Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Sheila Maloney to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
In 2018, life was great. I was a happily married administrative law judge, raising my kids with my lawyer husband. We lived in our forever home on a peaceful, tree-lined street in Chicago. Or at least that’s what it looked like on Facebook.
In real life, I increasingly felt like a hamster on a never-ending wheel of commuting, work, eating convenience meals, and coming home to a second shift of housework and activities management, and doing it all again the next day. It was feeling less like thriving and more like surviving. Our family interactions were increasingly transactional — “Did you finish your homework? What time is practice? Did you call the plumber?” We weren’t connecting with each other, much less filling our souls. My marriage was turning into a long planning meeting with sex breaks if we were lucky. My kids, ages 6, 8, and 9, were physically and mentally exhausted too. Something had to give.
My life was not serving my daily needs, much less my higher purpose. I bought a journal, hoping to work though some of this, and answered the first prompt: If this was the last year you were going to live, what would you like to do, experience and accomplish?
I wrote without hesitation and from the depths of my soul. First — I would not return to my job, and instead I would move to Brazil, where I was born, but hadn’t lived since I was two. Next, we would live this “fantasy year” near the beach and spend time traveling to see Brazil’s beauty and splendor, while visiting my extended family. We would eat fresh, delicious food and enjoy live music. It seemed fantastical, like winning the lottery, until I couldn’t let it go and explored if it was possible.
I was shocked to discover not only was it possible; I was being called to it. I soon made a pact with the universe — to take a family gap year to reconnect, reset, and recenter.
But … How?
Everyone (especially Sam, my wonderful gringo husband from Michigan) thought it was crazy, and it did seem crazy. We are not rich. We had a mortgage, student loans, and other commitments. But, at second glance, it was surprisingly doable for a several reasons:
- We rented our modest Chicago home in a great neighborhood and used the income for much cheaper (and better) beachfront housing in Brazil.
- We used the surplus rental income to travel throughout Brazil. We visited: São Paulo, Rio, Foz do Iguaçu, Bahia, Brasília, and the Amazon rainforest.
- We lived in Vila Velha, a smaller city that was much cheaper overall than Chicago.
- I resigned from my job, but Sam, who ran a legal-themed charter school, took an official sabbatical (keeping his employee status), and did remote project work at a fraction of his salary.
Because of the favorable exchange rate, this made our endeavor possible.
If you are considering a gap year, don’t give up before looking into it because you think it’s impossible. I thought the same thing until crunching numbers and questioning my assumptions!
Life In Brazil: Exactly What We Needed
In Brazil, the kids were in school from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., which is typical for elementary school. Sam and I had more alone time than we’d had in years. It was glorious. We began to move. We ran, hiked, biked, and climbed together. We had the free time of college students with the appreciation for it that comes from having worked real jobs. Our physical, mental, and emotional health improved by leaps and bounds.
Brazilian culture is more egalitarian, communal, and spiritual than U.S. culture. This was a change for our family coming from an individualistic, achievement-oriented, and secular society in the U.S., and I welcomed the change.
We ate differently — much closer to farm to table than I had ever eaten before. We went weekly to the feira (“farmer’s market”). In Brazil, the feira is far more popular and common than the U.S. farmer’s market. Family meals became daily rituals where we talked to one another about more than the details of our day. We told stories. We laughed. We gave each other advice. We were rarely rushing. Our meals were calm. We sat together as a family, opening with a short daily grace thanking God and the earth for our food and each other. We lived and still live a secular life. In Brazil, however, “God” seemed to be everywhere — including in the beauty of nature. We couldn’t help but feel more connected and grateful.
We experienced many cultural differences. Once, Sam was barred from entering a fancy restaurant for wearing shorts because he was a man (he will argue to this day they were “nice” shorts). Plenty of women were wearing shorts, he noted. The host offered to let him wear the “extra men’s pants” kept for such occasions. We thought — great, problem solved. But, the pants were designed for a svelte, petite Brazilian man and not my 6’2″ Midwestern husband. They were very form-fitting capris on his tall body. I said if he took off his shirt and wore a straw hat he might as well be wearing a “Sexy Huck Finn” costume. But, it was a great meal with a beautiful view of São Paulo!
My kids formed their own authentic connection to Brazil. They learned to understand and then speak Portuguese. They cherished their family and friends, Brazilian food, culture, and outdoor adventures.
Sam and I took the opportunity of a lifetime. We filled our healthy but exhausted marriage with fresh life. We laughed, played, and spent a year of time reconnecting as a couple. We enjoyed Samba. We slept in a zoo! We discovered together, that Brazil is a vibrant and flawed nation, much like the one we live in now. Considering a gap year? Do it! Maybe this is the sign you are looking for.
Sheila Maloney is a Brazilian-born American writer and lawyer. Sheila is a mediator, conflict resolution expert, and legal consultant. Her memoir, Family Gap Year: How We Moved to Brazil, Dropped Our Overscheduled Lives, and Created a Sustainable, Happy Future for our Family, is an Amazon Best Seller. When she isn’t busy with her husband and 3 kids, Sheila spends time as a matchmaker and dating coach. She is a retired Administrative Law Judge and lives in Chicago.