Every couple of weeks I patiently untangle the knots of strawberry-blonde hair that sit at the base of my child's neck. As I sat on the corner of the tub the other night, gently loosening an especially stubborn clump while my daughter chattered about her day, I couldn't stop the tears.
Those wet tangles I held in my hand were tangible signs of progress -- tangible proof that letting go can happen even in the most problematic hearts. My wish is that if I share where I once was and where I am now, others will feel hope they haven't felt in a while. Perhaps through reading about my messy tangles of progress, others will see their own. This is my story.
There was a time in my life when I barked orders more often than I spoke words of love... when I reacted to small everyday inconveniences as if they were major catastrophes... when normal human habits and quirks raised my blood pressure to dangerous levels.
Rather than nurturing my family members, I took it upon myself to manage my family members until there was no room to bend or breathe.
My artistic, busybody, dream-chasing older daughter's desire to start projects, try new recipes, and leave trails wherever she went received disapproving looks on a daily basis.
My stop-and-smell-the-roses younger daughter's desire to buckle in stuffed animals before we drove off, accessorize every part of her body before walking out the door, and move at a snail's pace drew exasperated breaths and annoyed frowns.
My fun-loving, laid-back husband's spontaneous approach to weekend plans and ability to totally chill out got the silent treatment more times that I could count.
The people I was supposed to love unconditionally possessed qualities that irritated me, annoyed me, and continually derailed my carefully planned agenda -- an agenda that was all about efficiency, perfection, and control.
I was not acting as a mother or a wife or even a decent human being. I was acting as a surly manager who was intent on creating a toxic environment -- a place where it was pretty hard to show up each and every day.
How do I know?
Because even I could barely stand myself. I woke up angry and irritated, bracing myself for another day of managing the unmanageable. Forget about living. Forget about smiling. Forget about counting the blessings. The Grumpy Manager didn't do that. And everyone in the home began following suit.
Hair brushing was a point of contention. Each morning my older daughter obediently allowed me to brush hastily as I pretended not to see her wincing. We were in a rush, after all. I hated to be late.
When it was my younger daughter's turn, she would always ask if she could brush her own hair. My response alternated between "We don't have time today" and "When you get a little bigger."
On this particular morning, my then-4-year-old child did not ask if she could brush her own hair. I was relieved. I could get this hair into a ponytail, prod her to put on her shoes quickly, and be out the door in less than two minutes, I calculated -- because managers always calculate.
As I aggressively gathered Avery's unruly curls into my palm, I happened to get a glance at my reflection. My brows were knotted together tightly. My mouth was set in a hard, thin line. I looked haggard, hopeless, and sad. I would have dismissed this disturbing sight had it not been for the fact that my child was staring at my reflection, too.
If expressions could talk, my child's face would have said this loud and clear: Who are you? Where did my mama go?
I felt my face grow hot. I felt tears wanting to come forth, but I blinked them back -- because managers know there's no time for tears.
But instead of continuing to brush with vigor, I suddenly stopped. With trembling hands, I held out the hairbrush to my child.
"How would you do it?" I asked quietly.
At first she looked shocked, as if I was offering her a hairy tarantula. But as I continued to hold out the brush, Avery eventually picked it up.
With small but agile hands, she stroked the sides of her hair from top to bottom until the hair was silky smooth. While lost in her joyful task, I think she forgot I was there. After a few minutes, she carefully brought the hair forward to drape softly over her shoulders. Then she smiled proudly at her reflection. The manager in me noticed she did not brush the back of her head, but I remained quiet.
My child met my eyes in the mirror. "Thank you, Mama. I always wanted to do that."
I prayed I would do something... anything... with those significant words that were gifted to me.
For the next several weeks, we finished up breakfast a few minutes earlier so Avery could brush her own hair, and I could watch... and learn.
"Want me to show you how I do it?" my child said each morning as I held out the brush.
I never got tired of seeing the pure joy Avery received from doing it herself, her way, the back of the head optional.
"Take your time," I forced myself to say every morning until it felt like English coming from my lips rather than a foreign language.
Whenever I said those particular words, there was a noticeable reaction. Unlike any other words, these three words were especially meaningful to my child. The way her shoulders lifted and her smile widened, I deemed them Soul-Building Words for this girl. I acknowledged that I would never have known the power of these words for Avery had I not stepped aside and surrendered control. I was motivated to take this powerful realization and apply it to other relationships. In what other ways could I make Hairbrush Offerings as a means of connecting with and lifting up others? It didn't take long to see there were many opportunities to open my hands and ask: How would you do it?
The way my husband took care of the children... tidied his area of the bedroom... chose outfits for going out... put away the groceries... and paid the bills were not wrong -- just different from the way I did those things.
The way my older daughter packed her swim bag... emptied her swim bag... saved money... selected gifts... completed projects... did homework... and baked cookies were not wrong -- just different from the way I did those things.
The way the chatty clerk bagged my groceries... the way my colleague took 10 extra steps to accomplish a task... the way my sister sipped coffee and read the paper before starting our day together were not wrong -- just different from the way I did those things.
How would you do it? I commonly asked when the control freak inside me began to get agitated. As I watched the people in my life do it their way... in their own time... with their own flair, I saw sparks of joy I hadn't seen before. And just like with Avery and the hairbrush, I learned each person had specific Soul-Building Words that fueled that spark.
Over time, the manager name tag peeled off my shirt, and I strived to be less of a dictator and more of a guiding, supportive, loving presence. I went to bed feeling lighter, freer, and happier knowing I did not have to be in control all the time. I woke up with the relief of knowing that there were many ways to live, create, and accomplish tasks -- and sometimes these other ways were better than my ways.
Avery is now 8 years old and quite the hairstylist. Not only does she do neat stuff with her own hair, but she can also make mine look great. Avery still doesn't pay too much attention to the back of her hair. This results in her handing me the comb and a bottle of conditioner, and we share a little time together as the steam rises from the tub.
I relish the fact that even when presented with the messiest tangles, the ones that look like they might have to be cut away, there is hope... there is growth... there are new beginnings if I loosen my grip a little and keep on trying.
I leave you with what I've learned through the blessing of the tangles. I call it: Building a Soul, One Word at a Time
"I will wait for you."
"Take your time."
"You make my day better."
I say those words to my slow-moving, happy-go-lucky, Noticer of life child.
I watch as grateful eyes light up and tiny shoulders relax.
Those words are Soul-Building Words to her.
"Mistakes mean you are learning."
"It doesn't have to be perfect."
"OK, you can have a few more minutes to work on your project."
I say those words to my driven, conscientious planner and pursuer of dreams child.
I watch as pressure escapes from her chest and aspirations soar higher.
Those words are Confidence-Boosting Words to her.
"I appreciate you."
I say those words to my hardworking, often underappreciated love of my life.
I watch as tensions loosen, eyes meet, and conversation comes easier.
Those words are Affirming and Connective Words to him.
"It's good enough for today."
"Be kind to yourself."
"Today matters more than yesterday."
I say those words to my own perfection-seeking, worrisome heart that tends to replay past mistakes.
I watch as my clenched hands open and tears fall as scars come to the surface.
Those are Healing, Hope-Filled Words to me.
The words "I love you" should never be underestimated, but every human being has a few words that make his or her soul come alive. Discover what those words are by standing back, letting go, watching, learning, and listening. What brings a smile? What adds a spring to the step? Commit those words to memory and say them, say them as often as you can so that one day you are no longer needed to hear them.
Rachel Macy Stafford is the founder of www.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. Her highly anticipated book, HANDS FREE LIFE, will be out on September 8.