It’s early on a Tuesday morning. My children are awake which means it’s time for me to clock in. But today, I’m trying something new.
I set my children up at the table with a box of cereal, a peeled banana, and a small pitcher of milk. I pull my bed head hair into a messy bun and roll out my yoga mat within eye sight of the breakfast table. I pull up youtube on our TV and search “60 minute Pilates.” Nope, back space, too ambitious, “30 minute Pilates.” Then with my children bantering in the background, I begin my workout.
I’ve been thinking about the word “margin” a lot lately. It comes up in my writing circles, how we “write in the margins.” In fact, I use it in my bio as a self described “writer in the in between.” But the idea of “margin” isn’t reserved just for writers. We use it for all women seeking balance in their life. It is offered as a problem solving tool, a morsel of hope, a reminder that there is room in your life for all the things that matter. Don’t give up on your dreams. Use up all the paper, there is still more space.
But there is an unintended message being spread. This word “margin” infers that the body of our work—the mothering, the chores, the full time responsibilities—that belongs in the center of our paper. That’s the meat of our story. That’s the part others read so that’s the part that matters. But that blank space on either side? The one just wide enough for small edits or after thoughts? That’s where you place your “me time.” That’s where you take care of yourself—the exercise, the creative pursuit, the fun hobbies. Quick, squish it in. No one will see it anyway, so it’s okay if it is sloppy.
Except the body of our work is growing. The responsibility word count is ever expanding, particularly for women shouldering a majority of the burden asked of us in the age of a pandemic. It is making those margins smaller and smaller. Thus, we must make ourselves and what matters to our souls smaller and smaller still, until we can barely see the margin, or ourselves, at all.
There are solutions. I see them as I scroll social media. Get up earlier, stay up later, take advantage of quiet time, ask for help, hire help, prioritize, let things go.
Let’s be honest, though. Every one of these “helpful” pieces of advice isn’t changing the fact that the margins still exist. And they are not working. I myself have tried every one, and still I scroll looking for answers.
Until one day I saw something new. Advice offered not as a shout but a whisper, as if it was a secret none of us had thought of:
Maybe don’t put yourself in the margins.
The speaker was a fitness coach, a mother, a business owner, just like all the others. But her message was different:
Don’t try to fit the care of your body in the cracks of life. Put it in the middle of your work. Put it in the middle of your messy house and loud children and never ending work emails.
It’s not just saying that exercise is a priority and you should treat it as such but rather YOU are a priority and you should treat YOURSELF as such.
This was not a “hire a babysitter or coordinate your schedule with your spouse.” This was not “quit those other distractions and make exercise come first.” This wasn’t even “throw the kids in a stroller and go for a run,” which is something I do often and highly suggest.
This was a proposition reminding us to stop shoving the care of our bodies to the after thoughts of our day, and instead put them smack in the messy middle.
I know what you are thinking because I thought it too. That is impossible. My children would never let me do that. So I decided I better try it first, because that’s just good journalism.
And this is how we got here today, with me pressing play on a workout in the middle of the mess, children fully awake and present. I’m skeptical how this might go but I continue anyway.
The instructor begins by leading us in a stretch.”Roll your head from one side to the other,” she says. “Create some space around your neck and your ears.” I follow along enjoying the feeling in this deep stretch, until I roll my head down to the floor and spot the remainders of 13 uncapped markers (just waiting for a two year old to get his hands on), a smattering of tiny legos (again, awaiting the toddler and his mouth), and a collection of various pieces of clothing (why underwear?). For a second I think to pause the video and do a quick pick up but then the instructor’s words pull me back to the present. “All I ask is you take up some space. Allow yourself this.” I shove the mess with my bare feet, make literal space around me, and refocus on my stretch.
“Take one last big inhale and let everything…”
“GO!” I hear shrieks from across the room and see three children racing around the dining room table. It’s playful now but I hold my breath wondering who will crash first.
“WATCH THE CORNERS!” I shout in my exhale toward ears that I know don’t hear me.
“Exhale low and deep,” she calls me back from the chaos to the mat. “Release every tension you hold.”
Can she see me? I do as I wish the children would and I obey, shaking my shoulders a little bit for effect.
“Now it’s time to step into this workout.”
As I step my feet wide for a low squat, a hear what I anticipated.
CRASH! Fitful tears and a “MOMMY!” follows next. The two year old comes running towards me for a hug. Somehow I manage to pick him up and carry on with the routine.
“Start to notice a little friction, a little disruption. Maybe that’s what you need today, cause a little disruption in your body.”
Eventually the little “disruption” clinging to my body spots his abandoned cereal bowl on the table and wiggles out of my arms. But despite my reclaimed freedom, I don’t get a chance to breathe because the instructor has us transitioning into burpees. I side-eye her decision.
I only complete one jump when I’m interrupted again. “Mom have you seen my rainbow shirt?”
“Look…in your…laundry basket.” Jump up, down, slap the floor.
“Mommy I don’t have any pants!” Legs out and back in.
“Yes you…do. I just…did the…laundry.” Jump up, UGH, my body does NOT want to leave the floor.
“But I don’t like those pants. I want the black ones.” Hit the floor. Legs out, come on legs, WORK!
“Mom, the rainbow shirt is wrinkled! Can you…”
“Oh my goodness! Both of you! ENOUGH! Just get dressed!” I shout at the older two as they sulk away. Guilt washes over me for losing my temper. I know I’m unfairly putting my muscle exhaustion on them. I redirect my frustration towards the second set of burpees, slapping my hands a little harder at the ground this time.
“Don’t worry about this being perfect. Do what you need today.”
We move into a complex movement of leg lifts and balance. If that wasn’t difficult enough, the two year old wanders back in my direction “Read me a book, Mama.” Without waiting for a response he sits down below my raised legs and opens up Good Night Moon. I’m relieved it’s one I know by heart so in between breaths I say goodnight to the mouse and the house and the socks and the clocks, trying not to fall over on top of him.
The exercise continues like this, interruptions, requests, reminders woven in between deep breaths, muscle strain, and core engagement. Eventually, though, we reach the best part of every workout, the cool down.
“Close your eyes. Thank your body. We did it.”
Sitting cross legged on the floor, I breathe deeply into the inhale, arms raised up to the sky, eyes closed. I feel an energy in this breath I haven’t noticed before, like a superhero who accomplished the impossible.
I know not everything can be done in the messy middle part of life. Some things I do want to keep in the margins because they deserve my full attention. But today I made space for myself. And for this, I am proud.
As I take my last inhale, I feel the weight of my youngest curling up into my open lap. I give him a squeeze and he smiles back at me. I think he is proud of me, too.