Two months isn't a particularly long time, but Nancy Letsinger said it is all her family needed to change forever.
For years Nancy, her husband Eric, and their 10- and 13-year-old daughters lived a life that resembled that of many other educated, upper middle class, D.C.-area families. Nancy and Eric both worked full-time in demanding positions -- she for a non-profit group operating research and development centers sponsored by the government; he on the Campaign to Fix the Debt, where he regularly logged 60-hour weeks. Their daughters' schedules were packed with extracurriculars.
"[It] wasn't just work, though work was fairly relentless. It was also the fact that the kids had evening activities," said Nancy, 46. "I would come home, drop my computer bag, say 'Did you do your homework? Ok, let's go.'" They would pile into the car and speed off to a class or practice.
Though Nancy wasn't necessarily unhappy with the direction their life was heading in, part of her had always fantasized about living abroad with her daughters and husband. They had explored working abroad, but nothing came to fruition and over time, Nancy had begun to think it simply wasn't going to pan out. "It was just not a path our life was going to take," she said.
But on a weekend in the spring of 2013, while Nancy and Eric were looking at their calendar for the coming months, they recognized a rare window in which they might be able to sneak away. Nancy was between projects at work, and Eric's summer schedule promised to be lighter.
A friend who had recently spent a few months traveling with his family had warned the pair that the hardest part was simply making the decision to go. So that weekend, Nancy and Eric did exactly that. They were both going to take sabbaticals from work, they decided, and spend time traveling through Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic with their daughters, who had never been out of the country before.
Two months later, on July 31, 2013, they were on a plane, on their way.
A Mini Adventure
Nancy planned most of the family's itinerary from their Bethesda, Maryland home, studying travel websites late at night. At her husband's urging, she tempered her natural tendency to schedule a lot of activities with the family's need to spend some time winding down. Nancy and Eric also worked closely with their daughters' schools to make sure they did not fall behind, doing "homeschool projects," making an effort to learn about local agriculture in each area they visited. Nancy recalled that when they sat down with their eldest daughter's principal, her response was, "She will remember this more than anything else out of her middle school years."
It was important to Nancy and Eric that their trip include a service component, so in Costa Rica, they volunteered with a local orphanage and lived with a host family -- an experience the couple's daughters particularly loved.
The girls, doing arts and crafts projects at the orphanage.
Everything was done on a budget. Though Nancy had accrued six weeks of paid vacation, and her husband was able to use two, they did not want to blow through their savings. They avoided resorts, and relied on local buses for transportation.
"It was a question of, 'How much can we afford not to put into retirement this year and consider this an investment in our family?" she said.
Nancy recognizes that for some families, two months of travel may not seem that extraordinary, but most of her family's vacations had been up to Maine, and never for more than a week or two at a time.
"Because we were doing something so out of our element, we really worked as a team," Nancy said. "Our kids got that this wasn't mom and dad figuring out all the plans and telling us what to do. We needed to figure things out together."
Back Home, A New Normal
On September 19, 2013 the family returned to the United States. Eric and her daughters were ready, she said, and felt fully recharged after unplugging for two months. But she was a bit more melancholic.
The challenge she foresaw was taking what she'd cherished during their time abroad -- a sense of togetherness, a willingness to take risks, but also time to relax and unwind -- and incorporate it back into their life at home.
For her daughters, it has come naturally. Nancy can see that they are much more willing to try different things, and that they tend to see the family as a team in a way they did not before leaving.
For her, it has been a bit more of a challenge.
"I went into it thinking, 'I'm going to start a daily meditation practice, I'm going to learn Spanish and do yoga,'" she said. "I didn't learn Spanish and I didn't start a daily meditation practice. I do yoga, but not as often as I'd like to. What I feel like I am doing differently is taking time to just sit and be present, guilt-free." She will allow herself to be still and quiet on the back patio on a beautiful morning, for example, and not feel like she needs to do something productive.
The family also volunteers together once a month at a local men's shelter. "I would love to say that's something we had been doing before, but we just weren't," she said.
Part of Nancy still harbors dreams of another sabbatical sometime down the road, but for now, figuring out how to sustain the lessons they learned abroad is adventure enough. Before departing, she wasn't sure how profound an effect an eight-week trip would have on her family's life. Now, she knows.
"It was only two months, and it was certainly doable, [but] I do feel like our family has really changed," she said. "Forever."
If you or someone you know is taking steps to live a life that's simpler, saner and more fulfilling, we want to hear about it. To submit a Letting Go nomination, email firstname.lastname@example.org.