I had my mid-life crisis during a sales meeting. Or more specifically, during one of those cliché icebreaker games in a room of a hundred real-estate agents, where we all stumbled around in designer knock-off pumps, wielding cheap logo-emblazoned ballpoint pens, sharing interesting tidbits about our lives in a mad race to fill up a bingo card so one of us could win a free lunch at some overpriced restaurant chain. “Tell me something interesting about you,” said a silver-haired man. “Quick. I’ve almost got bingo!”
The epiphany hit me with the force of 14 wasted years.
I was successful real estate agent at the top of my game, living in a six bedroom, two-story colonial on two acres in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. I had a home theater in my basement, a fireplace in my bedroom, two ovens in my granite kitchen, and enough square footage that I didn’t have to hear my children killing each other in X-Box games on the other side of the house. I had it all.
And I was miserable. Our whole family was miserable. In that moment, I couldn’t think of one interesting thing about my life.
“I’m writing a novel,” I said. I had no idea where the words came from — only that they came from some deep forgotten place. What I didn’t realize at the time was that not only had I just committed to writing that book, I had also committed to rewriting my family’s life. It was terrifying. And exhilarating. It was empowering! We were going to have a brand new story, and I was determined to make it better.
That summer, I took a sabbatical and moved our family to a grass hut in the jungle on the Riviera Maya where I wrote the first draft of a novel. When I reached the end, it felt more like a beginning. I never went back to real estate. My kids never went back to public school. We never went home, and I’ve never looked back. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Sign up here for TIME’s weekly roundup of the best parenting stories from anywhere.
1) Less really is more.
For years, I was buying stuff, and more stuff, and then better stuff because I thought it would make us all happy. The value of our stuff has become the measuring stick of our success. And the more stuff I accrued, the more space I needed for all that stuff. And the more space we had, the further apart our family grew.
We co-existed in a state of parallel play, each of us more attached to our cell phones and tablets and game systems than to each other. My husband and I slept in a California King bed because it filled the aesthetic space in a room so vast we never had to touch each other.
The grass hut we live in now is tiny and spare. We have small rooms and small beds. We live close and we cuddle more. We rid ourselves of things we don’t absolutely need (like the $500 designer mixer we whipped out when company came, or the glossy shelves in the living room containing hardback books with perfect spines that we never had time to read). And in doing so, we learned that the only things we truly need are each other.
2) It’s OK to be selfish.
For many years, I denied myself the time and space to discover my own self-fulfillment in the name of being a “good mom.” It’s drilled into us from an early age that parenting means sacrifice—giving up the person we once were for the sake of the adults we hope our children will later become.
But here’s the thing: I don’t want my children to give up on their dreams or set aside their happiness for others. Through my own choices, I was teaching my children that adulthood is soul-sucking, that parenthood is exhausting, and that growing up means putting everything you’re passionate about on hold. Now, I teach them through my own example that they are part of my dreams.
3) It isn’t a race.
Why are we all in such a hurry for our kids to grow up? So many of my friends are pushing their kids ahead, drowning them in extracurricular activities, and lobbying their principals to let them skip kindergarten because their darling daughters and sons are “advanced” and they want to improve their chances of getting into a good college. They’re buying smartphones for their fourth graders so they can keep up with Facebook and Instagram accounts they’re not old enough to have.
Are we only trying to give our kids a competitive edge at life? Or are we rushing them through it, expecting them to behave like adults, so we can sooner arrive in that empty nest where we might rediscover the youthful passions we set aside in the name of raising them?
4) You don’t have to follow the herd.
Don’t settle for a standardized education if you don’t want your kids to live a standardized life. When we left the U.S., we took our OCD/TS/ADD son off the medications we’d be using to keep him anchored in front of a textbook and in test prep eight hours a day. We enrolled the boys in a non-standardized school that embraces music, art and handcrafts, free play, and outside recess.
We took away the anxiety and pressure of surviving school and made learning joyful again. My oldest son doesn’t have anxiety attacks anymore. My youngest son isn’t singled out as a problem-child because he can’t sit all day and regurgitate a textbook. I have given back to my children the gift of their childhood. And I have given myself the gift of my life according my terms.
5) There’s a great big world out there.
We cling to the ideology that America is the only place to have a life. We live with the assumptions that our children will always stay where they are. We think that their world will never need to expand beyond the one or two weeks a year when they use vacation days to rush, rush, rush off someplace else where they can “relax,” only to rush home and start the clock ticking again so they can accrue enough leave to do it again next year.
When we moved to Mexico, I received letters from friends and family back home suggesting that it was all well and good to need a break, but everyone has to come back to reality at some point. After all, we can’t live in a grass hut forever. To this, I ask: Why not? Why is this life any less imaginable than one lived someplace else? There’s a great big world out there. And there’s plenty of time to live it—really live it.
Elle Cosimano grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, the daughter of a prison warden and an elementary school teacher who rides a Harley. She majored in psychology at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, and set aside a successful real-estate career to pursue writing. Nearly Gone and Nearly Found are her first novels.
Read next: Do This If You Hate Your Job
Listen to the most important stories of the day
- Florence Pugh Might Just Save the Movie Star From Extinction
- Why You Can't Remember That Taylor Swift Concert All Too Well
- What to Know About the History of the Debt Ceiling
- 10 Questions the Succession Finale Needs to Answer
- How Four Trans Teens Threw the Prom of Their Dreams
- Why Turkey’s Longtime Leader Is an Electoral Powerhouse
- The Ancient Roots of Psychotherapy
- Why Rich People Aren't Using Phone Cases