Moving On Better Than I Was Before

hill climb

There is a moving van parked in front of my house today. This is the house where I let life slip right through my multi-tasking fingers, but it is also the house where I grasped what mattered with two free hands and one committed heart.

Although my husband and I have moved four times since we were married, this fifth move feels like the hardest. As I drive the kids home from swim team practice, the mailboxes of my neighbors make me sad. As I walk the halls of my children’s school, the artwork of children I’ve watched grow brings tears to my eyes. Even the swing at the park remembers all the times I pushed small shoulders beneath flying hair and wiggly feet. Unlike the other moves, this one feels like a tragic loss.

Why? I’ve wondered over and over. What it is about this move that makes it more painful than the rest? As I’ve climbed the hill where I had my Hands Free breakdown-breakthrough, I’ve had some time to think about this. You see, I walk that hill almost everyday. To me, it’s holy ground—Mother Nature’s life-size reminder of where I once was and where I want to be: present, connected, and fully alive. My climbs up this hill are now numbered. I am down to two.

As I sweated my way up the hill the other day, I remembered my biggest worry when I moved here six years ago was that my younger daughter was still not walking. She was nearly two-years-old and preferred shuffling around upright on her knees. My husband and I joked that she might just slide across the stage with holey knees and a jubilant smile to accept her high school diploma. But alas, those worries were put to rest a few days after the moving boxes were unpacked. I’ll never forget how my curly-haired daughter stood right up, walked seventeen steps, and never looked back.

Yes, my daughter learned to walk in this house. I guess you could say so did I. I’d been running, running for so long that I’d forgotten how to slow down, to breathe, to live, not just merely survive.

It is here where I learned to live, really live.

This is the house where I learned to stop multi-tasking the moments away. On a golden yellow sofa my younger daughter learned to play the ukulele while I learned how to be still. My undivided attention was required as she plucked her C chord and G chord with awkward fingers. Through these daily practice sessions, I learned that playing by heart didn’t sound perfect, but it made a happy sound. I learned that ten minutes of loving connection with another human being had the power to bring healing and hope to a regretful soul.

ukulele on yellow couchThis is the house where notes written in exquisite kid penmanship were plastered on kitchen cabinets, bathroom mirrors, and doorframes. They served as stop signs for my frenzied existence. Slow down. Don’t miss the love, the notes cautioned. Through the little papers that still hang in my bathroom cabinet today, I learned that stopping to give love meant a chance to be loved. I learned that what is most urgent in life must not be prioritized over what is most important in life.

love notes as stop signsThis is the house where a sea of rice fell upon the kitchen floor… where fear gripped my older daughter’s face and I saw a bleak future for a mother who expected too much of herself and the people she loved … where I fell to my knees and helped my child sweep up a thousand tiny white grains while praying for strength to dismiss my inner bully … where “only love today” became a song in my head that I played on repeat.

live more love more blog 3This is the house where I began sharing my Hands Free journey with the world through this blog … where neighbors took off their cloak of perfection and stood with me in the light of realness … where children of the community know me as the lady who always wears hats, loves to show children how to pack shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, and lives out her childhood dream of being a published author … where my kids and I are loved “as is” despite our flaws and imperfections.

loved asThis is the house where my older daughter made an impromptu garden smack dab in the middle of the back yard. Miraculously, I did not tell her to move it. And every time I looked out the kitchen window, that little garden reminded me to cultivate and protect the passions of my heart. I was reminded that what matters most must be nurtured and brought into the sunlight daily. Otherwise, our life’s true purpose is too easily buried and forgotten beneath the excess, hurry, and distractions of life.

cultivating the passions of the heartThis is the house where my younger daughter wrote her name on the wall of her closet and instead of yelling, I looked into that remorseful face and reached out my arms to hold her. I could not explain why, but as I did it, I felt such hope. It was the first real tangible sign that I was making progress on my journey to live more and love more in each precious day I am given.

closet name #handsfreemamaThese are the floors where my baby learned to walk.

Where I learned to walk instead of run …
Where I learned to reveal instead of hide …
Where I learned that the truth hurts, but truth heals and brings me closer to the person and parent I want to be.

It pains me to think about walking out of this house, but I’m okay with being sad for a spell. Long gone are the days when I would force a smile and say, “I’m fine,” through gritted teeth. Now I try to offer the gift of authenticity to myself and to those I love. I thought about that as my older daughter and I were purging her bedroom of old toys and unwanted items over the weekend.

As we worked together to stuff a gigantic stuffed bunny into a donation bag, she stood up abruptly and clutched the window with both hands. Looking out at her neighborhood of friends that have become like sisters, she somberly stated, “I don’t want to move away.”

My mouth opened to remind her of all the positives to come, but I quickly shut it. Instead I held her and whispered, “I know, baby. I know.” And then we cried together, neither of us ready to move on from that moment or these walls too quickly.

So as you see, the lessons of the Hands Free journey continue to emerge even as boxes line the halls and shiny coats of paint cover fingerprint smudges.

And there is great comfort in that.

Whether I am in Timbuktu or Home Sweet Home,
Whether I am in the midst of joy or pain,
Whether I am lost or I am found,
Life-changing discoveries are mine for the taking with two free hands and one committed heart.

I took one last walk with a beloved friend—the friend who has heard all my difficult truths, yet never left my side. As we walked, she was relaying what she told her daughter in the midst of teenage heartache. “Let’s look for the blessings,” my sweet Southern friend repeated the words she’d said to her daughter a day earlier. Little did she know, she was talking straight to my heart. “Let’s look for the blessings. We can’t see them yet, but we will. We will,” my friend said determinedly as we climbed our favorite hill together one last time.

All at once, I was powerfully reminded that there, among cardboard boxes, goodbye hugs, and tear-stained cheeks, are blessings yet unseen.

I will be looking for them. Oh, yes, I will be looking for them. Because I learned how, right here in this house. I have no doubt there are more lessons in new places and new people just waiting to be grasped.

And there is great comfort in that.

on porch************************************************

Some people love change and adventure, but I am not one of those people. I like familiarity and sameness. As a directionally challenged person, I like to know my way around. As a planner, I like to know what to expect. Needless to say, this move means I am going to be out of my element for awhile. Yet, I am seeing this as a positive—an opportunity to grow, open my eyes a little wider, and gather life-changing discoveries that come with stepping out of one’s comfort zone. I don’t want to miss a thing. I want to be available to my new surroundings, but most importantly, I want to be available to my family. I have decided to step away from the blog and The Hands Free Revolution page during this time of transition. When I began this blog, I vowed to live the life I write so I trust you know that is what I am doing. Thank you for understanding my absence and having faith I will be back sometime soon to share my stories with you. You are a blessing to me. 

Feel free to share what lessons you have learned during major life changes. Please share how you are moving on literally or figuratively. I am always touched and inspired by what you write!

I leave you with a few beneficial tools to Grasp What Really Matters created by some awesomely brilliant colleagues of mine:

1) Rachel Miller and Holly Homer of Kids Activities Blog have immediately impacted my family’s summer with their newly released book! The fun-filled activities and projects in this book have created family bonding time, device-free time, learning experiences, and major independence! My school-age children were able to do many activities without adult assistance and all the materials we needed were on hand. You can read about the book here and order here.

2) I love what author Shawn Fink is creating in the name of Banning Busy. Check out 50 Slow Summer Fun Ideas to Help You Ban Busy and The Abundant Mama’s Guide to Savoring Slow .

3) Nothing thrills me more than seeing that my friends at The Happy Family Movement have created NED the Phone Monster! NED stands for No Electronic Distractions. NED sits on your kitchen counter as a landing place for phones. Because NED needs to be “fed” daily he helps you: “Put down your phone. Pick up your life.” Check out how you can support the kickstarter campaign and bring home a a NED of your very own!

4) Finally, I highly encourage you to reserve 5 quiet minutes to soak up these profound and affirming words about “present-moment success” by the talented Beth Berry. “How to Be Successful Without Completing a Thing” came to me when I most needed it and has offered me more peaceful exhales than I can count over the past few weeks.

 One final note: I am very sorry that some subscribers of my blog have received old posts emailed to their inboxes over the past few days. I believe I know what triggered it, and hopefully it won’t happen again. Thanks for your patience! 

 

A Live More/Love More Summer: Getting Back to What Matters Most

live more love more 1

Just because summer is here doesn’t mean life’s demands and daily stressors magically disappear. Digital distraction is more than willing to ruin your family picnic. Perfection is ready to sabotage your refreshing dip in the pool. Pressure is ready to pounce from the bleachers of the ball field, and criticism is prepared to blast lane four at the swim meet. Hurry and impatience are fiercely determined to spoil a day at the beach or amusement park. As you know, distraction, perfection, and social pressures don’t take a summer vacation. They manage to weasel their way into our daily lives no matter what season it is. But it doesn’t have to be this way. How does a Live More/Love More Summer sound to you? Let’s use these precious summer months to get back to what matters most. Here’s how I do it (and by the way, this approach works year-round) … 

As my family makes our final preparations for an upcoming move out-of-state, I’ve been forced to think about what home means to me. I’ve always believed home is a feeling, not a place. But more specifically, home is the feeling of peace and completeness I feel when I am surrounded by the people I love. But recently, my definition of home has expanded.

Home is also living Hands Free.

What began as small, daily intentions to let go of distraction, societal pressure, and perfection has become a necessary way of life. Like water, air, and food, I need time to connect to what matters in some form or fashion each day—time to laugh, listen, and love are daily requirements for me.

Smelling my daughter’s freshly washed hair … feeling sunshine on my face as I wait for swim practice to conclude … jotting writing ideas in a notebook … talking to my husband when the house is quiet at night … fierce hugs before we go our separate ways … my Hands Free moments are home to me now.

But I must be realistic. As much as I would love all moments in life to be calm, present, safe, and undistracted, it is simply not possible. We live in a fast-paced world saturated with duties, deadlines, and devices. In a world inundated with distractions, it is easy to get far from home. Summertime is no exception.

Yet with almost four years experience living Hands Free, I am able to detect when I am getting too far from home. No longer am I willing to push and pressure and yes my way through life to the point I lose sight of everything that matters most.

Here are some of the difficult truths I say to myself when I am getting too far from home. These “red flags” help me realize when I need to say no, re-establish my boundaries, or reassess what matters and what doesn’t.

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Before You Decide All Hope is Lost …

hope

*name has been changed

“My dad wasn’t perfect. He lost his temper sometimes. He worked too much. He experienced periods of depression. But even through the rough patches, my dad always listened to me. He was never too busy, too distracted, or too desolate to listen to what I had to say—even in the rough patches.

And despite what the critics say—that giving a child our undivided attention creates a child who thinks the world revolves around him or her—I believe otherwise. Having a parent that listens creates a child who believes he or she has a voice that matters in this world.” –Rachel Macy Stafford

When I shared the above quote on The Hands Free Revolution page I received the following reader comment: “I listened to my kids. Now they won’t talk to me. Reading this makes me feel guilty. Let’s see how your kids turn out in twenty years.”

Although it isn’t always easy, I try to glean insight from all the comments I receive—even the negative ones. And this one really got me thinking.

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To Build (or Break) a Child’s Spirit

words to build or break a child

If you needed to lose weight, what would be most motivating?

You are fat. I’m not buying you any more clothes until you lose weight!

Or:

Let’s take a walk after dinner.
I’ll let you make the salad.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

If you needed to learn how to swim, what would be most motivating?

I don’t want to hear your crying. Get in the water and swim! Don’t be a baby!

Or:

I’ll be right by your side.
You can do this. If not today, we’ll try again tomorrow.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

If you needed to practice better hygiene, what would be most motivating?

What is that awful smell? It’s a wonder you have any friends.

Or:

Let’s go to the store and pick out some deodorant.
Your hair smells so good when you wash it. I think you should wash it every day.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

If your table manners needed improvement, what would be most motivating?

You eat like a pig. I cannot stand to watch you eat. You are disgusting.

Or:

I am trying to put down my fork after each bite, I’d like you to join me.
Thank you for chewing with your mouth closed.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

If you are a bit clumsy and disorganized, what would motivate you to be more responsible?

Can’t you do anything right? You are either losing things or making a mess!

Or:

Everyone makes mistakes. That’s how we learn.
It’s no big deal—just get a rag and clean it up.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are.

At times in my life I have been overweight, scared to swim, smelly, ill-mannered, and disorganized. During those times, I could have used some encouragement. So when I saw the young boy ordered to get out of the pool because he was scared to swim, I cried with him from behind my sunglasses. I saw the disappointment in the man’s eyes as he looked at his shivering son hugging his knees to his chest. The man really wanted his boy to learn to swim. He thought reprimanding him and ignoring the boy’s cries would motivate him to try harder next time.

At times in my life, I thought this too …

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Where Haters Can’t Tread

haters can't tread 3

In processing our family’s upcoming move to a new state, I’ve noticed my seven-year-old daughter is unable to think of all the people she will miss all at once. Instead, she’s been experiencing a slow awareness that highlights one person at a time. It’s sad and painful and sweeps her back to the moment she heard we were moving—when tears dotted the front of her blue GAP t-shirt.

It happened the other night as she was getting out her guitar to practice her latest Taylor Swift song. My child came flying into the kitchen—and this time it wasn’t to stall her practice session. I recognized that pitifully sad look on her face—the one that said the world as she knew it was crumbling a little more.

“I’m not going to have music lessons with Mr. Andrew anymore,” she said her lip quivering slightly. Huge tears formed in her eyes as she mumbled, “There won’t be another one like him, Mama.”

“Andrew’s been your ukulele and guitar teacher since you were itty bitty. He’s one of the kindest, most patient people we know, isn’t he? I am so glad you have all these years with him.” Without thinking, I instinctively opened my arms to my child. She nestled in and fit quite perfectly despite a significant growth spurt this spring.

I studied her smooth, round face and saw two fat tears escape from the corners of her closed eyes. My daughter stood there for a moment pressing her face against my stomach. I just held her in silence, smoothing stray hairs away from her face. I didn’t have any magic words. In fact, I didn’t have any words at all.

Within thirty seconds, my daughter stopped crying. She turned and went back to the living room and picked up her guitar. She began to sing and strum with vigor. I could tell by the passion in her voice that she was going to make the most of her remaining time with Mr. Andrew. She was going to be okay.

And I just stood there taking it all in.

Because in that moment, I felt better about myself than I had in months. And it was due to one simple fact: I bring comfort to my child. In fact, I am pretty darn good at it.

And I bet you are too.

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Today I Lived and You Did Too

today I lived

Today I was awakened by the sound of shuffling feet.
It was my early-bird riser in her big sister’s pajamas that drug across the floor.
I wanted to pull the covers over my head and feign sleep.
But instead I got up and made toaster waffles that she said tasted “divine.”
She kissed me with syrupy sweet lips.
Getting up wasn’t my first response. But I did it.
Today I lived.

Today she lost her shoes for the 37th time in two weeks.
It was right before we needed to head out the door.
I wanted to scream, to scold, to throw my hands in the air.
But instead I held her. I held her. My shoeless girl.
Together we found them wet with dew in the backyard and she whispered, “Sorry, I am forgetful, Mama.”
Being calm wasn’t my first response. But I did it.
Today I lived.

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To Love Yourself “As Is”

to love yourself 4

To Love Yourself “As Is” (Part 1)

“Be kind to others,” they told her.

“Be kind to yourself.” She didn’t hear much of that.

Maybe they assumed she just would be. But despite the radiant smile on her face, the voice in her head said, “Not good enough.”

It wasn’t enough.
It was never enough.

For years she tried to reach perfection’s highest rung, but she missed again and again and again.

And then she had little ones of her own. At first their messiness and mistakes reminded her of her own imperfections. She found herself losing it over trivial mishaps and typical kid issues. But living in the shadow of fear and inadequacy was not the life she wanted for her children. She made every effort to see beyond their mess and mayhem. And in her children’s disarray, their humanness, and in their silly little quirks, she saw something worthy of love and forgiveness. She offered them love without condition and restraint, and when she did, their little faces glowed with validation and acceptance.

To love someone “as is” was a gift, she realized.

So whenever her children messed up she’d say, “Be kind to yourself. Everyone makes mistakes.”

As the children grew, they started saying it to themselves and to each other. And one day, when she burned the bottom of the crockpot, the littlest one said it to her. “Everybody makes mistakes, Mama. Be nice to yourself.”

She wished someone had said it when she was young. But it wasn’t too late. Thirty-eight years of being unkind to herself was enough. It was quite enough.

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Children Who Shine From Within

children who shine

“What’s your favorite insect?” my seven-year-old daughter asked as we took an evening walk on the first night of her spring vacation. “You can’t pick butterfly. Everyone picks the butterfly,” she quickly added before I had a chance to respond.

“Hmmmm,” I thought out loud. “I guess mine would have to be a ladybug,” I finally answered.

“Mine’s a firefly. I love the firefly,” she said wistfully.

We kept walking. Talking. Enjoying the rare treat of alone time—just my younger daughter and me.

And then:

“Am I okay? I mean, am I fine?” she asked looking down at herself.  “Sometimes I feel different.”

I immediately stopped walking and searched her face. Without saying what she meant, I knew; I just knew.

I bent down and spoke from a painful memory tucked away since second grade. “When I was your age. I felt different too. I felt uncomfortable, self conscious. One boy said really cruel things about the way I looked. He said I didn’t belong. His words hurt me for a long, long time,” I admitted.

As she looked at me sadly, her previous words echoed in my head. “Everyone picks the butterfly,” she’d pointed out a moment ago.

I placed my hands on her sturdy little shoulders as if somehow this could make her feel my words right down to the bone. “I want you to know something. You can always talk to me when you feel different or uncomfortable. I will never laugh. I will never judge you or tell you it’s no big deal. I will never brush away your feelings because I understand. I remember how it hurts. And some times you just need someone to understand that hurt.”

“I love the firefly,” she had said a moment ago. I then realized I had something she could hold on to.

“You mentioned that you love the firefly,” I reminded her. “Well, I think you’re a lot like a firefly. You know why?” I asked.

The worry on her face lifted. She looked at me hopefully. “Why, Mama?”

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In Need of an Emergency Contact

emergency contact #handsfreemama

“Are you Rachel Stafford?” she asked me over the low roar of party conversation and festive music. When I nodded, the woman with a very familiar face said, “You are the emergency contact for half my preschool class.”

It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but as the words rolled off her tongue, I couldn’t help but smile. I felt the magnitude of its meaning in a way I hadn’t before.

Rachel Stafford, Emergency Contact

Although there are many esteemed titles in today’s society, I could not think of a higher honor at that moment. I’d filled out enough school registration forms to know the importance of those three blank lines. Who would pick up your children if you couldn’t? Who would you trust with life’s most precious gifts?

Knowing I was chosen to retrieve my friends’ pint-sized angels in times of trouble gave me an added confidence boost over the past few months. Whenever I failed miserably in other areas of my life, I reminded myself: I am an Emergency Contact. I may have more flaws and failures than I can count, but my friends know I would drop everything to retrieve their precious babies and love them as my own. That thought always gave me a lift.

But very recently the term Emergency Contact has come to mean even more.

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If You Really, Really Knew Me

"I don't care where you've been. I'm just glad you're here now." -Rachel Macy Stafford

“I don’t care where you’ve been. I’m just glad you’re here now.” -Rachel Macy Stafford

I recently had the honor of speaking on a parenting panel with two experts in the field of living with intention and gratitude. Mike Robbins was the panel mediator who posed thoughtful questions to Michelle Gale and myself.

As we took our seats in the chairs positioned at the front of the room, I realized this would be the first time I was seated while speaking to an audience. My eyes were immediately drawn to the people in the front row. As I responded to Mike’s questions, I soon realized I was talking directly to them. I forgot I was holding a microphone. I forgot I was talking to a large group of people. I forgot all the things I had prepared to say and spoke from my heart, just like I do when I write.

One man in a red sweater nodded encouragingly, just like a friend would sitting across from me at a coffee shop. One man clapped enthusiastically after one of my responses. One woman, whose beautiful, dark hair swooped over her left cheek, could not stop her tears. I was speaking to those people, literally and figuratively. I could feel it, and it made me want to share more of my heart with them.

That’s when Mike invited the audience to participate in a group exercise. He instructed them to answer the following sentence with a partner:

If you really knew me, you would know …

After each person took a turn, he or she would go a little deeper:

If you really, really knew me, you would know …

The partners were instructed to continue exchanging their truths until time was up.

Although Mike checked with Michelle and me ahead of time, I felt a pang of discomfort when I heard Mike say that the panelists would go first, illustrating how the exercise would work.

Part of me hoped my microphone would malfunction or I would suddenly lose my voice. Part of me wanted to think of something light and easy that would make people laugh. Part of me wanted get up and run away.

But instead I took a deep breath and looked at my new friends seated in the front row. Their loving gazes indicated I would be safe, supported, and encouraged, no matter what I said.

And what came out of my mouth was unexpected, but it was truth. I said:

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