“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.
“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.”
“I saw the way you anticipated what was about to happen. You prevented the little girl from falling,” I commended.
But her safe-sitter move was not what my child wanted to talk about.
“The mother didn’t hear her child and she was standing right there,” my daughter said sadly. “I hope it’s not always like that,” she said sincerely. “The little girl may grow up thinking her words are not important and stop trying to tell her mom things.”
Those words … coming out of that mouth … felt surreal. Six years ago, my daughter was a little girl yearning to be seen and heard. She experienced the 21st century phenomenon of being invisible to someone while standing right in front of them.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly to that little girl who was now a young lady.
I didn’t need to explain my apology. My daughter knew my story. She’s heard me speak my darkest truths about distraction’s grip—a grip that took away my smile, made a yeller out of me, and nearly cost me my life at a traffic light. She’s read my books and gifted them to her teachers having babies. My daughter knew how sorry I was for what I missed. But she also knew how thankful I was when I woke up.
My child knew her face was one of the first sights I saw as I came out of a frenzied, joyless two-year period of my life.
I’d just committed to turning off my phone and sticking it in a drawer at critical connection times like meals, bedtime, greetings, and departures. I’d been saying yes to her invitations to “Watch me, Mama,” and her offers to “help” in the kitchen. I was trying to be patient and softer towards her instead of hurried and critical. I was trying to look up more often and see glimmers of goodness in my day that were easily buried by life’s duties and distractions.
On that particular day, my daughter stood on the kitchen stool I’d pulled up beside me. I’d given her a table knife, and she’d carefully cut up carrots, cucumbers, and red peppers. Her capable, little hands evenly distributed the colorful pieces into four salad bowls.
“I like doing this with you,” Six-year-old Natalie said looking up at me with her gigantic brown eyes. “Thank you, Mama.”
That’s when I saw her—really saw her for the first time in two years. I saw her beautiful round face had elongated. I saw my mother in her big brown eyes. She’d gotten a few new freckles on her nose. But the way she smiled at me, as if there was no place in the world she’d rather be, was what brought me to my knees. Oh my. I thought to myself. I see her. I really see her now. Thank you, God, for this beautiful child who is mine.
The sight of this child’s face fueled me to keep looking up and letting go.
I quickly noticed many positive results from the small changes I was making. By placing protective boundaries around special connection times each day, I was able to see, hear, and respond more lovingly to my family members. I went through my day feeling less conflicted, overwhelmed, and agitated. No longer dictated by the dinging demands of the device, my thoughts and actions were my own.
It seemed only natural to voice these important discoveries to the people I loved. But for some reason, it felt right to do it in way that empowered rather than dictated.
Instead of saying: “We don’t bring devices to the dinner table,” I said, “We’ll miss the best part of eating together if we’re looking at our devices.”
Instead of placing the phone in the glove box without telling anyone, I said, “I’m going to drive with my phone out of reach. I don’t want to hurt us or anyone else by driving distracted. Plus, I don’t want to miss the beautiful sights.”
Instead of: “Put away your device while we wait for the doctor,” I said, “Waiting time is an opportunity to catch up with each other; tell me the best part of your day.”
Rather than demanding all devices be kept in a communal area of our home with no explanation, I talked about Internet safety and why it was important to keep each other accountable and not to hide scary, hurtful, or confusing cyber issues we encounter.
Rather than letting the smile on the cashier’s face go unnoticed, I said to my child, “Did you see how happy it made the cashier when we acknowledged her rather than looking at a phone?”
Talking to my daughter about the importance of having a time and place for technology became a way of life—just like talking about drugs and alcohol, puberty, body safety, bullying, and other critical topics. I didn’t know how this on-going dialogue would impact her future, but I was hopeful. And through a quick stop to get poster board, a most important discovery was made.
As I have learned to see, my daughter has learned to see.
Her eyes detect an important distinction between technology as a tool and technology as a barrier.
She is an almost-thirteen-year-old who uses her electronic device to communicate with friends and family near and far. She uses it to manage the cat rescue website where we volunteer. She uses it to plan a summer camp for young children in our neighborhood. She uses it to create and post YouTube videos for her musical sister. She uses it to shop for the perfect gifts for people she loves.
But she also steps away from her device, more often than not, to look up and let go.
She is an almost 13-year-old who loves to apply facemasks, wade in the river, and go antiquing. She’ll be happy to take your blood pressure, make you a glass of iced tea, or babysit your kids. She can look for seashells for hours on end or just sit and watch rhythm of the waves. She loves baking, swimming, and playing with her beloved cat, Banjo. Each night at bedtime, she lays beside me for Talk Time.
I don’t know if my daughter will retain these healthy boundaries with technology as she grows, but I do know she’s acquired a vital awareness that cannot be taken away. Should she veer off the path of choosing real life experiences and face-to-face conversations over those on a screen, she’ll know where the emptiness is coming from. She’ll know why she’s feeling the need to compare herself to others. She’ll combat the fear of missing out by putting down the device and going toward matters most. And she’ll know without a doubt that I’m willing to go there with her.
When I found our beloved cat lying by the open back door after an attack twelve days ago, I laid my head down on his body and cried. It struck me that there was only one person I wanted by my side in that moment. I longed for my daughter Natalie to be with me. She would know. She would understand.
After taking Banjo to the vet and finding out he’d be okay, I prepared myself for my daughter’s arrival. I knew exactly what she would need to hear and what her face would look like. I knew she would need me to hold her and reassure her. I knew this because I’d been seeing her face for the past six years.
Her reaction was exactly as I expected – except for one thing.
After I finished telling her what happened, Natalie wiped away her tears and suddenly grabbed my hand. “That must have been scary for you, Mom. I bet you were crying so hard. I am so sorry you had to go through that alone.”
My child knew me too.
She knew exactly what I needed to hear and what my face looked like during that horrible moment. She knew I needed comfort in my time of fear.
Six years ago, I chose her.
And today, she is choosing me.
She is also choosing to stand beside others in pain, see Mother Nature’s beauty, anticipate falls, celebrate triumphs, cry for those who are ignored, comfort those who are abandoned, make eye contact, and embrace the good and the bad that comes with an eyes up, open-handed life.
Six years ago, I decided I didn’t want to miss my life.
As a result, this young lady is not missing hers.
This offers great hope for us all.
My friends, if there is a barrier in your life that is coming between you and the ones you love, begin taking small steps to break that barrier down …
Accept their invitations – or invite them to do something they love to do.
Pull up a stool and don’t worry about the mess.
Look up when they walk in the room. Look in their eyes when you say goodbye. Look beyond their flaws to see all that they are.
Ask for their opinion and then listen—just listen.
Say you’re sorry; tell them what you’re going to do differently starting today.
Forgive yourself for what you missed in the past. Believe today matters more than yesterday.
Believe today matters more than yesterday.
I believe it.
My daughter believes it.
And so does that person standing in front of you.
Perhaps today marks the day you’ll see that beautiful face for the first time in a long time, and you will be thankful, so very thankful, you can see it now.
Who knows where you two will be six days … six months … or six years? But for now, let’s just focus on today. Because today offers us all a chance to look up, let go, and love like we wish we had yesterday.
Friends of The Hands Free Revolution, if you are interested in a wearable reminder to look up, let go, and choose love, click here to see the ONLY LOVE TODAY, I CHOOSE LOVE, or LIVE HANDS FREE vintage wrist wraps in beautiful colors in leather and non-leather options. Be sure to see the hand-lettered prints like the Hands Free Pledge which was one of the first tools I used to look up and let go. The Presence Pledge is also something I wrote to my daughters as a promise to build them up instead of break them down. Today is the last day to use the free shipping checkout code: MOMLOVE. Ordering by today (May 2, 2016) ensures the items will arrive by Mother’s Day.
Denver friends, I will be speaking in your area on Saturday, May 14 at Denver First Church’s Ladies Tea from 10am to 12pm. It would bring me great joy to meet you! In the fall, I will be coming to the California Bay Area, Nashville, TN and Mandan, ND. Click here for dates & event information.
To read the detailed steps and strategies I used to let go of distraction, perfection, & societal pressure to live better & love more, check out my book, HANDS FREE MAMA, a NYT Bestseller. And my latest book, HANDS FREE LIFE, will help you stop managing life and start living it. Bring more presence, patience, acceptance, and grace into your heart and home using the 9 daily habits outlined in the book. HANDS FREE LIFE is less than $10 on Amazon right now.
Friends of The Hands Free Revolution community, you are my daily blessing and fuel my writing like nothing else. If you think this message would be hopeful or healing to someone else, I would be grateful if you share it. I cherish & appreciate each one of you.
Laura Jane says
Rachel, this is so beautiful, and so what I needed to hear today. There are many distractions that can keep us from truly seeing our loved ones… often those distractions are even good things. But nothing is worth missing the changes in their faces, missing the moments to connect. Thank you so much. Today I’m putting down my project and showing my loved ones that they matter most.
Rachel Stafford says
Oh Laura, thank you for this important point you have made: “There are many distractions that can keep us from truly seeing our loved ones … often those distractions are even good things.” I, too, have experienced good works becoming a barrier between my people and me. My good works often become a barrier between caring properly for myself, as well. It is so hopeful to know that with this awareness and a few small actions, we can remove the barrier and reach our people again. I am so glad you commented today, Laura. Thank you.
Laura Jane says
Dear Rachel, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I so appreciate how you’ve helped bridge the gap between realizing we’re disconnected, and doing something about it. I stumbled upon your blog about a year ago, and I’m so glad I did… “only love today” is slowly replacing my inner voice that used to demand perfection, that created a hurry-up kind of life. I’m currently reading “Hands Free Mama” and your words are reminding me not to wait for Someday to start investing in what really matters.
On stressed-out days, your blog is one of the first things I turn to. Just to show you what a difference you’ve made… on our way to the library today, we were running late, and my three year-old daughter was busy with her doll. My mind said, “hurry up,” but instead I chose to kneel down and ask her dolly if she would like to join us at the library. Mother, daughter and doll held hands and wore smiles on the way to the car. You may not know it, but you’re helping parents make these kinds of meaningful connections every day.
Rachel, I can only imagine how busy you must be, so I hesitate to ask. But I’ve also written about how our children teach us to slow down here: http://www.howtobless.com/?p=133. I hope to encourage others to practice loving well the ones who mean the most. I would be incredibly honored if you found a minute to look at it.
Slowing down for our loved ones together, Laura
Jame Thomas Horn says
We had two sons. This reminds me of the daughter we never had.
What an incredible experience my wife and I missed out on. This
fills in all of the gaps. Jim Horn
Rachel Stafford says
Oh my goodness, Jim. I would never have expected this. It makes me emotional to know this description of my daughter “fills in the gaps” for you if you had had a daughter. I am extremely touched. Thank you for this blessing today.
Jenny Johnston says
Whenever I see a new post from you, I always wonder what pathway it will illuminate for me in my life. This post is no different and could not be more perfectly timed.
About 3 weeks ago I embarked on a journey to remove a barrier that was coming between my 11 year old and I. It is has been a scary journey and I often feel very alone. I have not shared this story with very many because I feel I would be judged harshly for my actions, but I can already feel the spaces between my daughter and I closing and the unconditional love getting filled back in.
I am following my gut, but I am going against what most of our society deems valuable, so I will continue on this journey alone for a long time, I am sure. I know it is important to protect the relationship I have with my child and once again your words give me the strength to continue swimming upstream toward what I believe is best for my family. What I know in my heart matters more than what others tell me is true. This is what your words do for me.
Thank you, Rachel. Such a beautiful sentiment. I have a question for you and if you have addressed this in the past – I apologize.
How and when do you suggest people introduce personal technology to their children? We have resisted the urge to buy ipads for our kids (5&6) for lots of reasons. As a reformed Nintendo addicted teenager, I understand the pull that technology has over humans and I would like to postpone that temptation for as long as possible. Also – when we have shared our devices with the kids from time to time – we have found that it turns them into greedy, bickering monsters. They currently love outside in any weather over inside, they play cards and guessing games, and live in their imaginations but am I handicapping them? Their teachers list as many apps for them to use as books to read. My mother suggests to me I am stunting their development. As my First Grader struggles with the concept of double digit subtraction, having access to math apps would definitely make the subject more fun. But I am afraid there is no going back. Any advice, would be GREATLY appreciated! Thanks, Rachel!
Just wanted to chime in here to commend you for taking the brave step to raise your children to have real, authentic experiences in the real world, rather than get lost in an alternative reality. I’m pretty passionate about this subject, because I know the negative effects of at least the technology of television– a quick google search on television’s effects on our brain waves, why it is unhealthy mentally in our skewing of the time-space continuum, etc. is enough to cause us to think twice about watching. I know the screen of computers, iPads, etc. have a similar effects….although I personally have a hard time cutting the addiction!! All this to say, that just because the world is telling you that you are ‘stunting’ their growth, or that they SHOULD be using the apps for math, etc– does not mean that YOU are doing something wrong, but rather that you are showing strength, courage, and tenacity in the face of a giant. Again, I feel strongly about this, so I just wanted to commend you and applaud your choice. 🙂
Beth Blake says
What a wonderful way to start off a week, and a busy one at that. As I started reading your post this morning, I started feeling a little sad. That has absolutely nothing to do with you or your writing, it has to do with the fact that another childless Mother’s Day is approaching for me and I would dearly love to have children and a husband and all that goes with them, good times and bad. Then as I kept reading I thought about how I could apply this in my own life with all of my loved ones: my siblings and parents, nieces and nephews and friends. Then I realized that your words have another meaning for me. For someone who spent most of their life trying desperately to fit in, to be like “everybody else” I have been blessed these past few years to realize that I need to get to know myself better. I need to cherish and treasure my differences instead of classifying them as weird or not normal based on my own perception of what “normal” is. Thank you for the reminder this morning that I need to let go off distractions like comparing myself to others, in order to see, really see, myself . Yesterday in church we were talking about ways we show our love for God and I realized something. We show our love for God when we honor ourselves as we truly are, flaws and all because that’s who he created. Thank your for your beautiful words!
johanna klein says
So beautifully said. Something I’ve been striving for more over the last several months, but still can definitely fall short. My 14 year old is similar to your daughter and she has had a flip phone all these years.
I have been told so many times we should give her an iphone shes deprived we are sheltering her too much, and I often questioned this myself.
She told me recently how any relationship she was in she didn’t want it to be based on texting but real face to face conversation. She said she never wants to be so attached to her phone that she doesn’t really know the person she’s in a relationship with. It was the first time I realized I had raised someone who grasped this even better than I do. I still find myself looking at my phone too much, but each day make efforts to change this, but this firms my resolve to choose wisely how I spend intentional time with each of my three kids.
What a heartfelt article–I cried. Having a profound hearing loss that has forced me a long time ago to look at people (and lip read as well as hear), I’ve noticed that others, including my husband and children, really appreciate my undivided attention so I’m thankful to have this daily reminder about putting down technology as it may be and pay attention! My Merritt sounds just like your Natalie–I’m so blessed to have her as my daughter! Thank you, Rachel, for sharing this article.
Elaheh Bos says
So beautiful! I really was reminded by the importance of presence and as the mother of two daughters (10 and 8) I could relate to those moments when you blink and they have changed. Thank you!
Michelle Curtis says
This post moved me to tears… as most of your posts do. Good tears though, tears that caused me to lose my breath….. much needed, very real, and powerful tears.
I, too, have an almost 13 year old daughter ( and also a 7 year old son and 4 year old daughter). I have been struggling very hard in making sure that my almost teenager knows that she has my attention and can talk to me about ANYTHING. And it’s all my fault! I thank God for your blog because it reminds me to put away those distractions, not only to focus on my children and let them know that they are my main focus, but to also teach them to focus on people and not on the objects/devices.
Thank you so much Rachel!!!
Ambrey Nichols says
As always a beautiful reminder if you have children or not. We all have loved ones we care for. I get irritated a lot when people ignore others. I want to say that we didn’t always have these devises to distract us. How did we act with people then? I want to be like that around people before we even had all these devices to stop and listen and be present. Thank you!
Thank you for the absolutely best post or article I have read regarding communication and technology. Your observation are made from a mother’s heart to really see your child. How easily we forget in the daily demands and the lure of the technology. Mom of 5 with 3 raised without technology BUT still had diversions to pull me away from seeing.
Oh, I love this. Every word of it. Thank you, thank you. xox
Caroline McGraw says
This made my heart sing. How amazing it is that you and Natalie have grown individually as you have grown together!
Reading this story really helped me to feel less stressed as I prepare for an upcoming family visit. Sure, there are plenty of things to do, but you helped me to remember how much of a gift it is to spend time with people and simply SEE them for who they are and are becoming.
I look forward to your posts every week, dear friend; they are breaths of fresh air. So thank you! xoxo
Sandy Blackard says
Such a touching example of the power of modeling empathetic responses for our children. “That must have been scary for you, Mom. I bet you were crying so hard. I am so sorry you had to go through that alone.” Those could have been your words. Now they are hers. Beautiful, just beautiful!
You are so right – it’s so easy to get sucked in to the busy-ness, the ‘stuff’, the tech, when all we should do is exhale, then inhale the good stuff right under our noses. Seems so simple, yet I seem to spend my life rushing from club to club, with speedy dinners and rushed bedtimes with our 3!
Thank you for lifting my eyes up again, showing me I have a choice in how I run our lives and repurposing me. You are a very inspiring lady and sound like a rather brilliant mum! x
Thank you for this. Thank you. Tears! And more tears! Such excellent words and such a powerful reminder to put our focus, time and energy … and our LOVE!, into the people, NOT THE THINGS, that matter! Thank you for blessing me with your wisdom today. ❤️
“I didn’t know I was lonely until I saw your face.” This quote made me cry this morning because it reminds me of my daughter. She is 10 months old and I am falling in love with her a little more each day. Sometimes I almost want to hold myself back because it is scary to feel so vulnerable. I know things will get harder as she gets older and starts to have power struggles, tantrums, etc. I hope I can always look at her wonderful face and remind myself of what a ray of light she is in my life and treasure it always.
Joy DeMoraes says
This was just what I needed to read today. Thank you!
I totally agree and loved that reminder. My kiddos are growing up so fast and there is no way to return time. I try to live that way everyday but sometimes distractions get in the way. Thank you for sharing!
I have been struggling so much these past few years. My son is 3, my daughter 1. They are miracles, along with my angel of a husband. I am so blessed, but feeling so down, not happy with my behavior as a mom. Feeling lost, not like myself. Losing my sense of joy. Distracted, angry, yelling too much. doing all the things I vowed I would never do as a mom. Especially talking down to my children. My breaking point came tonight when my son said to me after I yelled at him for waking his baby sister at night….”mommy it’s all my fault, I’m just too mad”. It wasn’t his fault, he was upset and loudly crying that his older cousin closed him out of a room.
I have such a short fuse, I snap at the kids much too easily. I give them such a grumpy attitude a lot lately. I focus on the negative a lot. I need to change this. I hate this, I’m not happy with myself. I’m concerned about the psychological effects my reactions are having on my kids, just from yelling and feeling so frustrated and burnt out. I want to do better, give them my best, be an example of peace, love and joy to them. Right now things are the opposite. Something’s gotta give.
My biggest concern is how distant I am from my children emotionally. It’s not like me at all, I’m usually so emotional and connected with others. But I’ve lost that, I feel disconnected. When the kids cry, when the littlest one, rather than run and say, “aww my sweet little child is crying, poor thing, what’s wrong, how can I make it better?” I might think the latter sometimes but I don’t really feel it. I don’t feel much compassion or empathy. Instead I get irritated, I react, I feel tired of the tantrums and crying. I know it’s not their fault, they’re navigating so many confusing emotions and experiences in this complex world. But why am I feeling this way? Why am I feeling so closed off to my own kids? It feels like I’ve been desensitized. I don’t like this at all, it’s far from who I am as a person and a mom. I need to regain joy, connection, feeling, emotion. I want to connect, engage with my kids more and start now while they’re little. I want to repair however I can any deficiencies I’ve caused them. I want to nurture these beautiful souls. I’m far from where I want to be. But I am willing to take any steps I can, I just need to find ways to stay motivated and do this for them.
Rachel Stafford says
Jennifer, I encourage you to get Theresa Kellam’s book, The Parent Survival Guide, and set up weekly playtimes with your children exactly as it describes. Healing heartbreaking situations like yours is exactly what that book is designed to do! You are welcome to contact Theresa theresakellam.com or Sandy Blackard at languageoflistening.com for additional support. Sandy offers Hands Free Mama readers a free 30 min coaching call. She can get you started on the road to reconnection with yourself and your little ones. Click here to contact Sandy and set up a good time to talk – http://www.languageoflistening.com/contact/
Jennifer, what you are describing sounds like post-partum depression to me. (I say this as somebody who experienced it after the birth of my second son.) Irritability and a short fuse can actually be huge symptoms of PPD (they certainly were for me), which I hadn’t realized until I was going through it and learning more about it, and your comment about feeling desensitized points to PPD as well. It can develop anytime between pregnancy and roughly the first year after the birth, so the time frame fits too. You asked why you’re feeling this way, and said that it’s far from how you want to be as a mom…perhaps that’s why. I just wanted to let you know that you might be struggling with something bigger than you realized and you are not a bad mother or alone with this. Here are a couple of websites with more information and places where you can seek help if you choose. http://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/postpartum-dep.aspx
Big hugs to you mama, there is light at the end of the tunnel and you will get through this and be able to more easily parent the way you want to. Please just take time to look after yourself and do things that nourish your soul, make “you time” a priority.
Emily Hawkins says
This is beautiful. Truly brought tears to my eyes. I’ve been trying to live this way myself and know it takes continual effort and a renewed sense of purpose. My daughter is two now but I hope she can embrace the life before her just as your daughter has. Cheers!
Jame Thomas Horn says
This article needs to have some poems written about it.
I’m the same way with any animal cruelty. I can’t tolerate it. You’re doing such a great thing working with those cats. Its giving me ideas about volunteering at our local shelter. Maybe I’ll do it! Thanks.