Rachel Macy Stafford was out for a run one day when it hit her: Life, and her kids’ childhood, was getting away from her. She was busy all the time with volunteer work and fundraisers. She was rushing from one place to the next, and hurrying her children to keep up with a jam-packed schedule. Her never-ending to-do list ruled her life. All the while, her smartphone was dinging and beeping and ringing, constantly pulling her attention away from her family.
The mother of two from Birmingham, Ala., stopped running that day and took a hard look at her hurried, distracted life.
“I could pinpoint, prior to that, times where I had a nagging feeling, saying ‘Are you really and truly happy? Is this how you want to live your life?’” Stafford said. “My husband had mentioned that I was doing way too much and wasn’t happy anymore. Over time that seed was planted, and that day I came to the painful truth I had been denying for quite some time.”
She slowed down, put her phone away and started really looking her children in the eye. Those changes have made a tremendous difference, Stafford says. That was in 2010. Figuring other moms were having the same issues, she started a blog called Hands Free Mama. A Facebook page called the Hands Free Revolution has attracted more than 98,000 followers. And this month, she published “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.”
I recently spoke with Stafford by phone about what it means to be “hands free,” what she has gained and how other moms can let go of distractions. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What is hands free parenting?
It’s not about abandoning technology or your job responsibilities. It’s about designating specific times of day where you let go of your distractions and are fully present. Right now there’s a little bit of a hunger for human connections because we’re inundated with technology and pressure to succeed and do it all. It’s spilling into our home lives to the point where conversation and eye contact are getting lost.
Why did you go hands free?
I came to a crossroads in my life where I was doing it all, being supermom and everyone was admiring the way I handled everything. But it was coming at a cost. I was missing out on life, and what makes life worth living, the laughing and playing. I started with 10 minutes of designated time to be away from distractions with my daughter Avery. Her reaction was so powerful and profound, she picked up my hand and kissed my palm, and that was confirmation that I really need to let go of these millions of things.
How much time do you spend hands free each day?
During the week from 3 p.m. to 7 or 7:30 p.m., is designated distraction free. Then on the weekends I try to unplug as much as I possibly can. I’m not perfect. But I find I’m much more productive in the job that I do if I give myself the weekend to get away from devices and be with my family. And it’s not all just about connecting with your family. It’s about connecting with your heart and what makes you feel alive.
What have you gained from it?
A fulfillment where I don’t feel like I have to have that external affirmation, and people patting me on the back. I feel content with who I am and what I’m doing with my life. Knowing my children and my husband and having them know me . . . is the most priceless thing that I’ve gained.
If you could list only three things parents should do right now to be hands free, what would they be?
First, create one daily ritual where that time with your child is protected from all other distractions and interruptions. Every day have morning snuggles or bedtime talk or reading time or dinner. Just something your child or loved one can count on. they can count on that time with you.
Second, allow yourself those extra 60 seconds for an unrushed and undivided good-bye. It shows how much you love them and how much they matter to you.
Third, giving my phone a home and turning the notifications off, just getting it out of my sight and not hearing it, helped me so much. It’s put away and I’m going to be where I need to be fully, physically and mentally.
We all know we should put our phones down and live in the moment, but it’s easier said than done. How did you accomplish it?
It was like I couldn’t walk by my phone, just seeing it was a trigger. Putting it away was so good. When I put it away and made myself available to my children, their response was so reinforcing. Something neat would happen every time I did that. It really brought to the forefront that I was missing all these “sunset moments.” I call them sunset moments because like a sunset, it’s going to happen whether you witness it or not. You have a choice whether you see it or not.
Do you ever have a bad or off day? When you just want to be left alone for a little while?
Absolutely. . . . We’re human. We have these feelings. It’s the choices that you make in those moments. I did hurry up my children a lot in my distracted days because I always had someplace to go. The hands-free journey has helped me overcome rushing and criticizing them. . . . The more honest and open we can be with our struggles, the better off we’ll be as parents. We’re going to have negative feelings. When I do lose my temper and have a bad day, I make a point to apologize. It was hard when I was living my perfectionist, distracted life. Now that I’m living a more authentic life, I can apologize more readily. What a great example to set for our children.
Are our phones our biggest problem?
It’s probably the most obvious problem that we can attend to first. That’s a good starting point if you feel like you’re living a distracted life. The phone or the computer is the most obvious place to start. You can get a handle on that because you can say to your family ‘Will you all take my phone?’ Ask people to help you with that. Go public with your vow, and say ‘I want to work on this will you all help me.’