“You don’t have to go looking for love when it’s where you come from.” -Werner Erhard

During a nightly walk, my younger daughter told me she wanted to visit a nursing home like we did before we moved. “There’s just something about old people,” she explained. “It makes me sad sometimes when I see them. I just want to cheer them up.”

“Okay,” I said, both pleased and surprised to learn this about her. “Let’s plan on it. And as soon as we get home, I want to show you something.”

After Avery got into her pajamas, we gathered in her bed and I pulled up this video. I’d watched it more times than I care to admit. In this touching German commercial, an elderly father fakes his death in order to get his busy children and grandchildren to come see him for the holidays. The way the man’s sullen face transforms to elation when given the gift of time and presence makes me weep.

I thought I was alone in this emotional reaction to mere commercial—but it turns out, I wasn’t.

When it got to the part where the man comes around the corner revealing he is alive, my child began to cry. She covered her face. “I can’t stand it. It makes me sad and happy, Mama,” she whimpered.

“Me too,” I said. “I feel the same way.”

Avery leaned her head against me like two kindred souls who knew it was okay to be soft together … to be open to the pain and joy of others … to cry if you are moved.

I gave her that gift; I thought to myself. And suddenly a long-held cloak of shame lifted—the one that labeled me a terrible gift giver. It stemmed from an experience at age eight when I hurriedly stuffed a flimsy ten-dollar bill in a plain envelope for my sister’s Christmas gift. On Christmas morning the money was accidentally discarded with the crumpled wrapping paper. My family searched and searched but couldn’t find it. My sister seemed so sad that Christmas morning, but it wasn’t about the money. I knew she would be smiling had I put a little thought and effort into her gift that year—had I not been so selfish. Putting my needs and my agenda ahead of everyone else’s was an on-going problem of mine, and it could not be ignored whenever birthdays and holidays rolled around. What in the world will I give? I’d wracked my brain knowing what was required to give a meaningful gift was often more than I was willing to give.

Until this year.

Until Avery and I had our moment of softness together, and I realized I’d given some pretty meaningful gifts in recent years.

What I’ve learned over the past five years on my Hands Free journey is that the best gifts do not come in a box. The best gifts involve giving of ourselves in ways that require time, introspection, heart, and sacrifice. And so with that, I want to tell you the best gifts I’ve given. My hope is that my painfully honest sharing might inspire someone else to consider this holiday the start of a true life-enhancing gift—one that will impact the receiver, as well as the giver, and quite possibly the world for years to come. It is possible. It really is. Take a look:

The best gift I gave my husband was ACCEPTANCE.

12 vows sunlight

For the first ten years of our marriage I often thought about the things I wanted to change in my husband. I wished he would open up more. I wished he would listen better. I wished he would notice when things needed picked up around the house, look me in the eyes when we talk, and chew his gum more quietly. I really wished he wouldn’t make such a fuss when it came to birthday and holidays. (How dare he?)

I spent a lot of time wishing my husband would be someone different than who he was.

One day the two of us were having a heated moment. Before any new experience, I tend to get very anxious. I tend to worry. My husband isn’t this way, and he was telling me to relax. I said, “This is a new experience for me! I get anxious. Haven’t you figured this out yet? This is who I am. I am not going to change. And it’s okay. Maybe it doesn’t need to be changed.”


And while I was standing there wanting him to see me, love me, “as is”, I saw him for who he was.

And when I decided to stop wishing for him to change, I noticed he opened up at night when the lights were out, and I was all there. I noticed he listened carefully when I said, “This is important.” I noticed he took care of many things around the house that never got on my radar. I realized he wasn’t trying to outdo me on gifting; he just loved to give and had a knack for remembering exactly what people like. And when he chewed gum, I reminded myself I would miss this sound of that someday; the sound became (almost) comforting.

The best gift I gave my husband was ACCEPTANCE, and it turned out to be a gift to me as well.

The best gift I gave my first-born daughter was FREEDOM.

opinion matters

For the first six years of Natalie’s life, I expected much from this small, conscientious child. On those small shoulders she carried great pressure from a woman who wanted things to look perfect and go according to her master plan. Natalie quickly picked up on my perfectionistic ways. She began to be hard on herself. She wore the look of defeat in her eyes and picked her upper lip in worry. One day I noticed the door to her room was shut more often that open, and the reason was not lost on me: My child would rather be alone than in the company of her critical mother. I knew that if I wanted to be invited into the conversations, joys, secrets, and sorrows of this precious child, I must control and criticize less and surrender and encourage more.

I began to acknowledge all the things Natalie did right instead the things I perceived to be “wrong”. I learned there were times when her “mistakes” didn’t need to be mentioned at all. After all, she was growing & learning and needed freedom to try, fall down, and get back up without a critic standing over her shoulder. My goal for our time together was to improve on her day rather than detract from it. Over time, I learned to stand back and watch as this child used her organizational skills and creativity to run neighborhood camps, delve into complicated medical books, and advocate for the less fortunate. Each night she and I talk in her darkened room and she tells me how she’s going to help the world. She knows there will be mistakes and failings along the way, but no matter what, I will be cheering her on.

The best gift I gave my older child was FREEDOM to try, fail, and succeed, and it turned out to be a gift to me as well.

The best gift I gave my younger child was TIME.


By the time my younger daughter was four, I’d made it crystal clear that her stop-and-smell-the-roses approach to life was a thorn in her efficient mother’s side. But it wasn’t until her older sister articulated it in a demoralizing tone to her little sister that I saw the damage I was doing to both of my children.

That day I looked into Avery’s eyes and said, “I’m so sorry I have been making you hurry. I love that you take your time, and I want to be more like you.”

Both my daughters looked equally surprised by my unusual admission, but Avery’s face held the unmistakable glow of affirmation. I knew that if I could keep my vow to live more like her, it would be a life-changer.

Whenever possible, I let Avery set the pace. I complimented her for noticing things most people didn’t. I began to notice with her. I witnessed the joy she experienced when she slowly put on her favorite pajamas, carefully sprinkled cinnamon on her applesauce, lovingly cared for a sad classmate, or patiently waited for her grandpa. My child was a Noticer, and I quickly learned that The Noticers of the world are rare and beautiful gifts. That’s when I realized she was a gift to my frenzied soul.

This child is now the writer of music. It is a painstaking process with a guitar and a notebook—but she has the talent, the confidence, and the patience to prevail. Most of all, Avery has time on her side; there is no need to hurry when you are singing a vital message to a hurried world.

I gave my child the gift of TIME, and it was a gift to me as well.

The best gift I gave myself was PERMISSION:


I would be leaving out a critical gift if I did not mention the gift I gave myself. In fact, none of the above gifts could have been given had I not given myself permission—permission to stop being the person who could “do it all” with a smile while my spirit slowly died inside … permission to turn off the noise of the outside world and turn toward the callings of my heart … permission to be human … permission to use my failings as stepping stones to an improved version of me … permission to cry … permission to rejoice … permission to breathe. I would not be who I am today had I not given myself permission to write for at least ten minutes a day with the hope of becoming an author who helped others grasp what mattered most.

Five years ago I gave myself the gift of PERMISSION. It was a gift to my husband, my children, and to those who read my truths and hopes. I am still not the best material gift giver, but I’ve gotten the hang of digging deep to give what matters most. My hope is that this piece has you feeling less pressured about what holiday gifts you’ll box up and more focused on what gifts you’ll reach for deep down in your soul. Gifts of time, presence, forgiveness, and acceptance not only impact the receiver but also the giver, as well as the world.

If you are wondering where to start the process of gifting what matters – whether it is for yourself or someone you love – this exquisite quote shared by my friend Kaitlin seems fitting:

“be softer with you
you are a breathing thing
a memory to someone
a home to a life”
– Nayyirah Waheed

Yes. Oh yes. Meaningful gift giving starts with being softer.

Be softer with you.
Be softer with him.
Be softer with her.

Be softer.
Be softer.
We can’t go wrong if we are softer, kinder, more open, more forgiving, and more accepting. Love is always a good place to start.

And if nothing else, watch the elderly man who simply wanted the gift of his people gathered around his table. It’s okay if it makes you cry. It does me too.


Rachel Macy Stafford is the New York Times bestselling author of Hands Free Mama, Hands Free Life, and Only Love Today. “Only Love Today” began as a mantra to overcome her inner bully, but it is now the practice of her life. It can be a practice for all of us. Join this certified special education teacher for her new online course, SOUL SHIFT. Through short videos, small habit shifts, and inspiring intentions, Rachel will take you step-by-step through the process she used to go from a critical, unfulfilled, and distracted existence to being a present and joyful participant of her life. Enter your email address here to be notified when SOUL SHIFT registration opens on January 8, 2018 at a discounted price. Please join Rachel and her supportive community, The Hands Free Revolution, for more daily inspiration.

Originally published at www.handsfreemama.com