Melissa used to spend her days practicing law in between wrangling her kids, working out and hanging with her husband. She wanted to juggle it all, not be just another burned out career mom. But alas, constantly hustling her buns off started taking its toll. Then her husband got a job offer that would take their family to Italy. They leapt at the opportunity. Melissa couldn’t exactly do her job from the land of wine and pasta, so she quit and decided to watch the kids full-time. Here’s her Quitters story.
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You spent five years working in a big DC law firm. What kind of law were you practicing? What did a normal day look and feel like?
When people ask a legal question, I always say I’m the most unhelpful lawyer ever! I practiced food and drug law. If you want to get your drug approved by FDA or have someone review your juice label, I’m your gal. If you are looking to incorporate your business or break your lease, I’m pretty worthless.
My typical days looked very different before and after kids. Pre-kids, I would get up, work out, hit the office between 8 and 9, and then get frustrated when my day got off track and I stayed longer than I wanted to. Repeat.
After kids, I finally got around to using some of the flexibility the job offered. I got up around 4:30 or 5:00 am to work for two hours before my son got up. Then we would do breakfast together, play for a little bit, and pack him out the door with my husband for daycare. I’d get to the office, work like a crazy person, and hustle to leave by 5 to do the daycare pickup. Evenings would be family time, and I would log back on only if I needed to. I didn’t like that I had fairly little “me time,” but in a weird way, I felt like I had more control over my life. I liked that.
In both scenarios, I always felt that I was rushing to be somewhere. Rushing to get to work. Rushing to finish up an emergency client request. Rushing to get my kid. I did not like this.
In 2014, your husband was offered a job opportunity which would require your family to spend three years living in Rome. Ultimately, he took it. Was making that decision difficult? Why or why not?
It was difficult, and it wasn’t. I knew about the difficulties of working in Big Law, but I convinced myself I would be different. Instead, I feel like I lived the cliche. Trying hard for a few years, having kids, burning out, and wanting something else. I was not special or different.
Even before we found out about Italy, I was looking into making a job change, such as working for the government. We had known living abroad might be a possibility for my husband’s job, and it was something we were both excited about. Italy came through faster than any other opportunities, and I jumped at it.
Looking back, I can see that it was hard to make a rational decision when I felt sort of underwater. Not all of my job was bad, but my happiness was low. Italy felt like a life raft.
Ultimately, you decided to quit your fancy job and spend your years in Italy as a stay-at-home mom. Was that prospect exciting? Did any part of you feel like you were “giving up” or making a huge sacrifice, career-wise?
Very exciting! In college, I did a year study abroad in Germany. I love traveling. I was pumped to go back.
I was even more excited about spending more time with the kids. If it hadn’t been for something like this opportunity, I don’t think I ever would have “had the guts” to try the stay at home route. I think I always would have been curious, but never pulled the trigger.
I worried about my future career, but this worry– particularly at the time we decided– was overshadowed by excitement about a lifestyle change. I decided to go for it and hope that, “oh, we had this amazing opportunity to live abroad . . . spend time with the kids when they were young, etc.” narrative would help smooth the resume gap.
Most of us are familiar with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In concept—which boils down to this: women often make less money and stall out in their career is because they take a sabbatical while starting a family. Have you worried about this?
Absolutely. If people ask me about how things are going, I say that I’m loving my day to day life, but I worry about the future. Constantly. (I actually talked about this conflict recently.)
I don’t know what is next. I don’t know if I can get a job in my old field whenever we return. Even if I could get one, I don’t know if I would even want it.
I worry that I stepped off the track right when things were starting to get interesting. In the last year, I’ve had lots of friends land pretty sweet gigs. If I had looked around a bit more, would I have found something I loved?
Sometimes I kick myself that I didn’t spend more time developing a side hustle before the kids, even though looking back I don’t know what I would have done or when I would have done it. Should I be trying more to develop something now? This is hard with limited childcare, but I know people do it. Should I focus on enjoying the boys and life in Italy?
I have no answers. But I definitely worry.
Living in Italy for any amount of time is something most of us can only dream about. What were your expectations before you moved? What’s better than expected?
Initially, things were harder than I realized at the time. My we-made-this-big-change-and-we-are-going-to-LOVE-it-no-matter-what attitude helped out a lot. But there were some long, lonely days. It felt like we were never more than an hour from the baby’s nap or meal. I was intimidated by my kids and my new surroundings. We’d try to explore, but my visions of us sipping cappuccino together at the park? Didn’t happen.
Now, things are easier. Some of it is me hitting my stride; some of it is the kids being at an easier age. My Italian is not great, but I’m more comfortable with the language and just cultural stuff generally. We have our regular barista and market vendors who seem excited to see us. We aren’t as strictly tied to a nap schedule. We sometimes do get cappuccino at the park.
Even when things were tougher, I reveled in the flexibility of our day-to-day. After years of feeling tightly scheduled, it was like my body craved not having to be anywhere at a certain time. Eventually, we added some structure with a few hours of preschool, but having freedom over our schedule? Much better than I expected.
What’s been surprisingly challenging?
Transporting ourselves around town. I love that Rome is walkable (this is good because I didn’t drive here for over a year; now I drive very rarely.), but the city is not stroller-friendly. Between broken, narrow sidewalks and tightly parked cars, it can be a struggle to push any stroller, much less a double. My double is good, but it doesn’t fit on buses and trams.
Now the “baby,” who is almost two, is too big to fit in his carrier. His big brother is better about walking, but not reliably enough to ditch his stroller for the day. I think I thought we’d be flitting about town, exploring new parks and museums, but locomoting the crew is a challenge. Similar issues on transporting groceries. When you can only buy as much as you can carry or stuff under the stroller, you feel like you are ALWAYS grocery shopping!
Did you worry much about living abroad with kids? What do you see as some of the greatest advantages to raising them in a foreign country? What kind of sucks? How do you handle being so far from friends and family?
One of the reasons we wanted to do it now is that we figured it would be easier before the kids were in school.
They probably aren’t old enough to reap many of the advantages of living in another country. I mean, they barely have a frame of reference for life in the United States to compare, but I like that they are being exposed to different things. I enjoy that there is always something new to explore, and it is easy to go on family adventures. Also, our life is a little less hectic than things were in DC.
Italy isn’t super kid-friendly in some ways. I can count on one hand the number of changing tables I’ve seen here. Restaurants have one high chair, if any, and that is if you stay up late enough to eat out. Restaurants typically don’t open until noon or 12:30 for lunch. They close mid-afternoon and don’t open until 7:00 or 7:30 for dinner. This means we save a lot of our dining out for trips; it just doesn’t seem worth it the rest of the time.
But that is all small potatoes compared to missing friends and family. Technology is very helpful, but it doesn’t fix the time difference. We try to Skype or do Google Hangouts with family, but it is never as often as we’d like. We try to send postcards, and I’m always trying to email more. Even though the communication is usually one-sided, my blog helps me feel closer to people back home.
But it sucks. I have friends with kids I’ve never met. We are still friends, but we are no longer tell-each-other-all-your-news friends. It’s hard, but I know I can’t expect to move thousands of miles away and have everything stay the same.
Walk us through your typical day.
As the kids have changed, our routine has really changed! These days I usually get up at 6:00, work out, and try to squeeze in a little writing time before the kids get up. Get ready and breakfast with the kids. Three days a week, my older son does a few hours at Italian daycare, and we need to arrive there by 9:30.
While he is at “school,” my younger son and I usually grab a caffe and hit the market or grocery store or the park before we grab his brother around 11:30. We may hit the playground again or just head home for lunch. During rest time, I try to have my own mental break and do internet stuff or more writing. After rest, we play, and I attempt to start bits of dinner before my husband gets home. Then family evenings, followed by a little time with husband chatting or watching TV. Read. Bed around 10:30.
As you can see, we don’t hit up the Colosseum on a daily basis, but we do have plenty of Italian moments. We walk everywhere, occasionally dodging traffic and motorini. I adore the cafe culture and frequently indulge, even though I try to limit caffeine. Our market vendors know us and suggest new ways to cook fresh produce and fish. And sometimes our playground happens to be at Villa Borghese.
What’s one Italian trait/characteristic/concept you wish you could infuse into American culture? How about something you wish Italy could borrow from America?
I love how easy it is to eat really well here. Yes, Italy is known for pasta and pizza, but Italian food is also full of fresh, seasonal ingredients. I have multiple markets, walkable from my home, that are open six days a week. You won’t see the fish guys on Mondays because fishermen weren’t out on Sunday. Even when we do have pasta and pizza, I know that they only contain a few ingredients; no hard to pronounce ingredients here.
That being said, I wish Italy would get on board with non-Italian cuisine. Italians really really like Italian food. Ethnic food isn’t impossible to find, but it is much harder than in the States. I miss being able to pick up a kebab or grab take-out Thai if I don’t feel like cooking. There are times I’d kill for Tex Mex or sushi. You can find it (or make it), but it is definitely more work than back home.
Does your husband ever resent the fact that you “stay home” and have more flexibility? Do you ever resent the fact that he gets to go to an office every day?
I think we have moments, but we quickly get a reality check. He probably has twinges on gorgeous weather days when I mention we hit the zoo, but then he remembers that the kids are fun, but also difficult. Particularly when the kids were a little younger, I envied him for getting to walk down the street unencumbered, but he reminded me that work isn’t exactly a vacation.
I’ve struggled in my at-home role at times, trying to figure out what my current job description is. Am I primarily focused on the kids or is EVERYTHING “at home” my responsibility now? To his credit, my husband has never given me a hard time about anything on the home front, such as not cleaning enough, not having dinner on the table, or not dealing with that giant mound of laundry. He knows that the kids are hard, and he does a ton around the house. I do more chores at the moment, but I’d say my working was good training for us for having a better chore split. Not having to do everything at home definitely keeps any resent I might have down.
Also, my husband doesn’t have to work crazy hours or travel a ton. If he did, I predict my response might be very different.
What advice would you give someone considering moving abroad for a job—especially if it means bringing their spouse (and potentially kids) along?
Do it! Haha, that’s just the adventurer in me getting excited.
First, I’d advise to make sure you are making the move for the right reason. Living abroad is not a panacea for life’s ills. All of the regular problems are still there. Some things are a lot harder. You aren’t embarking on the ultimate vacation. Are you ready to deal with sorting out new schools, figuring out how to pay your gas bill, and more–potentially all with the added layer of doing it in a foreign language?
Next, think about your reentry strategy. If the travel is not for your job, can you return to your job after a hiatus? Telecommute? Work on any skills during your stay? In other words, be better than me about this. Even if your stay is open-ended, I think you’d have some peace of mind during your stint abroad with even a loose return plan put together.
If you decide to go, find your community. We’ve been fortunate to be a part of the awesome Embassy community here. I call it like making summer camp buddies. Lots of fast bonding with delightful people all in the same boat. If you don’t have that, look for work groups, expat groups, parent groups, church groups, neighbors or something. It takes work, but it is worth it. We aren’t meant to do everything alone. I can attest, life is more fun if you have a buddy who can get together at 4:00 pm when the day just won’t end or can explore a new neighborhood with you.
And know that kids–particularly very young kids–will slow your roll on travel. There is an added layer of planning. You won’t be able to do things like hit every museum in Paris in 24 hours anymore. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different. Kids force you to slow down, soak in your surroundings, and appreciate the little things, like kicking a rock down a cobblestone road or slurping gelato on the piazza on a summery day.
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Thanks for sharing your story, Melissa! Follow along on her Italian adventures via Roman Reboot.
If you don’t already know, I love a good quitting story. Here’s a bunch more that might inspire you to make a big life change.
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