Living Hands Free

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.

family bay

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.

family silloutte

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.

hands free life

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.

Our version of Hands Free Rules inspired by Rachel's.

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.

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Asking for Help

This isn’t something I do. Well, not on a regular basis. I’m one of those, no, I got it, kind of people. Pride, foolishness, who knows. I could go deep and examine myself, but I’ll leave that for my future therapist (if I ever go back to one, ha). Let’s just say, for whatever reason it’s never come easily for me.

When my daughter was a baby, a colicky, screaming banshee, I needed help. In retrospect I see that quite clearly. Not with her – because, believe me, she was a handful – but for myself. The realization that I was in too deep came several years later and I wrote an essay about it, which will be published in the forthcoming anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness.

Recently, I found myself in a similar place. A rough patch in my parenting journey. Yes, it’s summer and my patience is wearing thin, but if I’m honest with myself, it’s more than that. My colicky little baby girl is now an artistic, sensitive, curious seven-year-old, and still as stubborn and challenging as she was as an infant. I used to call her my extreme baby, and, well now, she’s my extreme grown child.

The other day I was at my wit’s end. I lost my marbles, to put it mildly, and fell into a familiar cycle of self-loathing and despair. Except this time, I asked for help.

Not out loud, but in a note on my phone, which has become a makeshift journal of sorts.

And then, the very next day, this arrived:

hands free life

I am a huge fan of Rachel Macy Stafford and the beautiful writing on her blog, Hands Free Mama. She writes so eloquently about parenting. All of it, the messiness, the shame, and the infinite possibility. Her advice always hits a nerve for me. I even bought her bracelet this winter because I hoped seeing the reminder on my wrist, Only Love Today, would help ground me.

bracelets

Recently, I happened across a Huffington Post article on Facebook that I hadn’t read before called, Manager in My Home, which is about her moment of transformation from manager to nurturer. After reading it, and recognizing my tendency to try to control and rush through the days, I realized that I have yet to put her wisdom into practice.

When Rachel reached out to me on Facebook a couple months ago and asked if I’d consider reviewing her new book, Hands Free Life, I was stunned and moved. YES. Sign me up, I said. The truth is, I haven’t read her first book, Hands Free Mama, though it has been on my to-read list for almost a year.

I think part of me was hesitant to buy another self-help style book. I’ve been through quite a few in the parenting genre. Another part of me was afraid. What if her advice didn’t work? What if I was too far gone?

But after digging a little deeper, I think the real truth is this: what if I had to actually work to make change happen? 

It’s one thing to buy a bracelet and admire another’s work, but quite another to change your life.

Well, I’m ready now. I’ve already ordered a copy of Hands Free Mama (which you can get a free ebook of if you preorder her new book), and I’m a third of the way through Hands Free Life.

I’m soaking it up like a sponge. I’m already starting to make changes in my parenting style, in my life. Let me be perfectly clear – I’m a long, long way from shaking off all my bad habits, but I’m finally willing to try.

I’ll be sharing tidbits of knowledge from the book along the way, and also writing a review closer to the September 8th release. Please note that I’m not getting paid in any way to promote this book, though I did receive a free copy. I don’t usually review books at all here, but this book literally arrived at my doorstep at just the right moment in my life.

Are you familiar with Hands Free Mama? If not, let me know what you think if you end up checking out her blog. I also loved her latest moving post about making appreciation jars for her family on the eve of her surgery. I’m definitely going to make them for my kids, maybe even before summer ends…

Speaking of which, I hope you’re enjoying your summer! The school year is right around the corner, which fills me with excitement or dread, depending on the hour. Knowing myself, I will be in full nostalgia mode, despite all the challenges of this summer. Because that’s the way I roll.