When I was 23, I threw caution to the wind by quitting my first “real” job, at a sales company. Rather than doing something conventional like getting a new position or applying to grad school first, I instead headed to Europe for a two-month solo backpacking trip.
[Meg’s Note: This post was written by Molly Belvo. Molly is a project manager who worked in tech and digital marketing for twenty years. She recently took a leap into a mid-career sabbatical to spend time with her extended family and reflect on what’s next for her career. Learn more about Molly.]
This was not a difficult decision at the time. My entry-level position had been low pay and high pressure. Company turnover was upwards of 80%, so most of my original teammates had already left. I was also very lucky to have few expenses or obligations. The lure of adventure easily won me over.
That memorable travel experience lingered even after I started building my career. When stress crept up again—as it could during re-orgs, long work weeks, or brutal deadlines—I would sometimes let my mind wander as I drifted off to sleep late at night. “I can always quit and go to South America this time,” I’d muse.
But life and priorities changed along the way. I bought a house and set down roots. I met my spouse, got married, and had kids. Family and financial obligations grew. Yet the lure of freedom—and the possible—still lingered in the back of my mind.
Don’t get me wrong: after that first sales role, I liked my jobs. I spent most of my career as a tech and marketing project manager, including many years leading my own team. I had terrific coworkers and was lucky to work on some transformative projects along the way.
But where I really struggled, as so many of us do, was in balancing work/life priorities. And that was before March 2020. We all know what happened after Covid arrived.
I realized that I was craving some reassurance, a strategy that could allow me to take a break from work if necessary. A “pull in case of emergency” lever.
So I set a goal: how do I make a break possible, family obligations and all? To figure it out, I had to unwind assumptions about money and career.
I had to prepare both financially and psychologically. I consulted with some terrifically smart people. And, ultimately, I did hand in that resignation.
I’m now taking a break from a career that I spent years building. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
What follows are some of the biggest hurdles I experienced leading up to making this decision and how I surmounted them. Obviously, this is just one person’s journey. Others will be very different. But I hope it serves as a small inspiration for those who are considering doing the same.
Hurdles I Had to Surmount to Take My Sabbatical
Hurdle #1: I had no idea if taking a break was financially feasible.
Not so long ago, I was clueless about my family’s financial situation. While I knew approximately how much we had in our checking account or my 401k, I had no idea whether our savings, expenses, retirement planning, etc. were healthy or not. Unlike my 23-year-old self’s adventures,
jumping into a big career break without a financial plan seemed particularly unwise.
The way I tackled these money questions was to seek out a financial planner. Luckily, I came across my financial planner and their team through the XY Planning Network. (Hiring excellent subject-matter experts is my preferred MO, especially when time is at a premium.)
Working with my planner has been a game changer. I won’t list everything they’ve done to get our financial life sorted, and I’m omitting some things for relevancy or privacy reasons. But when it comes to a career break specifically, they gave us insights and goals to make it possible financially. Just a few of these things included:
- Helping us track and optimize our spending. We first created a budget and analyzed the numbers. It was humbling to see how much we spent on non-essentials (like eating out) that we could cut back on. We also eliminated expenses that were no longer needed like extra phone apps, services, or even an extra car. Fewer overall expenses made taking a break more realistic.
- They helped us figure out how to cover expenses during the break as well. We determined how much money we’d need for my ideal duration and created a savings plan. Then we started socking that savings away in a separate bank account so that we wouldn’t be tempted to spend it early.
- My planner also ran retirement scenario planning with us. She showed what a few lower income years might mean for our elder selves and how we could mitigate risks. This helped build confidence that taking time off wouldn’t ruin us financially.
The very first thing my planner did was help us identify our values and priorities in life, from which we built specific financial goals to support. Tackling the career break goal only came after we ticked off some other dependent and higher priority items.
Our financial situation was sorted well before I gave notice. This was a goodly chunk of work, but also one of the easiest parts because we had an awesome team to help us through it all. As an added bonus, I got a generous amount of moral support from my planner along the way.
Hurdle #2: Taking a break seemed antithetical to my established identity.
Even as our financial situation became more supportive of a break, I had another worrisome realization: a very, Very, VERY large portion of my identity fell squarely in the Working Woman camp.
I loved many aspects of my job: working through a satisfying problem, facilitating a tough meeting towards a clear outcome, supporting my team as they navigated project issues or their own career aspirations. I also prided myself on being both a hard and smart worker, someone who could be counted on to follow through with commitments.
What would I be defined as if work wasn’t part of my core identity? And would I even be happy?
For these questions, I turned to another brilliant expert: Kristen Knepper, a career coach. She gave me counsel and the insights to better understand my value and strengths. We explored where I found the most meaning in my work.
I discovered that maybe, just maybe, I was craving not only freedom but also a career pivot. And then she helped me reimagine what was possible for both my break and my future career.
Kristen advised on a tactical level, too. She helped me:
- Rework my resume and LinkedIn profile while projects and accomplishments were still fresh in my mind.
- Sort out specific goals for the break, craft a plan and timeline for what I would eventually call my “sabbatical.”
- Figure out how to deliver my resignation with grace.
- Tie up some loose ends at work that were difficult but that I felt were necessary to leave my team set up for success.
Most of all, Kristen was an advocate and voice of reason that I could turn to when I had doubts about the idea of taking a break. Having her in my court also created extra accountability that I frankly needed to follow through on my plan. And she’ll be one of the first people that I turn to once I am ready to get back into the next phase of my career. (Thank you to Kristen!)
If I could tell my 23-year-old self just one piece of professional advice? Find a career coach a heckuva lot earlier.
Hurdle #3: I’m a very loyal person, and that makes it extremely hard to quit.
Even once I was financially and psychologically prepared to leave, I still delayed my resignation multiple times. There was always some good sounding excuse for this.
In reality, I was afraid of letting my manager and team down. These days, every employee counts and then some. The ripple effect of staff leaving means your former teammates absorb extra work and then train your replacement to boot. I hated the idea of putting my colleagues through that on my behalf.
I also saw myself as an advocate at my company for other people and projects, especially when it came to difficult matters. Leaving would result in one fewer voice willing to speak up.
At my very worst, I even started to believe that a career break would be selfish.
Tackling the loyalty factor required self reflection and humility. Thinking that I was somehow indispensable was not only hubris, it was also getting in the way of making a better choice for my family, life, and hopefully my career as well.
I reframed my fears and started to list all of the benefits to other people if I left. For example, one of my PMs could be promoted into my old role. The rest of the team could learn and develop under a new manager with different skills and insights. Plus, there were other growing advocates in the company who could step in and champion others’ good work. So no, really, the team was going to be okay without me.
There was one other factor that helped me over the loyalty hurdle. Not long before I quit, one of my previous employers threw a product anniversary party. Current and former employees like me who’d been on the team were invited to celebrate.
A conversation thread kept surfacing at that party, a cautionary tale about family and lost time. One person told me he regretted missing years of his daughter’s life because of work travel. Several others talked about taking their own career break to finally spend time with family…only to learn that their now-teenage kids didn’t care to spend time with them. Yet another said, “I’d give my right arm to go back and spend one more day with my kids when they were young.”
These conversations haunted me afterwards. Time with family was a central part of the plan that Kristen had helped me craft.
I realized I was placing loyalty to my employer above loyalty to my family.
And that by doing so, I was also misplacing the value of time.
Time to spend with loved ones that I would never, ever get back. Time with kids who will never be this age again. Time snuggling with them in the morning because I didn’t have early meetings. Time seeing their eyes light up when you pick them up from school.
This break would also give me more time with my spouse to go for walks together, or debate (as we like to do), or work on our family goals. I’d also get more time with my elderly parents, popping by to visit them and chat about life and politics over coffee. I could go on.
A career break would also give me time and breathing room to explore what the future held, to take career development classes that I was passionate about, to even explore a possible career pivot. I could shape my destiny again rather than have it shaped for me.
That did it. The wheels were finally put in motion. A date for my resignation was set. I was ready to do this thing already.
What Sabbatical is Really Like…So Far
The first thing I did after I left was take a splurge-y vacation with my family. Having that unstructured family vacation time and rest was incredible. Even better was knowing that I wouldn’t return to a boatload of emails and meetings when it was over.
(Kristen recommended this. I booked it in advance to create extra accountability for my final quit date.)
After we got back, I started on my new plan and routine: doing excursions with my kids, helping my parents with small projects, and beginning a DIY house remodel (okay, that one is mostly my spouse!). I also took classes and reconnected with friends and old colleagues.
Taking a sabbatical has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
It took at least eight months to recover from burnout.
Maybe this would’ve been shorter if I didn’t go straight from work into family obligations. I also tried to do too much out of the gate. Since I had been attuned to a heavy workload for years, I kept on creating backlogs, this time filled with personal tasks and projects.
Once I realized that I was sprinting through each day at the same pace as my job, I had to consciously slow down and ruthlessly prioritize my time. Figuring out how to better ease into my sabbatical would have been ideal.
Here are a few other insights and learnings from my sabbatical so far.
Going from a full time team and project manager to #momlife has been a big adjustment.
Even more than I suspected it would be.
Navigating new family roles, sharing more of the house duties, etc. has been a process that my spouse and I are still navigating. And while I’m particularly proud of my two-week meal planning “sprints” that I’ve fine tuned,
I’ve learned my family isn’t enthusiastic about using Kanban boards to manage housework. Surprise!
Caring for kids requires a whole different skill set (understatement of the year), and I’m constantly figuring out what works to be successful in my new world.
But that’s all okay. Just like at work, I make plans and schedules. Surprises happen. I manage and adjust. I’m getting better at doing this more gracefully at home.
Plus, I have an even better coping mantra now for when things go sideways: “At least I’m not in a weekly status call right now!”
I also have added a daily gratitude practice to ground me through all of the ups and downs of sabbatical life.
I have the opportunity to reset and refresh my brain and learn new skills.
There is no price for [time.] Time is totally perishable and cannot be stored.
In addition to precious time with family, I’ve been taking classes, studying mediation and conflict resolution in particular. Not only is this course of study relevant for my project management work, but I’ve learned I have a passion for the mediation discipline itself. It’s something that will be useful whether I return to my old career or try something new. I never could have done this level of study and exploration without a break.
I miss working.
I admit that I miss working though. I miss being on a team that’s doing difficult and creative work together. I miss the energy of being around smart people coming up with new ideas and products, of being part of something bigger than me, of having a shared sense of purpose and community.
I frequently resist the temptation to apply for jobs because there are many amazing companies and roles out there right now. It’s just not part of the plan yet.
Dealing with Other People’s Reactions
One last, curious thing. Lots of people ask me, how/why the hell are you taking a sabbatical? Of course, that’s not exactly how it comes out of their mouths.
For example, a dear friend asked if I had secretly won the lottery. (Ha, I wish!)
Someone else shared with me that she couldn’t ever stay at home with her kids herself. (I’ll assume that was a compliment.)
My dad recently quipped, “I still don’t understand why you left your job without another one lined up.” (Very tiny downside of popping by to say hello to him whenever I like.)
Here’s the one that I really, truly love engaging with the most: “Really? A sabbatical? I wish I could do that.”
“I think that perhaps you can,” is how I usually begin my response.
What Comes Next? I Don’t Know…Yet
I initially framed my sabbatical as at least one year but no more than two. At this point, it’s looking like it’s going to be closer to two. Which means I’m almost halfway through.
I have no idea if I’ll return to program & project management or make a career pivot. But it doesn’t matter yet.
I don’t have concrete answers on what 2022 or even 2023 holds for me, just exploration through still rugged terrain. Some days, I can see beautiful mountains off in the distance. Other days feel like I’m picking my way up a steep rock wall. Many days bring a new insight, data point, invitation, or even serendipitous how-crazy-was-that moment.
Each of these things helps nudge me in the best next direction. I am grateful for the journey while I look forward to discovering the destination.
And that is the core of this whole experience:
I have come to replace a need for certainty with feelings of gratitude.
Gratitude for being able to choose how I spend my time. Gratitude for what has made this break even possible, as it certainly goes beyond just hard work on my part.
It also comes from privilege, which is important to acknowledge, as well as some things that were just plain luck. Gratitude for help from others, both acknowledged here and many others who also supported me along the way.
In the end, we all have limited time on this planet. My hope is that I come out the other side of this experience a better mom, wife, sister, daughter, friend, neighbor, citizen. A better human. I can’t think of a better way to spend a sabbatical than that.
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