From Seeing My Worst in You to Seeing Hope for Both of Us

13

‘Cause I am done with my graceless heart
So tonight I’m gonna cut it out and then restart
‘Cause I like to keep my issues strong
It’s always darkest before the dawn.
-Florence and the Machine

You turned 13 years old this week, my beautiful daughter.

I can’t help but feel celebratory and hopeful when I look at you.

It hasn’t always been that way. For many years, I looked at you and saw the damage I’d done. I saw the traits I didn’t like in myself—ones I’d inadvertently passed down to you.

too impatient

too controlling

too worry wart

too task driven

too rushed

too independent

too overreacting

too secretive

too sensitive

too perfectionistic

too contentious

For many years, I was afraid the damage was done … and could not be redeemed.

But then I stood in front of an audience, baring my soul. You stood off to the side, away from the crowd. I wasn’t sure if you stood there in case you needed to make a fast getaway or because you didn’t want to miss a single word. I was nervous to see your reaction to my honest admissions. Yes, you’d experienced life with a critical, hurried, distracted, and spread-too-thin mother, but this would be the first time you heard my most difficult confessions spoken out loud.

My main concern was that the description you were about to hear about the “old me” – particularly the characteristics I was trying to soften and reign in – would sound an awful lot like you. I didn’t want you to think that just because I needed to make changes, you did too. I didn’t want you to think there was anything wrong with the way you were. One thing was for certain: keeping my struggles and triumphs to myself would not be helping anyone. I swallowed my fear and began to speak.

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A Way for Kids to Learn What the Right Choice Feels Like

DSC_0472 “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” –Helen Keller

The litter of kittens arrived at our house last Wednesday night just before midnight. It was a desperate situation—I knew the minute I heard the emotional plea from the owner of the cat shelter where my daughters and I volunteer.

“The maintenance man at a nearby apartment building was going to kill them if no one came and got them.”

Kill them –

Not call animal control or ask some of the apartment residents if they could help.

Kill them.

Just kill them.

“I can detect empty threats, Rachel, and this is not one of them,” the shelter owner continued. “I know you did not sign up to foster cats, but I already have twenty in my house. I wanted to see if you’d be willing to foster the kittens until they’re old enough to be placed up for adoption.”

While I am usually a planner, thinking carefully through all decisions that impact our family, I answered immediately. “Yes, of course,” I said without hesitation, praying my not-a-fan-of-cats husband would understand.

Very late that night the five-week-old kittens arrived. My older daughter Natalie insisted on waiting by the door and helping me get them settled. It was only their second night without their mother who was very sick from outdoor elements, lack of nourishment, and an infectious tick bite.

But the kittens did not cry. They relaxed when we held them. They purred loudly and nestled in for warmth.

Image 17

The next morning I sent an explanatory text message (hopeful plea) to my husband who was out of town at the time of the kittens’ arrival. I also added some adorable photos for extra reinforcement. (Couldn’t hurt!)

A few minutes later, my husband texted back: “You did the right thing.”
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Taking Off the Ticking Clock

 

taking off the ticking clock #handsfreemama.com

It was while watching my daughter eat a sno-cone on a summer trip to the beach that I experienced a life-changing epiphany.

Truth be told, it was our second trip to The Sno-Cone Shack in three days. (Believe me, these were not your average sno-cones.) On this particular visit, Avery got a scoop of wedding cake and a scoop of cherry. I don’t think I will ever forget how delicious that unlikely combination of flavors tasted when  my daughter gave me the very last bite.

Because I didn’t hurry her.

Because I said, “Take your time, baby. We don’t have to rush.”

Because that big ol’ ticking clock that I wore around my neck during my impatient Hurry Up Years had been left behind. Without the squeeze of that ticking clock around my throat, I could breathe; my child could breathe. I was all there with my daughter on that unforgettable day.

stopped saying 'hurry up' #handsfreemama

I ended up writing about the sno-cone experience and provided a painful glimpse of what life was like when I pushed and prodded that same little girl through her day. I had no idea millions of people would eventually read those painful truths—but even if I had known, I still would’ve written it—for the people walking around with the heavy clocks around their necks.

I had the chance to edit the story before The Huffington Post published it. I remember looking at the live preview thinking I should probably add something like:  “While it is important to have unhurried moments in life, it is equally important to instill a sense of responsibility and promptness in our children.” After all, I was a teacher for ten years. I know full well the importance of promptness and dependability.

But I didn’t change one word of that story. Not one. I knew I would take some heat, but I was okay with that. I was writing to The Clock Wearers of the World—the ones functioning at one speed and one speed only … the ones “hurry upping” their loved ones through life even when it wasn’t necessary … the ones who’d lost sight of what really mattered by living in constant state of urgency. I knew breathing was becoming labored for those wearing the ticking clocks heavy on their chests. I knew because that is how I lived for so long.

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The Sleep Plan That Eased My Child’s Worries & Made Me a Better Person

DSC_0911“Let me carry your burden
If something’s not right I will let you know
Like the paint that’s drying on a heart that’s poor
Let me carry your burden
Get you back on a high when you’re feeling low
When the weight’s too heavy but you won’t let go.”
Foy Vance, Burden

Last week my daughters and I traveled to the beautiful hills of Asheville, North Carolina to celebrate my precious parents’ 54th wedding anniversary. My younger daughter begged to room with my older sister, Rebecca. This meant my almost 13-year-old daughter, Natalie, and I would be roomies. Although I was thrilled for this sacred time with her, I knew this combination could mean trouble. The two of us are cut from the same ultra productive, list-checking, resistant-to-relax cloth and have the tendency to come alive at night. Whether it’s watching a show, organizing a closet, planning a project, or playing with our cat, we don’t wind down; we wind up. While it can feel like a good idea at the time, there is always a repercussion for sacrificing sacred sleeping hours. It doesn’t take long to see the telltale signs of sleep deprivation in my girl. Within a few days, there are dark circles underlined with irritability, forgetfulness, and distractibility. I can recognize these danger signs in my daughter because I spent two years denying them in myself.

Contained within the two-year period of my intentional sleep deprivation are some of my most painful and embarrassing memories. During that time, I smashed my husband’s coffee pot in anger. I blew through a red light while completely lost in thought, nearly hitting the driver of an oncoming truck. I screamed at my beautiful family one night and ran out to my car, pajamas clad and barefoot, thinking I might leave forever.

There are more stories, all equally difficult to type through blurry tears. But one can be certain my sleep deprivation stories all contain irrational thinking, poor decision making, overreaction, raised voices, and regret … lots and lots of regret.

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That Moment When Your Flaws & Failings Don’t Matter

eyes HFMI see the whole world in your eyes
It’s like I’ve known you all my life
We just feel so right
So I pour my heart into your hands
It’s like you really understand
You love the way I am.”
-Rachel Platten, Better Place

On Monday night, my nine-year-old daughter announced she was going to practice one last time for the upcoming third grade talent show. The following day, she’d be performing “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten, which we both knew would be crowd pleaser among her young classmates.

As she began to play, I closed my eyes, imagining for a moment what the children’s faces would look like as she began to strum and sing. Most of her classmates had never heard this girl sing, let alone play guitar. As she shared her musical gift in that spotlight moment, I knew it would be hard for her to contain her smile.

But I would not know for sure because I would not be there to witness it.

“Parents aren’t allow to come to the third grade talent show, Mom,” she’d said matter-of-factly two weeks ago, breaking my heart right in half.

“What? You must be mistaken,” I said feeling inappropriately emotional about this news.

“Nope. No parents. It’s just for kids,” she said doing nothing to soften the blow … that is, until she saw the look on my face. Patting my hand gently, she said, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be fine.”

I knew she would be fine. I’d watched her confidence blossom over the past year. I knew she would take the stage by storm. Selfishly, I wanted to be there to see it. Standing in an auditorium or classroom with shining eyes as my child reads a story she wrote, recites a line in a play, or sings alone or with a group, is my moment of redemption. My child scans the crowd until she finds me, and I look at her with all the love in my heart. In that moment, guilt cannot touch me. Regret leaves the premises. Mistakes of the past completely vanish. All that’s left is proof I have loved; it is written all over her face.

Three years ago I grasped this redemptive gift for the very first time. I immediately knew it was not exclusive to me, nor was it mine to keep. So I wrote it down. Today, it is yours … word for word. May these words be the reminder you need this very moment. May your flaws and failings fall away so all you are left with is hope …

last pic HFM

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What’s Stronger Than a Tormentor

set it free

And I got this love in me.
But it’s not just mine to keep.
Like treasure that’s buried deep.
I come alive when I set it free.
—Judah & the Lion, Love in Me

My daughters and I have been volunteering at a cat shelter for several months now. I knew it would be painful to fall in love with cats we couldn’t take home with us. I knew it would be painful to not be able to rescue them all. But I felt certain that the joy of this experience would outweigh the pain.

I knew this, yet something caught me off guard.

It was an email message from the shelter director to all the volunteers about an obtrusive chain that would be added immediately to the already padlocked cages. Apparently someone was caught in the act of tormenting an animal. The helpless victim was Bob the cat—five-year-old Bob who is already severely depressed because his owner had to give him up. Bob who meows a lot but loves to be free from his cage so he can explore.

DSC_0018

The director’s email went on to list other cruel acts occurring over the past year in this small cat shelter housed in a local Petsmart. I tried to keep reading the email message, but when I got to the part about someone trying to pry a kitten out of the small opening at the bottom of the cage, I could not read anymore.

To be honest, I broke down.

I covered my face in my hands and cried. It may seem ridiculous to some, but my heart for animals is huge. My hope for the world in which my children and future grandchildren will live in is even bigger.

But not then.

Not in that moment.

Suddenly, things looked especially bleak.

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Breaking a Common Barrier to Better Myself & Expand My Child’s Future

 DSC_0643

“I didn’t know I was lonely ’til I saw your face.”
Bleachers, I Wanna Get Better

“Instead of riding the bus today, could we go to breakfast and then could you drop me off at school?” my almost thirteen-year-old daughter unexpectedly asked me on a recent Friday morning.

My Type-A, plan-happy brain initially resisted this spontaneous invitation. While my brain began to list the reasons I couldn’t, my eyes saw something else. Standing in front of me was a not-so-little girl in stylish tribal print pants that were just a little long for her small physique. They wouldn’t be too long forever, I knew. She would grow into them; it wouldn’t be long.

“Okay,” I said, suddenly grateful to have an hour alone with this beautiful, growing girl.

After having a nice visit over chicken biscuits, we ran into a nearby store for a piece of poster board. As we stood in the checkout line, a woman pulled her cart up behind us. Standing in the back was a little girl who appeared to be three or four years old.

“Mama, can I get out?” the little girl asked.

No response.

“Mama, can I get out?” she repeated—this time a little louder.

Still no response.

“Mama, please can I get out?” the child politely asked as the woman used her pointer finger to scroll down the screen of her phone, happily smiling to herself.

As the little girl continued to ask the same question, her left leg inched higher and higher over the grocery cart until it appeared she was going to get out herself. My daughter, sensing the little girl was about to fall, quickly stepped next to the cart, preparing to catch her.

The little girl looked at my daughter and put her leg back in the cart. She began asking the same question once again, in hopes her mother might respond to her pleas.

We hadn’t even made it to the car when I saw tears forming in my daughter’s eyes. As she shut the door, she quietly said, “That made me really sad.”

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Here, You Can Breathe … Here, You Are Enough

DSC_0091

Hold tight; you’re slowly coming back to life.
I’ll be keeping your head up.
Let go of all your haunted dreams tonight.
I’ll be keeping your head up.
Birdy

*name has been changed for privacy reasons

Six weeks ago, I was feeling unsteady, depleted, and far away from myself. I was finding it difficult to do my job … to respond or communicate … to do laundry … look presentable … and leave the house. I knew my fragility was a result of extending myself beyond reasonable limits and neglecting to give myself proper time and care after multiple surgeries and an intense book-writing period.

It went against every fiber of my conscientious, people-pleasing nature, but I began declining or flat out ignoring the many requests of my time and energy that kept pouring in despite my vow to create some breathing room. The world is not going to give me permission to stop; I reminded myself. I am the only one who can give myself a reprieve. I decided my family and my emotional wellbeing were going to be my focus during this restoration period I called ‘coming back to life’ … my life … as opposed to accepting a depleted life lived according to other people’s demands and expectations.

I knew it was no coincidence that around the same time I created breathing room to reconnect with my heart and the heart of my family, two volunteer opportunities fell into my lap. Even more convincing was they were on my daughters’ “wish list” when we moved to our new state almost two years ago. To be a volunteer at an animal shelter was Natalie’s wish. To “adopt a cute, elderly person” was Avery’s wish. In the busyness of life over the past two years, I’d nearly forgotten my daughters had once expressed the desire to have these particular opportunities.

And now here they were.

At the same time.

When I was trying to create breathing room.

As you can probably guess, my initial reaction to these opportunities was irritation. Really? I am having trouble getting my own cat’s liter box clean right now. How am I supposed to garner the energy to leave the house and clean twelve of them?

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Being Kindest to the Ones You’re Closest To

kindest

“We are love.
We are one.
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are peace.
We are war.
We are how we treat each other and nothing more.”
–The Alternate Routes

Being an author can be a lonely occupation. But most of the time, my introverted self thrives in the solitude. I relish the control I have over work decisions and work environment. But there are times, particularly book deadlines times, when I’d do anything to have a colleague peek over the cubicle and say, “We’re in the home stretch! We got this!” or “You want to take the last few paragraphs of this section, and I’ll run with the conclusion?”

As I neared my recent book deadline, I felt the aloneness, the weight of it all, bearing down squarely on my shoulders. With this being my third book, it was possible most people assumed I had this in the bag. Rachel’s got this—most of my loyal supporters probably thought. But I didn’t. Instead of becoming more energized as I reached the finish line, I became more uncertain, more emotional, and more depleted. I knew I was going to drag myself across the finish line, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. I saw the red flags—the urge to speak in short, snippy responses … the lack of patience … the surplus of irritability. Sadly, my discontent was directed at one person—the person I am closest to … the person who loves me at my worst … the person who knows me better than anyone else.

My husband knew the book deadline was looming, but hadn’t noted the exact day it was due. In his mind, he was doing many things to support me during this intense and challenging time. But in my mind, I was alone in my cubicle. My team had deserted me. The momentous March 1st date starred and circled on my calendar for almost a year was just another day at my house. The team high-fives and clinking glasses I’d been hoping for didn’t happen. As you can guess, my fatigued, weary self did not communicate my disappointment to my husband very well.

The good news was there were no slamming doors or tearful meltdowns. There were no squealing tires or smashed coffee pots like the days of old. But there was a severe lack of perspective. I could only see the situation through my eyes. And because of my fragile state of aloneness, it was hard to let go of my disappointment and see it any other way.
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Your Role in a Loved One’s Struggle

DSC_0869

“Oh, why you look so sad?
Tears are in your eyes
Come on and come to me now.
Don’t be ashamed to cry
Let me see you through
’cause I’ve seen the dark side too.”
–The Pretenders

When we moved to a new state almost two years ago, I knew there would be challenging moments for my daughters, then eleven and eight years old. We’d gone from a school where they knew everyone to a school where they knew no one. Even swim team, which my older daughter excelled in for many years, was drastically different. She went from a family-friendly year-round program at the YMCA to a large, competitive program with the area’s most elite swimmers. I can vividly recall two moments during the first year in our new state when I saw my older daughter’s pain and wanted to spare her from it.

The first moment was when her beloved teacher abruptly left the classroom one day and never came back. For personal reasons, the teacher was not able to say goodbye to the students. I can still hear my daughter’s guttural cries wondering why her teacher left them.

The second moment was in the final championship of a divisional swim meet. Earlier that day, my daughter missed the cut off for finals by one spot in the 50-meter breaststroke event. We were informed that she could come back that evening as an alternate. This meant she’d warm up as if she was going to swim and report to the starting blocks when her event was called. When the first whistle sounded, she would quickly scan the blocks. If a block was empty, she was to quickly jump up on the block and swim the race.

Just the thought of this agonizing process made my palms sweat! As a cautious planner with the tendency to worry, I was surprised my daughter wanted to put herself in such an unpredictable situation. But she did. I’ll never forget standing next to her as her eyes frantically scanned the blocks, her hands clasped nervously in hopes of there being an empty spot.

When there wasn’t, I saw her shoulders fall. Her eyelids blinked in rapid succession as she fought back tears of disappointment.
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