By Sharon Gartland

The Wheels Are Coming Off!

I once ran into a man at church who, along with his wife, has a demanding, full-time career. I asked how he and his family were doing and he replied, “The wheels are coming off!” Their childcare provider had abruptly quit and they were scrambling to cobble together solutions by begging friends, offering extravagant pay to temporary babysitters, and negotiating each day based on who had the most going on. The result was stress, marital tension, and a sense that the family caravan was going off the road.

Living life with jobs, family responsibilities, church volunteer roles, etc., can result in a life with very little margin. It works until somebody gets sick, the job requires unusual travel or extra hours away, childcare falls apart, or any other number of “wheels” come off their axles. It is the rare working woman who doesn’t ask herself at those times if this is worth it.

I recently had a small breakdown in front of a sympathetic colleague, expressing my sense of being overwhelmed and drowning in my life. She handed me some tissues, prayed for me (I love working in a Christian setting!) and generally made me feel that this too shall pass. Later we went to lunch and she gently asked how I was doing. It lead to a discussion of how to calibrate our lives so that we are appropriately busy and challenged according to God’s leading, but not so tightly orchestrated that there is no room or ability to handle the unexpected.

I see it as maturity that my husband and I have learned to put aside money in our budget for car repairs. It is essentially guaranteed that there will be some unexpected car expenses that will come up now and then. They no longer throw us off or catch us unawares because we’ve left some room in the budget to accommodate them.

I think our lives require the same kind of maturity and margin. Kids will get sick. Jobs will ebb and flow. There will be grant deadlines, beginning or end of semester demands, business cycles, etc. Volunteer tasks will suddenly take much more time than we were expecting to give. Life happens.

Creating a life with some room for the unexpected is key to keeping the wheels on. For me, that means recognizing that I must have a job with flexibility and an ability to say no to tempting but optional opportunities. Knowing that we do not have the help of family nearby means that we must nurture relationships in our community with people who can function as part of our safety net when we are hit by life’s surprises.

It is usually pretty obvious when a correction is needed or a rethinking about how I am “budgeting” my time as well as my emotional and spiritual reserves is necessary.

How do you make life work? How do you keep margins in your life? What are the times when life has caught you unawares and revealed a lack of margin? What does it do to your spiritual and emotional life when there are not enough reserves? We would love to hear from you.

Here’s to keeping the wheels on, but not being caught off guard when we get a flat tire every once in a while!

About the Author

Sharon Gartland, OTD, OTR, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Occupational Therapy Program at UW-Madison where her specialty is in developmental disabilities.  She enjoys the combination of teaching, administrative and clinical responsibilities that makes up her job. She is the former national director of Women in the Academy & Professions and continues to participate in the ministry as a volunteer and frequent contributor. She is married to Craig Gartland, a local church pastor and former long-term InterVarsity staff and leader. Together they have four children who are gradually getting launched into the world as functional adults but continue to store a lot of their stuff in the basement. She believes strong prayer practices and a supportive faith community are key to flourishing in career and family life. 

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