“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.
Neglecting to give myself proper rest and self-care brought out the worst in me and contaminated the lives of everyone in my house. Although the connection between lack of sleep and my emotional deterioration took time to realize, increasing my sleep time produced immediate positive results.
Within a few days of getting seven hours of sleep a night, I could think more clearly and was able to understand a critical truth: My inner bully was dictating my thoughts and actions. That critical voice inside me was the one pushing me to stay up late to tackle multiple page to-do lists and appear to have it “all together” to the outside world. It was the same damaging voice that wracked me with guilt whenever I took time to nurture myself. I knew if I allowed my inner bully to continue making choices for me, I would shorten my life, but not before destroying my most precious relationships.
Through daily prayer and restorative walks in nature, I was given a three-word mantra to silence my inner critic and practice self-care: Only love today.
Whenever a critical thought came to my mind or my mouth, I would cut it off with the words: “Stop! Only love today.” Sometimes I said it one hundred times a day, but it worked. Only love today became a voice of grace in my head, in my heart, and in my home. Only love today inspired me to have meaningful connection time with my children every night at bedtime. No matter how many mistakes we’d made during the day, we were able to end the day on a positive, peaceful note. This time of connection was important for them, but it was critical for me. It became my signal to turn off my brain and body and give myself the rest and sleep it needed to thrive.
My older daughter Natalie was especially responsive to our nightly time together. For many years I thought it was simply because she liked this one on one time with me. It wasn’t until recently that I realized she actually needs it. She needs this time of stillness to settle her body and mind, just as I do. Sometimes Natalie and I listen to music. Other times we’ll look at pictures of cats or read our respective books, side by side. But no matter what, she always asks me to rub the top of her shoulders that become sore from swim team practice. That’s when she says, “Tell me a story, Mom.” It can be something that happened in the news, in my childhood, in her childhood, or even a make-believe story. The story doesn’t matter – it’s the sound of my voice that soothes her.
“I always have trouble sleeping in strange places,” she said as we unpacked our bags in our Asheville hotel room that first day. “But I won’t this time because you’re going to be right next to me.”
“We just have to be sure to go to bed at a decent time,” I said to her as much as to myself.
“Yeah, because we’re night owls,” she said with a sneaky smile.
I smiled back, thinking it was a good thing Natalie was aware of this tendency in herself so she could make better choices than I once did.
“But what if I can’t sleep at camp?” Natalie said worriedly. She’d been bringing up this particular concern since the day she decided to try sleep-away camp almost a year ago.
This, however, would be the first time I had a helpful response. It came to me suddenly as I stared at my mini-me, this girl who thrives on a plan.
“You know how you mentioned the other day that planning ahead helps you feel less anxious or nervous—and that is why you always have very detailed plans?” I asked.
“I think we should figure out some tools for falling asleep in an unfamiliar place. It could be your Sleep Plan for camp … and maybe for life.”
Her face immediately brightened—I was definitely talking her language. “Yes! I like that idea,” she said.
I told Natalie about a few of the sleep tools I’d been using from Arianna Huffington’s enlightening book The Sleep Revolution. Although naming all her blessings by using each letter of the alphabet had never worked for inducing sleep with Natalie, she decided one of these ideas might:
- Mind dump – Before bed, write down all the things you can think of that you need to do. This can empty your mind and reassure you that you don’t need to remember your tasks through the night—your to-do list will be waiting for you in the morning. Combining the mind dump with small transitions toward sleep (like taking a hot bath, changing into dedicated pajamas instead of sleeping in workout clothes, or drinking chamomile or lavender tea) can make the mind dump even more effective. “Think of each stage as designed to help you shed more of your stubborn daytime worries,” Arianna writes in her book.
- Envisioning worry as a pebble in a calm lake – When any thought, worry, or concern comes up, think of it as a stone dropping into the lake. There may be a ripple or two, but quickly the lake returns to its smoothness and calm. As more thoughts or worries or fears come up, let them drop like stones and let the lake return to its natural tranquility.
- Have a sleep talisman – Find an object that sends a clear signal to both your body and your mind that it’s time to slow down. Examples include: an old fashioned music box; a weighted eye pillow lightly scented with lavender; a special little pillow with an image or saying that resonates with you; a cozy robe or slippers. It could also be a photo of loved ones, pets, or a soothing landscape—anything that helps you exhale the tensions and incompletions of the day. (Combine this with shutting down electronic devices well before you hold or look at your sleep talisman to increase effectiveness.)
- Use your breath to relax – Breathe in and out while focusing on love, grace, peace, or joy. Relax your eyes, relax your jaw, drop your shoulders, and feel yourself floating on a bed of air. Imagine yourself drifting on a raft down the Mississippi or floating on your back in a calm sea, trusting the gentle waves to take you somewhere safe.
* these helpful sleep tools, among many others,
are found in great detail on pages 211-221 in The Sleep Revolution
Over the course of our three-night hotel stay, my daughter and I tried these tips and found all of them to be helpful in some way or another. Natalie’s favorite, which we used every night, was the mind dump with the stages towards sleep. In a journal that her dad got her on a recent trip to NYC, she wrote down the things she was worried about or felt like she needed to do in the days ahead. Then she put it in the drawer to forget about until the next day. She then filled the tub with warm water for us to soak our feet. She decided to add a little clementine-scented oil to the water to enhance the experience. We sat on the edge of the tub rubbing oil into our feet. Sometimes we talked, other times we simply sat in connective silence. After I would get out, Natalie would take a bath, her favorite bedtime ritual.
On the last night of the trip, she came out of the bathroom, her hair wrapped in a fluffy white towel. “I just had a great idea. If I’m not allowed to take a bath or a shower right before bed at camp, I know what I can do to relax,” she said excitedly. “I will wash my feet in the sink and rub a little clementine oil on them. It will trick my brain into thinking I’m back in this hotel room with you, and I am safe and sleepy.”
“That sounds like a wonderful plan,” I said, feeling hopeful for the first time in months that maybe Natalie wouldn’t lie awake for hours on a narrow camp bed praying for sleep.
Not surprisingly, it would be me who would wake up from a deep sleep a few hours later due to a bad dream. I’d been worried about making the long drive home (I’m directionally challenged even with navigation), and I needed to finish editing my third book, due to my publisher in five days.
“It’s just a bad dream, Mom,” Natalie’s calm voice assured me in the pitch dark hotel room as I struggled to catch my breath. “You are safe. Everything’s okay,” she said firmly.
“Thank you,” I replied, realizing where I was. “I am safe. The people I love are safe. Everything’s okay,” I whispered to myself.
I then took my traveling worry and imagined dropping it like a pebble into the lake and watched the ripples subside.
I then took that worry of not meeting my book deadline and I did the same thing.
As I watched the ripples dissipate in my mind’s eye, I noticed something about that lake I didn’t expect to see.
Sitting on the water’s edge was my beautiful almost thirteen-year-old daughter. She was wearing a camp t-shirt, and she was laughing with friends. Her eyes were bright and her smile was wide.
She looked rested … calm … happy … joyful … and fully alive.
She was away from home, but she was practicing self-love and self-care, the things we were learning together as she grows.
“Only love today,” the voice inside her said.
She'll be okay, I decided as my eyes grew tired … maybe even better than okay.
And with a good night’s sleep, I will be too.
Dear friends of the Hands Free Revolution, as mentioned in the post, Arianna Huffington has written a life-enhancing book about the importance of sleep and how to get it. When I asked Arianna if I could share a few of the book’s tips that were helping my family, she said I could use anything—anything I thought could help others was open to me. I feel so grateful to be able to pass this life-saving wisdom along because I know it could be the answer someone is looking for today. Please know I have only scratched the surface of this book’s offerings in today’s post. I strongly encourage you to read it or gift it to someone who is lacking the knowledge and tools for restorative and healthy slumber. With a few changes to improve your sleep habits, life as you know it can become happier, healthier, and more hopeful. Click here to order or learn more about The Sleep Revolution.
Thank you for being part of this supportive online community. As always, I welcome you to share your experiences or anything you feel might be helpful or hopeful to someone reading today. The comment section of this blog and our Facebook page are pure gold because of you. We learn so much from each other.
If the ONLY LOVE TODAY mantra resonates with you, please know there are beautiful ONLY LOVE TODAY bracelets in leather and non-leather options in a variety of colors available. There is also a gorgeous hand-lettered print to display in your home or workplace. Being added very soon to the Hands Free Shop are ONLY LOVE TODAY silver and bronze cuffs. Here's my younger daughter wearing one during our beautiful week in Asheville …
These are great suggestions! I can see my 9 year old becoming a worrier, so I’ll be sure to share these tips with her.
I’ve just discovered your page, and it’s at a perfect time. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed a lot with dealing with work, family and everything else. And you’re so right, screens are just one more thing demanding our attention.
So I’ve been trying to be more present. I cleared out the playroom and found some giant colouring posters which we’ve spent time colouring together, my 5 year old boy is specially loving that! He woke me at 6.10 the other morning to ask if we could go do more colouring. They both had chickenpox recently, so that gave them a week off school, and plenty of rest time which we used to do things together as a family. I’d like to say it’s working, though I know there have been a couple of setbacks, but onwards and upwards! Thanks for all you do!
Rachel Stafford says
Hi Chrissy, welcome, friend! I am so glad you are here — you are going to love this supportive community. I truly appreciate you taking the time to comment. I believe there is so much hope to be found through our shared experiences and common struggles. I cherish every comment and every story gifted here. Thank you for mentioning the giant coloring pages! This would be a wonderful “wind down” activity for both the big and little people! It is also a wonderful time of connection and relaxation. This is another great tool you have provided! So happy you are here!
This is probably a silly thing to brag about…but I bought a hat. Just a baseball cap. And I guess to most people in the world, that wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment. But, you of all people know how important it is. I have spent years straightening my unruly hair and making it “picture” perfect everyday. I couldn’t leave the house without doing it. The past few weekends have been wavy ponytails and a hat…even to the zoo:) Just wanted to say thank you again. For the first time, I actually see myself changing. And I couldn’t have done it without your words of wisdom and truthfulness. I’m changing for my beautiful family. And for the first time, I’m actually fighting the inner bully. That critical voice has pushed me enough.
Beautiful post today. I will definitely try the pebble in the lake thought.
Rachel Stafford says
Did you say you bought a hat?? And you have been throwing it on to go have fun??? Oh sister, you just made my whole WEEK!!! Thank you for sharing the changes you are seeing in yourself. It surely doesn’t happen overnight and these changes can be so subtle … but once you begin to notice, these positive changes can fuel you forward. I love that you are overcoming your inner critic to hear your victory song of self acceptance and love. What a blessing your message is to me today!
I also bought a hat so I can have more fun on the weekends! I searched for one that I knew I would love and I’m excited to start wearing it while hanging out with my family!
I, too, wear my baseball cap with pride b/c it represents freedom from ridiculous standards that I had for myself in the past. If I could wear my baseball cap to work, I would love it!!! My family jokes that people wouldn’t recognize me without my cap on and they’re probably right! People who only see me on the weekend think that it’s attached to my head 🙂 Having said that, the 45 minutes of hair time that I save are so much better spent (even if it’s usually spent doing errands with my daughter)! I’m a single Mom and might just meet that special someone if I took more time to do my hair, but I’d rather use that time to make myself a more present and calm presence for my daughter. Rock that hat!!!!
Rachel Stafford says
I love you, Julie! Keep rocking the hat! You wear it well, beautiful lady.
Love all the comments after mine! The Hands Free community is amazing! You have started a “Hat Revolution”. I’m really excited about your new silver bracelets and I can’t wait to get one…But I see a high demand for a hat in the Hands Free Shop! I would totally wear a hat with a Rachel quote on it! 🙂
Oh, how I needed to read this today! I’m getting married this Saturday, and my son began college classes this morning. I’ve been awake since 4:30. I drifted back to sleep once, and was jolted awake by a dream involving many bridesmaids I’d never seen before, all in 80’s style lavender bridesmaid dresses. I think a brain dump is just what I need!
Rachel Stafford says
Congratulations on your upcoming marriage, dear Leslie! And with a son beginning college classes, this is a stressful and exciting time. I am thrilled that you found something helpful in my post today! I wish you much peace and calm in the coming days. With love, RMS
Jenny Johnston says
After surviving 18 months of sleep deprivation due to my 7 year old daughter’s anxiety, not one day passes (now that she is sleeping though the night) that I do not write “A FULL NIGHT OF SLEEP” in my gratitute journal. I cannot agree with you more, I felt as if I was out of my mind during that time in my life. Just in case other readers are looking for ideas for younger children, one of the most helpful with my daughter was the meditations from Mellisa Dormay at Shambala Kids. I hope it is ok to leave her website.
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you, Jenny! It brings hope to us all to hear about your family’s difficult experience & your triumph. Thank you for providing the link to the meditations from Mellisa that helped your family. Together there is more hope … together we find undiscovered gems to help & heal.
It’s such an important topic which I think is totally ignored by society today. In fact, I hear people brag about getting so little sleep. Around here, my eleven year old twin boys never go to bed late and I try to get at least seven hours and they, nine or ten. They are are very happy boys.
Your gentle voice and useful, tender advice always rings so beautifully. Thanks, as always for being a indefatigable source of light and hope. And as always, God’s Peace to you and your lovely family.
Connie Tendler says
My boy has a cold (he’s just 5 this week and it’s full on man flu) the combination of that and me lying in bed worrying about a million other things meant i have (barely) survived today on 2 hours sleep. The first thing that happened this morning was that i shouted so hard at them both we all ended up crying. My choice tonight is ice his birthday party cake and repeat tomorrow or have an early night. I am no good at making those decisions – he has his heart set on a particular cake – he would be so disappointed. I just keep going and being a shouty mama – where can you find extra hours in the day?
I have had those nights too, Rachel- up late frosting cakes, taking care of sick kids…when you really just need to put your feet up or get some sleep! Difficult choices indeed. No matter which decision you make, give yourself grace and do the best you can. Talk to yourself and treat yourself the way you would your best friend. If you get shouty with your kids, just apologize. It’s a good lesson that moms are human too, we mess up sometimes, we apologize, we try to do better, just like kiddos do. Wishing you the best <3
Laura Jane says
Oh, this is so refreshing, Rachel! Thank you so much for sharing with such honesty and grace the difficulties you experienced during your trying two-year period. It isn’t easy to be so honest… but I’m SO glad you do it! You encourage the rest of us that we’re not alone, that we can let our guards down, and it’s ok, healthy even, to admit when we’ve screwed up. And thank you so much for the wind-down tips… I’ll be trying them with my six year-old “night owl” daughter:) As always, this post is like a breath of fresh air! Thank you.
Rebecca Chapman says
What a special time to share with your daughter. Sleep is something that I find very difficult and so I am also really worried about my children having simikar issues. We have a nice calming routine we share together each night and I hope that it will carry on into their teenagers years.
Thank you for sharing these things with us. Often the things you write put into words so well things I’m thinking or feeling but can’t quite articulate to myself. Thank you.
Rachel Stafford says
I appreciate this so much, Rebecca. Thank you for letting me know.
Oh Rachel, you make my heart smile! 🙂
I too am such a worrier… I love this!! so many wonderful ideas. I am going to try these…all of these!
thank you, thank you, thank you!
So beautiful! This is just what I needed to read today as I navigate some stormy times with my nine-year-old….and just last week a psychologist said to never underestimate the importance and power of getting enough good sleep! Good stuff, Rachel, thanks for another wonderful post!
Thank you for such a wonderful post. My daughter and I will be trying your bedtime ritual ideas. My 9 yr old daughter has trouble letting go of the day, and she was prescribed melatonin temporarily. We now are trying to figure out how to “wean” her off of it. We already read together at the end of the day, but the mind dump and new jammies sound wonderful. On the other hand, I never have trouble letting go of the day; however, at 3am I wake up and the worrying starts. Your pebble in the pond imagery may help me. But you have already helped me in so many ways.
I have followed your journey for years. Thank you so much for your honesty. Because of this honesty, your blog is the only one I read anymore. I was too inundated with “how to be a perfect mother” blogs. “Only Love Today;” “I am here;” and “the truth hurts but the truth heals” have been my mantras. I have seen steady progress. Your blog is, in my opinion, the perfect blog for mothers. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Rachel Stafford says
Oh Sue. What a beautiful affirmation you have just given me. Thank you. I cherish your presence, support, and kindness. So glad you walk beside me, friend. Something tells me you will love my third book coming out in Feb called ONLY LOVE TODAY. It is a daily inspiration-type book filled with hopeful reminders that you mentioned in your comment.
Janice Tyler says
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience. I just found your blog and started to read it from this the newest post. I believe that every person should take care of themselves because it is the only way to make happy and at easy other people who are next to them. After reading your post, I realized that you didn’t take good care about yourself. It’s understanding. When you have family, you want to only focus on them and give them everything. But how can we take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves. I’m really happy that you understood that and found solutions. Good sleep makes life better and tastier! I really want to wish you and your family happiness and, of course, a good sleep! Take care!
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you, Janice. I really appreciate this comment and having you here! Welcome, friend!
I totally agree with Janice and it is true that if we can’t take care of ourselves properly then how will we take care of others. It’s really important for each of us. And after reading your post I am so happy that you’ve found out great solutions to the problem. Thanks a ton for sharing your experience with us as it helps me lot to actually understand the problem. It’s really essential for everybody to have a better sleep and I hope you stay blessed with your family.
Thanks again, Rachel… you have such a Gift for translating emotions we all have into stories that speak to the heart… I believe I’ve never yet read a text of yours without wiping off a few tears at some point or another 🙂 Thanks for awakening my heart again and again. And for having the courage to say those things that aren’t that comfortable to say out loud. You are much appreciated!
Josey Borman says
This is a beautiful story. More and more I find myself sharing similar experiences with my children. When I share with them, I grow. They share with me and they grow. We are learning and growing and changing together. I am willing to tell them I don’t have all the answers but I do have some experience. I share my mistakes and I have found such peace and grace. Thank you for graciously giving us your experiences.
I have been on anxiety meds for three years. At first they helped me sleep. Now, they just quit working. I feel very tired. On top of that I have stomach issues n PTSD. I have tried the alternative route n that did not help. I pray and pray and still no sleep.
I found your blog through Facebook (and a friend posting one of your huffington articles). I think this is a blog for me! I just ordered the sleep deprivation book: because I too am the bully in our house (sadly). I hate it when I see the damage I have created in my children, through my impatience and cranky words (and my inner bully). One step at a time. Thank you for being a voice for this important area and for being a Godly timed resource.