My husband was an architect, and then he wasn’t. I was supposed to become a famous journalist, but I didn’t. Our choice to live and sail on a sailboat with our two children for 10 years had us hopscotching and dancing around our careers during that chunk of time. We would earn money here and there by intermittently plugging back in to our respective careers, but we definitely didn’t follow traditional career paths. Could we, should we, have expected more of our two boys?

There is a country western song with the refrain, “Mama, don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys…” In our case, we replaced “cowboys” with “sailors” or “rock climbers” because that’s what our two fine sons aspired to be, and achieved.

We all have high hopes for our children and what they could/should/might do with their lives. Study well, do their best, achieve success, and thus we, parents, will be satisfied that we have done our best. But when we plugged our family back into a life on land after our 10 years of vagabonding across seas and continents from Europe to California, maybe it was too much to expect that our sons simply live and plan futures like “regular” citizens.

Our oldest son announced in his teens that he wanted to be a professional sailor. We said that was all well and good, but that he should consider Plan B, specifically, a college degree that he could plug in somewhere down the line should the need arise (surely it would). After all, his father and I had college degrees and professions other than being sailors that we were able to fall back upon when the need arose.

Our son gave it the old college try, literally. He dutifully enrolled at the local junior college, but he never really got off to a good start. There was always a crucial regatta the same day of a lecture or an exam, or an all-important yacht club function he had to attend, mingle, and cull his contacts. He is good at this—networking and self-promoting. Anything that had to do with sailing and could be counted as an important stepping-stone toward his advancement to his goal of sailing for a living always trumped anything else on his calendar. Consequently, school courses fell by the wayside and were soon forgotten altogether. Combined with his promising abilities as a bowman—the one who manipulates the spinnaker and all other sails on the bow, or front section of the boat—he learned other valuable boat related skills: sailmaking, boat rigging, boat repairs, and race management. Today, he has made a lucrative career as a professional bowman, and is one of a small elite group of international professional sailors, crisscrossing oceans in high stake regattas. He has amassed an impressive resumé of well-known sailing events under his belt (or harness in his case) including an America’s Cup regatta.

Photo captured by Tim Wright

Our second son floundered somewhat after high school, not sure of his next step, or what direction he wanted to take. He had a multitude of interests and aptitudes, and after lengthy sailing activities during high school, he became disenchanted with the sport. Drawn to the outdoors—a logical connection since he had lived his first eight years exclusively on our boat—camping, hiking, skiing, rock climbing, wilderness exploration…he wanted, did, (and still does) it all.

This same son also harbors a deep-rooted disdain for all things regimented and most especially rigid school environments (specifically a classroom with walls, desks, and few windows!) but he would rise to the challenge and was a good student if the subject interested him, and he could envision the ultimate outcome. When he finally alighted upon his niche as a paramedic/firefighter (ironically, a somewhat “regimented” profession, but feeds into his adrenaline-based needs), he pulled out all the stops, garnering top honors with a degree in kinesiology, followed by paramedic school. Above all, he seeks freedom to pursue his dreams and activities, and such a profession affords him the time to indulge in his passion: rock climbing.

My husband and I veered from what our parents thought we should do. We also needed to remember that during the first 10 years of their lives, our sons didn’t see us working as professionals outside the home. They didn’t see their father as an architect, nor me as a journalist. They only saw us two as sailors, day in and day out.

Our children didn’t follow a traditional straight line, and they still don’t. In their current lives as fathers, they eschew much of cultural dogma, and stand their ground with definite ideas and principles. We didn’t trace a straight line for them, so we couldn’t expect them to follow one. Yes, it is hard to leave them be when they face the adult world threshold after high school. One has to let go, take a leap of faith, trust that you have done your best, and hope they figure it out successfully their own.

In this age of “millennials” surrounded by pervasive pop culture banter, tech job ingenuity, innovative resumés, and pastimes that differ greatly from what we—their parents—knew, or even what was accepted as proper form or procedure, the idea that there is a generally accepted right way to pursue a lifetime goal, isn’t valid anymore. Lifetime jobs with pensions have fallen by the wayside, and we don’t even know what jobs will materialize in the next five or 10 years.

We have to trust that we give our children the tools and know-how to craft their lives successfully, hoping that the jumble in their adolescent and young adult brains will sort itself out. The old adage “follow your heart, do what makes you happy, and good things will happen,” isn’t always easy or true, but it worked for our boys thanks to their determination and our “laissez-faire.” It was time to let them go.