“Isn’t your career break quota supposed to be for having kids?” This is the reaction I feared when broaching the subject of taking a year out to travel. Not just at my workplace, but in my social life as well.
Of course, I never thought anybody would suggest this directly. But I was anxious it would be an undercurrent flowing beneath any conversation about my travel career break. “When you come back, are you just going to go off again for maternity leave?”
I am lucky to have worked in some brilliant, socially progressive organisations, including the one I was employed by before my travel career break. Most of my friends are not the kind of people who would question my life and career decisions as a woman either. But somehow, I still experienced worries and challenges from the moment I made the decision right through to starting a new job when I got back.
In this article I explore an extremely personal topic: what it was like to make the decision to take a travel career break as a woman, and what that has meant for me since. It might resonate with you, or it might seem completely incomprehensible. The point I would like to make is that having confidence in your decisions doesn’t always come naturally.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is. The chances are that something will make you doubt your choice to take a career break to travel. At the end of this article, I share a few tricks to help you remain brave along the way.
Doubting myself: what will this do to my career progression?
Two years ago, once we’d saved enough money and were psychologically past the point of no return in going ahead with our career break, we booked our round-the-world flight package. My workplace agreed to give me a sabbatical. I signed a contract that specified what would happen in my year of absence, and what I could expect on my return.
Once the flights were booked and the agreement signed, the doubts started to flood in. I was anxious that taking a year out of my career could be costly. It can be difficult enough for women to progress anyhow, and I worried that if I wasn’t in the room I would just be forgotten.
I began to believe that when I returned to work, I might just have to start all over again. What if everyone else took advantage of the opportunities I was missing during my year away? What if the person they hired to cover my role during my sabbatical year turned out be a better fit? Would I be welcomed back at all?
I started to hand over projects and responsibilities, treating it as preparation for my departure, but knowing deep down that I couldn’t face working on things I was going to ‘leave behind’. I got upset and angry at what felt like a lack of interest from the people around me in putting the cover arrangements in place. Why didn’t anyone seem to care? What would happen to the strategies and projects I had helped to build?
I began to get nervous. I couldn’t help thinking that things would be different if I was going on maternity leave rather than travelling. People understand maternity leave.
As it turned out, I was made redundant at the end of my sabbatical year, four weeks before I was due to return to work. Were my worries justified? Maybe. Maybe not. I know there were other factors at play that led to the restructure at my workplace. But I can’t help thinking that it wouldn’t have happened the way it did if I hadn’t taken a career break. I hadn’t been in the room to defend myself.
I know that if I had been on maternity leave, there would have been much more support available to me. Mainly because it’s written into law.
“Now find myself in a better job with better career prospects and a different outlook on how I view my work–life balance.”
You might be reading this and thinking “wow, this was a terrible idea!”. But I now find myself in a better job with better career prospects and a different outlook on how I view my work–life balance. I went through a lot of trouble and anxiety to reach this point, but now I look back and see how amazing the last couple of years has been.
What I’m learning now is that attitudes towards career breaks for travel and other forms of self-development are changing. More companies are recognising the value that it can bring, and some are putting policies in place to encourage it. There’s a long way to go, but things are – slowly – getting easier for career gappers. One day it will be the new normal.
This is why I’ve chosen to work on this blog. I believe that taking a career break to travel is something that should be available to everyone who wants it. I believe it should be seen more seriously as a development opportunity. I want to do my best to inspire others to challenge the idea that nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, year-long, from the age of 16 to retirement, is the only way to work.
If the impact of travel on career progression is worrying you too, take a look at my article on finding a job after travelling the world.
Travel vs maternity leave: is this a valid career break choice for me?
While experiencing all the worries that come with taking a career break to travel, I wondered if this was how women preparing to take maternity leave felt as well. Only, I wasn’t taking a year out to birth a human, I was taking a travelling gap year in my 30s.
Is that a valid reason for a woman to take a career break? What would happen if I eventually chose to take maternity leave as well? Would I be looked down on because I’d already used up my first ‘career break quota’? How much further would another year out set me back in my career development? What if I don’t even like travelling? What were we doing!
The truth is that taking a career break to travel is every bit as valid as taking a year out to have a baby. Sure, you don’t get the same legal support and you’re doing it for entirely different reasons. But taking time out for any sort of career break is valuable. It gives you time to reflect on your job, how you choose to live, and, ultimately, what you find important in a career.
I spent a year learning new things, seeing new cultures and landscapes, and challenging myself in ways that I never even thought possible. Since I’ve returned I’m much more confident. I’m better at my job. I know what I want to do and I go for it. I’m more creative at work because I have experienced so many different things. And I don’t have childcare to worry about.
“I spent a year learning new things, seeing new cultures and landscapes, and challenging myself in ways that I never even thought possible.”
It is important to remember that employers don’t always value taking time out for travel. While the notion of women taking time out to have children is one that’s embedded in our society, people don’t always respond in the same way when you’re doing it to enrich yourself. You have to be prepared for that.
I’m afraid that the only way to do this is by having confidence in your decision. If you don’t yet, you sure will once you’ve answered the “but what about your career/family?” question over and over again.
This will happen before your career break starts. You’ll get used to answering it, and it will only affirm why you’re doing it. When you get back, that question has almost disappeared – almost – because people see you going back to work and doing something much more ‘normal’.
I am certain that I am a better employee now because of the experiences I had on my career break. The more employers see this, the better it will get for women who want to take time out to travel. I’ve already started planning another travel career break, and I’m being open with my current employers about it. This is a great dynamic to have. There is no secrecy, and I have a clear focus on what I want to achieve before I set off again.
Take a look at your current workplace. The chances are that many of the people around you haven’t been there for more than two or three years. Careers are much more fluid these days – we come and go, climb the ladder, move on. So why are so many employers still paranoid about people leaving? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we embraced this fluidity and focused on making the most of our time in a job?
That’s exactly why I’m writing this. I think I’m also much more prepared now if I did want to take maternity leave. I don’t think I would have the same worries, and I think I would be much more confident about my decisions.
Feeling my age: am I too old for this?
When it comes to age, women get hit hard by our society’s need for beauty, youth and the perfect body, face or hair. There are so many young, beautiful travellers out there who take the opportunity to show off their lives on Instagram. When I saw all of this before I went travelling, I began to worry whether or not I would fit in with the crowd.
I enjoy a good night out, or a few drinks in a bar. I didn’t want to be ostracised because I was an older woman. However, it’s only a problem if you let it be one.
There are travellers of all ages, sizes and shapes everywhere you go. Sure, you might be the oldest one in the bar come midnight. But if that didn’t bother Alex and the other guys around me, why should it bother me? My plan wasn’t to find acceptance among younger peers, but rather just to have a good time and learn new things.
Before I left, my other big concern regarding my age relates back to my opportunities for career progression. Would my workplace expect that, just because I’d gotten married and “got travelling out of my system”, I would run off and have children as soon as I got back?
So why did I stick with my decision to take a travel career break?
Humans tend not to be too good with change. This is magnified once you decide to make huge lifestyle changes when you are already in a comfortable position. If you’ve been working for ten years or more, it’s hard to imagine doing anything other than the nine-to-five, and you get used to a regular salary payment.
I made the choice because the idea of leaving work to travel the world sounded romantic. What’s more, I’d already caught the bug at an early age. After travelling in Madagascar for a month when I was 17, I’d always loved the idea of seeing more.
When it came to saving, it helped that I had a partner who was really excited but, of course, it also put more pressure on me sometimes when I wasn’t feeling as enthusiastic. This is just what happens when you choose to plan something like this with another person, whether it’s your best friend, sibling or partner.
However, what it really boiled down to was that little, clichéd niggle in the back of my mind. If I never tried I would never know. Maybe it would be good for me.
The practicalities of travelling as a woman
One of the things I worried about, that didn’t even cross Alex’s mind, was having my period while travelling. A few months before we set off, I went to the doctor’s and got the implant. I figured that would solve the problem. It worked most of the time and I barely had to think about it while I was away. I’m one of the lucky ones, though – this only works for one in three according to my nurse.
Having a period while travelling was never actually an issue. I always found places to buy sanitary products, even in the depths of Patagonia or off the beaten path in South-East Asia. Sure, good toilets were sometimes lacking, but it was never a problem. If you’re worried about this before you travel, just go and speak to your nurse.
Another concern I had was what toiletries to take. Alex had his shower gel and deodorant, while my bag was a kilo heavier with moisturisers and face washes and makeup. I decided to take some BB cream and tinted moisturiser, along with mascara and eyeshadow for when I wanted to get dressed up for a night out.
I really wish I hadn’t bothered. It was a waste of time. I don’t know why I spent so much time worrying about this. The only thing I needed was shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and a moisturiser. If I needed something else I could buy it wherever I was in the world.
Because I’d taken myself away from the stresses of life and the pollution of London, I found that I didn’t need any of my ‘essentials’ any more. It was a liberating feeling, and I’m trying not to forget it now that I’ve returned to work in the big city.
So, when can I travel again?
It’s true that now I’ve had a career break, I want to travel more. We’re working on this blog while I hold up a nine-to-five. I enjoy my job and I’m still learning and challenging myself in my career every day, but I definitely want to make space for travel in my life.
That’s why I’m looking at employment differently now. I enjoy being on a short-term contract. Before I had a year out, the uncertainty of that would scare me. Now I see it as a deadline to plan my next challenge.
This is probably the way I’ll do it from now on. And working shorter contracts doesn’t mean I’ve given up on career progression. It will probably turn into consultancy work, which was something I dreamed of doing for a long time.
How to remain confident in your decision
If you’ve gotten this far and you still think a travel career break is for you (great!), there are some truths which, if you are aware of them beforehand, can help you stay strong.
If – like two-years-ago me – you’re a slightly older woman dreaming of a travel career break, but the idea is still a little terrifying, just remember the following:
- Know that it won’t be a big deal for anyone but you. Unless you know someone else who has taken a travel career break, the people around you probably won’t understand what you’re worried about. Travelling is glamourised all over social media and people only see selected outputs. They don’t see the difficult parts under the surface.
- A year is shorter than you think, especially when you’re travelling. A year at home might go slowly, but when you’re moving around every few days you will barely notice the time go by. You’ll be back home before you know it, so don’t worry about what you will miss out on when you’re not there. Chances are that not a lot is happening anyway.
- There’s no such thing as a ‘career break quota’. It’s up to you how you live your life, and it’s a perfectly valid decision to take multiple career breaks for whatever reason. Don’t assume that if you take a career break to travel now, you won’t be able to take more time out later for other reasons.
- You’re going to be working full-time for many more years. And if the government has anything to do with it, you won’t be retiring. What difference will taking off one year make? Really? Honestly?
Does any of this resonate with you? I’d love to hear your stories – just use the comments section below. If you’ve taken maternity leave (and let’s face it, I know nothing about what that entails), I would be very interested to hear whether there were any similarities in the things you worried about.
If you’re not sure where to start with the planning process, then take a look at our six-step guide to making your career break travel a reality.
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