In a recent conversation with Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, of The Motherhood Center of New York, she brought up the topic of surrender as an important concept in parenthood. I have spent the last month or so turning that word over and over in my mind, attempting to make sense of it. How can surrender lead to success? Finally, yesterday, clarity blew in on a big, fat storm cloud.
My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Headachy, Vomity Day
I woke up in the morning with a long list of things to do but also with a terrible headache and a sick one-year-old. And did I mention that I was running on three hours of sleep? My poor little guy had a serious case of the cranks and was only happy in my arms. While motherhood has made me quite adept at doing life one-handed, this was a two-hands-needed kind of day. Caring for my son is my priority, but I have other responsibilities as well – professional deadlines, errands, appointments, cleaning, cooking, laundry, scheduled calls, etc. We wear many hats as parents. As the clock ticked forward and I failed to cross anything off this list, I felt the stress begin to build. My chest tightened, and anxiety crept into my throat.
I was finally able to get through to the pediatrician and was thankful to score a last-minute appointment. With 10 minutes to get out the door, I frantically packed a diaper bag, threw some clothes on myself, and began dressing my son. As I was dressing him, my dog (an adorable rescue with separation anxiety) began to have a panic attack. I was simultaneously trying to calm the dog and dress a sick and hysterical toddler. It was basically a comedy act – except that I had no capacity for humor at the time. I felt myself begin to sweat and the hands of anxiety squeezed tighter and tighter around my throat.
As we were walking out the door, a few minutes behind, my sweet little guy vomited – everywhere. We were both soaked, and he became even more hysterical. I felt terrible for him and was certain that we would miss our appointment, which he clearly needed. I had to get him there, and I can’t stand to be late. As I tried to quickly re-dress us both, I felt my heart racing and the tears welling up behind my eyes.
It had just been one of those days. As parents, we all have those days, right? The days when it seems to pile up on us and no shovel is quite big enough to dig our way out. Nothing was going according to plan. I was exhausted, worried, and overwhelmed. I was about to break down, which certainly wouldn’t have helped anyone.
Cue the Lightbulb
In this moment, by some type of divine intervention, my conversation with Paige came to mind, and I remembered the word she had mentioned – surrender. I suddenly realized that this was it – this was that moment. Cue the lightbulb.
Right then, I made a decision to let go- to stop fighting – to give myself over to the circumstances. There was nothing I could do to change what was happening. Instead, I took a deep breath, pushed back those tears, and made the choice to just go with it. I stopped stressing, and I stopped fighting. I accepted my circumstances and threw my plans and to-do list out the window. We were taking a detour.
You know what happened? My heart rate slowed, my hands stopped shaking, and relief pulsed through my body. With that pressure removed – the pressure to do everything perfectly and to keep everything in order – I was able to breathe again.
I calmly changed us both and headed to the doctor’s office, not knowing if I would make it there on time, but not worrying about it. I couldn’t change the circumstances, and I was doing the best I could – it was out of my control. For a Type A personality like mine, relinquishing control can feel difficult and painful. What I realized this day is that releasing control – turning myself over to the situation – is actually what put me back in control. We wound up making it to our appointment on time and the rest of the day went more smoothly – not because the circumstances changed but because my mindset had. I had surrendered.
Surviving the Riptides
When most of us hear the word surrender, we imagine someone waving a white flag and giving up. In this context, surrender can be viewed as a form of loss or failure.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an alternative definition of surrender is to, “give oneself over to something.” In reference to parenthood, I think this is the most applicable meaning. There are times as parents (and humans!) when it benefits us to surrender to our circumstances. This does not mean that we quit being parents or give up and walk away – it just means that sometimes it helps to stop fighting. Sometimes surrender is actually the path to victory.
In considering this concept, the image that comes to my mind is of a swimmer caught in a riptide. Even the most experienced swimmers sometimes find themselves in these dangerous waters. When a riptide grabs ahold of you, you have two options: you can frantically fight to swim against it, or you can allow the tide to carry you.
What we know about riptides is that those who choose to fight against them are the most likely to drown. The waters are too powerful, and they will exhaust themselves engaging in a losing battle. On the other hand, there are those who surrender to the tide – who, rather than fighting, give themselves over to it. What happens when you surrender to a riptide? It carries you a bit off your intended course but eventually, it ends, and when it does, you are able to swim safely back to shore.
The Battle Not Fought
This may or may not be what Paige was talking about when she discussed the concept of surrender, but this is what it means to me:
We are all out there swimming around in an ocean of life and parenting. Sometimes we’ll encounter sunny days, and sometimes we’ll encounter terrible, horrible, no good, headachy, vomity days. Sometimes we’re swimming peacefully, and sometimes a riptide sneaks up on us. When we find ourselves in a parenting riptide, we can fight like hell, or we can give ourselves over to it. Surrender does not mean allowing yourself to drown. Surrender means allowing yourself to let go – to go with the flow, if you will – so that you don’t drown. By doing so, you are not only able to survive – you are able to conserve energy for battles that need fighting. There are battles that need fighting, after all, but sometimes the battle not fought makes all the difference.
Written by Ashley Abeles