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In Praise of Leaves (of absence that is…)

Okay, so I kid you not, this was literally my first thought this morning as I lurched my tired body out of bed: “thank goodness for coffee!” Not “thank you” as all the countless books on gratitude have taught me…or even basic stuff like “what time is it?” None of that seemed relevant to my immediate needs. It was all about the coffee. I’ve developed quite a love affair with the stuff. Seriously. How sad, right?

But then I remembered the conversation I recently facilitated with a group of women about the myths and realities of why women “opt-out” of the workplace and I didn’t feel so alone any more. I’d like to also say I didn’t feel as pathetic, but as I sat there on the seat of our toilet madly scribbling my thoughts, that particular sentiment seemed somehow fitting. Given what I’ve heard, however, I am most definitely not alone in my current state of exhaustion, never-ending to do list, and bungled ball-juggling. That realization gave me great solace and hope – or at the very least mitigated some of the shame I felt as my husband came in to brush his teeth and found me writing (again) in the bathroom. Last week my perch of choice was the edge of the tub, so a bonafide seat seemed like progress to me. Either way, as I sat there this particular morning, I knew that somewhere in the great state of Maine – and certainly in the country – another woman was scribbling her notes on a toilet seat. I have to believe that.

So what does this early-morning bathroom writing blitz of mine have to do with the workplace notion of “opting out”? Everything. Because like me, people are craving some solitude to sort things out and be with their thoughts. This was validated most recently when this group of women I was working with shared their own stories or fantasties of “opting out” and in doing so, revealed quite an impressive list of things they were currently mulling over. The conversation quickly digressed from the exploration of why more and more women are disappearing from the corporate leadership ranks, contributing to the “leaky pipeline” that has fascinated me for so long, and morphed into a new, more compelling theme. We were clearly touching upon a deep and profound longing to have the time and space to reflect. And here is the interesting part: it wasn’t the topic or even the product of the reflection that was important, as it was the ACT of reflecting. It was as if the wisdom of our group was making a case for the power of “allowing” and letting things emerge – which, we noted, flies in the face of a culture that values and rewards production, speed, and control.

Here’s what excited me most from our conversation: our stories seemed to be suggesting the real gems and richness in life lie not within our answers to whatever the questions are, but rather within the questions themselves. We exchanged countless examples of what emerged, materialized, and crystallized for us during our various leaves – maternity and otherwise. For those of us with children, we weren’t necessarily pining for the time back with our newborns, as much as we were that unbelievably decadent time and space to “do nothing”. Ironically, the physical labor of birthing, healing, nursing, and adapting to a new life seemed to provide the container for our minds to disengage and take a hiatus from the analytical gymnastics we had been accustomed – or in some cases, addicted – to. We reflected on what that “time out of time” gave us and wished more people could experience a leave for themselves. We talked about the merits and appeal of paid sabbaticals and leaves of absence and how that could positively impact the health, growth, and profitability of companies and ultimately, the world. We talked about how tired we were and how much we longed to have that experience again.

So where am I going with all this? A lightbulb went off for me during this conversation that radically shifted my thoughts on this topic of “opting out”. What if this topic being discussed by and for women in the workplace today wasn’t really about women at all? What if women were doing the work for our society as a whole by bringing this conversation to bear? What if we all could have the gift of “opting out” every now and then – without needing a justification or socially-sanctioned reason? Imagine what the world would be like then…

What a radical thought! Think about it. What if more people were invited – nay, encouraged! – to retreat and go inward for reflection, renewal, and inspiration? Imagine the ideas that would emerge. Imagine the impact on our health as a culture – less heart disease, depression and acts of violence. Seriously. If that’s not enough “cost justification” consider the improved focus, renewed commitment and fresh ideas that would be brought back into organizations after a “time out”. If we could get over the tangles and trip-ups of setting a precedent, measuring returns, and otherwise administering such events, I would wage a bet we would see a myriad of benefits appearing on the top AND bottomline of organizational balance sheets as a result of this practice. Not only would we have happier and healthier people working with and for us, we would start to experience a whole new caliber and class of ideas and productivity levels. I imagine the “shoulds” would start to fall away and new and creative pathways would open. As people emerge refreshed and inspired, I could see unprecedented levels of excitement, commitment, and ownership being reported.

There are so many examples – a client of mine, the tired Executive Director out on maternity leave who comes back inspired and invigorated, ready to take her non-profit organization to the next level; another client who finds his job eliminated and consequently stumbles upon a more meaningful and rewarding way of “working” for pay; my own habit of going away every birthday to just sit and think about the past year and the year to come; the story of Bill Gates who goes off on an annual “reading retreat” to think and be with his thoughts. The thread that runs through all of these examples is the same: the space for serendipity, Divine intervention (yes, I said Divine), and emergent thoughts to take center stage, while the ego, fear, and cluttered thoughts take a hike.


Sounds great, right? Taking a leave – unpaid or otherwise – as an employee or granting one as an employer is a BOLD act, make no bones about it. But it’s not new. However, it seems, there is a proverbial fly in the ointment: this option is currently limited to those who can afford it financially – because of paid benefits, workplace flexibility and/or the financial means to sustain themselves during a leave. Sadly, it appears that the leave-taking option requires either having a child, getting sick or becoming part of the economic elite – not necessarily practical or plausible options for most of us.

So it appears I have more questions than answers (what else is new?) What I am certain of, however, is that this collective longing I’m witnessing – in myself, in others, and indeed in organizations – is a force to be reckoned with; one that will ultimately break through the antiquated notions we have governing our organizations and workplaces. Until then, I will heed the advice of the wise Rainer Marie Rilke:

“I beg you…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

1 comment to " In Praise of Leaves (of absence that is…) "

  • I’ve been working my way backwards through your posts over the past few days. I have been thinking about your “fallow” post from last week, and this one seems related in some ways. I have noticed in myself the longing and need for time away – fairly often, actually. It is difficult to make enough time for myself, and I usually feel guilty about asking for it. But having the time away to think, process, read, write, or just sit in nature, has been crucial for me to be able to deal with my emotions and thoughts. I am grateful I am aware of my need for times of doing nothing. It seems to me that many women I know (men, too) are frankly out of touch with this important part of life. A little over a year ago I started leading hikes for women for the local parks department. They were low-key trips, and one of my main objectives was to give women at least an hour to sit and be quiet. They could meditate, write, even nap, but they had to be apart from others and not talk. It was always a powerful time of the trip, and I had many participants remark that they couldn’t even remember the last time they sat and “did nothing.” They were always more relaxed and centered after this part of the day. It was very rewarding for me as a leader to be able to facilitate this for them. I wish I could do that more, for me and for others. Thank you for your validation and articulation of what I have felt!