Margin – it’s wonderful. It is the space that you build into your life and schedule so that you can breathe easier and allow for the unexpected. It is something I lived without for far too long and now that I have it, I don’t want to go back to my old life. For me, living without margin meant hurtling along on a frenetic crazy train, leaving me feeling inadequate and harried.
For most of my adult life, I’ve pushed my limits in terms of taking on too much. In my 20’s, I was all at once a half-time college student, full-time employee, wife and mother of one child. That was all in addition to working a part-time job on and off throughout my 20’s. This made me a tired, stressed, overwhelmed mess. In my mind, the steady stream of activity at all times reassured me that I wasn’t a bum and that I was accomplishing something for myself and my family. I was overcompensating for prior failures in life and didn’t even realize it.
I landed my first teaching job about 2 months after graduation in 2004. My nearly 12-year-old dream of becoming a teacher had come true at last. Surely the craziness of work, school, repeat was going to end. What a fool I was. Along with my dream being realized came the reality that teaching was unlike any job I had ever had. The clerical, emotional and intellectual demands of the job really were intense. Even once I had figured out a quasi-controlled flow of planning and grading after the first several years, I still took on extracurricular jobs because we needed the money to pay down some significant debt. We also had to work at least part-time, sometimes full-time in the summer to cover the bills. My college loans, maternity leave debt, and a laundry list of dumb financial decisions loomed above our heads, demanding attention.
Twelve years and two more kids later, we were still paying off said debt and both going bananas with grading, planning, church commitments, running kids around and so on. That was until this past June. At long last, margin has come to roost in our home. This was intentional and well-planned, the result of the sobering reality that one of our kids was suddenly an adult and the other two were growing fast. At the end of the 2015-16 school year, unbeknownst to each other, my husband and I had been brooding about giving up our extracurricular activities in favor of more time as a family. He supervised Saturday Detention and I was an adviser for Community Service and One-Acts Theater, as well as providing supplemental help at Homework Club twice a week. Our rationale was that we needed to earn that extra money to pay off debts faster. However, part of the money ended up going to childcare while we worked extra and the rest made a relatively small dent in the bills that needed paying.
We had a conversation, agreeing that we would abandon everything in our work schedules except for the actual planning and teaching of our classes. This was a leap of faith because healthcare and pension costs are rising faster than our salaries and we worried about keeping up with our schedule of paying down debt. But prayerfully, we took the plunge. We consolidated some bills in favor of lower interest rates to help the process. The plan was that I would leave school directly at the end of the work day and go pick up the children, take them home and establish the routine to get homework done, dinner started, etc.
You’re going to have to use the word NO more often.
It’s been about six weeks of that schedule and I am floored by how much more joy and peace I am experiencing in my life. When I get to the kiddos’ school, my 5th grader has already collected her brother from his Kindergarten teacher and both are busy playing on the playground and chatting with friends. There’s about a five minute window between their school letting out and my arrival to pick them up. I have friends there in case the kids need help during that time. I then plop myself on a bench on the playground and drink in the sounds of children playing. I carefully watch my kiddos, willing the images of their swiftly moving childhood to embed themselves deep into my happiest place for keeping memories. The sunlight glinting off of my 10-year-old daughter’s red hair in the October sun took my breath away last week. She’s quickly becoming a young lady. My son scrambles around the playground equipment with the physical prowess of an Olympic gymnast. He’s amazing. I am so in love with these little gingers.
I carefully watch my kiddos, willing the images of their swiftly moving childhood to embed themselves deep into my happiest place for keeping memories.
After about 20 minutes of play, the kids have been able to get some energy out and are ready to go home. I fix them a snack, help with homework and putter around with fixing dinner or moving laundry from here to there. Sometimes I just sink info the sofa and zone out, grateful that I have a few minutes of open time to think and decompress a bit. It’s fantastic. I mean, it is Domestically Majestically Wonderful! My life is more full as a result of doing less.
Your margin may look different than ours. You may not be able to change your work commitments, but you may be able to work through lunch to leave early, bow out of social obligations or narrow the list of activities you allow your children to participate in.
Overall, what I’ve learned from this very positive change in my family are these 5 truths:
- MARGIN REQUIRES SACRIFICE – …and it may be uncomfortable. You’re going to have to use the word NO more often. No to people and expenditures. We are being very careful about finances, but by being home earlier to cook and not paying for an after school sitter, things are good so far. We will have to pay off some of our bills more slowly and be more selective about buying things, but no price can be placed upon the peace and sense of well-being that has settled over our household. The simple act of refusing to intentionally overburden our schedules is paying great dividends.
- MARGIN HELPS PRIORITIZE – Your children should not run your schedule. You should run theirs. Allow them to choose one or two activities they want to do and discuss as a family how they fit in. In your own schedule, is there anything you need to let go of because you are simply doing it out of obligation? What is expendable in your world? Do you really need to be on every school committee and attend every social gathering you are invited to? These truthful conversations in your home will help you find margin.
- MARGIN DEMANDS PURPOSE – You have to know what it is you hope to gain by letting go of something else. Are you looking for more time with loved ones? More time to pursue hobbies or creative activities? More time to exercise? More time to volunteer or serve others? For us, we were needing more time for bonding as a family and caring for our home. We wanted to stop letting work bleed into our weekends and evenings. We are purposing to build a strong family and make memories because we only get one chance at it.
- MARGIN PROMOTES SPONTANEITY – When you create margin in your life, kids can have playdates more easily. Date nights out with your honey may become more frequent. You can take walks after dinner, play board games and go visit family without the constraints of additional obligations getting in the way. If a friend needs a hand, you are more likely to be able to help in a pinch. This is not to say that our calendar is free and clear at all times, but it is not packed to the point of preventing anything unplanned from happening. Hurtling along at breakneck speed 7 days a week is not healthy for anyone.
- MARGIN PRODUCES PEACE – This is the “ahhhhh” factor – a sweet, relaxed feeling that isn’t possible when your schedule is jammed to the limit without any downtime. It is also the peace of having less pressure bearing down on you, meaning less pressure on your kids to “hurry up” and “get going”. I have a pretty sweet front porch. It’s enclosed and has screens so I can sit and enjoy the nice weather out there. I have sat on my front porch more in the past six weeks than I have in five years. Either with or without the kiddos and my husband, I can sit out there and enjoy the weather. Sitting on the glider, windows open, listening to birdsong and crickets is the perfect metaphor for what margin gives my heart and spirit.
Friends, I urge you to examine your schedule, your motives, your frustrations, your priorities and use what you learn to make decisions about how you will create margin. There is always wiggle room, but you have to be willing to make hard decisions, sacrifice some things and reorder your thinking. I pray that you are able to find change that promotes peace and fosters deeper relationships with the people that you love.