When Life Isn’t Pretty

“I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.” –Ann Voskamp

“I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.” –Ann Voskamp

*name has been changed

Just before the new year, a popular monthly publication requested permission to publish “Loving a Child Through the Challenges of Life” in their spring edition.  As if this opportunity weren’t surreal enough, it would include a photo shoot and a video interview.

The child in me – the one who spent hours filling notebooks in her lemon-yellow bedroom – was giddy at the thought of my writing being published in a magazine that my parents and grandmother often read. But what thrilled me even more was that the message of hope contained in the article would reach a worldwide audience.

Little did I know this experience would offer another chance at letting go to grasp what really matters in life.

This is my story …

In the days leading up to the photo shoot, my hope for a decent headshot quickly expanded. I learned there would be different sets, outfit changes, and mock children to serve as students in the background. The goal was to create a setting similar to the one in which the story took place.

The photography session was held on a Saturday afternoon. Given the level of primping, fluffing, powdering, and posing that occurred, I felt like a bride on her wedding day.

A few minutes into the shoot, the talented photographer motioned me over to see a few of the images she had captured.

I was stunned. The photos were beautiful.

Although part of me was relishing this dreamlike experience, the other part of me felt uncomfortable looking at myself with every hair in place, the soft light shining at just the right angle.

Because let me assure you, when I was teaching Kyle* and his classmates in the program for students with severe behavior issues, this is not what I looked like.

And if the readers of the magazine wanted an accurate portrayal of that time in my life, I could have easily painted them a picture. You see, every single minute in that classroom will be engrained in my mind forever.

Imagine if you will …

  • There were no skirts, dresses, or stylish shoes … it took a mere two hours in the classroom to learn I must be able to run, sit on the floor, and jump spontaneously into occupational therapy sessions. I quickly learned I would be spit on; I would clean up unspeakable messes; I would go down slides, roller skate, and even play football to keep the peace. Oh yes, comfortable clothes and practical shoes were a must in this classroom.
  • There was little make-up. I stopped wearing mascara altogether because during my bathroom breaks, I would cry in the stall.
  •  There was a perpetual sweat ring around my collar. Yes, it was Florida, but I sweated not because of the heat; I sweated because I was continually in action, engaging, calming, motivating—working every second to prevent an outburst.
  • There were no accessories, aside from my watch—I never forgot my watch. It was my lifeline to hope, letting me know exactly how many minutes until I would be home, away from the pain, anger, unpredictability, defiance, and despair that these children carried into the room each day.
  • There was doubt. For the first time in my teaching career, I considered quitting the profession I loved with all my heart. There were days when I considered giving up everything I had worked so hard to achieve if it meant not having to endure another day in this classroom.
  • There was desperation. I prayed as I drove to school. I prayed when I walked the students from art to P.E. I prayed when I stepped out of the room to cram a sandwich down my throat … when I waited for students to come out of the restroom … when I drove home … and all the minutes in between. I prayed for each of my twelve students, but selfishly I prayed for the strength to make it through the day.

As you can see, there was nothing glamorous about that year of my life. There was nothing beautiful about the thoughts that went through my head during that time. When I looked at the photographer’s images of myself, I felt like a fraud. Like there really needed to be a notation beneath the photos in the magazine—something like: *Objects in the photo may appear much more pleasant than they actually were at the time.

Before I went too far down the useless road of shame and self-doubt, I brought my focus back to what really mattered. I reminded myself that my article could potentially help many families going through a difficult time – despite what the photos looked like. So instead, I chose to enjoy this new and exciting experience.

Soon enough, it was time for the video interview. I answered a few questions about Kyle and how he had impacted my life.

The last question was this:

“When was the last time you saw Kyle?”

Suddenly, I was transported back to the last day of school nearly eleven years ago. It was 2:37 p.m.—that time of day when my co-teacher and I walked the children to the bus praying everyone get there without deciding to flee or without picking a fight with someone in line.

Kyle and I approached the long line of yellow buses. His #8 bus was waiting. The child who would let no one touch him at the first of the year gently grabbed my arm. “I don’t want school to be ova, Mrs. Stafford.”

“What do you mean? It’s summer! You can play football all day and have fun,” I teased my student who had managed to work his way into my heart despite his tumultuous ups and downs.

“But I won’t getta see you every day. I’m gonna miss you.” He spoke these tender words without abandoning his tough persona, yet his eyes shimmered as if he might cry.

That is when we exchanged a moment.

Perhaps it was “look how far we’ve come.”
Perhaps it was “but we’ll carry a piece of each other in our hearts – you know it and I know it.”
Perhaps it was simply “I love you.”

I can’t say for sure, but in that moment, I felt my face smiling the most radiant smile and he returned an equally glorious smile right back at me.

I thought I had remembered every single day of that trying school year, but somehow this particular day had been buried in my memory bank. Somehow I had forgotten this beautiful moment.

180 days in the school year—and I made it until the very last one.

Although the struggles I endured in order to survive those 180 days may not have been a pretty sight, what that little boy saw when I arrived each day was something beautiful: his teacher showed up. She showed up every day in stretchy pants and flat shoes, with little make-up and puffy-eyes. And what he saw was something he wanted to see every day of his life.

As the photography crew took down the set and got ready for the next one, I went to the bathroom to give myself a moment.

I looked in the mirror, marveling at what the stylist had done with my over-abundance of freckles and thin upper lip. Then I leaned over the sink and said a thank you to the heavens hoping it would reach Kyle, wherever he was. Once again, he had given me a “Hands Free” gem that would inspire my life.

And now I share it with you, my faithful companions on this journey to grasp what really matters:

There are days when we want to beat our head against the wall, when we scream into our pillow, and leave tears upon the steering wheel.

There are days when we feel there is no more left to give, when we want to throw in the towel and admit, “I can’t do this anymore.”

There are days when the words spoken in our head are words we never want another soul to hear.

Those days are not pretty.

But despite the inner turmoil, fear, frustration, and sheer exhaustion we feel, we do something extraordinary.

We show up.

And we keep showing up.

Because we know someone is counting on us.

And when that someone sees us showing up, it means more than we even know.

Then one day, maybe sooner that we think, when every sacrifice we ever made and every tear we ever cried will be exchanged for something magical.

Maybe it will be a tender expression, a loving gesture, a heartfelt word—whatever it is, we will know because it is the moment we have been waiting for … perhaps praying for.

In that moment, we will shine at the one we love and the one we love will shine back at us.

And all that was once so painful, so unsightly, so excruciating …

Will be overshadowed by the light of a beautiful moment in time.



This post was inspired by those of you who bravely share your stories of challenge and heartbreak. Those of you who wrote to me in response to “Hope for the Angry Child” have found a permanent place in my heart.

My hope is that we, as a community, can let go of the “perfection façade” perpetuated by society and social media. Three years ago, my “Hands Free” journey truly began when I let one person into the “real” parts of my life … the not-so-pretty struggles and fears that I didn’t want anyone to see. But by stepping into the light of realness, I offered myself a chance to grasp an authentic and meaningful life.

May we all remember to keep our eyes open for our “beautiful moments” in time. Although they may be brief, they serve as lifelines between the daily challenges we face – if only we “let go” long enough to grasp them.

Thank you for being a part of  The Hands Free Revolution. My pursuit to let go of distraction and live is continually inspired by you.



  1. 1

    Michele Manhire says

    Thank you. Just, thank you. Beautifully worded perspective on a very real situation for so many – whether teacher or parent. Am sharing this alllll over the place! 😉

  2. 3


    Rachel, thank you so much for this beautiful post. Your words always seem to come at the exact moment in time when I need them most. Today was one of them. Like you, I have been a teacher and a writer. I have a nine-year-old daughter, too. I also have a five-year-old son. He has a lot of anxieties, and connecting with him can be hard. This morning I was in tears thinking, how do I know that I ever really make a difference in his day? How do I know I’m giving him what he needs? This post has set my mind at ease… I will focus on the beautiful moments in time rather than getting overwhelmed by the future. I can always find beautiful moments. Thanks for helping so many of us find peace in our days.

    • 4


      Amy, thank you. I am so grateful for your positive feedback. When I sit down to write a post, it is my hope to touch just ONE life. So to know that this message came to you at the moment is was needed is truly a gift to me. I really love your line here: “I will focus on the beautiful moments in time rather than getting overwhelmed by the future.” This is so powerful. I will be keeping that in my mind and heart for the trying days. Thank you!

  3. 5

    Amber says

    Beautifully written! The last few weeks with my kids have been difficult (3 kids under the age of 5, lol) but the imagery of the last day you saw your one student will now be ingrained in my mind… except it will be me and my kids before they leave for college, get married, or whatever. I will know that all of the hard days were worth it. This post gave me new strength to get through these hard days because every hard day will be worth it. Thank-you for posting this. ♥

    • 6


      Amber, that is beautiful. Thank you for letting me know how this post made you feel. One of my biggest motivations for investing time in my relationships with my kids now is the hope I have for our future relationships. I think about some of my role models and the way their grown kids enjoy doing things with them, sharing their lives, even when they could be with friends. That would be such a joy to me. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts so others can be inspired.

  4. 7


    I love this one, Rachel! It’s funny because on our way to school today, your story about the teacher who ran came up, and I told Ella (who I could see being a special education teacher like you) that many of your best stories for parents come from lessons you learned while teaching. Can’t wait to see the story published, sweet friend!

  5. 8


    this is amazing, I have tears in my eyes. It is so moving and you are such a beautiful writer. I love the description of how our lives are full of so much suffering, and then one beautiful moment overshadows it. I hope I’ll carry that image with me for a long time.

  6. 9


    I am really thankful for your perspective and your words. My guess is that the passionate, hard-working, fierce-feeling young tecaher you describe was in fact beautiful because love and generosity show on a person like sunshine.

  7. 11

    Jen says

    I appreciate the fact that you felt funny about the photo shoot. It shows a lot about you, how real you are and how sincere your message. It’s hard to remember sometimes – that what we see in magazines, or on blogs isn’t always a completely accurate portrayal of a person or of their life, so we shouldn’t compare ourselves to that. Congratulations on the magazine exposure! That is exciting and you deserve it.

    • 12


      Thank you, Jen. This really means so much. I am so glad you gleaned that message from the post. The experience really opened my eyes to how beautiful things can appear, when the story behind the image is something far different. Thank you for the congratulatory words and for being such a constant source of support on this journey.

  8. 13

    GG says

    I don’t have kids, I don’t work with kids, but you have touched my inner child. And you continue to teach me new things about life and love every time you hit “publish”. Don’t ever stop sharing your stories, they are inspirational and reach farther than you’ll ever ever know!

  9. 15


    I can’t even begin to tell how much this post inspired me… not to give up. Perhaps I’m not the perfect Mom, but I’m not giving up. I’m *showing up* (if you will) every day, doing what needs to be done, opening a new page with every day of my life.

  10. 16

    rebecca says

    well, you made me cry. but in a good way. you see, 8 months ago we adopted a 2-yr-old with special needs. not anything surgery couldn’t repair, but i have had such struggles with this strong-willed two-year-old! i have struggled much with guilt and anxiety while trying to keep on the happy face for him and my 4-yr-old. and now after 8 months, we have many more of those “beautiful moments” through our transition of adding this wonderfully amazing 2-yr-old to our family! what a wonderful story to read! thanks for sharing.

  11. 17


    Speechless. Absolutely speechless for so many reasons. Thank you for being real. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone. Thank you for reminding me that even though one of my boys constantly struggles, we still do have lots of beautiful moments that beat out all the angry ones. Thank you for reminding me one of the things I ask my readers to do nightly: to toot their rhino horn and celebrate just showing up. It takes strength and courage to show up even when we don’t want to. You do that and encourage us all too. Again, thank you. So grateful I found this site. And congrats on the article 😉

    • 18

      smyke says

      I also am so grateful for the ‘perfect timing’ of Rachel’s words…knowing we are not alone on ‘the days when we feel there is no more left to give”…It is comforting to know that others out there share the frustration of parenting and feeling like you should be ‘doing a better job at it’…you have an eloquent, fabulous way of connecting to your readers Rachel…thank you for inspiring me to have faith and knowing it will be ‘overshadowed by the light of a beautiful moment’ one day 🙂

  12. 19

    Melissa says

    I taught 4 yrs in a behavior focus program and working with students on the ASD spectrum. I totally relate to your article and found myself reflecting on what those years taught me and how much of an impact my students had on me. The daily struggles were many, but we all made so much growth. It was worth every tear and heart pounding moment. Thanks for sharing!

  13. 20

    Waschika says

    Beautifully spoken or shall I say written! I felt just about every word you shared here. Thank you for being so transparent and real, saying what most of us stay at home, homeschool, or working moms may constantly be thinking but knows not how to verbally express these feelings. I feel like I’m alone in the circle of people that I’m surrounded by in thinking the way you write. Blessings to you and yours!

  14. 21


    Rachel, you have such a rare talent to see clearly through the haze. You’re such a beautiful soul! The thing is, no matter how great those photographers made you look, you’ll always be more beautiful from within. Nothing can outshine that light.

  15. 23

    Tammie Chelberg says

    Oh my! Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! I am an EA in special ed and I am going to post this on our wall. I so wish every teacher felt the way you do and not just sit behind the computer. I am sure that you have made a difference in a lot of children’s life’s. That is what gets us all through the day. It is the little things that keep us coming back to work everyday even though the day before we got hit bit and kicked. I love my job and can not imagine not doing it and seeing those smiles and getting through the little things like eating with a spoon. It is the little things that keep us all doing this job. So thank you!

  16. 24

    Kristin says

    Thank you Rachel. Your words are the words I needed to hear today. I love my job as a teacher, but like you there are days when I cry out of frustration for those students that I just can’t seem to reach.

  17. 26

    Diane says

    Your posts never fail to make me appreciate the life I have right now. And how you remind me to value relationships more than anything else.

  18. 27

    Jessica says

    I am sincerely always touched, moved and humbled by your posts… they hit my heart each time in the exact place I need it. (even when sometimes it reminds me to do more- be more- try more.. sometimes the exact place isn’t easy… but it is powerful!) I want to THANK YOU for reaching out to us-for letting God use you… because HE is using you to speak to me and to my heart. Simply thank you!

  19. 28

    Carrie says

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I am the mother of two biological sons and 2 adopted sons. The two that are adopted (5 and 4 years old) have some behavior issues and trauma issues that have made our ability to bond very difficult for us. I was reading your posts on a very hard day and I felt so much better about my role as their parent after reading them. Thank you so much for being so honest in your posts!!!

  20. 29

    Ayla says

    Rachel, I understand what you meant when you said that you felt like a fraud about showing the world the version of you with every hair in place, etc. But you know what? In a way it was a celebration of you, a way of saying, “I survived this.” And not only are you beautiful on the outside from it, but you are also more beautiful on the inside. Kyle could see that so clearly. Bless you.

    • 30


      Ayla, you have extended such a loving and uplifting perspective to me. You don’t know how much this helps me. The article comes out in a few months and thinking about what you said will really help me with my feelings about it. I am truly grateful. Thank you for this gift.

  21. 31


    Hi Rachel,

    I caught this piece while researching for subject matter for a new client.
    I am not known for being an emotional sort (my wife calls me a robot), but I found your post very touching and on the money. You have explained how tough the “parenting/teaching” journey is and how the prize at the end is worth more than all the shiny objects that often substitute for showing how much you care.

    Nice one and all the best


  22. 32


    Yes yes yes, encouraging each other as a community of women (and dads!) to let go of the perfect…the striving, trying. YES, just letting it all go. Saying to each other, “I see you. I see your vulnerability. And I LOVE you all the more because of it! It encourages ME to be real and raw and vulnerable!” Thank you, Rachel. Love, Lisa

  23. 33


    I was at a meeting with all the counselors from my school district. We were asked if there were any unique “de-stressing” techniques that we were using to help ourselves in this stressful time (our district is going through some major changes.) I shared your Heartbeat Check and how, at the end of each night, it serves as a reminder as to what’s truly important in my life. Several people were inspired, and I had several emails asking for the link to your blog… I truly appreciate what you’ve started here. My husband and children appreciate their “unplugged” momma as well. THANK YOU!

  24. 36

    Linda Phillips says

    Thank you. I have tears running down my face as I write this, because this sometimes feels like my life. My two boys both have differing behavioural issues and it is the small moments of pure love like these that keeps me going when times are rough. I admire your ability to work with these children, it can be a thankless task, but when you discover you’ve made a connection with one of these special kids, it can be life changing.

  25. 39

    Tara says

    I am new to your hands free site and thought I would like to go back and start at the beginning I decided for times sake to start at Jan 2013. Sometimes in your blogs you reference older blogs which are related and which I would like to read but when I click on them they bring up errors. Curious if these older posts are not available anymore or the links are just broken

  26. 40

    Julia Kurskaya says

    You didn’t quit for all the 180 days?! No matter how hard it was, you kept on coming to that classroom every day! That nearly brought me to tears. I would have run away after a week, I guess. You believed in those kids, I’m sure you’ve made a great difference in their lives. You are so strong, Rachel. Unbelievably strong.

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