I let my joy get sucked away—then I saw despair in my child’s eyes.
By Rachel Macy Stafford
In an especially chaotic rush out the door to go on a family vacation, I sat in the passenger seat fuming. Mad because I didn’t have time to put the dishes in the dishwasher. Mad because we were late getting on the road. Mad because the garage door was acting up. I’m talking trivial, insignificant, minor inconveniences here, but that was the state of a distracted woman who could no longer see the blessings, only the inconveniences, of her life.
Before we were about to pull out of the driveway, my husband looked at me as if someone he loved very much had died. In a barely audible whisper he said, “You’re never happy anymore.”
I wanted to defend.
I wanted to excuse.
I wanted to deny.
But I couldn’t.
Because I knew he was right.
Where had that happy woman gone? The one who smiled at people she passed on the street just because. The one whose friends often spoke of her positive outlook on life. The one who felt happy simply because she heard her favorite song or had a pack of strawberry Twizzlers in her purse. The one who could laugh off mistakes because mistakes happen, and they are certainly not the end of the world.
Where had she gone?
And that’s when I glanced to the backseat to see if my children, then ages six and three, had heard my husband’s words. Staring back at me was my older daughter picking her lip with worry the size of a small boulder weighing down her small shoulders.
As she pinched that tiny piece of fragile skin on her upper lip with wide eyes, I could practically read her mind:
But there was more. I could practically hear how a young child would interpret her mother’s unhappiness.
Mom’s mad at me.
Mom’s tired because of me.
Mom’s stressed because of something I did.
That’s when an even more powerful question hit me.
Where had my happy little girl gone? The one who woke up with the most gorgeous bedhead and good morning smile. The one who beamed at the words “sprinkler,” “cotton candy,” and “pet store.” The one who laughed so hard tears came to her eyes. The one who licked beaters with sheer pleasure and danced happily to any song with a beat.
Where had she gone?
Because my happiness was based on external measures—on tasks being completed, plans running accordingly, goals being met, hairs being in place—I was continually disappointed … upset … impatient … and stressed. In the process of making my own life miserable, I’d funneled my unhappiness straight into my daughter’s once joyful heart and spirit. Her pain was a direct reflection of the expression I wore on my face.
I desperately wanted to bring a smile back to my daughter’s face. I knew I must bring it back to my own. I began praying for small steps I could take to become a more positive, present, and peace-filled person. On brightly colored sticky notes, I posted daily goals and positive mantras that came to me during morning prayer time. Especially prominent on my mirrors and cabinets were these two go-to phrases: “Only Love Today” and “See Flowers Not Weeds.”
I used the phrase Only Love Today to silence my inner bully. Whenever a critical thought would come to my mind or my mouth, I’d cut it off with Only Love Today. I used See Flowers Not Weeds as a pathway to gratitude, to see what was good in situations and people.
As Only Love Today and See Flowers Not Weeds became a daily practice, I felt a profound transformation occurring in my heart and home. No longer were my goals exclusively items that could be measured or checked off—they consisted of immeasurable items like listening, laughing, dreaming, playing, connecting, and loving. With a more meaningful daily goal, I was able to see the blessings in my imperfect self and in my imperfect life. My eager-to-please, helpful older child looked different too. I saw her for who she was, not an annoyance or a bother, but a loving child with clever thoughts and ideas. For once, I could see all the things she was capable of doing—not perfectly, but good enough for today. The tightness in my face relaxed and the smiles came more easily for both of us.
One morning, I looked out the kitchen window to see her making a little garden right there in the middle of the yard. I watched as she tended to her miniature plot. Her joyful smile made me take pause. Clearly, she was at peace tending to her garden. I took a picture and sent it to my parents. Nothing could have prepared me for the response I received. My parents wrote:
“Thank for this precious picture of our beautiful granddaughter. Over the last two years, we have seen a tremendous change in her. We no longer see a scared look in her eyes; she is less fearful about you being upset or impatient with her. She is much happier and more relaxed. She is thriving and growing into a content, creative, and nurturing person. We know for a fact the changes we see in her coincide with the changes we have also seen in you.”
I covered my mouth to muffle the sobs.
When I was struggling to breathe beneath the weight of perfection, distraction, and self-induced pressure, my child was too.
My daughter had absorbed my tension.
She had absorbed my frustration.
She had absorbed my anxiety.
She had absorbed my unhappiness.
And as my negative emotions were being filtered down to her, they impacted her ability to grow, thrive, and blossom.
If I didn’t know it before, I know it now:
Our children are our garden. They absorb our stress, just as they absorb our peace. They absorb our negativity just as they absorb our joy. And we have the power to control what they absorb, but first, we must tend to ourselves.
It might sound like this:
Dear one, you have feelings. They are worth listening to and acknowledging.
You have limits. They are necessary to keep in place as a means of valuing your time and honoring your health.
You have dreams. You are worthy of time to pursue what makes your heart come alive.
You have needs. You deserve affection, rest, sustenance, and grace.
Perhaps you forgot that it is necessary to look after YOU. It’s okay. I forget too. But we still have today. Thank God, we still have today.
Today let’s tend to ourselves as we do our loved ones. Perhaps we can make it a habit. We’ll never know how much we can grow and flourish until we take time to tend to what is most precious.
This is a small sample of what you will find in Rachel Macy Stafford’s latest bestseller,Only Love Today. Rachel is the New York Times bestselling author of Hands FreeMama and Hands Free Life, as well as a certified special education teacher andinspiring speaker. Millions find solace and direction in her weekly blog postsat handsfreemama.com and supportive Facebook community, The Hands FreeRevolution. Rachel’s latest work of heart, ONLY LOVE TODAY, is soulful, bite–sizeencouragement for busy individuals yearning to anchor themselves in love despiteeveryday distractions, pressures, and discord. “Only Love Today” began as a mantrato overcome her inner bully, but it is now the practice of Rachel Macy Stafford’s life. It can be a practice for all of us with Only Love Today. This National bestseller is available at Target, Barnes & Noble, LifeWay, and Amazon.