The Good Enough Sabbatical

Deborah J. Cohan had the preconceived idea that certain conditions needed to be met for her sabbatical to be fulfilling and meaningful, but she's learned how to tame her expectations.

October 23, 2018

Long and arduous years spent adjuncting, hoping, visiting, job searching, hoping again and then ultimately landing the elusive tenure-track job have had me dreaming about one day savoring the perfect sabbatical. I have watched and cheered from the sidelines as cherished mentors and old graduate school friends went on sabbatical. When they’ve spoken about the sweet anticipation of getting their first, second or third sabbatical, they’ve exuded happiness, spaciousness, breathing room, clarity, organization and productivity.

I’ve yearned for, and have been seduced to believing in, the dreamy faraway travel, the pursuit of joyful hobbies not attended to in years or never before explored, luxuriating in unstructured time of reading alternating with indulgent naps, and of course plenty of writing. But now that I am finally on sabbatical this fall for the first time -- now that a sabbatical is finally mine -- I have surprisingly struggled with it.

The truth is this: my funds are severely limited. I have no wild travel planned. And then, in July, just as my two summer classes were winding down and the sabbatical was officially to begin, my elderly mother fell and fractured her vertebrae, and she now requires round-the-clock care, so I am working through intense worry.

Meanwhile, for months, well-meaning colleagues and friends, enthusiastic and eager to know what I will be doing and how exotic it might be, have bombarded me with questions about my plans. They have been urging me to make the most of every single minute, yet I am not even sure if that means in terms of scholarly productivity or relaxation or both. Either way, this has translated into overwhelming pressure to make this sabbatical the absolute best -- to make it nothing short of perfect.

Academic friends have expressed their hope of soon reveling in their own sabbaticals; nonacademic ones cannot even fathom the concept of sabbaticals and are utterly envious. I have found myself trying to change the subject or retreating from the conversation quickly. Crazily enough, I am finding myself already envious of colleagues who will be on sabbatical next semester and next year, as I am worried mine somehow won’t be productive enough, fulfilling enough, perfect enough -- that I will then need a redo and will need to wait another six years for another one. There’s a lot of vicious math going on here -- I’ve also counted how many months until I have to go back to my regular schedule, how many hours I can write each day, how many chapters I can try to write and revise. And then, of course, I feel things closing in on me.

In fact, I’ve been catapulted right back to my days of abstract longing and fantasizing about this obviously precious commodity. I'm juggling others' fantasies, expectations and projections as well as my own. My inner critic has been screaming, “I mean, gosh, if you can’t get a sabbatical perfectly right, then what hope do you have?”

As a sociologist, I sense that more is at play here -- that the larger social context in which I am embedded is shaping my particular attitudes, behaviors and options. The fact is that much in academe winds up being pretty anticlimactic -- the Ph.D., the job, tenure, publishing. And now I am learning that a sabbatical is, as well. We pour everything into achieving these career milestones, and yet when they finally happen, we’re too exhausted to celebrate or savor the experience.

Moreover, early in my academic career, it was drilled in that nothing is good enough, that perfection is what I had to aim for and that, for faculty members, the academy is constructed along lines of scarcity -- even while it simultaneously communicates messages of abundance to prospective students and parents. A tyranny of perfection certainly dominates the psyches of most women I know. And, in academe, that belief system seems most rampant, as more and more demands are placed on faculty members.

For years, I have held on to what I am now coming to see are some limiting beliefs about sabbaticals. I had the preconceived idea that certain conditions needed to be met for a sabbatical to be fulfilling and meaningful. For example, I worried about when would be best to take one. A friend who has had two, one in the spring and one in the fall, instructed me plainly to do it in the fall. His rationale was compelling enough that I immediately applied for the fall and got it. But as soon as my application was approved, several other friends, as well as my partner, weighed in suggesting that the spring semester would obviously be the better time. I felt anguish about not just how I would spend my time but also when to even take it. Even that seemed to carry an expectation of perfection.

Yet illusory fantasies of perfection and absolute doneness do not serve us well. I’ve recently stumbled upon an old favorite book by Carolyn Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life, in which she criticizes this line of thinking, for it is ultimately self-punishing: “We women have lived too much with closure: ‘if he notices me, if I marry him, if I get into college, if I get this work accepted, if I get this job’ -- there always seems to loom the possibility of something being over, settled, sweeping clear the way for contentment. This is the delusion of a passive life. When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin.”

So I’ve decided to try to tame my self-expectations about this sabbatical. Inspired by Buddhist teachings that it is best not to cling, to not be too attached, I try to live out the mantra “Not too tight, not too loose.”

I have spent some time reflecting on paring down my sabbatical goals and then getting at peace with the paring down. For example, when I first recognized that I couldn’t relocate to an exotic site, and instead would have to stay home, which is close to my campus, I originally struggled with the idea. Not only was it a letdown, but it seemed too close to comfort for a real sabbatical. But ultimately, I changed my mind; I decided that having this sabbatical, complete with its three-minute proximity to school, is a way to practice with real intention for my eventual re-entry by cultivating healthy detachment. I’ve absorbed the wisdom of Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk, and am embracing “the wisdom of no escape.”

I am trying to get more comfortable with the fact that planning for, and being on, a sabbatical is a lot like planning for, and going on, a vacation. Sometimes it sounds better in the abstract; there are always changes, delays, detours and other snafus. But it’s often from those unexpected moments that we meet up with someone who changes the course of our day, or we find something different and even better. That’s when the joy seeps in -- if we let it. So, despite the debilitating health crisis with my mother, my lack of extra money and no plane tickets to places like the Maldives or Greece, I can still go on sabbatical. Life -- that is, real life in all its magic and messiness -- will unfold alongside the sabbatical.

I am committed to the aperture of the sabbatical; I will try to revel in the light and spaciousness it offers, to figure out how I can carry that into my writing and the rhythm of my days, and eventually back to my classroom. As I focus on my writing and wellness practices, my sabbatical will be about repairing and restoring, both in my work and in my body.

Indeed, a sabbatical strikes me as an opportunity for an interior (re)design. It’s a chance to shift my perspective on how I relate to creativity, time, space, place and self -- and the interconnectedness of these things. My sabbatical is a pathway inward that allows me to open to myself in ways I have not done before. To trust myself. And to let go of the overlay of expectations from myself and others that does not serve me.

Last week at my yoga class, the teacher instructed us to stretch our arms out farther than we normally would and said, “Feel the space around you and inside of you.” I have repeated that to myself every day since. On the mat, I have come to better understand that stretching and pushing myself farther than I believed was possible is crucial to my growth, and at the same time rest is absolutely essential for assimilating the goodness of all the hard work. The space, the stretch, the push, the rest -- that’s all a microcosm of the sabbatical in its purest form.

And so this is the lesson I take off the mat and into the world. I have set an intention for every day of this sabbatical to involve the stretch and the rest, for every day to have even 15 minutes that feels idyllic. And when the time comes for me to return to the university, I will have a greater capacity to infuse that into my routine.

Of all the things I can do, I can make a joyful life. It won’t be perfect. But it will be good enough.


Deborah J. Cohan is associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort.


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