Published on April 27th, 2021 | by Megan Hanlon1
The Strength of Surrender
I sit on a hard bench in the dappled sunlight. Fifty feet in front of me, my two children are climbing over and through the bright red playground equipment like ants swarming a hill. They are everywhere at once – clattering bridge, tall swirling slide, arching ladder. My son bounces down two descending platforms and stops dead at a three-foot-drop to the ground. He is eyeing the monkey bars that stretch out before him.
Part hesitancy and part hope, he reaches his skinny arms toward the worn metal bar. He grabs it with both hands and steps off of the platform. Then, uncertainty. He’s too afraid to loosen one hand and reach for the next rung, or maybe he’s too small yet. There’s no way to go back. He hangs helplessly for a second, fearful of the drop to the rubber mulch below. Such a long, slow fall. What if it hurts? What if he’s called a coward? But his fingers are slipping; he can’t hold on much longer. I hold my breath as he closes his eyes and lets go.
Nobody talks about the strength it takes to give up.
As much fortitude is required to keep going in the face of extraordinary challenge, it takes even greater power to say “enough.” To recognize that you have fought as long as you can with the only weapons you can reach – to realize when it is necessary to say “I choose to stop” – requires enormous courage and humbleness.
This is the bravery shown by couples opting to abandon further fertility treatments, by women submitting to unplanned C-sections after hours of fruitless labor, by birth mothers placing their helpless newborn babies for adoption. It’s the unimaginable humility and resolution my mother must have mustered when she knew she could no longer provide for me, and surrendered me to foster care.
I left my mother’s house the day before starting my senior year of high school. How I got to that point is a long, infuriating, and tragic story that starts with two capable parents and ends with years of chronic unemployment, a marital separation, a mental breakdown, and a bad deal. Poor decisions were made by all of the adults involved, and I was forced to wade through the collateral damage.
Due to circumstances I had no say in, I was no longer safe in my own house – a gleaming white single-wide mobile home my mom had proudly purchased not two years before, when we were supposed to be making strides toward a more stable life. Those attempts failed, new threats emerged, and I had to leave.
I packed what bags I owned and what boxes I could find, and moved in with a seemingly nice couple whom I knew from church. Their adult daughters had moved on, so they had empty bedrooms and empty arms. But their generosity came with stipulations that were difficult at best and unwelcoming at worst. It was a bed, but it was no place to land. Within a few months I knew the arrangement wasn’t tenable. My high school guidance counselor caught wind of my situation, and we began discussing where I could go. With an erratic father, no family in the state, and only a couple friends, I had few good options.
At the time I worked a fast food job after school. One October evening the church couple showed up unannounced, pressed the button on the ordering system, and asked for my house key. It was a drive-in joint; I could see their faces illuminated in sickly fluorescent light on the other side of a plate-glass window.
“Sure,” I answered their request, thinking they had misplaced one of their keys or maybe were going to be out late at different locations. “But I have to close tonight. How should I get in?”
“Your stuff’s at your mom’s,” the man told me over the intercom. “We hope everything works out for you.”
Dumbfounded, all I could mutter was, “Oh. Okay.” I walked outside with my head swimming and my heart thudding, unhooked the key from my keyring, and offered it like a too-late apology. He lifted his hand in a half-hearted wave, the truck backed out, and they left my life.
My mother’s trailer – a symbol of our last hope – was in the midst of repossession. She still had a roof to sleep under, but electricity and water had been cut off weeks before. She had no heat in the rooms, no lights to do algebra homework by, no way to cook dinner. My mother also had no job, nor any hope of keeping one. The church couple knew, like my mother knew, that she couldn’t take care of me anymore. My mom had no choices left, nothing for her fingers to hold on to. She let go.
Whether due to time or trauma, I don’t remember many details of what happened in the following days. I know I landed in temporary, voluntary, emergency foster care in another town. I know my mother slept in her dark and chilly mobile home until the sheriff arrived carrying eviction papers, and I know a man in a semi cab towed the trailer away. The rest is just questions.
Did my high school counselor call my mother one school day, starting the conversation with “I’m concerned about your daughter” and ending with “I am legally obligated to call protective services”? How hard did she cry after she hung up – was it stoic and resigned, staring out the window at the field next door as empty as she felt, or hysterical sobbing that left her eyes swollen and her throat raw? Did a case worker visit my mother’s house, sit with her at the same oak breakfast table where I had eaten countless Pop Tarts and watch while she signed paperwork allowing strangers to take guardianship of me? Or did my mom have to summon the physical and emotional strength to walk into a courthouse like a suspect who already knew what her sentence was?
How many weeks passed before she stopped feeling nauseous at the reality of what had happened, how many days did she escape into sleep and only wake for coffee and cigarettes? How deep was the pit where she kept her feelings of utter failure as a mother, whose most sacred duty was to protect her child? How wide and wild was her ocean of guilt?
I never knew. I never moved home, though I called regularly and visited the places she tried to live. I left foster care the weekend of Mother’s Day. Less than 10 years later, she died a hard death after a harsh life.
In a park on the south side of town, sharing a bench with all of the responsibility and emotion that come with motherhood, I wonder what it was like for my mom then. And I am in sad awe of the strength it took for her to surrender.
Between moments of joy and monotony and profound love, motherhood can be difficult and painful. I know this now. There are nights I felt certain I would break and die, but miraculously awoke the next morning with my children soundly asleep down the hall. I’ve drawn on my own undiscovered mettle to remove my son from a hostile classroom and walk my daughter through hospital halls late at night. Strength is a mother’s first name.
My mother’s strongest moment was when she admitted defeat. She carried that weight alongside boundless pride that I not only survived but managed to thrive despite my parents’ mistakes and shortcomings. Perhaps it is only because she surrendered that I can sit here now, a mostly whole adult, watching my son call on his own courage and strength to let go.
He lands hard but steady on both feet. Without sparing a glance at me, he takes off in a new direction.