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Taking a Sabaticcal From Work

Author: Guest Post

I am Rachel, a mum of three. I have George (six years old), Esme (four) and Ted (eighteen months). I am also a Deputy Head of a primary school and work three days a week.

I’ve been a teacher for sixteen years. I entered the profession as a fresh faced 21 year old, full of optimism and enthusiasm at fulfilling a childhood dream. I did five and a half years as a class teacher with some middle leader roles and then took on the role of Deputy Head at 26. I have stayed in the same school for all that time; I looked around for other jobs after about seven years but this coincided with us getting married and our decision to start a family. I felt that I was better placed to do that and subsequently come back to work in a setting I knew and so decided to stay put. I also had ‘all the guilt’ about potentially moving somewhere new and then disappearing on maternity leave a few months later; unnecessary over-thinking as maternity leave is a right, not something you have to prove yourself worthy of! Also unnecessary as fate wasn’t on the same page we were and it took us three long years and a round of IVF to get our precious boy here anyway!

After the first two were born, I had roughly ten blissful, sleep-free months of maternity leave at home. I returned to work after having George.. pregnant! There are only 18 months between the two of them so the two bouts of absence sort of blurred into one. After Esme was born I requested a reduction in hours and dropped to 3.5 days a week. Even working fewer hours, I found this return to work tricky. The end of maternity leave is an odd thing; if you had taken a year off work with a serious illness you would be gradually reintroduced to work. But somehow, even though your life has been turned completely upside down by the arrival of a new baby; even though you’re probably knackered and drained and still a bit of an emotional wreck; even though you are a completely different person to the one who left work up to a year ago, you are very often expected to just slot back in as if you’ve never been away. Lots of things had changed including people and systems- I was constantly on the back foot and I hated it!

Fast forward a couple of years and things had started to slot back into place at work and we’d found some kind of rhythm to it all. I’d rebuilt relationships, got back up to speed with things and finally started to feel like I knew what I was doing again. The kids were almost 4 and 2, sleep deprivation had peaked and we were starting to come out the other side of the ‘difficult baby phase’… or so we thought! When George was 4 and a half and Esme had just turned 3, our glorious ‘surprise’ baby boy was born; (a cautionary tale to anyone who finds themselves complacent after infertility!). We certainly had not planned on having three but fate knew that there was a great big Ted shaped hole in the universe that needed filling and along he came to complete our family jigsaw.

I returned to work after his arrival in September last year and it’s fair to say it’s been a tough transition back for us all. I’m generally not a negative person. I am productive, I usually take workload and pressure in my stride and have a ‘can do’ attitude. But the last 6 months have left me feeling a bit broken with depleted levels of resilience. Returning to work properly, alongside balancing a new life with 3 kids, the demands of a baby, a husband who works away and the hassles of everyday life has been a real struggle.

Ted was a thriving healthy newborn but he started nursery in September and this heralded the change in the viral resistance; nothing major but tummy bugs and viruses have abounded ever since. He also struggles with digestion which causes him to be really unsettled at night and scream for hours at a time. We’ve spent ten months living on an average of 4-5 hours sleep a night spread over short bursts. This is the most prolonged period we’ve had without sleep and it’s definitely the closest I’ve come in life to being exhausted. I’m short tempered and emotional. I’m not productive because I don’t have the energy to be; I get to 2 in the afternoon and I hit a wall where I struggle to keep awake. I crave carbs for energy and have zero motivation to exercise- not a good combination for keeping in shape!

Balancing it all is becoming my ultimate nemesis. Work is good when I’m there; but getting everyone up, dressed and fed, leaving the house and getting to work in a morning feels like a full time job in itself. My job involves having to do some work at home but finding time to do that when I’m not going through a bedtime routine or helping with homework or falling asleep on the sofa is nigh on impossible. I get in from work around 6 and ‘mummy guilt’ leaves me feeling like I have to fit in a full day of parenting into an hour when I’m running on empty.

So… the time came to do something about this situation to make life better for us all. The difference in this scenario to my usual approach to life is that I need to do less, not more. For the first time that I can think of, I’m saying I can’t… I can’t fit it all in and I can’t manage at this pace and I can’t do it all. I need to feel like I’m doing one thing well instead of lots of things half-heartedly or badly. We can’t do anything about the demands having 3 kids places upon us… what it boiled down to was a change around work.

I love my job and colleagues and I’m good at what I do, when I’m awake enough to do it! I’ve worked hard to make a difference to the children I’ve taught but also to build a career for myself. A career that I’m proud of and that I’m not ready to walk away from. Also, if I’m being brutally honest and said in the knowledge that I love the very bones of my children, I’m not sure ‘being a mum’ is enough to keep me sane… I need to be busy and challenged, to interact with people (grown up people!) and to think in creative ways. Yes, being at home with young children is full on and hard work but I suspect my personality needs something else as well. I also feel odd about not contributing to our household financially – we’ve always had a joint account and ‘chucked it all in’ but I’ve always contributed, whatever the percentage. The fiercely independent part of me would struggle with earning nothing.

I narrowed down my options to one of three… I could hand in my notice and walk away (Gulp!). I could request to further reduce my hours (but would that just mean more work at home and being paid less to do it?) or I could request a year’s sabbatical…relatively unchartered territory in the world of teaching! I sat down and spoke to my Head about how I was feeling and the options I felt I had in front of me and then put in a formal written request under the ‘flexible working policy‘, asking for a year’s unpaid sabbatical. It would start in September and last for an academic year. A year in which Esme will start school meaning I can get her settled. A year in which Ted will turn 2 and hopefully get over these bugs and underlying medical issues and start sleeping at night. A year where I can focus on being a mum and get our life more balanced instead of worrying about answering emails while I’m cooking dinner or how to maximise the hour of time I get in an evening when they are all finally tucked in to achieve the 6 hours’ worth of jobs that I have to do!

And my request was granted!

I know I’m in a privileged position to be able to make this decision. I have no real idea of how I will transition into this new me. If I’m honest, the prospect of a blank year stretching ahead of me could feel a little overwhelming and I’ve already starting thinking of things to fill up the diary; classes for Ted, offering to volunteer in the school that the big two go to, home decor projects etc.

Being a teacher has been such a huge part of who I am but I can’t wait to be able to give myself permission to focus purely on being a mummy. It’s not just the 3 days a week I’m gaining back, it’s the headspace that will be freed up by not having to worry or think about work as well. I will have time with Ted in between the school runs but he will probably continue doing two half days at nursery which will give me some regular time on my own for the first time in 6 and a half years. Inevitably, some of that time will get sucked away with cleaning and supermarkets and life admin but I’m hoping I can carve a little bit out for me. Time to write or to bake or to read or to enjoy a hot cup of tea.

I may hate it … I might miss the busyness and pressure that I have previously thrived on. I may be climbing the walls by October, craving adult interaction and begging them to take me back.

But then, I may not.

One thing’s for sure, I can’t wait to find out!

A guest contribution from one of our readers.

23 thoughts on “Taking a Sabaticcal From Work

  1. Thank you for sharing this. So much of it resonates with me. I am currently phasing back into work after a few weeks off with stress that has been building up since I returned to work after my second maternity leave last year. Unfortunately a sabbatical isn’t an option but it is good to hear about others having the same challenges. Good luck, I hope it works out!

    1. Thankyou. Returning from Mat leave is so difficult. I still can’t believe how little is invested into mums returning to work when they’ve had so much time off. I hope everything works out for you xx

  2. Good on you for choosing to change things up Rachel. I think it’s a really interesting time we find ourselves in as women, and I’m not sure that the ‘balance’ is right for many Mums yet. Yes, a lot of us have careers we’re invested in, but we’ve also still got most of the historical domestic and parental responsibilities to contend with too. I know I struggle with this sometimes. I’m about to go on mat leave with baby #2 and I can’t wait! Although I know that’s going to bring it’s own challenges (hello sleep deprivation!). I don’t think many of us have the answer, but there’s comfort in knowing that I’m not the only Mum not perfectly spinning her plates.

    1. Ah the illusive ‘all’ that we are supposed to achieve! We are very lucky to have lots of support from grandparents and my husband does loads but you are absolutely right about the balance or lack thereof. It’s little things like keeping on top of the social arrangements or what they’ve got to take to school this week or keeping track of the changes of clothes each season when they’ve grown 5 inches! It all stacks up!

      Good luck with your second mat leave! I loved maternity leave second and third time round… so much more relaxed than the first time as you feel like you know what you’re doing and much more enjoyable all round! Fingers crossed for a ‘sleeper’ for you! X

  3. I honestly wonder how I would hold it all together when I add children into the mix in the next 3 years or so. I often think about how great it would be to take a career break. I really admire you for making the decision and great that your boss agreed. My big boss is old school military and as military people get paid 24/7, he is not on board with part timers.

    1. Bunny I think some employers are slow to catch on. At my old company I lost count of the talent that was lost by not allowing mothers to return to work part-time. Luckily there was a big shift in the last year or so that I worked there and the tide definitely began to change.

  4. Thank you. I used to feel the same pre kids. It is doable and we have managed to a point but it hasn’t always been easy! I think I’m much more productive than I used to be and am definitely better at prioritising things that have to be done and things that can wait or have a short cut! I do know I’m reallynlucky that my school have granted it though- I have a number of friends who have really struggled to get flexible working. X

  5. I had my son two years ago. At the time I took the full year’s maternity and then a 2 year career break (sabbatical). I have one year left and have not regretted it one bit. I am an ‘all or nothing’ type of person and knew that I couldn’t give my all to teaching and raising my son.

    I also didn’t want to feel torn between the two and I definitely didn’t want the guilt of having to give less of myself to one or the other.

    I hate having no money, I hate not being able to contribute to the family pot and I hate loading the dishwasher.

    However, none of those feelings would ever be strong enough to make me regret taking this time off. I’ll never get this time back with him. My job and and all the things that I want to buy will all be there in a year’s time.

    Life is for living and making memories. It can be too short. Tomorrow is not promised.

    1. This is just what I needed to hear thanks! We’ve had a rough few weeks with early starts and grumpy children and I was wondering if I’d made a huge mistake!! 😂 It would definitely have been a much simpler decision if I hated my job but I really don’t- I totally get the ‘all in’ thing and that’s one of my main motivations. I hate to feel I’m not doing anything well! So glad to hear it’s worked out for you. (Also with you on the dishwasher! First world problems eh!) x

      1. When we’re going through a challenging time I always tell myself “this is temporary” Especially when I’m on my hands and knees picking up the healthy meal my son has just thrown on the floor.

        I love my job too! I just love this stage of my life more.

        I get really stressed if I can’t do things well, so it’s also self preservation. I know I could rise to the challenge and cope with it all but in the end I just don’t want to.

        1. That’s a really good way of putting it. I once read a quote that said ‘it is possible to do everything; just not all at once!’ I’m trying really hard to live life by this- it’s a learning curve when you’re used to trying to tick every box though!

    1. Agreed! I’m just about to return to work after mat leave with my second and that has seriously depleted our savings as my husband retrained to be a teacher last year so is on a pretty small wage that doesn’t cover all of our outgoings. I’m going back to work full time and have very mixed feelings. This post has reminded me that my company offers sabbaticals which is great, because it’s something I may consider when our savings are boosted but before my youngest goes to school. I constantly say to friends who are about to become mums and who have successful careers that you can’t have it all and the guilt is never ending.

  6. This is what has always stopped us before. My income was never an addition- we needed it to live on. We’ve just had a change in our financial situation around my husbands job which has bought us a bit of breathing space- meant we could pay of some bits of debt which reduced our monthly outgoings and then we’ll be cutting back on the things we fritter away our money on each month. I’m probably also going to do some supply to keep topping things up. This is also one of the reasons I’ve gone for the year off option rather than the forever option- long term we need two incomes but short term we can just about make it work.

  7. Wow Rachel, what a brave and brilliant decision to make. Sabbaticals are such a great idea- whether for travel, research or just to grow as a person, parent and professional.

    Totally agree that you need to keep something going for you though. As an older lady in the village told me, you want to keep the saddle polished. I got my payment for book royalties today, and got asked to speak at a seminar series and do a big copy editing project this week and it’s so so good to know that there are people in the world who think of me as professional archaeologist to be reckoned with and not Mummy with brownie mix on her jeans (or is it poo?) and a thousand yard stare.

    Would love to hear more of your sabbatical adventures through the year xx

    1. Brownie mix or is it poo!! 😂 a question I regularly ask myself! Totally agree- I love being ‘George’s mum’ to all his little friends on the playground but I also need an identity in my own right. I’m fairly sure I’ll go back to teaching but this is also a chance for me to see if there is anything else out there to keep me sane!

    2. Ps. I’m not sure how exciting my updates would be… I got a couple of free hours today and decided now was the time to start making my own jam! I’m not sure my year will be very rock and roll! (Rhubarb and elderflower jam FYI!! 😂)

  8. “feeling a bit broken with depleted levels of resilience” perfectly captures the way I feel at the moment with lots of other parallels.
    Have an amazing time finding some balance this year x

    1. I’m sorry to hear that. I’m a big believer in the mindset given by a previous comment that everything in parenting is temporary and won’t last forever but I also know from recent experience that it’s not always easy to rise above the madness to see that. Sending lots of virtual love!! Xxx

  9. I think you will just all right and will love any minute of family time. You will see how your schedule will fill up anyway but that will be more beneficial to your own children. It’s great to save the world but there is also time when you nee to concentrate more on you own world.

  10. My heart did a little skip when I read the title of this post. Taking a sabbatical is exactly what I am about to do in a week’s time…for 3 months. Mine is the result of recovering from illness and what has been a traumatic year. Recognising the need and importance for looking after yourself can only come from you. I’ve found I’ve had to remind myself why I am doing it when I have those niggling feelings of doubt. But I cam to this decision for valid reasons and everything has aligned to allow me to take this step. It feels incredibly scary but in the grand scheme of things, I’m turning 30 next week, I have at least another 30 years of work ahead of me. What better time than to get myself back to health, take stock, reflect and move on. This is a brave decision and I have nothing but respect for you also. Largely, I’ve received only positivity and to those who haven’t taken the time to understand, that’s ok too. It just means it’s time for me to focus more energy on those who support me.

    1. Oh wow. Definitely sounds like you need a break. Wishing you a speedy recovery. You are right, it is so important to take time to look after yourself (spoken by someone who is terrible at doing so!) most people I have spoken to are equally as positive- those who know me best keep asking me what I’m going to ‘do’! I think they suspect I’ll find things to fill the voids in time that not being at work will bring… I might surprise them all and become addicted to loose women over a cuppa while ted naps! Wishing you lots of luck and good health xxx

  11. I can identify with your life stage in so many ways and was so good to read your blog hearing someone else facing similar challenges. Three little people is full on! We have a 7 year old boy, 5 year old and a 2 year old girl. I have recently started a year’s career break for all the same reasons as you. Good luck and enjoy every minute! X

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