Kevin and Domini, they’re that crazy couple who took off with their family for the remote jungle of Belize. Yeah, I heard they were living off the grid and had to take a boat to get anywhere. Why on earth... would they take their kids away from regular life...? Why on earth would they sabotage their kids’ education and risk injury, malaria, snakebite, or human trafficking?
Yep, that’s us. The risk-takers. Only thing is, taking a six-month family sabbatical in Belize was actually not that risky at all. In any case, whatever risks we faced were far outweighed by the overwhelming number of benefits we received from leaving our comfort zone. For months before our trip, we felt a counter-cultural pull to drop everything in our regular, normal life to live in a developing country for awhile. Our instincts said this trip would be well worth facing our fears and risking a little bit along the way. So we packed up some suitcases, rented out our house, and left everything behind for an experience not many families have: house sitting for an off-the-grid property that sat not 20 feet from the sea and was, indeed, only accessible by boat.
Much to the surprise of our close loved ones, friends, and acquaintances.
People in our neck of the woods don’t do such a thing. We Heddermans had a settled life. We had enough money and lots of time together. We volunteered in our community. We sent our kids to the same school for seven years, where we had lots of friends. We had fun evenings out and peaceful evenings in. We attended church with the same congregation since we were married--all of our children were baptized there. People who do these things live a normal sort of life. They don’t just pull up their roots and... leave.
What was wrong with the old life? people may have wondered.
But even though things were lovely where we were, we sensed that they were lovely in only a mediocre sort of way (at least for us). We were settling for easy comfort and rarely got the chance to climb out of our comfort zones. We craved more adventure and knew we couldn’t find it driving around the same old town in the same old mini-van. And we felt caught up in the consumer culture of America, finding ourselves on the earn-and-spend treadmill so many of our peers have fallen victim to, as well. We were living an unintentional existence and letting life happen to us instead of actively creating the kind of life we wanted for ourselves and our children. We had the big house in the suburbs, the invites to the parties, the private grade school to which we sent our kids. Things were great on the surface.
But sometimes major life events shake you up. That’s what happened to us in 2010 when first Kevin’s dad died in February and then my mom in July. Add to that the physical strain of having a newborn baby in May, and Kevin and I had about all the major life events we ever needed. After that year, our outlook began to change in a huge way. Things that seemed important before--like attending galas, buying a lot of material items, and planning home improvement projects--lost their gloss. The chatter of the world buzzed in our ears and nearly drove us insane. We felt overworked, overwhelmed, and under-appreciated. We felt crushed under the weight of the many layers of regular, middle-class American life.
We needed a break from our normal life. We needed to take a giant step back so we could see our life clearly. We needed to exit normal.
So we packed up our four kids and boarded a plane to Belize in November 2012. Our six months away taught us many lessons, not the least of which is that Kevin and I have a strong need for three things: Variety, Challenge, and Connection. We need to lay our eyes on new places once in awhile where people do things differently than what we’ve seen our whole lives in our little Pennsylvanian town. We need the challenge of figuring out the new way and discovering new things about ourselves in the process. And we need to develop deep-rooted connections with people who are thinking critically about the world and their place in it. We found all of this during our time in Belize.
Now that we’re back home, we feel we are more in touch with our own authentic natures. We care less about what other people think of us--after all, it’s our life! And we learned first-hand that, although life is full of unnamed fears, the only way to arrive at the richness of an abundant life is to barge right through the thin veil of fear. Once we did that, we climbed out of the wilderness of our formerly mediocre life of negativity, disillusionment, and indecisiveness, and landed in a new and beautiful world of our own creation.
We’re not going back to the old way. We tasted freedom in Belize and we’re ravenous for more, more, more! We want more freedom, more learning, more time with our kids before they grow up--poof!--before our eyes, more positivity, more abundance, more variety, more challenge, and more connection. And we know that to get all of this, we must take the lessons we learned in Belize and put them into immediate action.
Although we once thought of our six-month family sabbatical as a one-time, once in a lifetime trip that we would look back fondly on in the autumn of our life, we realized soon into the six months that the experience was deeper and more lasting than that. In Month One, we realized we could be away from our home with no difficulty. By Month Two, we realized we could run our real estate business remotely, at least for several months at a time. In Month Three, we discovered I could make an income writing about our experience and lessons learned. In Month Four, we began to see travel as an education so overwhelmingly powerful that we decided we could and should homeschool our children. In Month Five, we realized we couldn’t just go home with no future travel plans in the works. In Month Six, we hit the growth jackpot when we saw very clearly that our life would not reach its overwhelming potential for beauty and joy unless we ourselves made it happen.
So we got back to our home in Erie, Pennsylvania, USA, on April 29, 2013. We’ve made many changes to our old life. One small change we’ve made is reevaluating everything we already own and more critically assessing the things we buy and invite into our lives. We’ve also critically examined the activities, work loads, and even people we invite into our lives, as well. Do these things feed our soul? Or are they merely filler? We decided life is too short to waste time on things or activities that don’t pull us in the right direction, and too short to be put down by people who don’t necessarily want what’s best for us.
A more significant change is that we’ve decided to homeschool our kids. We’re doing this to see how we can broaden and stretch their education into one that more closely resembles a lucky privilege more than a dreaded responsibility. We’re also homeschooling so we can travel more throughout the school year. Of course, we’re traveling as a means of education. In our minds, travel and homeschooling will meld together to give our kids a unique perspective on things in a way staying home and sending them to the school down the block never could.
Our plan at this point is to take off for three months of travel at a time, with three-month stints at home. In this way, we are trying to have the best of both worlds. We learned during our time away that being flexible is very important so we’re giving ourselves the freedom to choose what’s next at each stage of the game. If we realize after a year that the kids aren’t thriving with this new lifestyle, we always have the option of settling back down or even sending them back to school. If we see, however, that things are turning out to be as awesome as we think they will, we have many long-term trips in mind: Europe by camper van, house sitting in New Zealand, renting a house in Ecuador. Voluntourism. Home exchanges. Bicycling through South America. The list of opportunities is endless.
Our next trip will commence in late August, when we’ll take off for three months of camping and traveling across the United States. We plan to meander our way from Pennsylvania to Washington, with a jaunt up into British Columbia, Canada, before making our way south again and then back home via the southern route. A full circle. We hope to rediscover our own country and fall back in love with it before we once again cross the border.
My book, Exit Normal: How We Escaped With Our Family and Changed Our Life, tells the story of our radical exit from normal life. Kevin and I agree that, besides marrying each other and having each of our children, the family sabbatical in Belize was the best thing we have ever done as a couple. It was an enriching, uplifting, challenging, life-altering foray into a new sort of freedom. It was our family’s renaissance when we were reawakened and reminded we only get one go-around at this life. We’re running after the abundance like children running after the ice cream truck.
Kevin and Domini, that crazy couple. Yeah, we’re smiling like loons as we take the world by storm.