The Hands Free Mama


Rachel Macy Stafford unplugs.
Then she writes a blog and a book that begin a revolution.
Written by Lindsey Lowe
Photography by Beau Gustafson

Rachel Macy Stafford says that all along her journey, there have been moments that reminded her why she began it in the first place. She measures her success like this: One day, at the swim meet of her eldest daughter, Natalie, her youngest, Avery, crawled up in her lap, which was, for the first time, free—no computer, no cell phone, no papers, books, or to-do lists.  Avery, who was 4 at the time, sat with her mama for the entire hour and a half that her sister swam. And then, near the end of the meet, she turned to cup Stafford’s face. “She said, ‘This is the kind of mama I always wanted,’” Stafford remembers. “And I knew it was worth it.”

Stafford hasn’t always had a lap that could be climbed into; in fact, she says, that swim meet was the first time Avery had ever done that, because before, Stafford would have been busy. There would have been emails to answer, meetings to set up, paperwork to do. She would have given Avery something to play with and used that hour and a half to mark those things off her to-do list. But not that day—that day, she gave Avery her undivided attention. The road that led her to sitting on the bleachers with only her daughter to focus on is what Stafford shares on her blog, Hands Free Mama (handsfreemama.com), and in her 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. She invites other people—whether or not they have children—to learn how to balance the demands of life (especially one in today’s technological, social-media-driven world) with the intangible things, the most important of which, Stafford says, is time with loved ones.

Her first epiphany came three years ago, when she was on a run. She says she kept getting asked the same question—“How do you do it all?”—and finally, she had come up with an answer: “I can do it all because I miss out on life,” she remembers thinking. “Everyone thought, ‘Rachel can do it all, and she does it with a smile.’ But I was missing it all because I was so distracted.” Later, she had another epiphany in her kitchen. She was making Avery a peanut butter sandwich, clicking through her email, and mentally calculating the things she needed to get done that day when she looked up and saw Avery sitting alone on the couch, watching The Lion King. “I just had this feeling that the most important thing I could do in that moment was to go and sit with her,” Stafford says. “So I did something that was very unlike my productivity-driven nature. I just stopped. And I sat with her, and immediately she pulled up next to me like a magnet, because how often does Mom sit on the couch? Never. She picked up my hand, and she kissed the palm of my hand. I thought, ‘If that’s not a confirmation, I don’t know what is. My daughter can’t kiss a moving target.’” Stafford decided then to begin to try to live life in a different way, in an intentional, focused way—she wasn’t sure what kinds of changes she could make, but she wanted to try. She wanted to stop missing it and start living it. “I thought, ‘This is it,’” Stafford says. “‘My hands are too full, figuratively, literally.’”

Stafford didn’t tell anyone, not even her husband, of her plans, because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to change. But she was wrong; as she made efforts to slow down and notice her children, to listen to her husband’s stories, to accept things that were imperfect, she found that her family responded, and it motivated her to continue on. She started small: She put away her phone for 10 minutes a couple a times a day. “It seemed like every time I had these designated hands-free times throughout my day, there would be something funny or tender or they would say something to me, and I would think to myself, ‘I would have missed that,’” she says. After three months, Stafford shared her epiphanies with her husband. That was the first time her own hands-free experiences widened to impact someone else. “He took the girls to the McWane Center, and he came home and said, ‘I’ve got to talk to you…I was doing the things you’ve told me that you’ve been working on. I didn’t think about work. I didn’t look at my phone. I just looked at their faces, and I listened to them. I felt so peaceful.’ I knew that this was not something I should keep to myself.”

This revelation changed things for Stafford; as she discovered more about this new style of living, she began to contemplate starting a blog to share her journey. Though the idea of being so vulnerable intimidated her at first, she says she felt like she was doing the right thing. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is what I was born to do, and I was being prepared for this all my life,’” she says. “I trusted that if I started writing, what was supposed to get out would get out.” So she began to write her stories, those of her successes and her failures, of the moments when she sought out new revelation and of the moments when she messed up.

Her blog is a timeline of sorts for her journey, and she says there are particular posts along the way that stand out. In “The Day I Stopped Saying Hurry Up,” Stafford writes about learning to live life alongside Avery at Avery’s pace, though it was much slower than Stafford’s own natural rhythm. In “The Important Thing About Yelling,” she confesses to the world that she used to be quick to yell at her children. She writes that while they used to brace themselves for her words when they made mistakes, the tenderness she shows them now is teaching them empathy, something she realized the day she lost three days’ worth of books edits because of a computer crash. “To my surprise, my child reached out and stroked my hair softly,” she writes. “She said reassuring words like, ‘Computers can be so frustrating,’ and ‘I could take a look at the time machine to see if I can fix the backup.’ And then finally, ‘Mama, you can do this. You’re the best writer I know.’… In my time of ‘trouble,’ there she was, a patient and compassionate encourager who wouldn’t think of kicking me when I was already down. My child would not have learned this empathetic response if I had remained a yeller. Because yelling shuts down the communication; it severs the bond; it causes people to separate—instead of come closer.” In “The Bully Too Close to Home,” Stafford shares about realizing her tendency to criticize herself had also led her to heap criticism on Natalie, her eldest. As she learned to allow herself the freedom to make mistakes and be enough just as she is, she made a conscious effort to make sure Natalie knew the same was true for her, too. Stafford came up with the motto “Only Love Today,” which she uses to remind her to speak words that encourage, rather than ones that criticize.

Post by post, Stafford’s message got out. It began to draw in more people who admitted that they felt distracted from the things that mattered in life, but weren’t sure how to let go. She kept sharing her story, understanding that she wasn’t the only one who had been stuck in the kind of life she’d lived before. “Within five minutes of posting [her first post] and sharing it, somebody wrote back. And they were like, ‘I need this message. I’ve been waiting for this message,’” Stafford says. “I thought, ‘That is what my standard of success is going to be. I just want to touch one person’s life with every story that I write.’”

That first year, Stafford focused only on changing her own lifestyle and sharing what she was learning on her blog. By the second year, she began trying to spread her message from bigger platforms. The post that she says “put her on the map” was “How to Miss a Childhood,” which a number of publications asked to reprint. The more people responded, Stafford says, the more inspired she was to share. “It seemed like I was able to share more deeply the more that people said to me, ‘This is really touching,’” she explains. “I could share some of the stuff that really I hadn’t even thought of myself.” She says that was the case with “The Day I Stopped Saying Hurry Up,” which was the first Hands Free Mama post picked up by the Huffington Post. According to Stafford, that essay is now the Huffington Post’s second most-read piece in the parenting section, with some 8 million views. She thinks it was so popular not just because it highlighted her weakness, but because she told about how she had been able to change. “It wasn’t just me admitting that I was saying, ‘Hurry up’; it was saying how far I had come, so it was saying it wasn’t hopeless for people who were living that way,” she says. “I think people need us to be real about our struggle, but they also need to know there’s hope.”

About a year into blogging, Stafford began to wonder if her message could turn into a book. And it did. Hands Free Mama shares her stories and gives people practical ways to live a hands-free life. Stafford says she understands that people can’t abandon their responsibilities, but she does teach them ways to deal with them at designated times. She says that there’s not a one-size-fits-all formula for living hands free. Her own strategies have ebbed and flowed; as her platform grew—her book landed on the New York Times Bestsellers List and her blog gets 2 million unique visitors each month—she has had to learn to balance writing and speaking engagements with her commitment to be a hands free mama and wife. “I stick to my original commitment to work while they’re in school,” she explains. “From the moment I pick them up until bedtime, those are the moments I’m all theirs. I am hands-free for those designated times every day. I’ve had to say no to some pretty amazing opportunities, because they say, ‘I want to interview you at 5 o’clock,’ but if it’s in that time, I’ve got to protect that.” She says that the only hard-and-fast rule she has is to make sure the people she’s with know that they are more important than any work, device, or other distraction. “My rule is that if I’m in the presence of another human being, the human being needs to take precedence,” she says. “Not only does that help me when my children are in the room, but even when I’m checking out at the checkout with the cashier. I figure there’s no reason I need to be checking my phone when I could be saying hello to this person.”

She admits that she is still learning how to balance, especially when she’s in the middle of writing and editing a book (she has a second book in the works now), and she imagines that will be a lesson she learns over and over again. But she also believes she is making it work, successfully writing and promoting her work while living an undistracted life. “So many people have asked me, ‘Can I live hands free?’ They say, ‘I work online,’ or ‘I’m a realtor.’ And so I tell them, ‘It’s not about how much time you have, it’s what you do with the time you do have,’” she says. “I believe that, but it wasn’t until I had to write Hands Free Mama that I was tested—I was writing 12 hours a day because I had so much to do in such a short amount of time. My mom and dad came from Florida, because I was down to the last chapter. My mom came downstairs after getting the girls settled in bed. She said, ‘Natalie is done with her homework, and she wants to have your nightly talk time,’ which we’ve been doing since she was 3 years old. And she said, ‘I told Natalie you were really busy, and that you probably couldn’t come.’

“And Natalie said to my mom, ‘Grandma, Mama always comes,’” Stafford says. “That was my confirmation that even in the midst of all this crazy challenge that was going on in my life, those little rituals I had created—those meant something. And as long as I stuck to those, and I gave her that time, we could get through the hard parts.”

One Response to “The Hands Free Mama”

  1. LisaB says:

    So I’m reading this and trying not to cry. I work in the non-profit world and my days are driven by people who are in need. Deep need. CONSTANTLY. And I have a husband and a little boy. A couple of months ago, I was standing up eating a bowl of cereal for dinner because I had come home late and didn’t get to cook for anyone. My toddler son took his sandwich on his plate and went to sit by himself. I was in despair, total despair. Failure and misery as a mom, you know? I need to learn balance. I’m out saving the world and losing the one person who needs me to be their hero – it’s a super hero sized role that I’m supposed to fit in, no one else. Sandwich maker, tummy tickler, boo-boo kisser, hug master, super story reader. I don’t want to abdicate that first place space to someone else to be a second-rate something else. Thanks for this.

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