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Family gap year: how a lawyer mother traded the daily grind for the good life – in Brazil

Ed. Remark: This is the latest in a series of articles on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Sheila Maloney to our pages. Click on here if you would like to donate to MothersEsquire.

In 2018, life was good. I was a happily married administrative law judge raising my children with my lawyer husband. We lived in our forever home on a quiet, tree-lined street in Chicago. Or at least that’s what it looked like on Facebook.

In real life, I felt more and more like a hamster on an endless wheel of commuting, working, cooking meals, and coming home for a second shift of housekeeping and activity management, and all. start again the next day. I felt less like thriving than surviving. Our family interactions were increasingly transactional—“Did you finish your homework? What time is practice? Did you call the plumber? We weren’t in touch with each other, let alone filling our souls. My wedding was turning into a long planning meeting with sex breaks if we were lucky. My children, aged 6, 8 and 9, were also physically and mentally exhausted. Something had to give.

My life was not serving my daily needs, let alone my higher purpose. I bought a journal, hoping to work on 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, live and accomplish?

I wrote without hesitation and from the depths of my soul. First, I wouldn’t go back to my job, and instead I would move to Brazil, where I was born, but where I hadn’t lived since I was two years old. Then we would experience this “fantastic year” by the beach and spend time traveling to see the beauty and splendor of Brazil, while visiting my extended family. We ate fresh and delicious food and enjoyed live music. It felt fantastic, like winning the lottery, until I couldn’t let go and explored if it was possible.

I was shocked to find not only that it was possible; I was called there. I quickly made a pact with the universe – taking a year off with the family to reconnect, reset and refocus.

But how?

Everyone (especially Sam, my wonderful gringo hubby from Michigan) thought it was crazy, and it did. seem mad. We are not rich. We had a mortgage, student loans and other commitments. But, on the face of it, it was surprisingly doable for several reasons:

  1. We rented out our modest Chicago home in a great neighborhood and used the proceeds for much cheaper (and better) beachfront accommodation in Brazil.
  2. We used the excess rental income to travel around Brazil. We visited: São Paulo, Rio, Foz do Iguaçu, Bahia, Brasilia and the Amazon rainforest.
  3. We lived in Vila Velha, a smaller town that was overall much cheaper than Chicago.
  4. 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 projects for a fraction of his salary.

Due to the favorable exchange rate, this made our business possible.

If you’re considering a gap year, don’t give up until you think about it because you think it’s impossible. I thought the same thing until doing calculations and questioning my assumptions!

Life in Brazil: exactly what we needed

In Brazil, the children were in school from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., which is typical for primary school. Sam and I spent more time alone than we had in years. It was glorious. We started moving. We ran, hiked, biked and climbed together. We had student time off with the appreciation that comes from having worked real jobs. Our physical, mental and emotional health has improved by leaps and bounds.

Brazilian culture is more egalitarian, communal and spiritual than American culture. It was a change for our family coming from an individualistic, achievement-oriented, secular American society, and I welcomed the change.

We ate differently – much closer to farm to table than I had ever eaten before. We went every week to will do (“farmers market”). In Brazil, the will do is much more popular and common than the American Farmer’s Market. Family meals became daily rituals where we talked to each other about more than the details of our day. We told stories. We laughed. We gave each other advice. We were rarely in a hurry. Our meals were quiet. We sat together as a family, beginning with a short daily grace thanking God and the earth for our food and each other. We have 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 banned from entering a fancy restaurant for wearing shorts because he was a man (he will to this day say they were “nice” shorts). Many women wore shorts, he noted. The host offered to let him wear the “extra men’s pants” reserved for such occasions. We thought – great, problem solved. But, the pants were designed for a slender, short Brazilian man and not my 6’2″ midwestern husband. They were very tight capris on his large body. I said if he took off his shirt and wore a straw hat, he might as well be wearing a “Sexy Huck Finn” suit, but it was a great meal with a great view of São Paulo!

My children have formed their own authentic connection with Brazil. They learned to understand and then to speak Portuguese. They treasured their family and friends, Brazilian cuisine, culture and outdoor adventures.

Sam and I took advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime. We filled our healthy but exhausted marriage with new life. We laughed, played and spent a year reconnecting as a couple. We enjoyed Samba. We slept in a zoo! We discovered together that Brazil is a vibrant and imperfect nation, just like the one we live in now. Are you considering a sabbatical year? Do it! This may be the sign you are looking for.

AuthorphotoSheila Maloney

Sheila Maloney is a Brazilian-American writer and lawyer. Sheila is a mediator, conflict resolution expert and legal consultant. His memoirs, Family Gap Year: How We Moved to Brazil, Dropped Our Overscheduled Lives, and Created a Sustainable, Happy Future for our Family, are an Amazon bestseller. When not busy with her husband and 3 children, Sheila spends time as a matchmaker and dating coach. She is a retired administrative law judge and lives in Chicago.