When Your Child Goes Abroad: Reflecting on a Parenting Sabbatical

When Your Child Goes Abroad: Reflecting on a Parenting Sabbatical

After years of wanting to spend a semester abroad, on Feb. 4, 2019, our youngest daughter Eleanor, age almost 17, walked onto a jetway, heading to five months in a small town on a Costa Rican volcano.

She’s a young woman who deeply loves her home, Oregon. Its forests, lakes, beaches and mountains are her playground and temple. We treasure her connection to the natural world, and her taking on challenges that move her further and further into it.

And now, at the airport, she’s completing another move, one that has seen us migrate from the center of her world to its periphery, as her friendships and experiences expand.

We are happy for her.

But I must say, watching the back of our girl disappear into a crowd shuffling down a jetway was a hard moment. We turned away from the gate and walked out of the airport with the odd feeling that we’d left something behind. And we did. After 30 years of parenting, we had no child to watch over, plan for, or schedule our days around.

Emotions crashed into each other: fear, excitement, worry, relief, wonder, anticipation, hope.

We had both recently retired. With Eleanor’s sojourn in Costa Rica, it seemed for me a good time to unhitch from ordinary life and think about what I’d do with my next chapter. My husband could live out his days gardening and crabbing, but I was more restless.

After taking care of other family commitments, by late March, he and I were ready to turn back toward each other, and a vacation. We had been hewing to Greenheart’s rules and kept our communications with Eleanor infrequent, although at first there were many logistics to deal with. (She needed a transcript; she needed health insurance info . . . all of which had been provided, but were requested again by the Costa Rican school and in-country partner.) But after a bit, things settled out and she was in her groove.

We’d learned enough to envision what her life was like: her host family, bedroom, school, bus ride, small town. And that was enough. We did not go see her. We wanted to, sort of, but also wanted to stay out of her experience. It was her time.

And it was our time. So on a cold day we packed up the Subaru and drove over snowy Mt. Hood, into our vacation. Our goal: stay off interstates, and explore every town, park, river and canyon that called to us from the maps and Wikipedia. We took a meandering route on blue highways to Big Bend National Park, the only planned destination on a seven-week trip.

Sleeping in the back of the Subaru, biking in a Nevada park under sunset-stained bentonite cliffs, kayaking with sea lions and pelicans off California’s Channel Islands, canoeing through Boquillas Canyon on the Rio Grande, recovering from bad food in an El Paso AirBnB, howling at a full moon with new old friends in Terlingua, Texas . . . for the first time since we began working as pre-teens, we had no one to please but ourselves.

And, after seven weeks on the road, without anyone else to shape and fill up our days, we rediscovered that we really liked being together. Time away from commitments is an amazing elixir for a relationship!

We often thought, “The kids would love this!” We wished, sometimes, that they were young again and we could see their five-year-old selves pop out of a kiva, hike barefoot down a canyon, or snorkel in clear water. But we are old! And getting tired! And the next best thing to seeing your child’s joy in discovery is knowing they’ve gotten it. That love for the world’s wonders is now part of them, and they seek it out, becoming lifelong learners and active participators. On their own, without your showing it to them, they find the joy in the small moments, and respect for the differences of country and culture. They find a passion and purpose.

We knew Eleanor was having an experience in Costa Rica that would inform her choices for the rest of her life.

And we didn’t, we came to realize, need to know all the details. We trusted her. We trusted Greenheart, its in-country partner, and her host family. Throughout the process, not everything proceeded at the pace we would assume it would. But that was our lesson to learn. We had to give up our control and trust in the goodness and professionalism of others. We did our research, chose a great partner in Greenheart, and raised a strong daughter.

Now, in late May, with our trip over, and just a few weeks left before Eleanor returns, we are thankful to Greenheart in helping us write this fulfilling chapter in all our lives.

You can read more work by Laura O. Foster on her blog.

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3 thoughts on "When Your Child Goes Abroad: Reflecting on a Parenting Sabbatical"

  1. Laura O Foster says:

    Thank you Cynthia and Theresa, for your comments. I don’t usually write such personal narratives, and my husband gave me a bit of a hard time for saying all he wants to do is garden and go crabbing! Ha! Artistic license at work there.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Laura, you are an artist either the written word. Thank you for your message. Eleanor is a fortunate young lady to have such parents as you and Kevin.

  3. Theresa says:

    Such an amazing experience for her and a great reconnect for you both!

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