After practicing medicine for decades, Richard Swenson, M.D., says that the common denominator and cause for pain in today’s culture is overload. In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives he talks about the pain caused by overload and how margin is the cure. He defines margin as power minus load. In this equation here is how he defines them on pg 70:
Power is made up of factors such as energy, skills, time, training, emotional and physical strength, faith, finances, and social supports.
Load is made up of such factors as work, problems, obligations and commitments, expectations (internal and external), debt, deadlines, and interpersonal conflicts.
This made so many things about motherhood suddenly make sense to me. Both about why we are so overloaded and overwhelmed as young mothers, and why our capacity seems to grow with each additional child or other type of challenge/life change.
When you have a baby, you suddenly have a huge time and emotional commitment that wasn’t part of your life before that. And as we learned about willpower, making decisions drains your energy throughout the day, but regular habits conserve it and cause you to use it up more slowly. Being a new mom involves a lot of decisions that are hard to make and hard to be confident in, and sometimes we don’t fully know what to expect or how much space we need to free up in our lives. But as we gain experience as a mom with babies and at each age of childhood, we learn the necessary skills, establish routines and find our rhythm. I like to joke that once I knew what I was doing with one child, I had a second and didn’t anymore, and then once I was capable with two children, then I had a third and had to figure it out again. I adjusted to three, and then I had a fourth, and it threw life off again and that’s where I am now.
As moms we feel our capacity grow with each kid we add to the family, and I would also say with each new skill we acquire. Concepts like margin and willpower give us a way to really talk about these experiences that we’ve all had. When load is greater than power, we experience overload. When power is greater than load we have margin in our lives. He provides a long list of the manifestations of overload: activity overload, change overload, choice overload, commitment overload, debt overload, decision overload, expectation overload, fatigue overload, hurry overload, information overload, media overload, noise overload, people overload, possession overload, technology overload, traffic overload, and work overload. He suggests that while overload is currently widespread and has a huge cost, the phemonemon and its affects are fairly new conceptually and are not widely understood.
He focuses most of the book on four areas in which we can and should strive to reintroduce margin in our lives: emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances. These chapters are so concise, practical and easy to read and refer back to that I will be keeping this book on my shelf for reference. This book was providentially the perfect book for me to read while struggling with a bit of mommy depression now that my fourth and final baby is about 9 months old, and I highly recommend this book for everyone, but especially for any mom that feels particularly discouraged, overwhelmed or even a bit depressed.
My biggest two takeaways from this book were the concept of power and load mentioned above, and the concept of emotional energy and maintaining margin in that area. I want to talk about the second now, and come back to the first (power and load) in another post.
I’ve found in recent weeks the single most effective strategy for me in resisting depression has been authentic relationships – pursuing, engaging and accepting them. He mentioned several other recommended activities in the section about gaining margin in emotional energy. I’m going to try all of them except for the one about getting a pet (I’m not kidding, pg 87; relationships are hard today, maybe that’s why we as a culture have so many pets), I’m going to try: cultivating social supports, serving or helping others, resting, laughing, crying (he said 6-7 min is a normal healthy form of emotional purging), creating appropriate boundaries, envisioning a positive future, practicing gratitude, granting others grace, and holding to faith, hope and love. Isn’t that a great list! I really love this book. At some point I’m going to come back and work through his recommend activities for gaining margin in physical energy, time and finances.
I have to admit that this is a far cry from my typical to-do list. As an administrator/teacher motivational type, I love setting and accomplishing goals, doing research, learning new things, and generally getting things done. It can be hard to sit still, and to prioritize relationships. But learning about margin gives me permission to do less, to prioritize differently, to make time for meaningful relationships and value them differently than in the past, and to rest, and to plan some space into life.
What are your thoughts about margin?