Creating and Preserving Life Margins

In my closet, I have a box of old letters from my middle and high school years. They are intricately folded and full of the silly ramblings of girlfriends and the awkward advances of a boy or two. Every square inch of these letters is filled, making them difficult to read. Sentences twist, curl and crowd into the margins along with stickers, song lyrics and doodles.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to let our adult lives look like the crowded pages of our childhood letters–with not a scrap of white space to be had.

It can be particularly tempting for homeschoolers to fill up the empty spaces in our days. We feel like we have more time, so we should be doing more. We want to participate in every worthy endeavor, to squeeze the last drop out of every learning opportunity.

Yet I know something now that I didn’t know back when my girlfriends and I were writing those cluttered letters. Clean margins are essential to making a legible document, and also to creating a nurturing home life.

We need unhurried free time built into our family lives in order to foster true connection.

We need margins in our schooling–unhindered time to wonder and explore and ask. That time gives our young learners the space to span the gap between book knowledge and real, internalized understanding.

Photo by Stefani Austin

But in a society that values living all the way to the edge of the page, how do we create and preserve those margins for ourselves and our children?

The key is understanding that all good margins are made up of two elements: clearly defined boundaries and thoughtful editing.

Creating life margins is a balancing act of holding tightly to some things and being willing to let others slip through our fingers. Leaving some white space in our family’s daily life and in our home learning environment has meant deciding what is important to us and protecting those things fiercely.

Here are some of the margins that our family holds dear.

Family Meals

No matter where the world takes us, the dinner table is our anchor. We will be gathered around it at 6:30, “come hell or high water” as my great grandmother would say.

This has meant letting go of some sports and other wonderful but all-consuming activities that would have prevented us from having regular family meals.

Photo by Stefani Austin

Sometimes having daily family meals means that I have to let go of my perfect homemaker vision and take short cuts. I use the crock pot a lot. I freeze meals on the weekends. I do what it takes to make meals unhurried, stress-free and ready when we need them.


We make time for sleepovers with the cousins, afternoons with Nana and tinkering with Grandfather. We set aside money in our budget for monthly road trips to visit my grandmother in the spring and summer.

We believe that each time we make a small sacrifice for family, we’re speaking to the men our boys will become. We’re telling them that no matter what their future holds, family should always come first.

Photo by Stefani Austin

Free Time

Fridays in our house are for learning outside of the books and living beyond the to-do list. There is no formal school for us on these days, but we learn so much in them anyhow. We hike, play, read, bake and work on projects together.

The temptation of course is to use that time to grocery shop or clean, make doctors appointments or catch up on bills, but we don’t do those things on Fridays. Fridays are free space.


We always schedule our travels so that Sunday finds us in our regular seats at church. Is it tempting to sleep in or spend the day at the lake? Not really. We need those Sunday mornings to see our friends, worship and grow in our faith. By the end of the week we’re sometimes feeling a bit poured out.

Sunday mornings fill us up and leave us inspired. We don’t let anything get in the way of that.


There are the big ones, of course–the ways we celebrate Christmas and Easter, but we work hard to preserve smaller traditions too. We have “fancy Sunday dinner” and weekly family game nights. We visit the same berry patch every year. We plant a garden each spring.

These predictable, dependable family times are comforting and more important than any of the things we give up to make them possible. They are the clean white space in the clutter and busyness of daily life.

Photo by Stefani Austin

I believe that when the story of my time with my children is written, it will be the margins that tell the dearest tales.

How about you? What margins do you hold dear and how do you protect them?

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About Stefani

Stefani believes that beyond "I love you," one of the most valuable things she can tell her three young sons (and herself) is "take your time." Homeschooling has afforded her the awesome privilege to say it often and with conviction. Stefani writes about her journey to mindful parenting and her learning adventures alongside her boys at her blog, Blue Yonder Ranch.


  1. Love these thoughts. Our oldest son just decided not to play baseball (thank goodness!) and we will now try to emphasize the importance of that decision by spending more time together as a family. Also liked what you wrote about dinner time and traditions.
    .-= Wendy’s last blog: Lacking motivation =-.

    • Good for him! I know that must have been a hard decision, and you are right, it deserves some positive reinforcement. It will mean so much to the boy he is and the man he will become to know that tough sacrifices made for family are so worth it.

      My oldest boy would so love to play baseball, but he’s already in karate (which he loves). If we added in baseball that would leave ONE day a week in which he had nothing scheduled and NO days for traveling or playing or cousins or anything else. It’s just too high a price.

      We’re trying to get together lots of family baseball evenings at the local grassy field instead 🙂

  2. Stefani, this was beautiful. I love your gorgeous, story telling photos and the margins you value as a family. We too have margins – hikes every weekend, shared daily meals, evening family time, afternoon play/reading time etc…

    This is the kind of stuff I love talking about. More than what curriculum we use or don’t us.

    • Thank you, Renee! I agree!
      I think in my early years of homeschool I was so eager to know what people where doing in terms of curriculum (and that does still interest me) but as our homeschool matures I find I’m much more interested in hearing how people nurture family, self, passions and the PEOPLE inside the children they’re schooling. I have a feeling you and I could talk for hours 🙂

  3. Thank you so much for this thoughtful post! I needed that reminder this morning.
    .-= Jennifer @ Planted by Streams’s last blog: Life : 1000 Gifts =-.

  4. I would have to say that making sure we don’t schedule too many extra-curricular activities, even church ones, is vital to keeping our family time priority.

    I so enjoyed this post. I loved the analogy!
    .-= Jennifer’s last blog: Free Easter Recipe Ecookbook =-.

    • Hello Jennifer! I could not agree more. It was tough for me, and tongues sure wagged, but I decided a couple of years ago that I would not be doing the women’s bible studies or the weekly group study evenings at our church, nor would I be signing up for every outreach event or community effort. I felt so guilty until I realized remembered that “unto everything there is a season.” This season in my life requires me to nurture my family and my children and that means preserving our time together. Study and outreach are important, but I think that at this point in our lives it’s good to find opportunities to do those things as a family rather than as individuals.

      • This is something that I am really struggling with right now. We have 3 children ages 3. 2 and 6 months. We are members of a small church where everyone is “family.” The a couple of the other moms are very active in teaching, serving in the nursery, ect. I always feel compelled to do the same. This often means that we are rushing our meals two nights a week and everyone gets cranky. I would love to hear from other moms on how they handled this!!! Thank you for sharing!

        • Your number one ministry right now (and always will be, but especially when your children are young) is your husband and your children! Don’t let anyone at church tell you otherwise or guilt you into another ministry that takes you away from that. I also “quit” a ladies bible study a few years ago because it met in the evenings, and being away from bedtime and quiet time talking to my husband wasn’t ideal.

  5. Thank you for this. It was exactly what I needed today.
    .-= Toni Turbeville’s last blog: RECIPE OF THE WEEK : 7-Up Pound Cake =-.

  6. Beautiful post! Time= wealth and so very important for a child to have “time for self” as Gatto talks about plus quality and QUANTITY time with family to build a strong foundation.

    We’ve protected the “margins” of time for self, time for family and time for prayer and service by keeping our focus on what truly matters, so gave up the endless consumer “stuff” life for one of freedom, bonding and endless time.

    We’ve been slow traveling the world together as a family non-stop since 2006, so we have every meal together, often outside in nature, in 32 countries so far, living luxuriously on just 23 dollars a day per person. Simplicity, mindfulness, minimalism, heart focus grants us more freedom and time.

    As much as we have seen, experienced on this awesome adventure, as many wonderful people that we have met along the way, perhaps the greatest joy has been the incredible time and bonding that we have had together just doing ordinary things in extraordinary places.

    Time is the greatest gift.
    .-= soultravelers3’s last blog: Funniest Kids! Soultravelers3 Family Travel =-.

  7. you really challenged me with this post. thank you.

  8. This was a great post. We have family game nights and we love to read before bed to the kids. We have always sat at the dinner table together even when I was a kid it was not an option. Everyone at the table for a family meal every night. Since last summer I have been trying to move us at a slower pace so we can stop and smell the roses or drag our boots through the snow. It just feels like less pressure.
    .-= Rana’s last blog: Growing up! =-.

  9. I loved this post so very much – is will be valuable for the entirety of my family – which is a very, very long time.

    .-= Nicole’s last blog: Watercolor Tuesday – Fire Alarm =-.

  10. This post really spoke to me, because it’s an issue I sometimes struggle with — that temptation to have every moment of the day feel “productive,” as if I’m accountable to someone else for it! I remember writing a post a few months ago about a moment of letting go when my oldest was just lying in the front yard watching clouds. There was this nervous energy in me that wanted to fill up that time, to give him something “educational” to do, to ward off boredom. At that moment, I made the choice to just let him be. To even open the door for boredom, if that became the case. Instead, we had a lovely moment of cloud-watching together, and eventually reading William Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils” together. Yet it’s an ongoing struggle, not to try to pack it all in.
    Lots of opportunities for deep breaths and revisiting our core values. 🙂
    .-= Hannah’s last blog: In praise of Arnold Lobel =-.

  11. Great analogy, Stefani. Some of our margins include Monday date nights, and blocked-out creative time during homeschool hours. We’re working on creating more of a ‘sabbath rest’ including church and time to walk & hold hands with my husband:). Meal times are for the most part protected although soccer season makes this difficult. But if I move supper to a later time then I think it will still work this year. I have been cutting and slashing to protect most evenings as I find that my kids really need me then. Our days can feel so busy – nice but busy – and in the evening all my kids want time with me just to talk, read, be together.

  12. Stefani, thanks for the inspiration today! It really hit home,since I seem to struggle so with having too many thoughts, too many visitors and too many people to please! I was feeling so guilty of not being able to nurture some of my close friendships….but the seasons of life really are true…I long ago made the same decision about extra Church and other activities. I knew that when I went to Heaven I would never make the comment that I wished I had attended more events! We do the family dinner thing, and Sundays we have BIG family dinners with grown kids and grandkids coming over,too…the numbers can reach in the 20’s and it is great fun! We will NEVER question spending our season with our children at home and nurturing our togetherness…that is one thing in life that leaves no regrets!

  13. sorry, just one more thing… never did get back to me about your experience with sonlight? No worries, though I DO undertand being too busy..just still wondering! Thanks.

  14. Another wonderful, thought-provoking posting, thank you!

    As a newbie to homeschooling with 3 kids under 5 years old right now, my questions are many. However, I’ll just ask one right now:

    You spoke of Fridays and “Free Time” days, and you mentioned “the temptation to grocery shop or clean, make doctors appointments or catch up on bills…” When DO you find time to shop, clean, make appts., etc.? I’d love to know!

    Thanks so much for the inspiration!

  15. Michele says:

    Awesome. THANK YOU. How timely for me to remember we are NOT alone!! Sometimes we feel like we are swimming against a tide, and truthfully, we probably are. But it’s good to know every now and then we are not alone. Thank you for your wonderful post!

  16. I’d like to echo the thoughts of the previous posters as well…it’s nice to know that we are not alone in this way of thinking. It can sometimes be difficult to focus on OUR family and not allow the outside voices to cloud our vision.

    As a mama to two boys (under the age of five), I need to remind myself that they need time and we should not worry if our day looks different from another family’s day. We don’t have to do it all to be “successful.” Indeed, enjoying one another’s company is a wonderful measure of success.

  17. “no matter where the world takes us, the dinner table is our anchor” – I love this!

    Beautiful post … relevant, I think, to any parent – homeschooler or not. Thank you!
    .-= Kara’s last blog: At the Craft Table with Rae Grant: Egg Cartons – Imagine the Possibilities =-.

  18. Have to add that I also LOVE the stories your pictures tell 🙂

    .-= Kara’s last blog: At the Craft Table with Rae Grant: Egg Cartons – Imagine the Possibilities =-.

  19. Stefani,
    This is a beautiful post– I love the analogy of the white space of margins so necessary to our ability to clearly read a page. As a painter, I also know that to work with white space on your canvas is a skill that many have a hard time with.

    Much easier just to fill it all up– but when we allow intentional white space to define what we prioritize in life, we are really elevating and enjoying those precious things so much more!

    It has me thinking on what I prioritize and where I can be more intentional about white space in our schedule! Thank you!
    .-= Lisa @ WellGrounded Life’s last blog: At the Heart of Self Care =-.

  20. I was just talking to my mom tonight about the space in our lives for play and following our interests. So important.
    We have dinner together each night and always hike together on the weekends… allowing the kids to pick the spot.
    I am trying to bring more traditions into our lives. I think you are so right about how those traditions provide comfort. With so much change going on with their little bodies and minds I think it is nice for them to know there are some things in life they can expect and look forward to.

  21. I had got a dream to begin my own commerce, nevertheless I didn’t have enough amount of cash to do this. Thank God my close colleague advised to use the home loans. So I received the sba loan and realized my desire.

  22. We do no outside activities besides church and my work. We eat dinner together every night, Just the three of us on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. On Thursday a young lady from church joins us and we eat Friday dinner next door. Sunday dinner alternates at our house or our priests house with both families(9 people)

  23. Beautiful!! I love the concept of margins. I am a BIG fan of margins 🙂
    Cait @ My Little Poppies’s latest post: ThinkFun Rush Hour Shift Review

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