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The Need for More Margin in Families with Gifted Children

The Need for Margin in Families with Gifted Children 2

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Many years ago David and I read the books Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives and The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live Within Your Limits by Richard A. Swenson, M.D. Both impacted us in profound ways.

David and I took steps to reduce our overload and increase our margin. We did a pretty good job for the most part.

Then we became parents of a high-need baby and margin went out the door. Overload became the norm for quite some time.

Frankly, we’ve been trying to adjust ever since.

What is Margin?

If you aren’t familiar with Margin, Swenson defines it as this:

Margin is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. It is the leeway we once had between ourselves and our limits.

I’ve lived with margin and I’ve lived without margin. The difference cannot be overstated.

The Real Needs with Gifted Children

Gifted children take more time, more energy and more work. They simply do. Whether they are spirited, highly-sensitive, right-brained or “only” gifted, they simply require more of their parents. More mentally, more physically, more spiritually, more emotionally.

I remember reading an online article about spirited children and one of the experts in the article said something to the effect of forget about the mother of these children having any kind of a life other than keeping up with these kids. They are just too demanding and draining.

I felt both relieved and disheartened.

One thing that has become crystal clear to me over the past few years and especially the past few months is that parents of gifted children have to be even more diligent about maintaining margin in the family life. The parents need it. The children need it. What might be “normal” for the average family in terms of outside commitments could be disastrous for a family with a gifted child.

Hitting the Wall

We hit the wall a few weeks ago. All three of us are worn out. I mean really worn out. As in all three of us need a year-long sabbatical. Caroline just turned eight and we’ve never had a family vacation. Believe me, I’m not saying that as some point of pride. I’m saying it as a matter of fact that people who invest their energy into high-need children and chronic illness often simply don’t have the opportunity to take vacations.

Last week the three of us made the decision we are going to ditch everything we possibly can in an effort to add some margin to our lives. EV.ER.Y.THING. Homeschool co-op, Sunday School, most church, everything. We’re not even involved in that much since all three of us are naturally homebodies, but trying to juggle the few activities we had along with so many appointments for me and now Caroline was simply too much.

I knew Caroline had reached her max when instead of wanting to go to the mall (with the carousel! and Auntie Anne’s!) to use the Build a Bear gift card she received for her birthday, she wanted to order it online.

She, too, is desperate to be home and have downtime.

She, too, is desperate for margin.

Obviously David and I can’t quit work, but other than that everything is on the table, including church. I’m sure that some people reading this will be shocked, but church is one of the most stressful things we do all week (for reasons I discuss in another post).

So how do we as parents of gifted children try to bring some margin back into our lives?

Recognize That Your Spouse and Children are Your First Ministry

Becoming friends with different Catholic bloggers over the years, I’ve become familiar with the idea of the domestic church. I’m not Catholic, but here is an explanation I thought was helpful:

The Council restored the ancient concept of “domestic church” as it declared: “In what might be regarded as the domestic church, the parents are to be the first preachers of the faith for their children by word and example” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, #11).

The early Church began in house churches, where families were the heart of the communities and from which ministers were first called to use their personal gifts to serve the needs of the larger community. The family is the most intimate experience of Church, the place where love, forgiveness and trust should first be encountered. This is the family Church, whose members are called to embody Christ in everyday life.

My first ministry is to my family. The most important person I will ever disciple is Caroline. It is nearly impossible for me to intentionally invest in her spiritual life when my own well is running dry from lack of margin. There is no calling for my spiritual gifts outside of my home that is more important than my own husband and child.

Let Go of Unreasonable Expectations – For Your Family

No one can do it all. We all think we know that, but it is easy to overlook the reality of it in our individual families. Everything seems important. We want to be able to do what other families do.

But you know what? We can’t.

Other families aren’t making every single meal and snack from scratch because their son has significant food issues.

Other families aren’t dealing with a child with significant sensory issues that overwhelm her every day.

Other families aren’t in and out of medical appointments multiple days each week.

Other families aren’t constantly researching how to best meet the needs of their off-the-chart child when it comes to his academics.

When you have a child who is wired differently, you have to absolutely adjust your expectations. Normal for your family is what works and allows healthy margin. What anyone else does is completely irrelevant.

Bringing Margin to Our Families

Making sure our families have enough margin is important. We need to do what we can for the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional well-being of our families even when it involves making hard decisions. The need for more margin is real.

I believe that if we ask God for guidance in these areas, He will help us and so we should ask Him to open our eyes to ways to bring rest and peace to our families. He desires to care for us and our children and we can trust our lives to Him.

The Need for Margin in Families with Gifted Children


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  • Thank you for this. Our family is managing giftedness, overexcitabilities, ADHD, sensory processing issues, chronic illness, joblessness and (recently) a terminal illness in our extended family. Yeah, we’re in over our heads right now.

    My husband and I want to be able to expand outward, adding church and volunteer work and more activities for the boys back into our lives; but we are in survival mode. I can’t help but feel a measure of guilt that I cannot give my boys all they deserve, but I have to remember that for centuries and in many places around the world even today, children have thrived without organized sports or enrichment classes or trips to the museum. So, we focus on building connectedness and the self-regulatory skills they will need in order to be able to successfully negotiate this life.

    Sometimes, hearing that others have similar struggles helps me take a breath. You have also helped me consider whether everyone here has enough margin. My sons have too much and I need to consider how to put more structure and activity into their days without taking away from the margin my husband and I desperately need. These are challenging days.

    It is freeing to remember that our family is our first place of ministry. There is no guilt in placing our family first right now.

  • Karin,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. You and your family are dealing with a great deal right now.

    David and I have talked a number of times about how through the centuries children spent much time at home, doing home things, learning from their parents and close community. That was normal. While some families full of extraverts might thrive on busyness away from home, it’s poison to families of introverts and/or homebodies.

    I hope you are able to find the margin and space you and your family need. My best wishes to you and I sincerely mean that.

  • It took me so much longer to realize I didn’t need to do it all. Even though my kids are in junior high and high school now, it stresses us all out if we have to go too many places. I hate that so many outside meetings are right when we normally eat dinner..so I am choosing not to go and letting organizers know why.
    I really enjoy your blog…but I don’t want to sign up for one more thing to clutter my inbox and I can’t make the big pink box with”join us” go away!!

  • Hi Sallie,
    I discovered your blog a few months ago and have found it quite helpful. I am a homeschool mom to five kids- 20, 18, 16, 11, and 8. Most of us are introverts. I started out homeschooling with the classical method many years ago, and it worked well for my middle two girls. We figured out at 16 that my oldest boy has ADHD and auditory processing problems. Classical didn’t work for him. I kind of muddled my way through the next couple of years with him trying all sorts of things. Eventually, he did an electrical apprenticeship his senior year. Now, he is at a four year university doing very well. He was academically a very late bloomer. Four years later, three other kids also have attention and auditory problems. Two of them have compensated and done well with the classical method. However, my youngest, Caroline, is stumping me. She is highly right brained, creative, spirited, highly sensitive and supposedly has dyslexia. I literally had to take the last two months off of school to get her to even enjoy being read to or reading. I hit a major wall myself about two years ago and recently a couple months ago. It never occurred to me to consider margin. I expect to look like all the other moms who do all this stuff with their kids, but I can’t have more than one outing a day and need a short nap in the middle of the day. I didn’t realize that preparing my two olders for college and dealing with all the special needs in my family is quite enough. I feel very encouraged to hear there are others who desperately need to maintain margin, and I can attest to the fact that if a sensitive, introverted mother doesn’t, eventually it can cause physical symptoms as well as significant anxiety. I have read the two books by Swensen as well as the one about raising a highly sensitive child and continue to remind myself each day of what is wise to take on outside the home. My husband is similar to me, maybe not as much so, but I am thankful he not only understands but has for years been telling me I do too much. The pressure to do, unfortunately, is tremendous. Anyway, thank you for blogging, and I hope to learn more about raising Caroline as you seem to be one step ahead of me:)
    In Christ,

  • This is so encouraging. My oldest daughter struggles with sensory issues, insomnia and anxiety. My youngest was recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I watch my friends go to church several times a week, co-op, lessons, practices, scout troop meetings etc., and I feel like I am short changing my kids by not giving them those opportunities. But you are right, when we add more to our plate, the situation gets overwhelming very quickly. I have lost more than one night of sleep worrying about the things my kids are missing out on. I am thankful to read this article and be reminded that I am not the only one who simply must maintain more margin.

  • Sallie, I could jump through the screen and hug your neck. I was just saying to Charlie how sad it makes me that we are running to therapies and medical appointments while others are running to sports and ballet. 🙁 But you know, our family is different and that’s OK! Thank you for articulating this so well. It is spot on for our family too. We do go to church but Sun AM is it. We have cut the rest out: Sunday PM, Wed PM, camps, etc. We just can’t do it right now and it was way too stressful anyway. As you said, another post for another day.

  • Thank you for reminding me I am not alone. Sometimes being a different family is so lonely. I have to remember, too, that my daughter is happy. She is so inquisitive and creative and deeply loves her friends. Right now, though, honestly, I am wondering how I will have the strength to start back up with school. Somehow…I must find refreshment! Another factor you could add that can make a family different: being a small business owner. My husband owns his own business, and that definitely changes/increases our need for margin!

  • This is an excellent article. We have an unusually large family and in order to maintain sanity I have to say no to a lot of things. It’s almost like the “rules” that are generally accepted cannot apply to us, and we make our own up for everything we do or we simply can’t do it. I like the word margin far better than “staying sane” and to hear that other families have the same need for margin that we do even under different circumstances is super encouraging. Since I don’t live someone else’s life and everything seems sanitized and photoshopped I don’t have a reference point for what margin can look like. This is a good conversation. Thank you

  • Thank you for your thoughts and bringing this up because it’s an important topic we don’t discuss much in our American, busy-happy society. I agree with almost everything said here, except I’d like to voice the suggestion that church and observing a Sabbath can be a margin-building experience. I know it is for me. Without it I’d be much worse off. Perhaps it depends on the church and the situation, etc. It helps my three children as well, and they are each atypical children: two with ADHD and one with OCPD.


Sallie-Schaaf-Borrink-060313-B-250x250I'm Sallie, teacher by training and now homeschooling mom of Caroline. My passion is to provide products, encouragement, and information that helps others discover and do what works with their children. I also write about living a cozy life as a highly introverted person. Welcome! ♥

My Gift to You!

“We who live in quiet places have the opportunity to become acquainted with ourselves, to think our own thoughts and live our own lives in a way that is not possible for those keeping up with the crowd.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder

“After Laura and Mary had washed and wiped the dishes, swept the floor, made their bed, and dusted, they settled down with their books. But the house was so cozy and pretty that Laura kept looking up at it.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder
On the Banks of Plum Creek

“They were cosy and comfortable in their little house made of logs, with the snow drifted around it and the wind crying because it could not get in by the fire.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little House in the Big Woods


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