Dropping Back In


I walk down a marble-floored corridor, the clonk of my heels sounding unfamiliar after nearly a year in flats.

I felt very aware that I was standing up straight. For the first time in six months, it seemed, I wasn’t carrying the baby, bent over the baby or slumped in exhaustion from caring for the baby.

This wasn’t your everyday return-to-work-after-a-baby scenario. No. It was in Singapore, starting a new job (albeit with my old employer), with my six-month-old baby and devastatingly handsome husband holed up in a nearby hotel, all expenses paid. It was nearly four years since I’d worked full-time, since I’d dropped out of the rat race to live overseas and experience a different culture. And it was only two days since we’d flown into Singapore from Vietnam.

I’d had a lot of experiences in my nearly four years of dropoutdom. Including meeting the most handsome man in Vietnam and deciding to start a family with him. A decision that led to a very messy experience in a birthing suite back in Australia. But I had not worked full time.

My heel-clonking slowed as I approached the door. Could I really pull this off? What would happen to my family if I couldn’t? Would I have to repay the five star hotel expenses? And if I couldn’t do this job, could I actually support my family? What crazy bugger even let me have a family anyway? Ceerrr-ripes. Butterflies. Stomach flips. Heart beating fast.

I open the door and smile, hoping I don’t look as pathetic as I suddenly feel. A bescarfed lady smiles and says “Are you Barbara? I’ve been expecting you. Let me buzz HR.”

First hurdle cleared.

And a few minutes later I was back on the carousel. All my corporate skills came back. Office manners, insincere smiles for colleagues (because I didn’t yet know if they were going to be friends or foe), security passes, login details, help desk phone numbers, elbow-high partitions … I just seemed to slip back into the flow.

Back on the carousel

And 15 months later, after I told my boss that Singapore just wasn’t working out for my family, a colleague told me the company would probably never hire a new mum again. That comment really stung. Because I could do my job just fine. Very well, actually. In fact, if my employer had accepted my proposal of working remotely, I probably would still be working for the company.

In my case, it was the commute, Darling Man’s homesickness, Singapore’s horrible heat and the fact that we weren’t saving money despite my high salary. All that on top of the fact that I missed my baby.

But I did drop back in after an extended career break. It IS possible.

I think my drop in was assisted by the fact that I had some interesting things to show for my four years as a dropout. I’d actually picked up a range of new skills since quitting my job in the press gallery in Canberra in 2007, finishing up a few days after Treasurer Peter Costello handed down his 12th budget.

During my dropout I had:

  • obtained a TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate
  • worked in new fields – teaching and sub-editing
  • worked for two media organisations in Vietnam
  • worked with non-native English speakers
  • co-authored a guidebook
  • traveled throughout Asia
  • written a few freelance magazine articles
  • survived – and thrived – in a foreign country

All this added to the skills and experience I developed when I was on the career track.

And now, well into my second dropout, I am drawing on a selection of new and old skills and experiences. I still work in the media, although I’m only working part-time. I work closely with non-native English speakers. I sub-edit. I write occasionally. I keep up with current affairs.

This is all part of my dropout equation, my story. I feel like I owed it to you to explain that, even though I often write about how great dropping out is, I still work. You may recall I had plans to start my own business to fund my dropout lifestyle. That didn’t pan out so I am very lucky I managed to snag – and keep – this part-time remote editing job that pays the bills and keeps my media-side stimulated.

So here’s where it gets serious. If you yearn to drop out, if your biggest fantasy is telling your boss to shove his f@cking job where the sun don’t shine, if you want to run far far away from your career and never ever work again. Well, that dream may not be possible. You need to have a fallback. Mine was supposed to be teaching English, but I really didn’t like it.

But here’s the thing about dropping out. After a break, with some time and distance (emotionally as well as physically), you start to reassess your career and the other things you left behind.

Over time, and after many many months of not thinking about being a journalist, I realised that I didn’t actually hate being one. I just hated having my life consumed by work. And the news. I hated being stuck in a field where it was normal – and expected – to listen to the 6am radio news at home, get in to work in time for the 8am radio news, run around all day chasing news and trying to one-up your competitors, file, file, file, then get that extra story, spend just another few hours tinkering and filing and awaiting editors’ pronouncements. And then catch the 11pm TV news, just to make sure you had everything covered.

I hated that.

But I realised I love writing. I love storytelling and the storytelling aspect of news. And, during my dropout, I realised I also like working with non-native English speakers. I hated teaching English, but I loved teaching my colleagues about news, writing and the role of the media in the West. I loved learning about the media in other countries: how it works, what’s expected of it, what’s considered sensitive and what’s considered interesting. The world really is an amazing place, you know!

I also discovered blogging, and I love that. I discovered street food, and I love that too. I am trying to fold these new loves into my life in such a way that they actually help support my living-in-Vietnam-for-now dropout lifestyle.

So the morale of the story is you can rejoin the rat race after a career dropout. You can also choose not to drop back in. My best advice is to go for it. If you want to quit your job, drop out of the rat race, take a career break… whatever you want to call it. Go for it. Just make sure you have enough savings or a means of supporting yourself.

And make a diary note for yourself. Three months after your dropout, you should sit down and have a good hard think about what you left behind. Was it so bad? Were there some redeeming features that you overlooked in your overstressed get-me-out-of-here state? Sort out the good from the bad and then have a “hmm, fancy that” moment when you realise there were some good points.

Three months after that little sit-down, have another one. Think about how you could incorporate the good points of your old life into your new one. You might be surprised with what innovative ideas you come up with, now you are used to your freedom!

And my last piece of advice: don’t burn any bridges when you decide you are definitely going to go the dropout route. Because Wilson in accounting might be the most annoying f@ckwit on the planet, spending too much time and energy questioning your expense claims. But when you are washing an elephant in a river in Laos, does it really matter?

You don’t need to settle any scores when you drop out. Just go. Drop out of that life with a very small almost-inaudible plink. Things will continue on without you. And, after two years, or three years, or seven months, if you decide you’d like to drop back in again, you don’t want to be the target of Wilson’s vendetta. Especially not if you end up in a place where he’s your boss. Or you are his boss.

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7 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.

8 Comments

  1. Sally says:

    Such great advice, Barbara! Taking a year off from teaching last year was probably the best thing I did for my career. (Probably not the best thing for my bank account, but that’s another story!).
    When I left my job, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to teach again — I was burnt out and creatively frustrated and fed up with office politics. Some time away made me realize all the things I missed about teaching. But it also made me realize that maybe I don’t want to be a full-time teacher for the rest of my life.
    I’d love to develop a career for myself that balances my teaching with my writing and my other endeavors… I still haven’t exactly figure out what that will be. But, hopefully, I will one of these days!
    Sally recently posted..An Open Letter To The Guy Who Was Taking Pictures of Me At the Park

    • Barbara says:

      Time does give clarity, doesn’t it. Maybe you just need a bit more time to get the clarity you need. Alternatively, you could win the lottery, then you won’t have to worry about money and you can do whatever the hell you want!

  2. I “dropped out” after having a baby. I went back to my job in PR after a year’s maternity leave, but it didn’t work out. I decided to quit and focus on writing (something I wish I’d done years ago). It’s been hard juggling being a mum with starting a new career and it’s been slow. However, things are looking up!
    21st Century Mummy recently posted..Families go back to basics on Sibu Island

    • Barbara says:

      It’s great to hear it’s working out for you. These kinds of dropout decisions are scary and when things don’t take off immediately it can be a bit scary. Good to see another “slow and steady wins the race” story. Good luck 21st Century Mummy!

  3. Karen says:

    Thanks for giving an honest review. I can’t bear it when people say that to want a new lifestyle is enough. That is just not practical, unless you have a lottery win or rich husband which most of us don’t. I really enjoy your blog! Maybe because I’m a mum, expat and working with writing/media too …. look forward to reading more.
    Karen

  4. Efima says:

    HI Barbara,

    I am glad to have found your blog via idealist.org (if I am not mistaken) I think, somehow I made it here to your page! In a month and a few days I will be moving abroad for a short stint – my personal dropout moment happened already at the end of March – to regain clarity. Now in the coming days before the move I want to start mapping out what I want to accomplish during my time abroad and your post really helps. For a 24 year old with a burn out idea of what a “workplace” means it is most needed advice. Thank you. I will be sure to keep checking back and exploring more of your posts.

    • Efima says:

      Correction Barabara, I want to give a proper credit where it is due. I found out about your blog and particularly this blog post through: http://twenty-somethingtravel.com/2012/06/update-blogosphere-june-2012/. As always Steph provides greatest references to very inspirational and interesting blogs. Phew, wanted to make sure I set the record straight 🙂

    • Barbara says:

      Hi Efima, welcome – however you found my blog! Good luck with your move abroad. What an exciting time. Living overseas can be a rollercoaster, with downs as well as ups. I’m wishing you the very best of luck in your new adventure. Try not to get too bummed by the down times and enjoy the good times.

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