I was in the back of a cab when a TODAY Show producer called to interview me as a possible guest for a segment on the damaging impact of stress.
“Tell me about a time when you could see stress was wreaking havoc on your life,” the producer said.
In my mind, I flipped through my Rolodex of painful memories — there was a maxed-out two-year period of my life that held a lot of them. I settled on this one.
It had been blocked from my mind until my daughter Avery, at age six, reminded me while I was putting conditioner on her unruly hair.
In the same breath as a request for a moisturized scalp came a horrendous recollection of me at my worst.
Avery remembered arriving at a holiday event in our community only to have to leave immediately. She remembered I was angry, that I started crying, and that my dear friend Jennifer walked us outside the building to comfort us.
Avery remembered Jennifer saying, “Mommies sometimes need a little time to be alone and take a deep breath.”
Avery didn’t remember that her dad had been traveling for work week after week, that I’d just discovered her sister’s third case of head lice in a two-month period, and that the new holiday shoes she and her sister were wearing were producing blisters, which caused incessant whining.
Naturally, Avery did not remember those things; all she knew was that she was scared because her mom was falling apart… and another adult had to rescue her.
This is precisely what happens when living a perpetually maxed-out life — whether by one’s own doing, by circumstances beyond one’s control, or a combination of both.
Existing in a perpetual state of stress has a way of unraveling the fabric of your well-being until you completely come undone. And you can only stand there watching it happen, because you can’t save yourself.
My dear friend Jennifer helped me collect myself so we could go back to the party and attempt to grasp a small shred of joy in an evening so shattered. I remember walking behind my loving friend, watching her hold my children’s hands, even managing to produce smiles on their tear-streaked faces. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m glad that’s over. No damage done.”
Who was I kidding?
An imprint was left that night, a tender red mark on my daughter’s impressionable soul — a mark I would not see until several years later, when the smell of hair conditioner triggered an agonizing moment in her young life.
What compounded the significance of the memory was how surprised Avery was by her own emotional reaction. I watched as she blinked back tears, saying with embarrassment, “I can’t believe this is making me cry.”
As I watched my child struggle to maintain composure, all I could think was this:
Never again will I wonder if the harsh tone of my voice is absorbed into impressionable ears and spirits…
Never again will I wonder if my irrational rants are retained in young souls…
Never again will I wonder if the “bad” memories are cataloged right along with the “good” in her memory bank…
Because then I knew.
But this story is far from over. This story is not about guilt, shame, or regret over things a person cannot change.
This story is about hope.
What happened next was pivotal.
I looked into Avery’s face and said the only words that could be said to a child who remembered the harsh words and actions of an overwhelmed mother.
“I am sorry. I am so very sorry. Will you forgive me?"
Avery threw her whole body into her act of forgiveness by wrapping her arms tightly around me and whispering, “Oh yes, Mama. I forgive you.”
Then I took Avery’s hands and told her something that was absolutely critical. I told her I was learning how to cope better in times of frustration and stress. Not only was I using restorative “Hands Free” time periods to push away the demands and distractions of the world so I could hear my innermost needs, but I was also paying attention to my body’s warning signs.
I told Avery that now I could sense when a blow-up was coming.
“I feel this flash of heat in my face, my thoughts speed up, and my hands start to shake.” I explained. “That’s when I know a collision is coming. Like when you and your sister are bickering… like when the editor lost all the edits I’d done on my book… like when the neighbor was so nasty to me about our cat. Well, when those factors intersect with my own negative feelings, there is a moment of impact.
So just like a driver who is anticipating a damaging collision with another car, I let off the gas… I pull back… I take a three-second pause to avoid causing permanent damage. In this pause, I can really SEE the person in front of me.
When I pause to look at you during one of these times, I can see my baby… my baby who is learning, growing, and counting on me to teach and guide her. Really SEEING you helps me respond with love rather than overreact.”
With gratitude spilling from my eyes, I told my daughter the hopeful discovery I’d made: Even a few seconds of pause can prevent tragic results. Even a few seconds of pause can help me choose love in times of stress and struggle.
The moment of impact…
What we wouldn’t do to prevent hurtful words spilling from our lips — leaving tender marks on those we love the most?
The moment of impact…
What we wouldn’t do to save ourselves from years of regret and shame?
The moment of impact…
Sometimes it only takes a moment of pause to avoid a collision.
My child is twelve years old now. And with twelve comes middle school angst and attitude… excessive talkativeness and forgetfulness… anxiousness and irritability… but it always helps to look at her, really look at her, and remember:
She is just twelve.
She is my baby.
And she is counting on me to teach her, accept her, and guide her with love.
“Wow,” said the Today Show producer, breaking me from my reverie. “You are speaking right to me. Everything you are saying resonates. I think you would be perfect for the segment,” she said. “I will let you know next week.”
I hung up, my hand cramping from gripping the phone so tightly, my heart racing from bearing my soul so openly.
As we pulled into my driveway, I wiped away my tears. “I’m sorry you had to hear all that,” I said to the cab driver.
The older gentleman turned around. That’s when I saw tears in his eyes.
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on your conversation, but I’m so glad I did,” he said. “I want to say thank you. I’m going to go home, kiss my wife, and tell her how much I love her.”
I didn’t think I’d see that man again, but he was at the airport three weeks later when I flew home from New York City after being on the Today Show.
I walked up to him with a smile.
“I don’t know if you remember me, but I was crying in the back of your cab while talking to a Today Show producer. Well, this morning I was on the show, admitting one of my most shameful parenting moments to the world, and you know what gave me courage? Your reaction. Your grace. Your understanding. You helped me focus on that hurting person who might be half-listening to the show while doing the dishes or trying to get out the door. And for the first time, that person would hear the hopeful words, ‘It’s never too late to choose love.’”
The man looked astounded. Then he leaned forward and said, “Can I give you a hug?”
For a good thirty seconds, that driver and I embraced on the sidewalk of one of the busiest airports in the world. It was a collision of connection, hope, and healing — a collision of the most wonderful kind.
I leave you with a photo of my dear friend Jennifer in front of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. There was never any doubt who would accompany me to New York City for this story of redemption and hope.
Rachel Macy Stafford is the New York Times bestselling author of Hands Free Mama, Hands Free Life, and Only Love Today. Rachel, a certified special education teacher, has helped many people soften their inner and outer voices, change their response in times of stress, and heal damaged connections through a free guide called: The Positivity Remedy. The tools in this book provide what Rachel believes is most vital to creating a positive home and unified world, and that is hope, hope in who you already are and hope for who you can become. Click here to get The Positivity Remedy. For greater support and guidance, join Rachel in her supportive online course, SOUL SHIFT, beginning in January. Through short videos, small habit shifts, and inspiring intentions, Rachel will take you step-by-step through the process she used to become a present and joyful participant of her life. Enter your email address here to be notified when SOUL SHIFT registration opens on January 7, 2019 at a discounted price. Please join Rachel and her supportive community, The Hands Free Revolution, for daily inspiration and community.