A Career break is for life, not just for six months.

I've been back from my career break for a couple of months now, and it seems like a good time to reflect on the experience, and particularly on coming back.

When I first returned I people expressed surprise that I'd came back at all, and then sympathised that I had to come back.  However, recently I've started to hear more direct questions like "Have you settled down again yet?", "Have you got that out of your system?" and "Does it feel like you've never been away?".  The answers to these questions are, in order, No, No and No.

More Penguins
A holiday might well "wear off" after a few weeks, but I think a long period of time doing other things, rather than just being on holiday, does have a deeper, more long lasting impact. There is plenty of writing around about career breaks, and lots of that is about the mechanics and emotions of re-entry.  For me, so far at least, re-entry has been in three phases.

There's the denial phase.  This involved floating above the job rather than engaging with it and spending lots of time talking to people about what I'd been doing, usually in the guise of finding out what they had been doing in my absence. This phase lasted for a couple of weeks, at the end of which I probably annoyed people sufficiently with my penguin anecdotes for them to start to wish that I was about to go off and spend a bit more time with them.

The Joys of the Commute
The second phase is the resentment phase.  I’ve resented having to drop back into a routine. I’ve resented being told what to do.  I’ve resented not having time to act on the creative ideas bubbling up out of my travels.  And most of all I’ve resented the commuting time.  I had always recognised that I wasn't going to enjoy coming back to the regular drive between Oxford and Milton Keynes, but I'd rationalised that away by telling myself that when I came back it would be summer and there wouldn't be so much traffic around.  I had failed to recognised that although we'd moved to British Summer Time, the entire population hadn't committed to taking extended summer vacations, and that the commuter traffic in April and May is always heavy as most folks work through this time before taking summer holidays in July and August.  I fear that the resentment was pretty obvious to those around me both at work and at home.  At one level I was trying to pretend I was still away, and that there was the space to do the job (which I was now re-engaging with) and to do the more free-spirited stuff I'd been able to do before.  The attempt to do both of these on top of the inevitable tiredness induced by the commute was always going to turn into frustration and resentment.

Shetland - the nearest Wilderness?
And then there's the third phase, which is where I am now.  I hesitate to the use the label enlightenment, but as I’ve got past the resentment, I started to think about how to balance the demands of working life with the uplift of being out in the wilderness.  This step involves recognizing that there are parallel worlds around.  There’s a work world – of meetings, reports, busy-ness and commutes, and there’s a real world – of wilderness, photographs, peacefulness and being in the place.  Both universes exist and barring a big win on the lottery life will, for a few years yet, need to include some of each.  The trick, rather than trying to pretend that southern England is in some way satisfactory wilderness, for me is to find ways of swapping between the two realities.  Being able to ‘park’ the real routine and pick up the work routine is as important as being able to do the reverse.  The really difficult and possibly most frustrating option is trying to juggle the two worlds together, which is what I’ve probably been trying to do for the last few years.

The career break has given me both a long glimpse of the real universe, and the time and space to think about how to best to appreciate it.  When I’m in the office I will carry on thinking about the day job, but when I get out into the real world I expect to leave the office far behind.   My plan for the next few years is going to be about how I can balance (or re-balance) the time I spend in each of the realities.

UPDATE: 10 months after return. I have finally decided that it's time to look seriously at rebalancing so that there can be more real world and less office world.  At the start of January I resigned from my job at The Open University, and I'm due to finish there at the end of March.  Exactly 12 months after I got back from the Temporary Escape.  So in the spirit of the rest of this piece. Phase Four. Escape.

And I've added a Plan B post - my thoughts on what happens next.

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