I didn’t take a year off between school and university. Or during university. Or between university and full-time, grown-up employment. It’s one of my biggest regrets — because I’ll never be able to go back to that no-responsibilities, whole-life-ahead-of-me time. Backpacking around Australia is a little different when you have two kids to support and a mortgage to pay, I imagine.
My regret is not that I wanted to do it and didn’t — it’s that I didn’t want to do it enough. The closest I got to a gap year was at 19 when, encouraged by a friend, I started the application process to work at Camp America for three months between university terms. I started, but I didn’t finish. I’m cringing as I type this, but the reason I didn’t go was… a boy. That boy I was so reluctant to leave was long gone before the ink dried on my degree certificate. (He’s now living in Australia, the irony of which is not lost on me.)
With the news that Malia Obama has chosen to follow in her famous father’s footsteps and attend Harvard University has come the news that the president and first lady are giving their daughter the chance to put off college in favor of a gap year.
Not surprisingly, their parenting decision is taking some heat this week, with some internet comments alluding to Malia as being spoiled and the decision as being one that will hurt her in the long run. But if there’s one thing my own regrets have taught me, it’s that I want my children to see a bit of the world before they feel the weight of it on their shoulders.
As someone who has worrying about my kids down to a fine art, I’m aware of how much of a wrench it would be to wave them and their rucksacks and eager, expectant faces off at the departure gate. (I say them, because in my dreams, they go together, hand in hand and remaining attached at the hip until they return home — humor me, please.)
If someone had given me the push to go, maybe I would have left the boy behind and had the best three months of my life. Maybe it would just have been OK. Maybe I would have been homesick. Whatever my experience was, I would still have done it. There would be no wondering, what if…?
Months of anxiety attacks and sleepless nights aside, I want my kids to have a year of complete fun and freedom, of amazing adventures, before they have to be grown-ups. Not because I think traveling the world necessarily teaches you anything about life and people and yourself that you can’t figure out at home, but because it’s the only time in your life you can travel in such a carefree way. Once a job and bills and babies come along, “carefree” is kind of off the page, especially when it comes to traveling.
Of course, my kids might not want to take a gap year, and that will be absolutely fine with me. One of the most valuable gifts you can give your children is the freedom to make their own decisions. But if they are toying with the idea, I’ll definitely encourage them to take the plunge. The world is a scary place, and it’s always the horror stories of gap year students abroad that make the news. But you can’t live your life in fear when you could be making some of your best memories. And you can’t put that fear onto your kids either.
For me, my exploring-the-world days will have to wait until I don’t have little people relying on me for pretty much everything and a bank balance that will let me fulfill that dream.
I hope that day will come. I’ll just be a little older and possibly slightly wiser than I was when I missed my chance first time around. Hey, perhaps I could tag along with my children? Now there’s a thought…