Finding Hope in the Before & After … It’s Not Beyond Repair

by Rachel Macy Stafford

“Who I am becoming matters more than who I once was.
Today matters more than yesterday.”
-Rachel Macy Stafford


Six weeks ago my eight-year-old daughter was fitted with a palatal expander to address several dental issues. In the four visits we’ve had to the orthodontist, one thing never fails to happen. My daughter pauses at the BEFORE and AFTER bulletin board and studies every bright smile, every straightened tooth, every hope-filled gap. As we enter and before we leave, my child stops to study the transformations as I stand beside her quietly. Along this Hands Free journey I’ve learned there are times when I must not rush my child. Standing in front of the BEFORE and AFTER display is one of those times. I let my Noticer look until she is ready to move on.

At home I am required to take a tiny pin key and stick it into minuscule hole inside the expander. My daughter dutifully opens her mouth as wide as it will go, allowing me to see inside the dark cavern of her mouth. From there, I slowly turn the wheel downward until the next hole appears.

As I turn the wheel her upper dental arch expands by a hair. A single hair. You would not think a hair of expansion would hurt, but it does. My child presses her hands against her nose in an effort to relieve the pain. Although there are often tears, she is always brave. I can’t be sure, but I think my daughter imagines the AFTER picture during this process. She knows there is a reason for this pain. And although the transformation cannot be seen as it is happening, someday it will be seen. And perhaps those beginning their own transformations will find inspiration from her BEFORE and AFTER photos.

Around the time my daughter got her expander, I received a heartbreaking e-mail message from a blog reader with an especially challenging question. “Everything is broken in life—my marriage, my relationships with my children, my feelings about myself. Where do I start when there is so much to repair?” the reader asked desperately.

I was not able to form an answer to this dear reader for many weeks. It wasn’t until my child and I stood at the BEFORE and AFTER display most recently that I knew what I would tell this woman yearning to bring joy and connection back to her life.

I would say this:

Where do you start when there is so much to repair? My friend, you have already begun. Those painful words you typed while your hands shook—that was your first step. You have taken that painful look inward to acknowledge action is needed. You opened wide even though you knew it might hurt to see the true state of the situation. But this is where the transformation, the repair, and the healing begin. Those little tiny turns, those fraction-of-a-hair movements you will make to become more present and more connected will someday make up the AFTER version of yourself. My friend, you have already begun. Let us take the next small steps.

It was my own painful look inward, my own difficult truths that served as the starting point of my Hands Free journey. And if I had to suggest six small adjustments or steps for this woman to incorporate in her daily routine, I would choose these:

1) Go public – Announce your intentions to family members or a trusted friend to increase accountability. A public declaration might sound like this:

I am making an effort to refrain from using the phone while I am driving. I may need your gentle reminders. Would you help me?

I am making an effort to put away my devices from six o’clock to nine o’clock each night. Would you like to do this together?

I am making an effort to use a peaceful response in times of stress and overwhelm. Can you put your hand on your heart when I am hurting you with my words or tone as a reminder of my promise?

2) Give unrushed goodbyes – Before you separate, hold your loved ones for at least ten seconds. Hug them tightly. Inhale their scents. Tell them you love them no matter what happened before that goodbye. You will never regret giving a ten second goodbye, and the impact of this daily action on your relationships will be profound.

3) Make eye contact – Whenever loved ones walk into the room, put down whatever you are doing and show them you are happy to see them. This might mean stopping in the middle of reading a text message to smile and say hi. It might mean pausing while you are making dinner, watching a television show, or sending an e-mail to look into their eyes and greet them. Keep in mind, that unfinished task will be still be there in two minutes. Making it a habit to briefly pause and delight in your loved one’s presence is very beneficial to your relationship. As an added bonus, your children will learn an important social skill and common courtesy that is growing increasingly rare in our culture.

4) Act like the person you want to become – When I wanted to become a more patient person who slowed down to listen, I emulated my second grade teacher, Ms. Paluska, during critical moments with my loved ones. At bedtime, at mealtime, while out for a walk, and when the kids hopped in the car afterschool, I tried to consistently do what Ms. Paluska did: I smiled. I nodded. I asked thoughtful questions and listened. Over time, those critical moments of togetherness became “our time” and my loved ones looked forward to these undistracted daily rituals as much as I did.

5) Be kind to yourself – Start loving yourself “as is” by avoiding the mirror, posting positive notes from loved ones or inspiring quotes on the walls of your home, throwing on a hat before you go out instead of criticizing your appearance, or wearing a physical reminder like this bracelet that says, “Only Love Today”. By making it a habit to extend patience and kindness to yourself, you are better able to extend patience and kindness to others on a regular basis.

6) Recite a daily mantra or prayer when guilt and regret overwhelm you – When I began taking small steps to be more present in my life, I quickly realized how many precious moments I’d missed in my distracted state. Wallowing in regret was my natural tendency, but that only sabotaged the current moment as well. I wrote this mantra to help focus on what I could control:

Who I am becoming matters more than who I once was.
Today matters more than yesterday.

Incorporating these six small actions into my daily routine increased the opportunity to bond with family members and silence the inner critic that often sabotaged my moments that mattered. Through these actions, I began to know my loved ones by their book. I found what words healed, what words lifted, and what words strengthened the bond between us. This renewed connection became my anchor that helped me stay the course on my Hands Free journey even in times of doubt and challenge. Those six steps were integral to my initial transformation and are still in practice today, nearly five years later.

But just in case I needed one final confirmation that small, daily actions hold the power to transform, my child’s orthodontist provided it.

On our most recent office visit, the doctor peered into my daughter’s mouth and immediately noticed an improvement. “Wow! Look at this!” the doctor exclaimed excitedly.

I jumped up from my seat and looked in curiously. I hadn’t noticed any change as I turned the expander wheel religiously over the past several weeks. It was not until the doctor flashed the BEFORE picture on the screen that I could see the progress. Those fraction-of-a-hair movements were indeed making a difference! Looking back at where my child started made it possible to see the progress that had already occurred.

As my daughter and I made our way to the exit door, she made her usual stop at the BEFORE and AFTER display. “I wonder where they will put my picture,” she said surveying the board filled with satisfied patients.

She’d never said that before. Perhaps it was the first time she believed she would have a spot on this board. Maybe she couldn’t see it before, but after seeing her progress today, the future held real possibilities.

“There’s a Whole Foods around the corner,” I said as we buckled ourselves into the car. “Want to go for a treat?”

A look of concern crossed my child’s face. I knew she was thinking about getting back to school just like I’d briefly thought about the work I had yet to do. But within a few seconds the worry was replaced with look of joyful understanding. “Oh yeah! We need to celebrate, don’t we?”

A few minutes later we sat side by side as busy shoppers rolled past with their carts. My daughter appeared to be deep in thought as she picked off small bites of her pastry so it didn’t get stuck in her appliance.

“I couldn’t have done this by myself,” she said unexpectedly.

I almost asked for clarification, but I didn’t. I knew she was talking about the appliance in her mouth and me—me being there, all there, throughout the entire process. We both know there was a time in my life when I might have been there, but not in the way that mattered.

I immediately covered her hand with mine and recited a prayer of gratitude. Never had I been so thankful for fraction-of-a-hair movements that become anchors—anchors that fix crooked teeth and restore connections that once seemed beyond repair.


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,,, 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.