Author Rachel Macy Stafford granted permission to share this excerpt from her book Hands Free Life: Nine Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better & Loving More.
I crawled up next to Avery, who was cozily nestled in her limegreen comforter awaiting her nightly tuck-in. To my highly affectionate child and her gaggle of stuffed animals, I immediately fessed up. “Do you remember when we used to do The Heartbeat Check at bedtime?” I asked optimistically. This child, who remembers exactly where she placed her eyeglasses in a sea of overgrown grass and the precise location of three long-gone bruises from a tricycle mishap when she was two, nodded eagerly.
“Well, last night I realized we stopped doing The Heartbeat Check, so I was wondering if we could start again,” I said, my voice rising along with my hopes.
Instantly I was reminded why being six is so awesome. When you’re six, you can always pick up where you left off. With no reprimand, no lecture, and absolutely no discussion whatsoever, my child abruptly peeled back her comforter to expose the panda on the front of her hot-pink pajamas. She pointed straight to the fuzzy black-and-white target and said, “Here ya go, Mama!”
I laid my head on her flannel-clad chest. Her heart sounded just as I remembered—calm, steady, strong. Fearing I may have suffered hearing loss over the past several years, my child clamped her arm around my head and pushed it closer to her beating heart.
“What’s it sound like?” she inquired.
I mimicked the sound I heard with a “lub-lub, lub-lub” and then added, “Your heart sounds really happy tonight. Maybe it was because you completed that Lego beach house without help or maybe it was because you tricked me into eating that sour gum and couldn’t stop laughing!” With a huge smile, Avery suggested a few more reasons why her heart was happy that night. Then she sat up abruptly and announced, “My turn!” How could I have forgotten? With this particular child, listening to my heartbeat was just as important as listening to her heartbeat.
Suddenly a mop of unruly curls fanned my face. My cuddly child wiggled around until she got a clear sound. “Your heart sounds like this: Boom, badoom, boom … Boom, badoom, boom.”
Hmmm … my heartbeat sounded eerily similar to the chorus of “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj. And when I told her so, we both exploded with laughter. I’d forgotten how entertaining it was to have a ukulele-playing rock star check your heart palpitations.
“Let’s do this every night,” she declared. With relief, I smiled a wholehearted yes. It was not too late to seize the gift.
Next, it was Natalie’s turn. With her, I was a little nervous. What if she had gotten too old for this? What if the mere thought of her mom’s head on her chest weirded her out? What if she said yes but it was just plain awkward? I decided not to listen to the voice of discouragement—because what if it did work out? What if The Heartbeat Check was just what she needed tonight? After we read a chapter of her Nancy Drew mystery together, I swallowed the lump in my throat and took the direct approach. “Would you mind if I listen to your heartbeat like I used to?”
Natalie gave me an exasperated look as if to say, “Are you serious, Mom?” But I noticed she didn’t say no. Her eyes slowly rolled upward as she considered my request. Finally, this child who adamantly chooses her own clothes, walks by herself to her friend’s house, and wears deodorant four out of seven days a week informed me that it would be okay. Then she did exactly what she had done when she was younger: she inhaled my scent and said, “Your hair smells so good, Mama.”
While listening to the steady beat of her heart, I remembered that she liked me to interpret what I heard. “Your heart sounds sleepy tonight, Natalie. Perhaps it was all those laps you did at swim-team practice or the way you tackled that entire page of math problems after school.”
“What else could it be, Mama?” she asked, interested in what other noteworthy things I had noticed about her that day. It was comforting to know that although my child had grown in height and years, she had not outgrown this special ritual.
It was not too late to seize the gift. I promised myself that I’d try to keep it going for as long as my children would allow and have strived to uphold that vow. Although there are occasions when The Heartbeat Check is trumped by a late arrival home or an extensive homework assignment, nearly all our nightly tuck-ins conclude with the rhythmic sound of two growing human beings. While one girl’s heartbeat check brings laughter so intense that hiccups result, the other child’s heartbeat check inspires solemn talks of surgery, death, heaven, poverty, and pollution.
Yet, there is one commonality.
The Heartbeat Check offers refuge.
No matter how crazy the day … no matter how discouraged I feel … no matter how dismal the state of our nation, The Heartbeat Check offers sanctuary.
It brings clarity when I am conflicted …
It brings calm when I am in chaos …
It brings direction when I am lost …
It brings peace when I am overwhelmed …
It brings redemption when I’ve failed …
It brings inspiration when I feel unmotivated …
But that is only the half of it.
Sometimes I’ll walk by Natalie’s room as she’s placing her head on the chest of Banjo the cat. “I’m doing a Purr Check,” she explains with a smile. I have to hold back tears knowing this connective ritual is an even greater gift than I ever could’ve imagined:
The Heartbeat Check is God’s quiet retreat for those growing up in a world of distractions. Perhaps one day when my children are adults and life just looks too bleak…or the news is too disturbing to hear…or the schedule is too packed…or the distance between themselves and the people they love is too vast, they will remember where to find solace. And when they draw their loved one close, they will be reminded that the sound of hope is merely a heartbeat away. It is never too late to lay aside past regrets or future worries and listen for it.
Hands Free Life Daily Declaration
Today I will set aside my insecurities and ask my spouse, child, parent, or loved one if I can hold them close. I will listen to their heartbeat, breathe in their scent, and tell them how much I love them. There will be obstacles and challenges that will interfere in carrying out these moments of connection, but I will not let the distractions of my life stop me from investing in what matters most—at least not today.
QUESTION: When is the last time you held your children close and told them how much you loved them?
CHALLENGE: Take the Hands Free Life Daily Declaration to heart and decide to connect deeply with your children today.
Rachel Macy Stafford is the founder of www.handsfreemama.com and the New York Times bestselling author of HANDS FREE MAMA. The story she shares today is from her newly released book, HANDS FREE LIFE. In her book, Rachel describes how she finally started living life, instead of managing, stressing, screaming, and barely getting through life. Through truthful storytelling and nine life-changing Habit Builders, Rachel shows us how to respond to our loved ones and ourselves with more love, more presence, and more grace.
Image from Shutterstock; graphics by Julie Finlayson.