by Rachel macy stafford

“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.

No response.

“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.

Bio: 

Rachel Macy Stafford is a certified special education teacher with a Master’s Degree in education and ten years of experience working with parents and children. In December 2010, this life-long writer felt compelled to share her journey to let go of distraction and grasp what really matters by creating the blog “Hands Free Mama.” Using her skills as a writer, teacher, and encourager, Rachel provides readers with simple, non-intimidating, and motivating methods to let go of distraction and connect with their loved ones. Rachel’s work has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Global News, USA Today, TIME.com, MSN.com, The Huffington Post, and Reader’s Digest. Her blog currently averages one million visitors a month. Rachel’s new book, HANDS FREE MAMA, is a New York Times Bestseller.