Meet the Lifestyle Writer: Alison Gresik, Who Turned Parental Leave Into a Nomadic Experiment
Written by Alison Gresik
In September 2005, I was close to burn-out from working overtime at a software company. My husband Shawn and I wanted children but I couldn’t imagine how we would make room in our frantic lives. I had almost no time or energy for my passion, which is writing fiction.
In September 2009, I worked a few hours a day and then shut down my laptop to explore the city of Beijing with Shawn and our two young kids. I wrote early every morning and finished a novel by the end of the year.
It was a night and day difference. Let me tell you how we got from there to here.
Step One: Quit my job
I was toughing it out as a technical writer under constant release deadlines, thinking I had to stay so I would qualify for maternity leave which, in Canada, is provided through the government’s Employment Insurance program.
Then one day I complained to my therapist that I didn’t have time to write. “Could you find an hour on the weekend?” she asked, trying to be helpful.
That made me mad. I didn’t want to mess around with a few hours here and there! I wanted a few days a week to work on a book.
I decided in that session to find a way to quit my job. It wasn’t worth hanging on for a few thousand dollars in parental benefits and, besides, my husband still qualified for leave. I didn’t need to bring in a full-time income and freelancing would give me more flexibility for writing and parenting.
Three months later I walked out of the office for the last time. Giving up the security and prestige of my job was scary, but I knew I had to do it for my sanity.
Freelance contracts came slowly at first. I networked and promoted and interviewed. I worked on my novel and learned that too much writing time can be worse than too little time! We drew on our credit line and eventually I built up enough steady clients to make a go of it.
The kicker was that I ended up getting a five-month on-site contract with my old employer, and I worked just enough hours to qualify for parental benefits. How’s that for a bonus?
Step Two: Adopt two children
Shawn and I chose to adopt rather than trying for a pregnancy.
Our children were born in China, and during our adoption trips we travelled through Beijing, Nanchang, Shanghai, and Nanjing. We fell for the country and knew we had to spend more time there, both for ourselves and our kids.
The children were not newborns when we adopted them. At the time of Shawn’s second parental leave, our daughter was three and our son was nearly two. Both kids slept well, ate well, and could handle new situations.
Shawn and I shared our parental leave – we each took a six-month stint as the full-time caregiver. This meant that we both had focused time to develop our attachments with the kids. We both learned how to look after them and we gained empathy for each other, because we knew how it felt to work full-time and to parent full-time.
Add that all together with my location-independent freelance work, and you get a window of opportunity and the desire to live in China for a few months.
Step Three: Announce our plans
Once we concocted our plan, Shawn and I began to tell people about it. We told our Chinese guide during our son’s adoption trip; she was very excited and promised to help out. We told our family and friends once we returned to Canada seeing that our son was settling in well.
Talking together about the possibilities was our favourite way to lift our spirits as we adjusted to the challenges of an additional child in the family.
If we had kept the scheme to ourselves we might have been tempted to give it up as crazy. Sharing our plan – to live in Beijing from September to November 2009 – meant that we had extra incentive to follow through. There was lots of encouragement from people who said, “What a great chance! You’ve got to do it.”
Step Four: Buy airline tickets
In July 2009 we were going back and forth on whether to commit to the Beijing trip. We didn’t have an apartment rented. We weren’t certain that our three-month visa applications would be approved. A few people cautioned us about what could go wrong: would the kids stop sleeping well? Would the trip put too much stress on our marriage?
The important question, the one that sealed the deal, was, “Will the benefits outweigh the risks?” On the plus side we’d have an amazing experience and immerse our kids in their birth country and language.
What was the worst that could happen? We could just come home early. No harm done.
Booking the airline tickets gave me a surge of joy so strong that I knew we had made the right decision. The joy was in knowing that we were being true to our real selves: those world travellers who had been biding their time all these years!
Step Five: Have a ridiculously great time
Sure, there were desperate moments in the first few weeks involving loud tantrums, sleepless nights and potty accidents. Our first apartment fell through but the second was ten times better. Our daughter complained about the new sounds and smells but then was eager to start attending a local Chinese kindergarten.
We soon settled into a happy routine. Shawn took the kids on outings to parks and temples while I did my contract work. We ate out most nights because restaurant meals were cheap and delicious. We found an ayi to stay with the kids and clean our apartment two evenings a week – bliss! I had a perma-smile on my face because we had achieved our long-held dream of living overseas.
Now we’re back in Ottawa and making plans to head out again as soon as we can. Travelling with kids is certainly complex, but we’ve also found it incredibly rewarding and look forward to other nomadic experiments! You can read more at our family website, Many Lives.
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