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Living the Dream: "Hands Free Mama" Rachel Macy Stafford

In July 2010, special education teacher and mother Rachel Macy Stafford decided enough was enough. Tired of losing track of what matters most in life, Rachel began practicing simple strategies that enabled her to momentarily let go of largely meaningless distractions and engage in meaningful soul-to-soul connections with her loved ones. She started a blog, Hands Free Mama, to chronicle her attempt at finding balance in a media-saturated, perfection-obsessed world. Rachel’s recent book further details her journey to let go of distraction, perfection, and societal pressure to grasp what really matters in life.

What does “the good life” mean to you? And how did you come to this vision?

Before I started my Hands Free journey, I put off living. I banked on vacations and holidays to make up for the lack of time spent connecting with the people I love. The other days of the year I was too busy, too distracted, and too productive to slow down, enjoy life, and simply be with the people I love.

Now, I don’t wait for holidays to slow down, laugh, and play. I don’t count on family vacations to create my children’s fondest recollections. I’ve discovered that the most meaningful experiences in life happen when I take pause in the ordinary, mundane moments of a busy day.

It’s hopping on our bikes after dinner for a quick ride and pointing to a "cotton candy" sky. 

It’s staying just five extra minutes at bedtime to hear things in my daughter's heart that only come out in the darkness. 

It’s watching the antics of our cat Banjo while the homework waits a few minutes to be completed. 

It’s holding my daughter's hand as we walk into swim team practice, and thinking how good it feels. 

It’s expressing gratitude for life’s simple joys like fresh air, belly laughs, and worn-out treads on running shoes.

It’s going to the farmer's market on Saturday morning and trying every apple there is to sample—never mind that we left the house a mess. 

I’ve learned that there are some things that can wait and some things that can't. I am trying to stop putting off the things that matter most. Taking a few minutes each day to savor the joy in the ordinary is making my heart fuller, my inner doubts quieter, and my human connections stronger. To me, this is living “the good life,” and it is available to anyone who chooses to grasp it.

What’s the one thing you enjoy most about your lifestyle?

Living "Hands Free" means making an effort every single day to temporarily let go of distraction and to meaningfully connect to someone or something that truly matters. Making this the practice of my life means getting to know, really know, the members of my family. When I was living distracted, my phone, computer, over-scheduled agenda, and self-induced pressure to be perfect prevented me from truly knowing the heart and mind of each person in my family.

I felt my family becoming strangers to me and I feared what our relationship would be like 10 years down the road. But as I began to take time to listen to my children’s words, know their interests, and be a part of their lives, I was motivated to learn more every day. Now I can honestly say that I know them and they know me. We are close; we confide in each other; we enjoy each others' company. This is my favorite aspect of living Hands Free.

Is there anything about your life these days that you really wish you could change or improve?

As a writer who is committed to living the life she writes about, I find that it is hard to turn off my writer’s brain. When I let go of my distractions to be fully present with someone I love, something meaningful happens every time. I am always so inspired by the experience that I want to write about it. However, thinking about the writing process while I am in the company of someone I love prevents me from being all there, so I remind myself that there is a time and place for everything.

Tell us a little about the work that you do. 

Three years ago, I admitted the honest answer to the question that had been a long-time source of pride: “How do you do it all?” My answer was painfully simple: “I miss out on life, and what I miss I cannot get back.” That very day, I began my Hands Free journey to let go of distraction, perfection, and societal pressure to grasp what really matters in life. As a life-long writer and certified special education teacher, I felt I had the skills needed to share my journey with others and created the blog Hands Free Mama. On my blog, I provide readers with simple, non-intimidating, and motivating methods to let go of daily distraction and connect with their loved ones.

Recently, I completed my first 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. Through inspirational stories and practical insight, I address the questions many of my readers have when they come to my blog, such as, “How did you start transforming your distracted life?” and “What steps did you take?” I hope that my book will serve as a guide to letting go of distraction to grasp what really matters in our media-saturated and overly pressured society.

Describe some ways that you are involved in your community.

For the past five years, I’ve organized a community event where kids learn a simple way to bring hope to children in poverty-stricken situations. Through a PowerPoint presentation I create, kids are able to see how a simple shoebox filled with items like pencils, toothbrushes, and plush toys can bring joy to needy children via Operation Christmas Child. Although they were very small when I started this tradition, my daughters have always helped in planning the event and in filling the shoe boxes. This year, my 10-year-old daughter created the PowerPoint slideshow and presented it to the children in attendance with the help of her best friend. I’d always hoped that by volunteering with my children when they were young, it would lead them to want to help those in need. It was very inspiring to see my daughter accept that significant role in the shoebox event. I look forward to seeing where this leads.

For many, your lifestyle is considered “outside the mainstream.” Does this present any challenges, and, if so, how do you deal with them?

Because I am committed to living the life that I write about, I must decline many opportunities that come my way. I receive daily requests to do speaking engagements, participate in conferences and interviews, and contribute to magazine articles and other beneficial things. However, if I said yes to all of these requests, I would be right back where I was before—overly distracted, overwhelmed, stretched too thin, and disconnected from my family. Some people can be pushy or unkind when I decline their requests, but for the most part, people respect the boundaries I have put in place and my dedication to living an authentic Hands Free life.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

When I was a teacher, a veteran teacher looked me directly in the eyes and said something I have yet to forget. With a mixture of understanding and authority, she leaned in close and said, “Just remember, every little person in that room is somebody’s child.”

That slight but significant change in my perspective made me more patient, kind, compassionate, and tolerant with my students, but also with others. When I interact with my own children, my spouse, my elderly parents, and even strangers, I think to myself, “That’s somebody’s child,” so let me remember that small offerings of love and acceptance are the best gifts that I can give another human being.

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