Friday, May 9, 2014

Hands Free Mama: This Book Has Changed My Life!

I don't usually write book reviews on here anymore, but I had to for this book I read recently because it's had such an effect on me, my life, and my family. It's Hands Free Mama by Rachel Macy Stafford. The subtitle especially stuck out to me: "A guide to putting down the phone, burning the to-do list, and letting go of perfection to grasp what really matters!" Those are all things that have been on my mind lately. This was a life-changing book and it's motivated me to change some of my habits so that I can be there for my family and be a more attentive, involved mother (and wife and friend). 

I'm surprised by the effect this book has had on me because I was a little skeptical and derisive about the whole concept of being a "hands free mama." In the past I'd read a few posts and essays from the Hands Free Mama blog that were posted on Facebook, and most of them were slightly annoying to me because I felt like they were giving moms unnecessary guilt trips about being on their phones when their kids were around. I mean, come on, there are so many worse things a parent could do. I got what they were saying but it just felt a little too judgmental and extreme to me. Then few months ago I was in Barnes & Noble and saw the book lying out on a table. I picked it up and read the back cover and then put it back, but for the next few days for some reason I kept thinking about it. Something was drawing me to that book (against my will!). I was back at Barnes & Noble a few days later, and there it was again, in the same spot on the same table. This time I bought it. I had the impression that it was something I needed to read. My impression proved to be correct--I did need to read it, and I'm so glad that I did.

I didn't love Hands Free Mama at first (I'll tell you why in a minute), but at the same time, it drew me right in and was hard to put down. After I got past some of the things that bothered me, I saw what a transformative book this was going to be for me. The main idea is basically to put your phone away when you're with your kids, but she expands on that to say that we need to put our kids and our family first in our lives and let go of distractions like technology and never-ending, overly demanding to-do lists and commitments and activities. We should simplify our lives and honestly evaluate our use of phones/iPads/etc. in the presence of our children so that we can have our hands free to be there for them. The imagery of this has really stuck with me. Do I want a phone in my hands or a ball as I play catch with John? Do I want to pass up an opportunity to hold and cuddle my growing-too-fast little boy Sam or literally turn my back on him while I'm busy on the computer? The answer is obvious. Do we want our kids to follow our examples of frequently being on a device while in the presence of others? Do we want them to feel like they come in second place, that what's on our phones is more important than being with them, and that they get the leftovers of our time and attention? Don't we want to have our hands free for the ones that we love, especially when they will grow up all too quickly and leave us someday? This really resonated with me--more than I thought it would. She writes very effectively about this and it has changed me for the better.

When I was eating at Costco with my kids the other week there was a mother and daughter (maybe 7 years old) sitting at the table next to us. The woman looked at her phone the entire time and barely said a word to the girl, who looked bored and a little lonely. She kept looking over at us (at my kids' antics) because there was nothing else to do. I thought this was sad. In the past I wouldn't have really thought twice about it, but it jumped out at me because I was reading Hands Free Mama and I could see right there in front of me what Rachel Macy Stafford was talking about. There's a mom at swim lessons who's always on her phone as her three kids sit around her quietly and wait for their lesson to begin. Now that I get it, I see that it's kind of sad when it happens week after week. It makes me realize that sometimes I did that, and I feel bad about that. I'm not trying to judge, and this is one of my main problems with the Hands Free Mama philosophy--it makes it too easy to judge other parents who are on their phones. You don't know what that mother's life is like. Maybe she just spent all afternoon totally engaged with her kids and needs a break. Maybe she's depressed or lonely or anxious, and the things on her phone are her lifeline to help her get through the day. Maybe she just likes her phone a lot but she also spends time with her kids that I'll never see--in any case, who I am to judge? I will always try to keep that in mind when I'm out in public, and I hope that other parents will do the same for me (because I'm still on my phone sometimes when we're out and about). But I do think that when we're on our phones a lot around our kids, that over time it sends a message that what's on there is more interesting to us than they are. And that's not a good message to be giving our kids.

Having said all that, I'm about to write about what I didn't like about the book, because there were a few things that I really took issue with that I want to address. Overall this is a book that I both agree with and am at odds with. It's too extreme in one direction. Balance and self-care are overlooked. If I did what Rachel (the author) did I'd feel depleted and resentful and would probably take it out on my kids and husband. That would do the opposite of what the book intends, which is to make families stronger and more connected.

I feel that Rachel is more on the extreme end of this movement, and that's not a place where I want to be. I'm not willing to burn my to-do lists or let my house get too disorganized and unclean, because getting things done and having an organized, clean house help me to feel peaceful and happy. That is how I thrive and it's always been part of my personality. I can focus much better on my kids when I'm organized and on top of things. I'm not willing to abandon all that, and I don't think I should. I refuse to let this book guilt-trip me into putting housekeeping and productivity on the back burners. Our children do not need to be at the center of every waking moment of the day when we're together. Mothers still have their own lives, interests, and responsibilities beyond their children. Going as "hands free" as Rachel does is not a good fit for every personality type and every situation. I wish she would have addressed that more in the book. I worry that a lot of women will feel guilty and confused after reading certain parts of this book. 

I didn't feel like her approach was always well-balanced. I felt defensive at times when it felt like she was vilifying things like the to-do list, being organized and productive, and having a neat, clean house. If you do or have those things, it does NOT mean that you're a mother who ignores her kids or puts them second. These are not bad things and should not cause guilt when they're done in the proper balance. Some women can function just fine without these things (like the author), and others cannot (like me). She insinuates that having an organized, clean, tidy home means you're living a distracted life and that it means you're preoccupied with how things look to outsiders. That is completely ridiculous, and in my case, it's untrue. Letting your children grow up in a peaceful orderly environment is a gift. (And if they don't grow up in that kind of environment but you still love them with all your heart and meaningfully connect with them every day, then that's a gift too. You shouldn't judge either way.) If you're taking care of your house and your life at the expense of spending quality time with your kids or if you routinely ignore them until your work is done, then I would agree that that's a problem. But this was one of my major issues with the book: characterizing good things as bad without qualifying it at all.

I don't think it's healthy for mother or child to spend all their time together. We shouldn't spend every waking moment playing with/entertaining/spending time with our kids. Kids need independence and free time--it's important for their development and is an important life skill. I know that my kids tell me to basically get lost sometimes when they just want to do their own thing. I don't think parents are fully responsible for their children's childhoods. I wished that Rachel would have addressed that what works for one person doesn't work for all. She needs to take into account that there are differences in children's temperaments, attitudes, personalities, and preferences (and in women's.) Not all kids are like her kids.

Do I really need to be fully engaged with my children every time I'm driving them in the car? I don't think so. Equating using your phone while you drive, which is dangerous and illegal and possibly deadly, with failing to connect with your loved ones while you drive as equally "tragic" is just a bit melodramatic and over-the-top. Turning every drive time and wait time into connection time every time is not something I want to do. Sometimes, yes, but sometimes, no. There's nothing wrong with your kids entertaining themselves in the car or waiting room sometimes; I think it's just fine to do that. Let them play, read, or think on their own! Don't overthink it so much! When I have tried to be constantly involved, my older son asks me to stop and my younger son ignores me. In one part, she describes a two-hour wait for a doctor with her two daughters, and she kept them entertained the whole time without technology and it was a great bonding experience. I'm happy that it turned out that way for them, but if that happened to me and my two kids, I'm pretty sure that the outcome wouldn't have been nearly as golden, and technology would definitely have been involved. And I think that's totally okay. It wouldn't mean that I'm a distracted mother who doesn't spend enough quality time with her kids. It would mean that I'm a caring mother who knows what my kids like and what will help keep them and me calm in a stressful situation. Not all kids and people are alike, and I wish she acknowledged that more.

Another thing that sometimes bugged me was that her writing at times is overly dramatic and sappy. She writes with that soft-around-the-edges golden glowy style (the term "glorious experience" is used more than once, which made me roll my eyes). Most of the experiences that she writes about are too perfect and therefore made me feel a little skeptical and cynical (and jealous!). Every life-changing epiphany she has may be right for her and her family, but not for every person. She seems to find joy every time she plays with or spends time with her children. Really? I wish she'd been a little more "real" and relatable because I find that hard to believe. (She did get a little more real as the book went on, which I was glad about.) I also thought it was weird that she writes way more about her younger daughter than older daughter, and I wondered why that was. Is her older daughter less hands-on and doesn't need or want as much attention as the younger one? Did that not fit in well with the theme of the book so she chose not to write about it? Probably not, but it did make me wonder.

Having said all that, however, this is without a doubt one of the most important books I've ever read. It is to the book's credit that even with the issues I have with parts of it, I still really liked it and greatly benefited from reading it. It has such a good, important message and I think all mothers (and even fathers) should read it in this day and age. I learned so much from Rachel's experiences and wisdom. Many parts of the book spoke to my heart and soul (I know that sounds silly but it's true) and have changed the way I mother my children. Since reading the book I evaluate how I spend my time more carefully. I try to connect meaningfully with my kids each and every day. I take more time to really focus on them and play with them (even when it's tedious to do so, and sometimes it is--I'm not afraid to admit it!). I love them better and am more affectionate, patient, and understanding than I was before. I'm cultivating better habits that bring us closer together and let them know that I'm there and I care about them and love them. I keep the book where I can see it each day to remind me to be more mindful and attentive to these very important matters.

Now I try not to be on the computer, phone, or iPad very much when they're home. I want my hands to be free for them, literally and figuratively. I've pretty much given up Instagram because it was drawing me to my phone way too much (and surprisingly, I'm happier without it!). I'm not going on Facebook as much. Don't get me wrong: I don't think Facebook and Instagram are bad or that mothers who use them are overlooking their kids. For me I had to mostly give up Instagram in order to better focus on my kids and home and my changing priorities. Now I actually watch them the whole time at swim lessons instead of glancing up every two minutes from my phone as they swim. I watch them at gymnastics and know more about what and how they're doing, whereas before I'd bounce around between scrolling through Instagram and Facebook and checking my e-mail and glancing up a few times here and there to see what they were doing. Now I bring a magazine which doesn't have the same addictive quality that the phone has, and I end up watching them most of the time. I'm not spending as much time blogging. I'm being more mindful of my time by trying to get technology-related things done when the kids aren't around (although I'm far from perfect at this--a good example of this is that as I sit here at the computer writing this review, Sam is watching TV). I evaluate what I want to get done each day and try to eliminate the things that don't really matter. By not using technology as much I've become a lot more efficient and productive (and happy and peaceful). And most importantly, I feel more connected to and invested in my kids than I did before.

I feel so good about these changes. I've already seen a positive difference in my kids, in myself, and in our overall family life. I'm so glad that I'm not living anymore with the mentality that "Someday I'll be the kind of mother to my kids that they'll just love." Now, I'm trying to do that now. As she says in the book, "Someday is nowhere to live your life...Grasp what matters now and dig for the life you want to live now, not someday." I want to live my life with as few regrets as possible, and not spending enough quality time with my kids and not getting to really know them is one of the biggest regrets that I'm trying to avoid. I'm still my own person, but motherhood is one of my most important roles and I want to treat it and my precious children as they should be treated, and give them the time and attention that they need and deserve. I want to be their loving, attentive mother, not just their nice, good-enough mother. When it comes to family life, my new mission statement (from the book) is "I want to know who my children and spouse are as individuals by being a constant presence and source of love and support in their lives."

If you are a parent, particularly of younger children, I can't recommend this book highly enough. Take from it what feels right and what works best for you and your family.
And, what a coincidence...
Happy Mother's Day this weekend!

"The Hands Free Pledge"