book review: hands free mama

i thought this was just dreadful. i was not previously familiar with the author’s blog. i read the subtitle & thought it sounded like something i might enjoy. but i was wrong.

so many things are wrong with this book. it purports to be a kind of memoir/guide to reassessing your priorities & maximizing your relationships with your children & other people that matter most in your life. sounds legit, right? but i didn’t know that zondervan, which published the book, is apparently a christian imprint. this book is VERY heavy on the religion. i would categorize it as downright evangelical. maybe some people wouldn’t mind it, & i’m sure others would consider it a bonus. i found it off-putting & actually somewhat disturbing at times. every chapter makes reference to some incident or another in which stafford was feeling impatient or frustrated, until the voice of god spoke to her & encouraged her to “slow down” & “make time for what matters”. as the book progresses & it starts to sound more & more like a polemic urging mothers to abandon work & all other commitments in order to be the best mothers they can possibly be, it begins to feel that stafford is suggesting that god wants women to remain in the home. patriarchal christianity?

i was also very disturbed at how desperate stafford seems to be for her children’s approval. in one chapter, she writes about asking her children to describe her in three words. she hopes that her “hands free” revelation will be reflected in their choices & that they won’t describe her as impatient or too busy. she is gratified when they choose words like “nice” & “pretty”. she asks them to describe their father & they choose words like “fun”. she’s jealous that her kids see their father as more adventurous & she spends some time doubling down on the spontaneity. examples include having a picnic & joining in with a game of football. then she revisits with her kids to see if they’ve revised their word choices. they have not. she’s disappointed.

look, i don’t think there’s anything wrong with making an effort to be more spontaneous & “fun”. but she doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with competing with her husband over who is more “fun,” or openly pandering to her children’s conception of what counts as “fun parenting,” & most disturbing, basically switching up her entire parenting approach in order to curry a specific type of favor with her kids.

allow me to state for the record: i have a child. she’s still too young to describe me in three words (she would just say “mama mama mama”), but i don’t have any plans to quiz her on what she thinks of my parenting once she’s old enough to weigh in, in order to boost my own self-image. maybe that’s not how stafford meant to come across, but that’s how i read it.

there’s another distressing scene in which she castigates herself for her “two lost years” of “distracted parenting”. the particular scene i’m thinking of is one in which her younger daughter recalls an incident when stafford took her girls to a holiday party but then started crying & said they had to leave. one of stafford’s friends took her outside & helped her calm down & they stayed at the party & had fun, but the younger daughter remembers the incident & was sad that they almost had to leave & that her mom cried. stafford explains that her husband had been traveling for business for a few weeks, leaving her to care for their two daughters, then three & six, by herself. the oldest one had just been diagnosed with lice for a second time, the girls’ shoes were too small & giving them blisters & causing whining, & stafford felt overwhelmed by her various responsibilities to family & community. that’s why she started crying at the party. when her daughter brings it up three years later, she is overcome by guilt that she almost let “lice & blisters steal [her] joy”. she apologizes profusely to her daughter & tries to learn how to forgive herself for what an apparently terrible parent she used to be.

WHAT? sometimes i feel overwhelmed taking care of one kid while my partner is at school, & i know he’s coming home at 4:30pm & i’ll be able to lay on the couch & read “the new yorker” if i want to. & that’s without lice & the stress of toting my baby to a party & listening to her whine about her shoes. sometimes parenting is stressful! it’s STRESSFUL to be the solo caretaker for your kids! it’s STRESSFUL when your partner goes away on business for weeks on end! it’s STRESSFUL when your kid gets lice! hell, it’s STRESSFUL to listen to your kid whine! stafford says that her “hands free journey” is about “letting go of perfection,” but this story sounded to me like stafford was having a perfectly normal reaction to a stressful situation & then beating herself up for not looking upon every moment–even the solo parenting, louse-ridden ones–with her children as a special gift from god. seems to me that TRUE relinquishing of perfection would involve letting yourself cry sometimes because shit is hard.

although, a fun drinking game that will help this book go down more easily would be taking a shot every time stafford writes that “tears were streaming down [her] face.” warning: you will probably die of alcohol poisoning, because getting a letter in the mail is all it takes for this woman to turn on the waterworks. i can’t imagine what her kids think of the constant flood of tears. i’m sure they’re building an ark for their own survival.

i’d love to hear what stafford’s husband thinks of his weeks-at-a-time business trips & how they may be stealing away his opportunities for “sunset moments” & “sun delays” with his children. the only appearances he gets are when stafford explains that he is always laid back & ready to hang out & have fun with the kids, portraying herself negatively in contrast. i talked to my own partner about this after we both read “all joy & no fun”. i stay at home with our daughter & he works full-time as a teaching assistant & PhD candidate. i observed that i’m admiring/jealous of the way he is so quick to stop what he’s doing & sit down with our daughter to play with blocks, read her stories, or simply give her cuddles. he said that he feels he gets enough time to work being out of the house 40 hours a week, so whatever time he has to work at home is just gravy, & it’s easy enough to take a break to spend time with ramona when she wants him. i, on the other hand, am home all the time. which means that anything i want to do besides look after ramona (cleaning, reading, writing this book review, sewing, etc) has to be fit into whatever cracks i can find. i’m basically multi-tasking ALL THE TIME. which is exhausting. & while i would love to “burn the to-do list” & spend 24 hours a day cuddling with ramona, reading to her, tickling her, etc, the reality of the situation is that the litterbox still needs to be scooped, the laundry still needs to be washed, breast milk still needs to be pumped…there’s shit that needs to get done. it’s true that i’m probably not going to be on my death bed in sixty years, reflecting on how awesome it was that time i pumped 17 ounces of milk in one twenty-minute session. in the big picture, it “didn’t matter,” i suppose. but it still needed to get done & i had to take a break from counting my child’s eyelashes to do it.

the overwhelming majority of this book is just about putting down your phone to spend quality time with your loved ones. i know there are people who are addicted to their phones. i’ve known people like that & they’re annoying to be around. but as it’s not a problem i’ve ever had, maybe this book just isn’t for me. i honestly don’t know where my phone is right now. maybe in my purse? i don’t know where my purse is either. i don’t really care. stafford writes many, many times about the difficulty of training herself to stop texting while driving, & i’m like…seriously? like i said before, my baby is too young to be, like, carpooling, but if i found out her carpool driver was texting while driving…FORGET IT. that’s just such a “no duh” issue! stafford is like, “i was texting while i could have been spending quality time with my kids,” & i was like, “or you were texting while you should have been WATCHING THE ROAD & NOT KILLING YOURSELF & YOUR CHILDREN.” i also don’t understand how she thinks her target audience–busy moms attached to their smartphones–would have time to read an entire book.

& to top the whole thing off, it’s not even very well-written. sometimes stafford uses the wrong words (she writes about “drudging up memories” when clearly she means “dredging”) which is sloppy & irritating. but the bigger crime is how unbearably repetitive the whole thing is. there’s so much “i lost TWO YEARS of my precious children’s lives to being over-scheduled!” & “i never would have noticed this sunset/dog/look on my child’s face/whatever if i hadn’t slowed down to pay attention” & “my god-given talents & abilities”. you could tear out all the pages, rearrange them any way you want, & come away with pretty much the exact same book.

& on the rare occasion when she quotes one of her blog readers (because of course this book was a blog before it was a book), it’s usually clear that the reader has a chronically ill child or has been diagnosed with a terminal illness & is trying to make the most of their limited time left alive. those little shots of sobering reality only make stafford’s own tales of woe (“i stayed up until almost 1am making cupcakes for a class party & then i was really tired the next day!”) seem even more petty.

please skip this book. don’t make my mistakes.

Published by Ciara

Ciara Xyerra wrote zines for the better part of two decades. She has a brilliant & adorable preschooler named Ramona & sews as much as she possibly can. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her boyfriend. She enjoys catching up on "The New Yorker", meatball subs, keeping it cranky, intersectional post-third wave feminism, dinosaurs, & monsters. If you have nothing nice to say, she recommends that you come sit here by her, so you can say not-nice things together.

2 thoughts on “book review: hands free mama

  1. “Hands Free” seems like the wrong title. It sounds like she means “Hands On.” “Hands Free” sounds like a cell phone feature that lets you talk and drive, frankly.

    1. it’s so much about cell phone dependency that i think she was going for invoking the idea of being “hands free” in terms of having your hands free of your phone. honestly, the book is so terrible, the title is the least of my concerns!

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