"What fun things did you do over the summer?" I imagined my daughters being asked when they returned to school last fall.
And their responses would be less than stellar. Their answers would pale in comparison to their peers. Because sometimes summer is not about having fun. Sometimes summer is about survival.
That was me last summer. And much of the time, I could hear nothing but Guilt’s critical voice in my head.
You should be playing more.
You should be planning more.
You should be having more fun.
The old me would have listened and accepted Guilt’s critical words as truth. But the Hands Free me has learned the best way to silence Guilt is to pull back the veil of darkness and shed light on the matter. I do this by telling someone what Guilt is saying.
In this case, I told my mom.
“Don’t you remember?” she said emphatically. “Don’t you remember how I worked all day while you and your sister took care of yourselves during the summer?”
Yes. I remembered. I thought it was cool that my sister and I were in charge of ourselves. I thought it was uncool that we had daily lists consisting of activities that improved our home, minds, bodies, and personal savings accounts. But I did my duties anyway.
I remember how my sister and I would spend the morning getting our tasks completed so we could ride our bikes to the neighborhood pool in the afternoon. I remember how we’d put sunscreen on each other’s backs before we left the house. I remember how we’d carry our towels and goggles in a drawstring bag. There was no one there to remind us to collect our belongings when we left the pool—we just did it.
I remember cutting the vegetables for the dinner salad. That’s around the time my mom came home from work. I would listen to my parents talk about the families she worked with—families in crisis. It was her job to teach them how to properly care for their children. It was my job to make the salad, but I knew I wanted a job like hers someday—one that made a difference.
I remember feeling my mom’s presence whenever I stepped into the pantry to make my breakfast and lunch. She bought the things I liked and foods that were healthy for me. I felt my mom’s presence in the little smiley face notes that she left for my sister and me in random places throughout the house.
I remember Mom being gone, but not absent. I felt her presence even when she was at work.
And when my mom was home, she did something that made me take pause.
She said, “I love you,” right out of the blue.
Like while riding in the car — she’d call out, “I love you.” I’d see her eyes smiling at me in the rearview mirror.
Or like in the morning when I groggily poured milk on my cereal. “I love you,” she’d say as if my bedhead was a beautiful sight to behold.
Because our time together was limited, I think my mom said the words “I love you” when she felt them rather than when it was expected. Most people I knew reserved that three-word phrase for special occasions, departures, achievements, or bedtime — but not my mom. With her, “I love you” was spontaneous. She just put it out there. And because the phrase was never surrounded by any other words and never tied to conditions or expectations, it was accentuated, heard, and absorbed.
That’s probably what I remember most about my mom who was gone a lot, but not absent. I remember the unprompted “I love you” that hung in the air, mine for the taking as I set off on my path of independence.
“Yes, I remember the summers when you had to work all day,” I told my now 74-year-old mom after admitting that guilt was getting the best of me.
“Sometimes I left before you were awake and didn’t get home until dinnertime or later,” she elaborated. “You and your sister learned to manage your time, make meals, and keep up a house. And you two turned out just fine, in my opinion,” she added as if ready to take on anyone who might disagree.
Shortly after my mom and I had this conversation, I came across an unforgettable article about overparenting and how it correlates with the current mental health crisis on college campuses. The results of the studies described in the article quickly put guilt in its place and reinforced my mom’s view. Children who perform daily life skills and have the opportunity to make decisions for themselves are more likely to become capable and self-reliant adults. A particularly poignant section of the article read:
“When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kids—the waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure. Lurking beneath the problem of whatever thing needs to be handled is the student’s inability to differentiate the self from the parent.” [source]
I read the article several times, and with each read, guilt lessened and a much healthier perspective emerged. This new perspective quieted Guilt's critical voice on my children's first day back at school. I remember feeling a little sad that day. Between keeping up with medical appointments, recovering from two surgeries, and preparing for a book release, it had been a far cry from the fun-loving summer I envisioned we’d have. Guilt wanted me to think about everything my children missed due to the temporary challenging situation I faced. But through new eyes, I saw something Guilt didn’t want me to see—things that probably wouldn’t have happened without the freedom and the opportunity for my children to do for themselves.
I saw two children who carried out two full weeks of princess camps for neighborhood girls out of the basement of our home … I saw two kids who planned and managed a mini market with friends on a Saturday morning … I saw kids who got quite good at making beds … kids who attempted and failed at French macaroons, but had fun trying … kids who finally caught on to hanging up wet towels after several unsuccessful years … kids who became expert laundry folders … kids who could order and pay for their food without adult assistance … kids who fixed a delicious hot lunch and cleaned up afterwards … kids who could entertain themselves for hours with a little dish soap and a slip and slide…
When I look back on that summer I see something that looks an awful lot like the gifts I once was given: the gift of independence … the gift of learning from my mistakes … the gift of confidence … the gift of doing something with my own two hands.
Last summer wasn’t the most activity-packed summer. There was no celebration for crossing off all the items on our Summer Bucket List. We had no bucket list. But that didn't mean we didn’t have gifts.
There were lots of gifts—ones that may not be apparent until my grown children are standing in their first apartment or place of employment and know exactly what to do without any help from me.
I now refer to it as the summer of I Love You.
I love you so much I will let you do for yourself.
I love you so much I will let you make a mess and clean it up.
I love you so much I will let you fail and try again without my commentary.
I love you so much I will not manage your time, but let you manage your own.
I love you so much I will say, “I love you,” whenever I feel it. And because there’s less nagging, reminding, and instructing coming from my mouth, I hope to find myself saying it even more.
As I anticipate a happier and healthier summer this time around, one thing shall remain the same: The words “I love you” shall hang in the air so my children can grab it with their two capable and eager hands. May they hold it closely to their chests as they go forth on their path of independence.
Rachel Macy Stafford is the founder of handsfreemama.com, where she provides simple ways to let go of daily distraction and grasp what matters most in life. She is the New York Times bestselling author of HANDS FREE MAMA. Rachel's latest book, HANDS FREE LIFE, describes how she finally started living life, instead of managing, stressing, screaming, and barely getting through life. Through truthful story-telling and life-giving Habit Builders, Rachel shows us how to respond to our loved ones and ourselves with more love, more presence, and more grace. Find more inspiration on The Hands Free Revolution Facebook page.