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Rachel Macy Stafford Headshot

Taking Away My Daughter's Smile

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My life contained everything I'd ever wished for -- a loving husband, two beautiful children, a healthy mind and body, and a safe and comfortable home.

Given such desirable circumstances, one would have thought I'd wake up every morning feeling grateful, happy, and content.

But that was not the case.

I woke up feeling the same way I did when I went to bed the night before -- unhappy, annoyed, and irritable.

Mentally, I could acknowledge my life's abundant blessings, but I didn't really see them or feel them because I was too focused on my life's abundant distractions. Too many commitments. Too many screens. Too many self-induced pressures to be all and do all. Too many unachievable standards. Too many to-do's and never enough time.

And when you're overbooked, hurried, and clinging to the electronic device, there's very little time to laugh, rest, play, and simply BE. And that's when the smile on your face tends to disappear.

Although I managed to plaster on a smile in public, my face wore a frown in the privacy of my home. You see, when you are living a highly distracted life, nothing -- not even the beautiful faces of your loving family -- can bring you joy.

The truth hurts but the truth heals... and brings me closer to the parent and person I want to be.


My outward discontent seemed to peak when it was time to leave the house. My children, then ages 4 and 7, knew I got a little crazy when I was trying to get everyone ready and out the door. My older daughter tried to help any way she could. Of course, her attempts to help made it take longer and were never good enough. I didn't try to hide my exasperation or annoyance.

I vividly remember getting in the car after one stressful departure. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw my daughter picking her top lip nervously. As she pinched that tiny piece of fragile skin on her upper lip with wide eyes, I swear I could read her mind:

Mommy's mad.

Mommy's tired.

Mommy's stressed.

But there was more. I could practically hear how a young child would interpret her mother's unhappiness.

Mommy's mad at me.

Mommy's tired because of me.

Mommy's stressed because of something I did.

My older daughter's lip picking became the new routine when we got in the car to go anywhere. And much to my dismay, the habit slowly moved to other areas of her life. I attributed it to school worries, being shy, her daddy's work travels, and sibling jealousy. I read everything I could about this harmful behavior while hoping it was just a phase that would soon pass. But the lip picking didn't stop. At times, the tender skin on her upper lip would even bleed.

Around the time I felt we should seek medical attention for this problem, a light was shed on the issue -- a light that was more like a beacon of truth from which I could not hide.

In an especially chaotic rush out the door to go on a family vacation, I sat in the passenger seat fuming. Mad because I didn't have time to put the dishes in the dishwasher. Mad because we were late getting on the road. Mad because the garage door was acting up. I am talking trivial, insignificant, minor inconveniences here, but that was the state of a distracted woman who could no longer see the blessings, only the inconveniences, of her life.

And before we were about to pull out of the driveway, my husband looked at me as if someone he loved very much had died. In a barely audible whisper he said, "You're never happy anymore."

I wanted to defend.

I wanted to excuse.

I wanted to deny.

But I couldn't.

Because I knew he was right.

Where had that happy woman gone? The one who smiled at people she passed on the street just because. The one whose friends often spoke of her positive outlook on life. The one who felt happy simply because she heard her favorite song or had a pack of strawberry Twizzlers in her purse. The one who could laugh off mistakes because mistakes happen, and they are certainly not the end of the world.

Where had she gone?

And that's when I glanced to the backseat to see if my children had heard my husband's words. Staring back at me was my daughter picking her lip with worry the size of a small boulder weighing down her small shoulders.

And that's when an even more powerful question hit me.

Where had my happy little girl gone? The one who woke up with the most gorgeous bed head and good morning smile. The one who beamed at the words "sprinkler," "cotton candy," and "pet store." The one who laughed so hard tears came to her eyes. The one who licked beaters with sheer pleasure and danced happily to any song with a beat.

Where had she gone?

I knew.

I knew.

While choosing to make my own blessed life miserable, I had funneled my unhappiness straight into my daughter's once joyful heart and spirit. Her pain was a direct reflection of the expression I wore on my face.

This difficult truth was one of several powerful admissions that led to my Hands Free breakdown-breakthrough. I wasn't sure how, but I was determined to bring a smile back to my daughter's face; I knew I must bring it back to my own.

I began with one small step: looking for what was going right, instead of what was going wrong. I called it: Seeing the flowers instead of the weeds.

Yes, there was a messy room (weeds), but it was because my children had played quietly and cooperatively with each other (flowers).

Yes, her shoes were splattered with mud (weeds), but the joy on her face as she splashed in puddles was unforgettable (flowers).

Yes, she was out of bed again (weeds), but it was to give me one more goodnight kiss (flowers).

Yes, she had gotten out every pair of shorts she owned (weeds), but she'd dressed herself independently (flowers).

When I started looking for "flowers" instead of "weeds" in our daily life, the positives became more obvious, and I quickly gained a new perspective. I realized much of what aggravated me was trivial. Much of what was supposedly "ruined" were things that could be fixed or cleaned up. What mattered -- that we were safe, healthy, and alive -- were thoughts that began to overpower the negatives.

My eager-to-please, helpful older child looked different too. I saw her for who she was, not an annoyance or a bother, but a loving child with clever thoughts and ideas. For once, I could see all the things she was capable of doing -- not perfectly, but good enough for today. The tightness in my face relaxed and the smiles came more easily for both of us.

And now here I am three years into my Hands Free journey. Like any normal human being, I have moments of frustration, sadness, anger, and overwhelm... but these feelings are temporary, they are no longer the norm. I don't smile every minute of the day, but I smile a lot.

My older daughter is not so little anymore. One of her favorite activities is giving me a makeover. I sit crossed-legged in front of her and as she gently applies blush to my face, my daughter's perfectly plump lip is in my direct line of vision.

She doesn't remember picking her lip. That habit died soon after my new life perspective was born. But I won't forget. In fact, I don't want to forget the cost of distraction. It can pick your life apart until it bleeds you dry. And it can take the ones you love with you in the process.

But by letting go of the distractions that take your focus off what really matters, you begin to see clearly. You begin to see flowers instead of weeds.

By making it a daily practice to notice all that is good in your life, the joy in your heart has the tendency to overflow. And when it does, you are able to funnel that excess love and happiness straight into the hearts of those you most want to see smile.

rachel macy stafford

Rachel Macy Stafford's book, Hands Free Mama: A Guide to Putting Down the Phone, Burning the To-Do List, and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters! is scheduled for release January 2014 and is currently available for pre-order.

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