Perhaps the greatest problem in parenting is the breathless pace at which we live our lives. I love the story of the first grader who wondered why her father brought home a briefcase full of work every evening. Her mother explained, “Daddy has so much to do that he can’t finish it all at the office.” “Well then,” asked the child innocently, “why don’t they put him in a slower group?” As the pace of life gets more and more unhealthy, perhaps it is time to join the “slower group.”
There are no easy answers to the problem stress poses to our lives, just difficult decisions. Are you experiencing what some like to call the overload syndrome? It’s what Richard Swenson calls “margin.”1 Margin is the space that once existed between our load and our limits. Margin is the space between vitality and exhaustion. It is our breathing room, our reserves, our leeway. Unfortunately, few families have much room for margin in our overcommitted, crisis-mode lives. As a friend of mine says, “We work hard, we play hard, we crash hard.”
You probably already know if the overload syndrome is plaguing your life and your family, but just in case, answer these questions:
1. Have you stopped enjoying life because you are too busy?
2. Have you stopped developing new friendships?
3. Are you exhausted most of the time?
4. Do you and your spouse have a regular date night?
5. Does your family have an enjoyable dinner together on a regular basis?
6. Do you get enough hours of sleep?
7. Do you take a restful day off?
8. Do you have regular proactive family times together?
9. Do you have credit problems or a large debt load?
10. Are your children showing signs of stress?
If you struggle with many of these questions, then you are among the majority of families who are living in crisis mode. Let me be blunt: You are flirting with disaster. That disaster is either yours, your spouse’s, or your children’s. Crisis-mode living paralyzes families.
Crisis-mode living is when you spend every waking moment of almost every day trying to figure out how to keep all your plates spinning in the air. In crisis mode you keep running faster and faster, from project to project, deadline to deadline, quota to quota, meeting to meeting, folding laundry to carpool to… you get the picture. Your life’s rpm is in the red, and you believe you have no other option but to keep on running, faster and faster. If you stop, you fear the plates will crash. And frankly, some of the plates will crash if you stop; but if you don’t stop soon, the results may be much worse on the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of you and your family. Healthy families have figured out how to live with balance and margin.
Crisis-mode living is dangerous to the health of your family! Here’s what happens when we live in crisis mode for too long. We begin to skim relationally. If you are married, your bond with your spouse that was once strong and intimate becomes weak and distant. Virtually all our relationships are damaged by hurry. Many families are relationally starved because of over-commitment and fatigue. Frankly, sometimes our children lie wounded, run over by high-speed intentions. Our children have watched more videos than is healthy simply because we don’t have the strength. When we skim relationally, friendships slip away. We quit support groups and miss our family outings. We find our relationships fading. Friendships that were deep and meaningful are now characterized as shallow. Casual relationships hardly even exist. Pretty soon no one has access to our souls.
Crisis-mode even causes us to skim spiritually. What was once a burning desire to serve God has become relegated to a few prayers and a dull faith–the kind of faith we said that we would never have. In Eugene Peterson’s beautiful translation of the Bible, he paraphrases the apostle Paul talking about people like you and me. “They were so absorbed in their ‘God projects’ that they didn’t notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. And so they stumbled into him and went sprawling.” (Romans 9:32 MSG)
Crisis-mode living also causes us to skim emotionally. When we are too busy, we tend to ignore the emotional side of our lives. You may find your anger flares up more than it used to, and you don’t take the time to figure out why. Our patience with our children wears thin. When we are in crisis mode, we quit paying attention to feelings like hurt, sadness, or guilt. We become mechanical soldiers marching through our days just maintaining, doing what’s necessary, and stuffing our feelings deeper and deeper inside our lives. We are emotionally depleted, but we keep on pushing. The results aren’t pretty!
I have a sign in my office that simply reads, “If the devil can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy.” Most families are so busy doing good things that they miss doing what is most important. We seldom take the time to deal with our life issues and problems; instead we just keep on pushing, hoping that our marriage will get better or that the subtle negative signs we are seeing in our kids will disappear by osmosis. Well, they don’t. A healthy family builds margin into their lives and deals with the problems and issues in front of them before they become catastrophes. For too many years, I have heard myself say to my wife Cathy, “As soon as we get past this season in our lives, then it will slow down.” But seasons turn into years, and the crisis mode often continues, wreaking more and more havoc in our families.
How does a family overcome the disease of the overload syndrome? Healthy homes have less stress and more margin. Achieving this takes work, and the work starts with making difficult decisions. What kind of decisions? Here are a few to get you thinking:
1. Deciding what will be your top priority: family or business/career?
2. Deciding on which commitments and activities to cut back in effort to regain margin in your life.
3. Deciding whether or not to pursue solitude and time with God to refresh our souls.
4. Deciding on which commitments and activities to cut back in your children’s lives in order to protect them from overload.
Healthy families are made, not born. Removing stress from your family and building margin begins with choices. The sacrifices are real, but the payoff relationally, emotionally, and spiritually both to you and your children are well worth it.
1 Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves To Overloaded Lives by Richard A. Swenson, M.D.