My family and I spent our last week of summer break on vacation in Cape May, a beautiful coastal town at the southernmost tip of New Jersey. As we drove past the last exit on the Garden State Parkway, Exit 0, we all exclaimed in excitement. There’s something special about coming to the end of something, or the beginning.
I made an important promise to myself before our vacation began – I would live “hands free,” inspired by Rachel Macy Stafford’s mantra. While I could use my phone to take pictures, and I must admit to posting a few on Instagram, I banned myself from all other social media, including Bloglovin, and restricted emails to emergencies only.
This is something I’ve needed to do for a while now, because technology has become a means of escape. It’s how I shut down and tune out. My family, that is.
The world within my phone is vibrant and engaging – it truly is! – and many of the friendships I’ve formed are genuine, but they are only one facet of my life. The other facet is the one vying for my attention while I scroll through Facebook, listen to podcasts, and click on an endless stream of articles and blog posts.
It wasn’t always like this. When my daughter was born seven years ago, smart phones were new. My phone had no Internet connection, no touch screen. My only way of connecting with the world beyond the confines of daughter’s nursery was texting, which even then wasn’t something I did often.
Four years and another child later, I had a smart phone and used it so frequently, that when my son was less than two, he’d toddle into the living room after a nap and hand it to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against having access to a world beyond my world, and I think it helped me get through some dark nights of endless nursing and wake-ups. But like anything used in excess, it spiraled out of control.
That’s one reason why I leapt at the chance to review Rachel’s new book, Hands Free Life: 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better & Loving More.
I’d been reading and connecting to her wisdom through blog posts and articles for over a year. I even bought one of her beautiful bracelets, only love today, but I still struggled.
Then I read this passage in her book’s introduction:
“Keeping track of life is much more than going through the motions of putting down the phone, burning the to-do list, and letting go of perfection. It’s something deep. Lasting. Permanent. It’s a conscious decision to focus on what really matters when a sea of insignificance tries to pull you away.”
That’s when it clicked. Yes, I bought a bracelet and nodded my head through her posts, but I had yet to make the practice a part of my daily life. Like anything worth fighting for, it takes effort.
There is a fear in choosing presence, in really seeing the people around you, in being seen. But there is more danger in not doing so.
On vacation, I took my children, one at a time, into the ocean. My daughter is a strong swimmer for a seven year old, and we went deep, but I held her arm and kept her close that first day.
I grew up with a beach loving father who instilled an appreciation and fear in the power of water. Never turn your back on the ocean, he’d say, and those words remain etched in my mind. As the waves came rushing toward us, I taught her the lessons my father taught me. She smiled and laughed as we bobbed up and down. As the days passed, she became braver, letting go of me and relishing the big waves, ducking down while pinching her nose shut, and coming up laughing.
I laughed along with her, but inside I was on high alert, never letting my attention waver for a moment. The ocean was rough during our visit, the tidal pull insistent, relentless. A reminder that it only takes a moment, for a life to be taken.
Later, as the soreness spread down my arms and legs, I thought about how fully present I was in the ocean. There was too much at stake to be distracted. I felt responsible not just for my daughter’s pleasure, but her life.
As I finished Rachel’s book the next day, I realized presence is a choice I can make every day.
My children know I love them in a big picture kind of way, but I also want them to bask in the warmth of my undivided attention.
Not every second of the day, of course. There will be times when we drift away, like my daughter did in the ocean, testing her skills and independence, and the same goes for me, when I’m off doing my work, my writing. But when I’m with my kids, I want to be with them, as if our lives depend on it.
Because they do.
These lessons, and so much more, are in the pages of Hands Free Life, a book of which I am certain has set the wheels of my life in a different kind of motion. Changes have already shifted our family dynamic in our house.
My daughter, who has her own only love today bracelet in lavender, asked me about the book. In a matter of days, she was saying things like, “Live hands free, mom,” with a gleam in her eye. She reminds me to put down my phone, and I do.
We also made our own version of Hands Free house rules, inspired by Rachel’s, as seen in her book and in the beautiful wood frame below.
If you want to make changes in your life that reflect your heart, you can pre-order Rachel’s book (offer ends September 7th) and receive a free digital copy of her New York Times Bestseller, Hands Free Mama. A book that I’m about to read next.
Oh my friend. Thank you for sharing so much of your heart, your life, your aspirations, and your struggles in this beautiful piece. Two passages beautifully captured the essence and importance of of showing up in our life and in our loved ones’ lives. I loved these two sections:
“There is a fear in choosing presence, in really seeing the people around you, in being seen. But there is more danger in not doing so.”
“But when I’m with my kids, I want to be with them, as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.”
I cannot tell you what it has meant to me to know how the book has impacted your life and your family’s life in small ways and in big ways. The HOUSE RULES written by your daughter means more than I could ever express in words. Please know how thankful I am that you accepted this journey as your own — and that you decided to go “all in” — the results are quite beautiful to behold.
Thank you so much for this beautiful comment, Rachel. It sets my heart at ease because I really wanted my love and admiration of your incredible book to come across. I intended to write a more “traditional” review, but this came pouring out instead and I just couldn’t shift gears. I hope I adequately expressed the transformative nature of your work, and how applicable it is to readers. Your heartfelt journey has helped so many, and I hope my review sends more eyes to your words.
What an inspiring post! Thanks for the good vibes and, of course, for the kind of Jersey story I love to hear. Your writing is wonderful!
Kathy, thank you so much for this lovely comment! And yes, the Jersey shore, it really is glorious. I can’t wait to return to the Cape!
What a lovely review and thoughtful way to put it all into practice while on vacation. I felt so keenly this summer, perhaps for the first time so profoundly since she was born, the importance of really being present in moments like yours. Suddenly, it seems, I am acutely aware that this type of closeness and privilege of being privy to so much of her life…it’s not going to last forever. There’s something about her age (eight / second grade in just a few days) that seems to have forced my hand in this most unexpected way, and I wonder if you feel it too given your daughter is at the same juncture. Anyway, I’ll be sure to check this book out–sounds really wonderful.
Kristen, thank you so much for this comment. I think the age of our girls – both in second grade (my daughter is 7.5) has a lot to do with the urgency I’m feeling. I know we’re on the cusp of adolescence, that inevitable and natural pulling away, and I will be absolutely heartbroken if I miss my chance now, while I have it. They are still willing to love us with such rawness right now, and every time I look at my phone instead is a waste. As I write this, I’m far from perfect, but I know how crucial it is to keep trying. And to keep forgiving myself for my mistakes. That’s something I didn’t have a chance to explain in this post, how Rachel’s book is not just about unconditionally loving and being present for our families, but practicing self-care and forgiveness for our inevitable shortcomings.
Dana – I love your review. I am struggling with embracing a fully present life and my iPhone is such a culprit. Your post comes at just the right time and I will definitely check out Rachel’s book. Thank you so much. xo
The iPhone is a huge problem for me, Rudri. And I use the excuse of not knowing the time, and needing to keep it “on hand” for emergencies (I have no land line) to keep it so close. I’m planning on buying a watch, and maybe even investing in a land line (!) if those even exist anymore, ha. I just need it not to be in close proximity, at least until I figure out some better self-control. Thank you for chiming in here. I think you will find so much wisdom and also kindness in Rachel’s book.
I also love Rachel’s site. Its hard not to be inspired by her. Yes, bringing your child into the wild ocean will certainly inspire presence. What a great example.
Thank you so much Laurie, and I agree, it’s hard not to be moved by Rachel’s words!
I struggle with this too, big time. I think about getting rid of my tablet and tossing my phone in a drawer (or getting an old flip phone!), because I know that if I had to boot up a desktop computer every time I wanted to check Facebook or Twitter or read blogs…well, I’d probably only do it once or twice a day. Having all of the internet right there at a touch of the finger, in my pocket, is a terrible temptation. You’re so right that being present is a scary thing. I often “check out” via the internet when depressed. As I’m getting stronger, though, and moving past my PPD, I find myself wanting so desperately to unplug and reconnect. I will check out this website for sure. Thank you for sharing a vulnerable part of yourself, Dana!
Tara, I am seriously considering getting a flip phone with no internet! It’s sad that I have such little self-control, but I think that would be a big help in breaking the habit. I check out online when I’m feeling depressed or overwhelmed, but it’s such an empty crappy feeling afterward. Kind of like a hangover. But reading Rachel’s book helped A LOT and I am trying to make better choices and create firm boundaries around technology. Definitely check out her site and let me know what you think!
Dana loved this! Miss you j
Thank you my friend, I miss you an insane amount!
I love this post! And I try, some days I am better than others but there are times phones are banned (by me, and for me!)… and if I forget, I am always reminded “Don’t do your phone Mummy, you promised!”
Now I love when my daughter reminds me, and I’m encouraging her to do so, though I used to get annoyed by it! I am working on creating some better technology boundaries for myself, as Rachel suggests in her book.
I LOVE Cape May. I haven’t been back in ages, though.
When Scarlet was born, six years ago, I just had a flip phone. I was nursing a LOT and I am someone who loves/needs distractions, so I used to read while I nursed. Occasional TV watching, but mostly reading.
With my son, I had an iPhone. I think you can probably figure out how that worked out!
I need entire days without the phone. It’s better for my anxiety and my parenting.
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to visit Cape May, it’s so gorgeous and peaceful! I remember flip phone texting when Emma was an infant, and how truly lonely I felt during those many long endless nursing nights. I really was left alone with my brain, which may not have been a good thing, but I’m not sure escaping online would’ve been better. I did read a lot, but not at night. With my son, I was online quite a bit, and I think that habit has stuck. But I agree, the days I stop checking incessantly I feel better (after the initial withdrawal) and cleaner, somehow! I really need to do it more, and not just on vacation. Thanks so much for your comment here.
Love this. All of it. Your memories of this trip, the book, your house rules… ❤ This is timely for me. And I daresay I'm not the only one struggling. There is a theme running through blogs and social media right now about this messy world between being in the moment and reaching for your phone. A few friends have deleted everything and many are taking a break from blogging and/or social media to be with family, to write, to live their lives.
I feel like it’s going around too, Sarah! This itch to unplug but the anxiety over what (if anything) we will miss. It feels so dire – both the need to unplug and the need to remained plugged. I think I’m going to try to create and really stick with some big boundaries regarding technology. Rachel writes in her book that she avoids being on her phone from 3pm to bedtime. I wonder if I could manage that! Then would I just be ignoring my husband the second the kids fall asleep? Hmm. There clearly needs to be a better balance. Thanks so much for chiming in.
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Living Hands Free is another beautiful discussion from your heart.
From: writing at the table <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Reply-To: writing at the table <email@example.com>
Date: Tuesday, September 1, 2015 at 9:59 PM
To: Steven Schwartz <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [New post] Living Hands Free
Dana posted: “My family and I spent our last week of summer break on vacation in Cape May, a beautiful coastal town at the southern most tip of New Jersey. As we drove past the last exit on the Garden State Parkway, Exit 0, we all exclaimed in excitement. There’s somet”
Dad, how did you manage to write a comment?! I’m very impressed. Thank you for being my number one fan, with mom of course.
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This is the cutest thing ever!
Dana, such a beautiful post and a good reminder to be present in the actual moments. Too often we have our faces glued to our phones and our children do notice. Im not one for talking on my phone but I do skim the social media,it is such a time waster when I could be working on my stories.
Thank you so much Kath. I’m still working on not picking up my phone the moment I’m bored, annoyed or just want to be somewhere else. It’s like I need to retrain my brain. And yes, it also takes me away from my creative work, which as we know is what keeps our souls afloat along with our loved ones.
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I keep hearing about Cape May! Might have to add that to a road trip one of these days!
I have a flip phone so it’s not much of a temptation but I do find myself checking the time a LOT and I have typed out some long texts in my day! But not having a smartphone is a conscious decision and it does feel good for my little family of two.
That said, as a single parent, I find myself multitasking in other ways a ton of the time. Whether it’s dishes, making dinner, doing other cleaning, thinking about work, etc…this post was a good reminder to slow down. Thank you.
Cape May worth the trip, for sure! A flip phone may be in my future. Which is kind of a funny thing to write 🙂 But I think that would help curb my bad habits.
As far as multi tasking goes, I imagine that your role as a single parent may necessitate a certain amount just to get by at times, but it’s always good to be aware of when it better serves loved ones to take one thing at a time.
There are so many beautiful and important points in your post, Dana. It can be difficult to be engaged in the present moment with so many distractions, but it is essential to remind ourselves to live in the moment because it’s all we have.
I remember driving along in Arizona when my friend and I spotted a gorgeous rainbow over the red rocks. How often does that happen in Arizona? My friend was reaching for her camera. She couldn’t wait to pull over to snap a photo to document the moment to all of the people on Instagram and FB. I much preferred just experiencing it. Then it can live in my mind’s eye forever instead of through the lens of a camera.
I love your rainbow example, Jackie. The camera phone can be a problem. I’ve caught myself a few times, reaching for it, and then stopping, because there’s something so confining about seeing life through a tiny screen. This is a great reminder that some things just don’t need to be snapped for saving or sharing, that taking it in with the whole of our eyes and mind and creating a real memory, not one of 1000+ pictures on a phone is more significant. Thank you for reading and for this comment.
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How much do I love that your dad left a comment?
Let me count the ways…
with my free hands. 🙂
Ha! I love that you thought that was great, too 🙂
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I can relate to every word of this thoughtful post. It is so hard to turn it all off because yes, it is engaging and real. But yes, just one part of life.
Thank you so much Nina, I know you can.
I loved this. I won’t lie, I was envious at the thought of the ocean waves and the hot sun on your faces. But to have all that hands free time. My son was sick this week. I stayed home from work and for three days we laid on the couch together watching cartoons. It was decadent to be with him and so connected, and I thought how sad it was that he had to be running a temp of 104 and barfing in a bucket before we hung out for more than mere minutes at the dinner table.
Thank you Sandra, and I’m envious too, looking back at those beautiful beach pictures during this cold wet rain! Sometimes it takes a natural pause in life, like getting sick, to slow things down. I’m sorry you son wasn’t well, but glad you had some quiet lazy days. I had one like that with my young son yesterday.
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