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Redefining Work-Life Balance

When we told people what we were planning, they said we were crazy.

They listed all the things that could go wrong. They said we’d never be able to pull it off.

Boy, did we prove them wrong.

A Dream Come True-ish

This summer, Carlos and I spent almost six weeks traveling through Europe and Africa. We brought along our four kids — and our full-time jobs — to combine a family vacation with a working holiday.

It was the realization of a dream that has evolved over the past decade. As I wrote earlier this year, Carlos and I have been trying to find more balance between travel and work. We considered embracing a full-time remote office but decided against it after the universe bombarded us with signs to stay put.

So we put another plan in motion. Rather than completely abandon our brick-and-mortar office, we would take a break from it. If we could pull this off once, we told ourselves, we could probably pull it off multiple times.

But the lead-up to pursuing our dreams was a total nightmare.

“Whatever Happens, Happens”

The month before we left was one of the highest-billing periods in our business’s history. Which, on one hand, was great. But at the same time, we had to work incredibly hard. Too hard. I was burned out, suffering from insomnia and migraines.

To make things even more exciting, my legal assistant quit. Shortly after that, I had to fire my paralegal. Two other employees were off for the summer. Which meant my staff of eight had dwindled down to four.

Then there was the stress of the trip itself.

In employment law, a judge can call us into the courtroom at a moment’s notice. If we got the call while we were in Spain, we couldn’t just drop everything and fly back to Orlando. We had to create a contingency plan.

Normally, I’m not the type of person to ask for help. I tend to internalize my problems, put on my armor and go into battle alone.

But this was all too much. And I couldn’t let my tendencies to do everything on my own compromise our trip or our legal practice. So I — gasp! — asked for help.

I called friends in the field, told them the situation and started building a skeleton crew of surrogates who could appear in court on our behalf.

Little by little, everything started coming together.

But that didn’t stop the naysayers from sharing their opinions about our plans. It seemed like some of our acquaintances got a thrill from listing all of the things that could possibly go wrong.

We tried to take the attitude of “the trip is booked; whatever happens, happens.”

But, inside, I was a wreck.

Wait, the World Didn’t Come Crashing Down?

Life didn’t calm down while we were away. Work was just as hectic, if not more so.

We were juggling our caseload with sightseeing and spending time with family. Not to mention trying to set up comfortable office spaces in small European apartments.

But a week or two into our trip, something happened. The stress started to slip away. I was sleeping better. My digestive issues faded.

I can’t explain it, but I didn’t feel an ounce of stress. Work was still crazy. But I was suddenly … happy.

Maybe it was the fact that I had worried so much in advance of the trip, and set up so many contingencies, that I stopped stressing about the unknown.

Or maybe it was just the surge of confidence that came from getting through each day without the business crashing down or life going off the rails.

Every day strengthened the feeling that we could do this. We could live and work in another country.

Our dream was becoming a reality.

A Whirlwind Itinerary

Our trip started in Spain. Then we flew to Morocco.

To go from the freewheeling, vino and jamón-fueled atmosphere of Spain to a country that is predominantly Muslim was a culture shock. Most restaurants don’t serve wine. Then there were the daily calls to prayer, which sometimes forced us to pause our conference calls.

To be honest, I hadn’t braced myself psychologically for Morocco — the dress, the customs, the people herding sheep through the dirt roads of the medina. But everyone we talked to was lovely. Our host treated us like a member of the family, loading us up with tips and maps in the morning and greeting us with mint tea when we returned in the evening.

On our last day in Morocco, we met a group from France on the hotel’s terrace. They didn’t speak English and we don’t speak French. But within 30 minutes, we were best friends, laughing, dancing and showing off our families on Facebook.

I’ve never experienced anything like that before — random strangers becoming good friends in less than an hour. I brought those memories with us when flew to Paris, which was another huge swing of the pendulum in terms of travel extremes.

I had been to France before, and to be honest, I didn’t like it. I felt my lack of French language skills held me back.

But this trip was different. Maybe it was the positive impression of the French family we met in Morocco. Maybe it was the people in the streets selling champagne, but I felt like I was welcomed more this time.

We toured the city on electric scooters, admiring how Parisians took the time to enjoy their lunches at cafes and bistros, rather than scarfing down frozen meals in their cubicles, like we Americans do.

The joie de vivre of Paris shifted to tears and reflection in Normandy, then awe and wonder at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mont Saint-Michel. After that, we spent one night in Bordeaux and several days in Bilbao, Spain, where the tapas were delicious and the countryside seemed to borrow from the best landscapes of California and Colorado.

From Bilbao, we traveled to Santiago de Compostela, another UNESCO site, arriving just in time to see thousands of backpackers finishing up their monthlong trek across the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. It was the first time our family had witnessed strangers from around the world coming together to hug, laugh and reflect after such a rigorous shared journey.

There was more bonding in Porto, Portugal, where our arrival timed perfectly with the São João fiesta. We danced along with thousands of people under the fireworks and luminary-strung balconies.

After exploring the restaurants and bookstores where J.K. Rowling got the inspiration to write Harry Potter, we went to Faro, and then our final stop, Marbella, back in Spain.

That’s where the depression sunk back in.

I didn’t want to go home.

Beyond the Bottom Line

It wasn’t just the delicious wine and food I was going to miss. It was the people.

In each city and town, the locals talked to us about their life and work. We learned what it was like to be a teacher in Spain, an engineer in Paris. The waiters told us they worked for a living wage and providing good service was part of their job, not something they did for a tip.

People talked to us about their siestas, their upcoming monthlong vacations to the coast.

Our eyes were opened so wide, it hurt.

I think my biggest souvenir from the trip was the compassion I developed listening to each person’s story.

Normally, I’m not the type of boss who tells my team to push through when they feel sick or give them a guilt trip when they have to leave early to pick up a kid or sick parent. But now, I want to actively encourage my employees to take time off to explore and grow.

I want them to know it’s not always about the bottom line.

Lessons Learned

This trip was such a big success, we’re already planning the next one.

Next summer, we’ll travel for eight weeks, instead of six, and we’ll do things a bit differently.

For one, Carlos and I will make spending time alone more of a priority. For both of us, this is our second marriage. We made a commitment a long time ago to spending at least one day a week without the kids so we could catch up and talk.

We didn’t do that at all this trip. Next time, we’ll balance family time with us time.

Second, we’ll stay put a little longer in each destination. This trip, we moved around way too much. Instead of enjoying each city to the fullest, we were packing up after a night or two and herding the kids to the airport or the train station.

Finally, and I have to whisper this one, we’re going to … take time off of work.

Of the 38 days we were in Europe and Africa, there were only two that I wasn’t on the clock.

I have a hard time unplugging. Even on my annual yoga retreats, I am guilty of pulling out my phone after everyone goes to bed to catch up on emails and casework. I know how important it is to disconnect and give your brain a break, but I’ve never been good at putting this advice in action.

To be fair, this trip timed perfectly with some of the biggest upheavals in our company’s history. But I’ll spend the next few months building my team back up so I can feel more confident letting go in the future. Even if it’s only for a day or two.

Changing Our Focus

In the weeks since we’ve been home, I’ve felt so refreshed and renewed.

We achieved our goals of redefining what work-life balance means to us. Even with a demanding job, you can still travel the world. And it’s even more possible in countries where your health, well-being and relationships are prioritized as much as your financial status.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel blessed to be an American. But in our society, it’s easy to focus too much on money and possessions. In Europe, we worked our butts off, but we also lingered over long lunches with our family. We spent the afternoons sightseeing, engaging with strangers and sharing new experiences with our kids.

During the last week of our trip, we met a family from Washington, D.C. They were doing the same thing we were, working from the road with their kids. Over papas bravas and red wine, we talked about how hard it was for some acquaintances to process what we were doing.

But the D.C. family said this was their second working family vacation. And while all the naysayers tried to talk them out of their first trip, this time, those same people wanted to come along.

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