A Relationship Worth Protecting

relationship HFM“Can you see your love for me shining through? Cuz what you see in me, I can see in you. And soon enough, you and me we’ll be out of time. And kindness will be all we can leave behind.”

- Nimo Patel

My younger daughter rushed upstairs, her face wet with tears. She said she was having trouble putting together a Lego structure and couldn’t figure out what to do. When she asked her big sister for help, she cut her down—her words sharp and pointed and straight into the heart.

Yes, it had been a long summer. When you move to a new state, your sibling becomes your full-time playmate. My children had been in the company of one another for two solid months, no reprieves. But I’ve noticed that as my older daughter becomes more tween and less child, her patience is thinner … her sass stronger … her tone edgier. And there’s something about her little sister’s laid-back, leisurely nature that pushes her buttons. But something needed to be said before irreparable damage was done.

I went downstairs to talk privately with my older child. She was aptly securing the final pieces to an impressive Lego tree house. Pushing stray pieces aside, I sat down next to her. “I have something to tell you,” I said my voice low and serious. My daughter knew to stop fiddling and look into my eyes. “Whether you like it or not, you are shaping your little sister’s self-esteem. The way she feels about herself will largely come from how you treat her. In fact, your opinion of her may be even more important than mine.”

I paused to let my daughter absorb this information. When I continued talking, I surprised myself by divulging something I hadn’t fully appreciated until that moment. “Do you know why I know the impact your opinion has on your sister’s life?” My daughter shook her head. “Because I was the little sister. Yes, my sister and I fought over clothes, music, whose turn it was to feed the cat, the bathroom, and other silly things, but never once did my sister shame me or put me down. Not once. Just imagine what that gift did for me.”

By now I was crying. Surprisingly my daughter wasn’t looking at me strangely or searching for the nearest exit. With a mixture of interest and sadness, my daughter looked like maybe what I had to say was something worth listening to. I swallowed hard, attempting to regain control over my unexpected emotional breakdown. “We all need someone in our corner, to have our back, to believe in us when we don’t believe in ourselves. If you haven’t noticed, your little sister looks at you like a hero. And when you criticize or belittle, it hurts. But when you compliment or encourage her, she soars.”

Later, as I later replayed the conversation back in my head, I was reminded of the most important “rule” I had in my classroom when I was a teacher. I informed my students that our classroom was a safe haven. While I fully expected there to be squabbles and disagreements between children, there would be no hurtful attacks on physical appearance, intelligence, or abilities. I realize now that this is how I feel about my home. I expect my children to treat each other respectfully and kindly, no exceptions. To some this might sound like a ridiculous aspiration, head-in-the-clouds kind of thinking. “Siblings are supposed to knock each other down and toughen each other up,” I can just hear the naysayers say. I might have agreed with that statement had it not been for my sister showing me what happens when a family member believes in you despite knowing your every weakness and fault.

You see, in grade school I was a mess. I had a bad bowl cut. Too many freckles covered my nose. I wore the same awful navy blue sweater every single day until it practically disintegrated. My hair held the unbecoming shine of ultra quick showers minus the shampoo. I had the worst smelling feet. I gained a lot of weight the summer before middle school and got stretch marks. I was ashamed. While my parents worked, my sister took me to the neighborhood pool. She never said a word about my body. She only said, “I love your bathing suit.” I remember. It meant everything that she chose to look beyond the unsightly marks.

In high school my sister would wave me over as I walked down the halls. She would introduce her awkward freshman sister to her senior high friends. She was proud of who I was. She believed in me. My sister never told me I was not capable even if she thought there was no way I could make the volleyball team or move up a chair in orchestra. As an adult, my sister showed me the same support. Knowing how much I loved to write, she was adamant that I should start a blog. I said I didn’t know how. She sent me a book telling me how. She said she would help. My sister kept saying I should and I could until I finally tried. I would not be a published author today had it not been for the unconditional love and encouragement I received from my sister. My life would have turned out very differently if my sister had routinely tore me down rather than continually build me up.

My greatest hope is that my children encourage each other this way. I cannot force it to happen, but I can model it. Because honestly, talking to my older daughter about how I expect her to treat her sister has shined a slightly uncomfortable spotlight onto my own words and actions. The truth is, the way I treat my older daughter will reflect how she treats her younger sister. Just as she is shaping her little sister’s self-esteem through words and actions, I am shaping hers.

Just as I told her to think about the voice she is using with her sister—is it kind? Is it impatient? Is it encouraging? I must consider my tone too.

Just as I told her to think about the messages she is giving—You matter. You’re smart. I believe in you. I must think about my words too.

Just as I told her if you don’t like her wearing grubby t-shirts every day, compliment her when she wears something you do like. I am trying to practice that too.

Just as I told her to notice when her sister is stressed out or struggling and to say, “how can I help?” instead of “just deal with it.” I must remember this too.

Those are things my big sister did for me. Not perfectly. But consistently. And it made a life-changing difference.

Last week my daughters began riding the bus at our new school. It was the first time they’ve ever been “bus riders” since our old neighborhood didn’t have school buses. On the second night of school I heard the girls talking in the basement.

“When the teacher says walk to the bus, you need to go as fast as you can, okay? I was worried you were going to miss it. I kept praying you were coming. Walk real fast tomorrow. I know you can do it,” said the big one.

“Okay, I will,” promised the little one. “Thanks for letting nothing bad happen to me.”

“I won’t,” said her protector.

relationship HFM

We all need someone in our corner … to have our back … to believe in us when we don’t believe in ourselves. We can do that, my friends. We can do that for our sisters … our brothers … our children … and for each other. We can do that for the people who are learning how to treat others by watching us live.

I leave you with my own personal pledge so I can build up, not tear down … so I can be a role model, not a bad example … so I can leave a legacy, not a scar. These are my hopes for anyone who spends time in my presence.

The Presence Pledge

I hope you feel like a welcomed spark to my life, not an inconvenience, annoyance, or bother to my day.

I hope you feel comfortable in your skin, not constantly wondering how many things you need to change before you’re loved and celebrated.

I hope you feel heard, valued, and understood, not dismissed for being too young or too inexperienced have an opinion or know what you need to thrive.

I hope you feel capable and confident, not incapable of doing something without constant supervision and correction.

I hope you feel brave to bare the colors of your soul, not pressured to hide your light or play small to gain acceptance.

I hope after spending an hour … a day … a lifetime in my presence,
I leave your heart fuller,
your smile wider,
your spirit stronger
your future brighter
than you could have ever imagined by yourself.

live more love more 1

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I wrote The Presence Pledge after reading a powerful article by Andrea Nair. The following question immediately grabbed me and made me think about how I want to impact the people in my life:

“This is a great question to continually ask yourself to grow a strong, positive relationship with your children: How do my children feel about themselves as a result of spending time with me?” -Andrea Nair

I also want to share three other pieces that promote grasping what really matters in a world of distraction, pressure, and perfection:

1) How to Stop Siblings Fighting with Six Words 

2) Interview with Catherine Steiner-Adair author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” This article has very helpful information about creating healthy boundaries between life and technology.

3) Backpacks for Everyone - My dear author friend Galit Breen is matching children who need a backpack with those willing to donate a backpack. Staples has the first 25 covered so please let her know if you need one. (They are filled with school supplies, as well). Or if your family is looking for a way to make a difference in someone’s life, this a very simple way! Learn more here

Please feel free to share your thoughts, stories, and experiences regarding protecting sibling relationships. Thank you for walking beside me on this journey to live more and love more in the precious time we are given, my friends of The Hands Free Revolution. I will never forget the flood of encouraging comments you wrote last week that lifted me from a period of uncertainty and doubt. My writing has been fueled in a way I have never felt before. So thankful for you. 

Life on Repeat

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“But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all? And if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before? How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” -Bastille 

I don’t think it was meant as a criticism, but the words stung a little.

“Usually I have to really dig to find anything new in your messages, but this time I didn’t,” the commenter wrote about a short piece I published on The Hands Free Revolution page.

I write about grasping what really matters in a world of a distraction. I write about seeing the glimmers of goodness amidst the mayhem, mess, and mistakes of everyday life. I have written over 200 blog posts, one book, and I am working on my second book. Sometimes when I write, I find myself asking, “Have I written that somewhere before?” And the answer is yes, in some form or fashion, I probably have. Writing is my instrument for focusing on what really matters. And because the distractions of life never go away, I require daily reminders repeated over and over. To some folks, it probably does begin to feel like a broken record.

But here’s the thing. Every once in awhile, as I am writing about what I write about, something unexpected comes out. Painful personal reflections like the hurry up post, the yelling post, and the bully post that cause tears to come to my eyes. Stories like these cause my hands to shake when I push the ‘publish’ button. That’s when I know someone is out there waiting to read these words. Such moments are my fuel. They say, “Keep writing, Rachel. Even though it’s tedious and repetitive, you just never know when your words are going to intersect with someone who needs them.”

But I am human which means in between those encouraging moments are times of doubt and uncertainty. That’s when I begin to question myself. I think about the criticisms and wonder if I’ve said all there is to say about letting go of distraction to grasp what really matters. I wonder if I’ve run dry. I wonder if my writing gig is up.

But recently, as I was thinking about this painful possibility for myself, I thought of you. I thought to myself, maybe there is something here for all of us. Maybe it will even make one person cry with me today.

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Finding Your Footing in New Beginnings

grave #handsfreemama

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow. ” –Lin Yutang

One of the first things I did when I moved to my new state this summer was look for a quiet place to walk. You may recall that I had a hilly, serene area near my last home where I walked daily for the six years that I lived there. Many powerful epiphanies occurred to me on that stretch of tarmac where cars seldom passed. I had a feeling that finding a place where my legs could grow tired as my spirit came alive might be challenging here in my new, much bigger city. My suspicions were right.

On my first outing, I quickly realized it would be necessary for me to leave my neighborhood if I wanted a substantial walk. Upon exiting my subdivision I was greeted by a heavily traveled roadway that was intimidating, to say the least. There would be no daydreaming here, no getting lost in my own thoughts. This bustling thoroughfare screamed, “Pay attention or you might get hurt!”

I took a deep breath and forged ahead, hugging the outer edge of the sidewalk farthest from the busy road. With every Nissan and Chevrolet that barreled past, my hair blew back from my face and hot air hugged my legs. I kept my head down and walked briskly, pausing briefly to notice the historic cemetery on my right. I’m pretty sure I would have felt sad (or a little creeped out) if I hadn’t been so focused on finding a peaceful place to continue my walk.

As soon as I got past the cemetery, I saw what I was looking for: an established neighborhood canopied by lush trees and not a moving vehicle in sight. I immediately turned right and walked the shady maze of side streets and cul-de-sacs for an hour. When it was time to return home, I resisted the urge to walk past the cemetery at a quickened pace. Instead I noticed the names and dates of those who lived over a century ago.

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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.

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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”

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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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