most modern parents, couple time and time alone—in good times and not so good—are vital to marital and personal wholeness, and to being the best parents we can be over the long haul.
Karen Johnson Zurheide, who chair’s BCE’s board of directors, moved recently from Oklahoma City to New Hampshire, where her husband, Jeff, is a pastor.