What a “Hands Free” Fall Looks Like

It all started with an innocent glass jar filled with heavy cream.

I watched as my 9-year-old daughter shook and shook with excitement until … ta-da! Real butter! She even made a batch of toast so the whole family could try her succulent creation.

“It has no chemicals, no fake ingredients. This is not processed food; this is called REAL food,” she declared as if taping an infomercial for “The Butter Shaker 5000.”

My 6-year-old daughter needed no persuasion; her small hand, which happened to fit perfectly inside the jar, went in for another heaping spoonful. Toast was completely unnecessary.

As I watched my children enjoy the natural goodness of this simple culinary treat, I felt a tinge of discomfort. However, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why I felt such unease.

A few hours later, I discovered my open lap top computer. Posted on the screen was a PowerPoint slide show the kids had created. The title was: “How to Make Halloween Costumes For Kids.” With each click, I watched my youngest child transform from a fairy to a witch, from a “cheer girl” to a scary monster—all with a few stitches of fabric and a whole lot of creativity.

There it was again—that uncomfortable feeling. When I should have been marveling, I felt like crying.

Shouldn’t I be the one making homemade butter?

Shouldn’t I be the one making handmade costumes?

I know, I know. It is so wrong. I’m the one who just weeks ago was declaring the fabulous freedom to raise a child.

But I am human. And I live in the same world you live in—the one where afternoon snacks can resemble palm trees if you arrange the apple slices and carrot sticks just so on the colorful plate … the world where back-to-school means coordinated outfits in earthy tones with unsmudged eye glasses sitting perfectly on bright, shiny faces … the world where organizational cork boards align kitchen walls so you don’t forget the easily forgettable letter sack containing an object that starts with “C.” (Which consequently, I have discovered is an object that is virtually impossible to find at seven o’clock in the morning.)

[Read more...]

Place Your Hands On What Matters

A special thank you to the family pictured here who I called a day after I witnessed this extraordinary moment and was willing to recapture it with their camera for today's message.

My eight-year-old daughter recently performed in her holiday piano recital.

Normally I get teary-eyed watching my children in any type of performance, whether they are singing at the top of their lungs atop a rock at the park or whether they are in a packed auditorium with sheet music and a microphone.

But my child’s musical rendition isn’t what brought me to tears on this cold day in late December. It was a gesture so small and so inconspicuous that it could have easily been missed.

But because I am on a journey to grasp what matters, I am constantly searching for divine signs of inspiration along the way.

This was one such sign …

[Read more...]

Come Closer

Being Hands Free to grasp what really matters often means going outside my comfort zone, not taking the “easy,” route, and accepting the fact that the way I’ve “always done it,” may not be the best way.

Usually it begins with a voice in my head; I call it my Hands Free inner voice. It pushes me to do things I don’t necessarily want to do, but need to do, in order to grasp what really matters.

My Hands Free voice recently spoke to me. Although it would have been easier to simply push the suggestion away, I acted on it. And the results far exceeded my expectations.

This is my story…

A few weeks ago, I read an article entitled, “Why Roughhousing is Good For Kids and Their Parents” by Lylah M. Alphonse.

The article describes the physical, emotional, behavioral and social benefits that children receive by engaging in a little “rough and tumble” with either or both of their parents.

Although my memories as a four-year-old are a bit hazy, there is one activity I do remember vividly. And the article on roughhousing seemed to bring it to the forefront of my mind.

I can still recall standing, for what seemed like hours, at the screen door of our house watching for my dad’s car to pull in the driveway.

As soon as my dad would get home from work, my favorite game of all time would begin. It was quite appropriately called, “Getcha,” which definitely sounds like a name four-year-old Rachel made up.

My sister and I would huddle together in “fear,” the minute Dad would get on all fours in the living room. Yet we knew full well that sticking together would not save us from the all-powerful “Getcha” hand.

We would fake scream at the top of our lungs, act like we were trying to get away (but not really), and squeal with delight when Dad grabbed us and started tickling our bellies.

On occasion, we would get a little wild and out of control, which is when we would hear Mom call from the kitchen, “O.K., now. That is enough roughhousing.”

I remember thinking “roughhousing” was such a strange word and such a poor description of what we were doing. I figured my mom made it up to sound unappealing and “parental.” To me, there was nothing “rough” about it.  In my four-year-old opinion, it was the best kind of “playing” that existed.

And now thirty-four years later, roughhousing still has the same appeal to my kids that it did to me back then.

My daughters love roughhousing with their uncle. He doesn’t have kids of his own yet, so he has an unlimited supply of energy that is not artificially produced by large quantities of caffeine. He rarely uses the word “no” and doesn’t have back issues. So given all those variables, he is the perfect candidate for “roughhousing,” or what my children refer to as, “Tackle Time.”

Whenever I mention an impending visit from their uncle, the girls’ eyes begin to twinkle and in unison they excitedly exclaim, “Tackle Time!”

I love to hear their joyful shrieks as he “captures” them, whips them around, tosses them over his shoulder and then squeezes them in a giant bear hug until they laughingly cry out for mercy. (It’s the best kind of laughter…the silent, uncontrollable kind that causes wet pants.)

There may have been certain points in my life when I would have worried about their safety or thought the play was too rough, but now I know this type of physical contact and interaction is vital to my children’s overall emotional and physical well-being.

So here’s where the Hands Free inner voice came into the picture and started asking a lot of questions…or actually began repeating the same question over and over.

The question that kept coming up was this: What types of physical connection do you have with your children?

The first child that came to mind was my four-year-old. Her nickname, “Ooey Dooey,” was given to her in the first week of life, but still suits her perfectly. There is just something soft, cuddly and warm about her. She even has a name for her own huggable nature. She calls it her “Ooey-ness.”

Wouldn’t we all love to possess some of that?

There is just something about my four-year-old daughter that makes you want to wrap your arms around her and pull her close. And when you do, she never rebukes. She actually melts right into you. Pure Ooey-ness.

At the conclusion of “Question Time” each night, our nightly “cuddle ritual” occurs.

I pull her close and say, “I’m am soooo tired. I think I will just sleep right here. Will you be my teddy bear?”

She smiles, (while simultaneously sucking her thumb), and nods an emphatic “yes.” I nestle her in close and I plant a million little kisses the soft cushiony spot right under her chin.

That is just what we do. Every.Single.Night.

Yes, my four-year-old gets that critical physical contact needed to flourish and prosper; we are good in that department.

So what about my eight-year-old?

Time to step into the light of realness, Rachel.

(Have I mentioned the Hands Free inner voice hardly ever gets it wrong?)

Somewhere along the line, the physical contact between my oldest child and me has been watered down to a quick kiss on the forehead or a three-second hug as I tuck her in at night.

Perhaps the reduction in our physical contact over the years is a result of her getting “too old” for Mom’s long lingering hugs or cuddle time. Perhaps it is because her leaned out swim team physique no longer has the “Ooey-ness “quality it once had. Or perhaps it is because she doesn’t sit still for long periods of time (not when one has so many lesson plans to write!).

Well, the Hands Free inner voice is not one for excuses, and I have learned that excuses are a waste of precious time. The fact of the matter is this: my eight-year-old needs physical connection (in some form or fashion) from her mom. In fact, it is a critical part of her healthy development.

So five nights ago, things changed.

At the conclusion of our nightly “Talk Time,” a question unexpectedly came from my mouth.

“Can I listen to your heart beat?” I asked.

She looked as surprised as I was by this request, but said, “O.K.”

I will admit, at first it seemed a bit awkward.

But then as she lay so perfectly still and her steady heartbeat filled my ears, the awkwardness melted away, and I was absorbed in the moment…a beautiful moment of connection.

“My goodness, you have a strong heart,” I whispered.

I could see her white teeth glowing in the darkness as she smiled with her whole face.

“It’s because of swim team,” she answered with certainty.

And because my head rested on her chest, it was easy to wrap my arms around her. I just remained there. No talking was needed as I became hypnotized by the beat of her heart.

And when I felt her hands wrap around me, I knew our “Heartbeat Check” must happen again.

So the at the conclusion of “Talk Time” the following night, I said, “I better check your heartbeat.”

She giggled.

I listened for a few moments and realized it was much slower than the night before.

“I think you have been taking it easy today. Your heart is so calm,” I teased.

“I think it is from the ice cream I just ate,” she surmised.

And then we just lay there, my head on her heart, her arms around my shoulders.

Suddenly, I heard the most beautiful sound.

As she nuzzled her nose into my hair and took a deep breath in, this tender little sigh of contentedness came out of her mouth as she exhaled.

“Mmmmmmm,” she murmured softly.

And then, “Mama.”

I kissed every freckle on her nose and cheeks, and then told her how much I love her.

Before I shut the door, she said, “Don’t forget I have a swim meet tomorrow night. I wonder what my heart beat will be like then!”

Now I was the one smiling with my whole face. This was her way of telling me she liked this new bedtime tradition and wanted it to continue.

It has been five days now.

Words are seldom needed now; the awkwardness is completely gone. With each “Heartbeat Check,” our connection through touch grows stronger.

Although I initially created this Hands Free tactic for the sole benefit of my daughter, I’ve discovered that I, too, am reaping the rewards.

A few days after the nightly “Heartbeat Check” began, we found ourselves in a 25-minute wait outside a restaurant standing in the pouring rain.

My daughter leaned her whole body up against mine, as if to hug me. Instead, she looked up at me with her big brown eyes and said, “Now let me hear your heart beat, Mama.”

How did she know?

It was exactly what I needed.

As I stood on the verge of whining about a trivial inconvenience in my blessed life, she reminded me of what truly mattered.

My daughter rested her head on my chest, and I felt my blood pressure instantly lower. Suddenly a message I had written two weeks prior came back to me. It was my daughter’s 8th birthday message:

I have learned more from your heart in eight years than I could learn in a lifetime without you.

Coincidence?

No way.

Nothing on the Hands Free journey to grasp what really matters is coincidental.

With every beat of her heart, my daughter will continue to guide me to the place I long to be.

And in a rowdy, rambunctious bear hug, I will embrace what really matters. Just like my dad did when we played “Getcha,” the best game in the world.

******************************************

Do you roughhouse, pillow fight, or play tackle with your kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews? What forms of physical contact do you enjoy with your family? I would love to hear!

And if your Hands Free inner voice is already asking questions, you know what to do.

The beauty of going Hands Free is that it is never too late to grasp what matters. Tomorrow is gone, but you have today. My friends, you have today. All it takes is making a choice to grasp what matters. Do it today.

Tipping The Scales

On the way home from my Mother’s Day dinner, my daughters asked if we could visit the pet store.

My husband and I happily oblige our daughters’ requests for pet store visits as these adventures allow us to put off actually buying a pet for awhile longer.

Typically, both my daughters enjoy watching the furry four-legged animals. But on this day, my oldest daughter made her way to the back of the store with her dad while the hyperactive hamsters and spastic ferrets entertained my four-year-old and me.

After ten minutes, we wandered to the back of the store to see what the rest of the family was doing.

There stood my seven-year-old transfixed on the wall of aquariums. She didn’t even notice when we walked up.

“Are you ready to go home?” I asked.

Her eyes didn’t leave the sight of silver mollies that glittered like a string of diamonds as she said, “Can we stay a little longer, Mama?”

I paused for a moment and watched her captivated by the fish. We stood in front of pet store fish tanks hundreds of times before, but something was different this time.

But I didn’t know what.

By now my four-year-old was begging me to make the chubby brown hamster “talk,” like I had minutes before.

I grabbed her hand and we went to see what tiny compartment the little ball of chub had squeezed himself into now.

After an additional fifteen minutes, we returned to the fish tank section to see that my oldest daughter had made her way to the last row of aquariums.

“Time to go,” I called.

As we were leaving, my daughter spotted an aquarium, not huge, but much larger than the small container that currently holds her single Betta fish.

She stopped at the tank and carefully read the information on the sign below it; I could see the wheels turning.

As soon as we got in the car, she made an announcement.

“I have decided what I would really like to have for my eighth birthday is an aquarium with several fish.  The aquarium at the pet store is $49.00. I know that is expensive, so that is the only gift I am going to ask for this year.”

And then came the part that really surprised me, “And I don’t need a birthday party. The aquarium is the only thing I want.”

Wow. Willing to give up her birthday party. Perhaps she does mean business about these fish, I surmised.

I told her we would think about it in the weeks ahead. I was quite sure that for each day leading up to her birthday, there would be a new gift idea.

The same rule of inconsistency holds true for Halloween costumes. The day that one of my daughters decides she wants to be a witch, and I order the costume, is the same day she decides, “No, I don’t want to be a witch this year. I would rather be a cowgirl, or a pirate, or a fairy, or a race car driver.”

But unlike the indecisiveness of choosing a Halloween costume, my seven-year-old has not changed her mind about the fish. Not in the least.

It has been twenty-nine days since we visited that pet store. And in those days, my child has become a full-fledged ichthyologist, studying fish like it is her job. My daughter has become a self-created fish expert.

I have found typed lists like this one randomly placed about the house:

I have discovered hand printed lists like this one next to her pillow, stuffed in her backpack, and taped to the walls:

The search history on the Internet contains phrases with everything from: “tropical fish for beginners” to “ very small pet sharks.”

She charts the pros and cons of fresh water fish vs. salt-water fish.

She studies fish facts while going to the bathroom, while drifting to sleep, and while riding in the car.

She enlightens those around her with facts like: Fishes have two temperaments, peaceful and aggressive. (Quickly noting that although many aggressive fish look pretty, she would never buy a fish that would eat his friends.)

She knows there are care levels: beginner, intermediate, and advance, and is wisely aware that she needs fish in the beginner category.

Her favorite website to shop for fish used to be www.bluezooaquatics.com, until she realized they only sell saltwater fish. So now she prefers www.liveaquarium.net  because they sell fresh water fish, AND “they have the best prices.”

Our nightly “talk time” has become “Fish Education For Mom.” (Or on some nights, I will admit, I refer to our discussion as, “More Than I Will Ever Need to Know About Fish.”)

She randomly throws out sentences like, “I do not want a guppy in my fish tank. I read that they die easily,” and “Can you believe an eel costs $102.00!”

Her face lights up when you ask to see the fish pictures she has printed.

She becomes down right giddy when simply talking about fish she dreams of owning.

All my skeptical thoughts about her seriousness of wanting a fish tank for her eighth birthday have been silenced.

I am totally convinced this is exactly what she wants (all she wants) for her eighth birthday. And my husband and I are amazed and delighted at her newfound passion for learning about and caring for fish.

As I watch her animated facial expressions and listen to her speak about fish with such incredible joy, I can’t help but realize a change occurred in my daughter from age seven to eight.

And I find myself asking, “Why the change? Why now?”

Maybe she was always this excited about grasping new and interesting things in life, and I had just been “too busy” to notice.

Maybe through her recent opportunities of helping tornado survivors she realized the value of material things fade, but feelings, memories and experiences endure.

Maybe it was a year of sitting in doctor’s offices hoping for some relief from her worsening pain and now finally, finally seeing a ray of light.

Or maybe it is that she is just getting older, wiser, and more mature.

There is definitely been a change from age seven to eight. And I can’t help but notice that her change coincides with my own change.

My journey to grasp what really matters began last July. In the past eleven months I have made a conscious effort to cut the excess in my life, both the tangible excess and the intangible excess. I have made a conscious effort to slow down and place my focus on the beautiful moments that make up my lifetime.

I will never forget the moment I heard my seven-year-old daughter describing my blog to someone.

She said, “My mama writes stories that help others learn about being a good parent and doing nice stuff for other people.”

Then she proudly added, “My sister and I are the stars of Hands Free Mama; we are what it is all about.”

I have to agree.

My children are my greatest teachers.

My children are my greatest role models.

My children are my greatest motivators.

My children are the reason I want to make life count.

I just had to slow down long enough to realize it.

And now the beautiful result of my decision to live Hands Free is this: What my daughter wants out of life, even at the young age of eight, has fallen in line with what I want.

Instead of throwing money in the direction of toys she will outgrow, balloons that will shrivel, cake that will quickly disappear, and invitations that will be thrown out with the trash, she has set her sights on:

Brilliant colors and tranquil moments,

Lovingly caring for God’s creatures,

And having the surreal magnificence of the underwater world right at her fingertips.

I can’t help but look forward to June 21st, 2011…

I envision the whole family standing before my daughter’s new fish tank. Each one of us will point to our favorite fish. We will think of silly names for the red and black one and a cutesy name for the yellow one. We will admire their tiny movements and delicate beauty.

Suddenly we will find ourselves absorbed in the slow, peaceful fish performance that captivates our eyes and calms our hearts.

And as we marvel at my daughter’s eighth birthday gift, we will be grateful for the change that brought us here, the change that brought us all here together.

*****************************************************

What are your children’s passions? Do you allow them to develop or steer them in a direction of your choosing? Take some time to talk to your child, teenager or grandchild about what interests him or her.  If he or she cannot think of anything, this may the perfect opportunity to discover a hobby together.

Make this a summer to “tip the scales” in the direction of what really matters. Do it together.

The amount of meaningful memories your children have when they are adults depends on what you do NOW.  It’s in your hands.

If You Only Knew


The ability to know my children is in my hands.

*For the privacy of this individual, her name has been changed

In this journey to become Hands Free, I have really started listening. Not just listening more intently to my own inner thoughts and feelings, but listening to other people. I mean really listening.

A year ago, I am not sure I would have truly heard what this woman said. But with my Hands Free heart, I heard her words and they have been life changing. I share them with you now.

This is my story…

I recently found myself fully reclined in an oversized chair, draped in a crisp white sheet, amidst dimmed lighting and New Age relaxation music. I was about to receive a luxurious facial. It was a gift from a friend who recently had her fourth baby. She was convinced that she would not have made it through the trying last three months without my help and support, and this was her way of expressing gratitude.

As you know, I am a big fan of The Angel Impact. I was simply doing for her what others had done for me when I had a new baby. I was not expecting a lavish facial in return, but I was surely going to enjoy this generous gift.

Before the aesthetician came in, I crossed both my fingers and wished for one that did not have the gift of gab. It is not often that I have the opportunity to completely relax, let alone in a deluxe setting such as this one. The last thing I wanted to do was carry on a conversation.

A beautiful woman named Debbie* came in. After a brief introduction, she began rubbing the most delicious smelling substance on my face in gentle circular motions.

Ahhhh….at last…surreal, peaceful, relaxation.

“So Rachel, what is your occupation?”

Suddenly the small window of tranquility was closed abruptly.

I briefly considered giving her the quick, one word answer: “Mom,” or “Teacher,” or “Writer,” thereby indicating that getting to know one another was not one of my goals for this session.

But for some reason, I felt inclined to tell her about all three of my occupations. Then I explained how I was using my skills as a mom, teacher, and writer to author a book about making the most out of our time here on earth, particularly in respect to our children.

That is when Debbie said something that one year ago I would have missed. One year ago, I may have actually ignored her, simply acknowledging her words with a polite, “Uh huh.”

But things are different now. Thank God, things are different. And I listen because I have learned that you just never know when someone else has the words that you need to hear.

She said, “I just want to know my children, really know my children. That is all I want in my lifetime.”

At first it almost seemed like a silly, obvious notion to “know” my child, but after further thought, the critical concept of really knowing my child sent chills down my spine.

Because here’s the truth, the cold hard truth: the ability to really know our children is in jeopardy. Knowing our children has earned a spot on the In Danger of Extinction List.

Here is why…

In the jam packed, over-scheduled, constantly beeping, buzzing, media saturated, technology obsessed, stressed out, warp speed rat race that we call life, something is getting lost.

Personal connection is getting lost.

Human touch is getting lost.

Private conversation is getting lost.

While we are fully aware of what our children like to do, (insert mile long list of extracurricular activities here), do we really know who our children are as people?

And we, as adults, must take responsibility for the major part we play in the current deficiency in knowing, really knowing, our children.

A year ago, I was on the verge of not knowing my children (more on that in an upcoming post). Thank God, things are different now, but I still struggle. I still struggle to fight the distraction that invades my life and threatens to steal from me the only real connection that truly matters on this earth.

And to combat this struggle, I create reminders in the form of a list. I choose lists over long-winded paragraphs because they have a way of sticking with me, popping into my head at the precise moment I need them.

This list could serve as a “Hands Free Wake Up Call” or a “Hands Free Slap In the Face.” And I am not going to sit here and say that I don’t need it.

Because I do.

Every single day, I need to evaluate how I am using my precious time on this earth.

The following list helps me do just that.

This is the If You Know List, created with the help of my single, hip, and technologically savvy sister, Rebecca:

If you know exactly how many “likes” your latest Facebook status update has received in the past hour…

If you know the exact number of times your latest tweet has been retweeted…

If you know the number of TV shows your DVR exceeds the number of times you conversed with your child this week…

If you know the next 20 movies in your Netflix queue off the top of your head…

If you know the content on the TMZ blog so thoroughly that your friends regularly ask you for the latest celeb gossip…

If you know all there is to know about Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Ping, Yelp, Foursquare and Meetup…

If you know where your Kindle is at all times of the day and night…

If you know the latest status updates of your 500 Facebook friends…

If you know how to text proficiently while in the dark, with your eyes closed, with an injured finger, under the influence of alcohol…

If you know all the Twitter names of Kayne’s followers…

If you know the latest ring tones available from Lady GaGa…

If you know there is seasonal wallpaper available for your Blackberry and change it accordingly…

If you know the personal ringtones for each of your 300+ iPhone contacts…

If you know the number of times each Hollywood Wife has been married and the names of the all the MTV Teen Moms’ babies…

If you know how to discreetly check email while in church, at a wedding, or at a school function…

If you know any and all sport scores with the help of ESPN, as well as MLB, NFL and NHL digital cable sports packages…

If you know the location of your multiple phones at all times, but occasionally lose track of your children…

If you know the dangers of texting while driving, but do it anyway…

If you know you should turn off your computer and spend time with your children, but you don’t…

If you know you really shouldn’t keep the phone on the table at dinner, but you do it anyway…

If you know you could return emails after your kids go to bed, but you choose to ignore them instead…

If you know you are wasting an opportunity to converse with your child while you talk on the phone and drive, but do it anyway…

If you know that you often choose interacting with people on a screen over the living breathing human sitting next to you…

If you know all these things,

If you know half these things,

If you know one of these things,

Then your chance to know, really know, your child is being sacrificed.

Your chance to know who your child is as a person is in jeopardy.

If you know any of these things, you know less about your child than you could know.

And so now that you know…what are you going to do about it?

That is the real question here. What are you going to do about it? Yes, some of the items on the list are over the top. Some of them are laughable. But let’s step into the light of realness, shall we? We all have things that distract us from truly knowing the people we love.

Because the fact of the matter is this: We live in a world inundated with distraction, and there is room for improvement in every single one of our lives. This might not be your list of distractions, but you have one, just as I have one. And when I admit the truth, I know exactly what takes my focus, my attention, and my presence off of the people I love.

The truth hurts, but the truth heals.

Only YOU know what is distracting you from the personal connection, human touch, intimate conversation that your loved ones so desperately need and want from you.

Only YOU have the power to know your child.

Or you can simply continue to choose to know a lot about “things” that won’t matter one damn bit when your last day on this earth arrives.

*******************************************************

What distracts you from focusing on the people you love? Whether it’s external distraction or internal distraction, whether it’s technology, negative emotions, excessive spending, or self-absorption, the detrimental cost of your distraction is the same. Your loved ones are fully aware when you are not giving them 100% of yourself.

I challenge you to spend 20 minutes with your child or significant other TODAY with everything turned off, including technology, as well as wandering thoughts.

In 20 uninterrupted minutes, you can really get to know someone.

Please take a moment to give someone else the opportunity to grasp what really matters by sharing this critical message.

There May Be Tears

On Valentine’s Day, my daughters and I put a little happiness in one of the most unsuspecting places for people who least suspected it.

We remembered those who are often forgotten. And the results were profound.

Our trash collectors were completely dismayed to find colorful bags of goodies sitting next to the trashcan. When we saw their reaction from our upstairs window, it appeared as though they may have never seen such a sight.

After the shock wore off and they realized the bags were actually for them, it was just about the most joyful expression I have ever seen on faces that seldom wear a smile.

A few days later, I found out that our mail carrier also had quite a reaction to her unexpected Valentine sack. A neighbor of mine found out directly from the mail carrier how she reacted when she discovered her treats in our mailbox that day.  A handmade thank you note and cookies from my daughters brought her to tears. Brought. Her. To. Tears. Really? That is all it takes to touch someone deeply?

Well, in that case, treats for the forgotten and underappreciated will be happening more often around here.

In fact, the girls and I will be placing Easter baskets in the most unsuspecting places for people who least suspect it…again.

Something tells me that even though they received a treat at Valentine’s Day, they will not expect to find an Easter basket next to the trashcan and in the mailbox.

Luck like that doesn’t typically happen twice.

But we’re making sure it does.

Would you care to join us?

The Dollar Store is a great place to start…

My oldest daughter proudly used her own money this time because she has learned that even small hands and inexpensive things can mean a lot to someone else.

My youngest supervised from the cart. Eggs: check! Candy: check! More candy: Check!

They both loved stuffing the eggs all by themselves.

They made sure to add extra sprinkles and extra sugar because “Being a trash collector is hard work,” said my four-year-old.

They enjoyed making the signs so there is no confusion as to who the gifts are intended.

And whether or not we are around when Miss Jackie opens the mailbox, we’ll know. Oh yes, we’ll know.

There will be tears.

How many trash collectors and mail carriers do you think we could impact this week? How many unappreciated and often forgotten people could we make feel loved this week? Readers from New York to California, grab your kids, your neighbor kids, or your grandkids and show them that little hands hold the power to make someone smile. I welcome you to send me the joyful details and even pictures to rachelstafford@handsfreemama.com. Or post them on The Hands Free Revolution Facebook page. Now click “share” below and spread the good news that this is the week to go Hands Free To Make Happy Hearts! Who knows just how much you will touch a life? There may even be tears.

UPDATE: To see the results of our actions, check out “No Thanks Necessary.”

The Girl With The Broken Smile

Follow up can mean many things to this Hands Free Mama, but in today’s case, I am going to “follow up” on one of the tactics for living Hands Free that I previously wrote about.

This week, my posts will be centering around The Power of a Question. I will be describing how questions have played a vital part in my Hands Free journey to grasp what really matters.

Today’s question is one you may have wondered if you have been following my blog. The question: Whatever happened with that?

I think it would be a huge disservice to my readers if I neglect to provide follow up on tactics I suggest or stories I share. While some of the Hands Free strategies I provide on my blog could be used only once, I strongly believe that the more you use them, the more you will gain.

Personally, I love when my readers contact me to let me know the result of a tactic they used or how a Hands Free experience turned out for them. So today I am doing that for you. It has to do with the post that contains the picture that has been clicked on the most number of times on my blog. It’s about the little girl with the broken smile.

This is my story…

In the post entitled, “Hands Free Evidence,” I described how my seven-year-old daughter chose “Priscilla” out of  a large array of children from impoverished countries who needed an educational sponsor.  I will never forget the reason she chose unsmiling Priscilla when there were a multitude of vivacious cherub faces with smiles that beckoned her to choose them instead.

My daughter lifted up the picture of this pitiful looking little girl and declared, “I want to give her a reason to smile.”

Whoever said we can’t learn from our children?

Well, my daughter mailed her introduction packet to Pricilla four months ago. Along with the letter, she lovingly packed other items while also abiding by Compassion International’s rules for paper gifts only.

About once a week for four months, my daughter asked if a letter has arrived from Priscilla.

After saying, “No, I am sorry, not today,” and seeing her dejected face, my husband and I were starting to think that involving our daughter so heavily in this sponsorship may have been a bad idea.

But the best things come to those who wait, I am constantly reminded.

Last week a letter from Pricilla arrived.  It may as well have been a letter from Santa Claus himself by the look of pure joy and excitement on our daughter’s face.

We read through Pricilla’s letter that had been translated into English by her social worker.

Priscilla had answered the question posed by my daughter; we learned that her favorite color is pink, but “she likes to match red and white.”

She asked my daughter to pray that she (Priscilla) will become a good Christian and have good academic performance.

Priscilla offered prayers for my daughter to be blessed and protected throughout her life.

And Priscilla had enclosed a remarkably accurate picture of a tree and a bird.

But the part of the letter that my child held tightly in her hands and gazed at for a full two minutes was a recent picture of Priscilla.

For fourth long months, what my daughter thought about day and night was the status of Priscilla’s smile.

Next to her mother, the social worker, and a basket of fish they were selling to pay for educational materials stood Priscilla.

I watched as my daughter examined it closely and intently. I held my breath.  I was not sure how my daughter would interpret the expression on Priscilla’s face. To my eyes, Priscilla still looked sad, dejected, and hopeless.

But then again, I was the one who would have chosen one of the happily smiling children to sponsor, not the girl with the broken smile.

After thorough examination, my daughter looked up beaming.

She excitedly exclaimed, “Look! She is smiling a little more than she was before!”

My other daughter and I looked closely. She was right. If you looked very closely, there was the slightest curve in her lower lip.

Most of us would have missed it.

Most of us would have argued that the term “smile” is not an accurate description of the position of her mouth.

Most of us would have never tried in the first place to create happiness on a face so deeply etched with sadness.

Most of us would have thought Priscilla was a hopeless cause.

But through the eyes of the seven-year-old girl who had purposely chosen this forlorn child to sponsor, a smile was detected. And I have learned that when it comes to matters of expression, my daughter sees far more than I do.

Whoever said you can’t learn anything from a child?

We had given our daughter a chance to sponsor a child in a poverty-stricken country. She had grasped this opportunity in ways we had never imagined.

She attempted something most of us would not; she attempted to make the unsmiling smile. And she was doing it, one tiny curve of the lips at a time.

Last night my daughter asked if I thought someday she might meet Priscilla.

I could only get a little excited just thinking of the prospect. I imagined my daughter grown into a beautiful young lady opening her arms to an equally beautiful young woman who had traveled all the way from Ghana to meet her. And on her face was a smile so big that no translation was needed. Her smile said: Thank you for choosing me and making it your life mission to bring a smile to my face.

I realized that while I was daydreaming, my daughter had been waiting for a response.

I looked into her hopeful face and I said, “Yes. Yes, I do believe it’s possible you will meet her someday. After all, you are making Priscilla smile. That makes me believe anything is possible.”

Then I wrapped my arms around this wise, compassionate, and thoughtful child and added, “And I have you to thank for teaching me that.”

What lessons has a child or your child taught you about grasping what really matters? If you can’t think of anything, try seeing through your child’s eyes. Try listening carefully to your child’s words. Start by providing an opportunity for your child to help someone else. It might instead become a lesson for you. Please click “share” below if you think this a message worthy of spreading.

I Had It All

Last weekend I was inspired by my readers to “raise the bar” on my growing desire to live Hands Free.

So I did something that was challenging for me. I turned off my hand held communication device and my computer on both Saturday and Sunday, as described in my post, “A Major Turn Off.”

Thought of such action may have caused heart palpitations and sweaty palms for some (including myself).

But to others, the thought of such a measure was no big deal because they spend every weekend that way. (Insert “pat on the back” here.)

But regardless of how ludicrous OR how simple my personal challenge appeared to you, you did not judge. I thank you for that.

We have discussed this week that “baby steps” into a Hands Free life are often required. And whether my baby steps are the same, different, more challenging, or less challenging than your baby steps, there is no room for judgment in this journey…only encouragement.

Thank you for the encouragement.

So how did it go? Several of you have asked. Thank you for asking.

There are only four words to describe my weekend with no cell phone and no computer…

I had it all.

Because I let go of distraction for two whole days, “all” life has to offer was in my grasp. And with it, I realized two things:

- I never realized how much “daily distraction” makes its way into my home, into my thoughts, into my happiness, and into my life through my cell phone and my computer.

(It might just be me, but that realization sends shivers up my spine. Would I purposely open a vent that allowed carbon monoxide to invade my home? Of course not. Then why would I keep the pathway of distraction “open” so that it can poison my “family time” by preventing personal connection and purposeful interaction?)

- I also fully realized how daily distraction has a sneaky way of stealing time, that precious rare commodity that once we lose, we never regain. Every time I get on to check email, Facebook, or search the Internet, suddenly a large chunk of time is gone. Is that really how I want to spend my precious family time?

And only by turning my computer and phone off completely for two whole days did I have these powerful revelations.

For two days, I could breath easier. The laughter came easier. The ability to relax came easier, and it remained longer.

Why? Because I had time.

Time was in my hands…instead of the other way around.

And in that precious time, I had it all…

I had time to laugh.

I had time to dance.

I had time to make sweet creations with little hands.

I had time to add the sprinkles. (Life is just better with sprinkles, don’t you think?)

I had time to sit down and enjoy every single bite of Daddy’s homemade pancakes and waffles.

I had the time to help my daughters make someone else smile.

I had the time to help my daughters make someone else feel better.

I had the time to dig through a box full of memorabilia and old cards from my childhood.

This is a card my grandma, who has since passed, wrote to me when I was five.

I had time to stand in amazement.

My mom saved my first haircut. I was amazed to see my hair was the same color as my youngest daughter's hair.

I had time to watch my daughter stand in amazement.

My seven-year-old was amazed at the similarities between her handwriting and my seven-year-old handwriting

I had time to climb a hill and feel a sense of smallness, gratitude, and wonder.

I had time to see strength and perseverance in a little girl who used to say, “I can’t do it.”

I had time to do something I loved to do twenty years ago.

I had time to see what it does to children to see their mom doing something they seldom see her do.

My four-year-old was entranced by her mama's violin playing.

I had time to read my Bible and hear the God-given messages that are felt in moments of stillness.

The simple act of turning off my phone and my computer for the weekend allowed me to be IN the moment. I was not thinking about past mistakes or planning ahead to next week. I was not thinking about all the things I could be getting accomplished. I was simply being in the moment…the glorious God-given moments found in the ordinary, mundane delights of a rainy Saturday morning and a clear blue Sunday afternoon.

Instead of being “half-way” there by dividing my attention into worthless sections, I was focused solely on what mattered in each beautiful moment. Not once did I think about the moments behind me or in front of me; not once did I think about the moments going on in someone else’s life, or what I thought should be going on in mine.

Instead, I had it all.

Being in the moment allowed me to fully experience each smile, every laugh, each word, every emotion and every touch.

And if something tragic happened to me come Monday morning, I can’t think of a better way to have spent the last two days of my life.

Because for those two days…I had it all.

And this weekend? Well, there’s no question. I am going to have it all again.

And you you can, too.

Last weekend a reader in Maryland, a reader in Colorado, and one in Michigan let me know that they were joining me in my challenge to “unplug.” It sure felt great to have not only the support, but also the accountability. I wonder if, like me, they realized it was not only easier than expected to go without a phone or a computer, but also more rewarding than expected. What do you think? Could this be your weekend to “Have It All?” Need a partner? Click the “share” button below and send it to someone you love. There is no better gift than the gift of time.

The Beauty Inside The Fold

Before I became Hands Free I loathed folding clean laundry. The unsightly mile-high heap created a persistent bother (similar to a wart) whenever I caught sight of it passing by the laundry room. Eventually, I couldn’t stand the eyesore any longer and would force myself to fold it, which typically meant putting off playing or interacting with my daughters while doing so.

“Not right now, sweetie, I have to fold laundry.”

I hated the words as they came out of my mouth. I don’t even want to guess how many times I said them.

But now things are different.

Don’t get me wrong, a laundry fairy did not magically appear. We still have dirty clothes that transform into a heaping pile of “Downy fresh” mess.

But I don’t loathe the thought of folding clothes anymore because the way I fold clothes is different now.

I stopped worrying about how quickly I could get it done once I started.

I stopped worrying if the folds would be “just right.”

I stopped worrying if the proper items would go in their designated piles.

I stopped focusing on the end result and instead focused on the process.

You see, now I have a helper. My four-year-old daughter actually gets excited when I come out of the laundry room and all she can see are my legs beneath a mountain of clean towels barely contained in a way too small laundry basket.

The first time I folded laundry with my daughter, my patience was sorely tested. It required breathing techniques that I didn’t know I could perform.

I let her start out by folding washrags. I carefully showed her how to position the square-shaped material and bring the corners to meet. Once in a little square, I demonstrated how to place it neatly in the official “wash rag stack” next to the towels.

Then with high hopes I said, “OK, it’s your turn.”

My four-year-old made a nice little round ball out of her washrag. She disregarded my organized stacks and made her own haphazard piles of washrags about the room and under the couch. She wrapped her Barbie dolls in them. She laid them on the floor and skated on them. She became sidetracked and many towels were left unfolded.

But we laughed.  And I had never laughed while folding laundry before.

So we folded laundry together again. And again. And again. And again.

I am grateful she did not give up on me.

Over time, she began folding washrags so beautifully that she graduated to regular sized towels. Her corners lined up. Her piles resembled stacks. She even raced to the kitchen to place them in the proper drawer.

Now she can even fold her daddy’s workout t-shirts while giving an on-going commentary: “Why does Daddy need two red t-shirts? Oh, wait a minute, this one isn’t red; it is orange. Daddy has an orange work out shirt and a red one. I like the red one best. Which one do you like best, Mama?”

But my favorite part of Folding Time is when she unexpectedly busts out in song and dance. Generally, this occurs when she delightfully pulls a pair of boxer shorts from the basket.

She stands up and holds them against her hips and declares, “Time to do the Chicka Wa-Wa Dance!” Then she stands up and sings a made-up song (that actually has a catchy tune) about clean underwear.

As I sit in awe of her neat stacks and entertaining musical routines, I can’t help but envision when my four-year-old is twenty-four and she is folding laundry.

I can imagine her smiling to herself as she recalls our beloved Folding Time.  Maybe it will be the whiff of familiar laundry detergent or a pink washrag that triggers a cherished memory of her and I sitting side by side among our sturdy stacks, shared conversation, and laughter…lots and lots of laughter.

I almost missed out on this special bonding time because I wanted it done now and I wanted it done quickly.

I was this close to missing out on what really matters because letting my child fold laundry would  “take too long.”

And to think I almost missed out on making this beautiful memory because of being solely focused on the end result.

Folding laundry with my daughter. Who would have thought something so simple could make such an impact?

The beauty inside the fold is what I would have missed.

Just the thought of living my entire life without ever seeing her do the “Chicka Wa-Wa Underwear Dance” is enough to make me weep.

But thank God, I don’t have to….because things have changed, and I am just getting started.

Do you have any household tasks that you do with your child or teenager? If so, please leave a comment or email me using the “contact me” button. And if you don’t, there is always today. Instead of grumbling in misery while you cook dinner, clean the house, or shovel snow, why not grab a little friend and make a memory.