My sabbatical year started two weeks before the adoption of our foster girls became final, and in everyone else’s mind but my own the two were related. A sabbatical year, however, was not code for maternity leave.
It was how I would become MYSELF.
Long before I met our children, like a whole three months at least, I had begun telling people at dinner parties that retirement was “bunk” and scheming how to dedicate one year out of every seven to rest, reboot, and renew my sense of purpose. Parenting would only highlight for me that I had gone adrift trading what if’s for well done’s.
It was the pursuit of what if’s that drew us to fostering in the first place. We geeked out over co-parenting with (bio)parents and social workers. We got ready to learn from Guardian ad Litems and mental health therapists. We were game to interface with school teachers and fire inspectors. The fact that children, delightful but DEPENDENT children, were 95% of the gig somehow got lost in our imagination.
And I, after our first and final placement, somehow got lost in our three kiddos’ needs: the appointments, the relaxation techniques, the family visits, the lice combings (er, the outsourcing of the lice combings to Rush.) The retreat work I had long loved but took big brain power continued to lose its luster. The writing practice I had long prized but took major vulnerability was even more impossible. #LikeaBoss took on new meaning as I manically moved, each day, from lunch-maker to bill-payer to professional-facilitator.
I suppose that was what my sabbatical year was for—to honor the person I was distinct from the roles that I played: I LIKED my roles, liked counting eight carrots to a container, liked the feel of a pen on an old-fashioned check, even liked agendas and meetings and business speak like “per my earlier email.” I was good at these things.
But being good is not the same as being yourself.
A sabbatical year, in the biblical sense, is an extension of the Judeo-Christian practice of a weekly Sabbath whereby we rest in the goodness not of our work but the God who animates it. We lift our chin from common worries and make eye-contact with the world again and our place in it. When the ancient Israelites began practicing not just the Sabbath day but whole years of Sabbath living, it became common to let the land—the bulk of their productive economy—lie unplowed and allow the poor and wild animals to glean from it.
I suppose that was another way of narrating the need for rest; I had forgotten what it felt like to be FERAL, not free from responsibilities—or children—but free for a good larger than one’s own kin.
And so, I laid out my plan for my husband, gave my notice at work, and withdrew a year’s worth of my Roth-IRA contributions to live off. (Adoption assistance payments that continue until the girls turn eighteen were crucial to caring for their needs.) There was no guarantee that my old job would be waiting when I returned (it wasn’t) or that I would be a better version of myself when it ended (I’m not). There was only the promise of time, time to grieve the person I had been and discover the one I was becoming.
I grieved not just the legal transition from childfree to childfull that happened two weeks after the sabbatical had begun but the fact that at thirty-four I was no longer only, wholly, simply “somebody’s child.” I grieved that I was now the attentive ADULT in the room, eyes ready to read unnamed emotions, ears alert for a knock in the dark, tongue quick to tell the truth (that is, the infinitely impossible to discern age-appropriate truth.)
A lot of this grieving looked like wandering around the quiet house in my Glerups and following a loose schedule of Yoga with Adriene, reading books without highlighter in hand, and watching the dogs pant in patches of sunlight. My twelve-year old dog, Amelia, became a surrogate mother for me, rolling her eyes at every nascent noise as if to say, “Missy, the world can wait.”
Once I stopped fretting over my own transition to parenthood, I began following my nose toward sustainable parenting practices for others. I wrote proposals for two paid parental leave policies, one for the staff at my local church and another for a local nonprofit. One whole month was spent preparing a guest sermon for how American Christianity is too focused on the family and one whole month on shopping for—and returning—Christmas presents for my family (Note to self: This is NOT a sustainable parenting practice.) Eleven months in, I finally found a therapist— and finally wrote something that sounded true.
My sabbatical year trickled to an end with little to show for it—though that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?—other than a quiet celebration that I am more than the sum of my parts. My (re)productive parts. My partnering parts. My parenting parts. I am, as Alice Walker so poetically put it, like the shape of water who “is always only itself and does not belong to any of these containers though it creates them.”
And so it is with each of you, on this and EVERY day.
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