If you could take your family away from the hustle and bustle and experience a different lifestyle together, would you do it? City-dweller Dana Fitzpatrick (a blogger at Pip & Posy) and her husband Matt decided to take a year-long sabbatical from their busy lives and do something to bring them closer to each other and connect more deeply to their values. I hope you enjoy this next installment of Parenting Against the Grain!
Welcome, Dana! Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.
Until recently, my husband Matt and I were living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I was a healthcare consultant and he was a physician. We have four children: James, 4 1/2, our sensitive, sweet boy; Deirdre (Daisy), 2 1/2 , our spunky, confident captain; Simon, our latest joy, who joined our family through international adoption as a one-year-old last summer; and sweet Moira who is brand new — just born on July 6.
I grew up in Minnesota, and although I spent time traveling internationally with a job as well as studying abroad during graduate school, I really hadn’t lived anywhere else — but always wanted to. Matt grew up moving frequently and has lived in Africa, Jerusalem, Sweden, and various places in the United States. His parents settled in Minnesota when he was in college, so he decided to attend the University of Minnesota for medical school, which is where we met. Matt is a med/peds hospitalist, which means he practices in internal medicine and pediatrics, but only in a hospital setting. He also has a public health degree with interest in tropical diseases and international healthcare.
You and Matt decided to take a “sabbatical” year as a family to Ketchikan, Alaska. What does this sabbatical mean — are you still working? Have you kept your house in the Twin Cities? What made you decide to embark on this adventure?
Looking back, our life was insane. We started our family while Matt was still a resident, working long, long hours, while I needed to work to support the family. Once we were used to that pace, we never really questioned why we were living that way; it simply became the status quo. Although people would joke with us about the craziness, we still thought all families had both parents working sixty hours a week. It never struck us that we could have a different life.
Annually, on the anniversary of the day we met, we would return to the same restaurant, share a meal, and reflect on our relationship. This past year, the conversation brought us to a realization: As a couple with a newly adopted child, we had been talking more and more about how we wanted to raise our children. We married each other because of a shared love for experience, travel, adventure, and bringing joy to our daily routine. We didn’t feel like the life we were leading reflected those values anymore; there just wasn’t time. So we asked ourselves: What’s the point of having these values if we’re not practicing them? That’s when we decided to hit pause.
We think of our move to Alaska as a “sabbatical” because of the intention it implies. For us, it’s a time of reflection, quiet, and progress. My husband has a schedule where he works seven days straight and then has seven days off, which gives us 26 weeks a year where we can both be home with our kids. I work about ten hours a week now, but with our goal of bringing more time to our family life, I work less during the weeks Matt is home so we can do the things that we didn’t have time for when we both worked full-time — like making awesome waffles on a Wednesday morning!
We kept our house in Minneapolis and intend to return or move on after a year or so. We have found the best things in our life seem to happen when we’re flexible, so I know plans can change. In the spirit of this sabbatical, we have looked at this as a defined period so that we can really focus on our specific goal of bringing time and love to our family unit.
What made you choose Ketchikan?
Alaska was really secondary to the decision. Once we made up our minds to do this, we looked at programs or areas that were of interest: valuable medical experience for Matt, family bonding opportunities, access to outdoor activities, and a strong arts community for me. In the past we had talked at length about spending an extended time in Africa, but with our student loans it would have been difficult to swing. Matt has friends who spent time in Alaska, and one in particular spoke highly of Ketchikan. The nature of the community here and small-town living suits us well.
Tell us a little about your life in Ketchikan. What’s it like to now live in the woods on an island and experience daylight at 3:30 a.m.?
It’s been really interesting. When we got here, we had to adjust to many things after living in a big city with a lot of amenities. First of all, we chose to live on the ocean in a cottage. Being far from town meant planning our meals more intentionally so we could purchase groceries on a weekly basis, watching our water supply since it was collected from the roof, and generally living life in a quieter way.
The weather is very different than Minneapolis — far more temperate, but very rainy. The community embraces the rain and has a lot of opportunities for kids — library reading groups, art projects, athletics, etc. And yes, the sun has been interesting: In the winter, the low sun seems to start setting at 10:00 a.m., which made me feel like the days were always slipping away before I’d even had my cup of joe. And now the sun goes down at 11:00 p.m. and rises at 3:00 a.m. Thankfully, with an infant, I have an easier time sleeping when I need to, so it’s worked out fine.
How have your three young children responded to the move and the changes? What do you hope they’ll take away from this experience?
In general, they’ve done well. We were most concerned about Simon since we worked so hard at attachment and stability; we didn’t know how it would feel for him to be uprooted so quickly after joining our family. We’ve tried to still be very intentional about our family unit — just as we were during the initial bonding period.
You just gave birth to your fourth child and made this move while pregnant. Were you nervous about being far from family and friends, familiar pre-natal care, etc.? Have you been able to find support as a newcomer in Ketchikan?
Absolutely. Living in community is a big value of mine, and leaving friends and family was a difficult choice. Ultimately, we decided that this opportunity may not present itself again and, despite the risks, we’d make it together.
Two gifts have emerged through the pregnancy. One is the incredible people here in Ketchikan. As an island, it’s very self-sufficient, and there’s an incredible network of women who support and love each other here. It’s extraordinarily welcoming. The other gift has been the relationship with my husband: Going through pregnancy or adoption is a wonderful time for reflection and introspection, and I’ve been able to share thoughts with him on a more regular basis. Growing a family together is fabulous marital therapy!
What do you hope this sabbatical will do for your family life, and how intentional are you being about what you’re doing (and not doing) during this time?
We try to reflect every morning on what the day will bring — a practice we never had when we both worked. Our values exist much closer to the surface of our minds now. Naturally, there’s still daily living to be done — paying electricity bills, enrolling kids in school programs, running errands — but we try to wrap those tasks around our greater priorities. Not that we call hiking or play time a “to-do,” but we have an easier time pausing during our tasks to make sure we are living the value of time each and every day.
Matt and I have both gravitated to activities and experiences that couldn’t be achieved when we worked 60 hours a week: I’m interested in completing my first triathlon this year, and learning to play the ukulele; Matt has been learning about salmon fishing and has even started having some success! Given that our primary goal was creating and using time better in order to bring our family closer, we try and use our time for meaningful experiences.
So far, how has your time in Ketchikan affected you and your husband as parents? Has it brought out different qualities or given you new perspectives?
We both notice greater patience. Having two toddlers and a pre-schooler can certainly wear on your nerves, but slowing down our lifestyle has given us more time to laugh. I feel less fried and like a better parent when I’m not swearing in the morning because I need to get three kids into a car in less than five minutes while juggling a to-go mug of coffee and three five-point harness car seats.
What have been the greatest challenges of taking this year away from your “regular” life?
It’s been challenging not to creep into old habits. Because I’m a consultant now, I sometimes struggle not to be the first to raise my hand in the spirit of being a “team player” and thus over-committing myself. In the past, I could slip into a workaholic mode pretty easily, and I’ve struggled to un-learn this practice so I can maintain balance and protect my family time.
So, do you really think this will be one year, or do you think your time in Ketchikan could stretch into something much longer?
We’ve had discussions about this. We’ve met several people who are on year five of their six-month Alaskan stint. We really like what this lifestyle has brought us and could see staying for longer. I do think at some point our goals may change. There are times when I miss my career and can see myself wanting to do more professionally, but we will cross that path when it feels right.
What would you tell another family who is attracted to the idea of taking a sabbatical year like this? What steps would you suggest they take to get there?
My best piece of advice is to create specific intentions for a defined period so that there’s something concrete to focus on. We thought about this as a sabbatical — not a permanent move, which made it easier to create lifestyle changes in the short term. Also, jump in, but give yourself just enough time to prepare. There are a lot of details to think about (especially with kids) — schools, housing, healthcare. Give time to get through the logistics, but not so much that the spirit of the adventure wanes. Lastly, ignore the Naysayers!
A big thanks to Dana for sharing their sabbatical adventure with us. (I was amazed she had the time to respond to my questions in the midst of attending to a brand new baby!) I love this idea of giving the gift of time to each other as a family; it’s so key to bonding and making memories together, don’t you think? If you’re interested in reading more about Dana’s adventure, be sure to check out her blog.
I’m curious: Does this idea of a family sabbatical appeal to you? If so, where would you go?
PS — If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out Going Furniture-Free and The Modern Nomads.
Images: Dana Fitzpatrick