The holiday season can feel like an ordeal. Preparations can be time consuming, expensive, and stressful. Holiday gatherings can make you feel like you're in a reality TV show or playing a supporting character on a soap opera! The holidays can be even more daunting for foster kids and foster alumni. As I've connected with other foster alumni, I've begun to recognize a few common threads that tie our experiences together. One common theme: Those currently in care and foster alumni often have an extra weird relationship with the holidays.
Many foster children may not have the best memories of holidays prior to entering care. For me, my childhood holidays were not full of wondrous things and loving people. My holidays, like most other days, were full of fear, abuse, and neglect. I was a step-child, and my family made sure that I knew that some how made me less than whole. Holidays are supposed to be joyous occasions, days for celebrations and love and peace. Instead my holidays were full of arguing and violence. While watching the other children receive gifts I was often told I had been forgotten. Sometimes there were gifts the next day and sometimes not. The stuff was not the point. It was the feeling of 'otherness' that all of this created in me. Holidays are supposed to be times of respite from the normal routines but for me holidays often felt like the darkest, loneliest days of the year.
My sister and I were placed in care just before the holiday season. We spent our first night at a temporary home while the state found a longer placement for us. We arrived after dark and I vividly remember their artificial white Christmas tree lighting up the other wise dark living room we slept in. Fast forward through being separated and bouncing around a few homes, and I found a more permanent placement. My family was wonderfully inclusive and did their best to make me feel like a part of things. Holidays were grand celebrations of family and love and charity. Still, aside from contending with losing the only life and people I had known, I never quite felt completely a part of the festivities. Traditions that were built long before my arrival were not the traditions I had learned. Despite a lot of love and effort from my foster family, I still felt a sense that I didn't quite belong.
My reunification story is a bit different from others. My mother never let me know the identity of my biological father. After entering care I was able to obtain a copy of my birth certificate. Using the few details I could glean from my memory regarding his potential location, I soon located my father by calling all the people listed with his last name in the phone book. I first spoke to an uncle and then through my case worker a visit was set up and we worked from there to build a relationship. As with my childhood and foster homes, I still felt out of place at holiday gatherings. Again, there are traditions and memories that I simply was not a part of creating. After moving out on my own, I became even more disconnected from the holidays. Holiday had become just another day ending in y.
My holiday traditions became fighting back melancholy, wearing a mask of happiness, and always feeling more like an observer than a participant. To this day, I frequently find myself wandering off to be alone during holiday gatherings, I don't want to taint the holidays for those enjoying the festivities. Now even though I am older and have a greater capacity for understanding some of how this all fits together, I still get depressed sometimes at the holidays. Thankfully, those moments become less and less frequent as time goes on. I'm building new traditions and making better memories with my husband and son.
If you're currently in foster care or an alumni you're not alone in your weird relationship with the holidays. We've got a few extra dynamics to contend with this time of year. This is going to sound cliche, but time & talking about things really does help. It is through our wounds that the light shines through.
Want to know how to better support someone currently or previously in care, this holiday season? Here are 5 things you should know.
1. We're probably never going to completely 'just get over it.' As life changes we have to keep re-examining how the past is influencing our current actions. For me, as I parent, I have to re-deal with issues from my child hood as I grow with my son. I have recognized that am prone to yelling and have to take extra steps to ensure that the cycle of abuse that I was taught stops with me. Healing is a life long process of reaching new understandings. Foster issues are nuanced and deeply rooted in strong feelings from past traumas.
2. Give us our space when we need it. We each work through our histories at our own pace. Sometimes memories are triggered in our hearts and we feel melancholy for a bit. Please don't try to force or guilt us into slapping on a smile and faking it. Often, we don't want to spoil others' fun and the alone time can help us to clear our head and be more present and involved when we return to the group.
3. Listen. Just listen. Foster kids and alumni have many stories to get off their hearts and out of their heads. If we're confiding in you, please take the time to listen. Don't interject with advice if advice is not being requested. We trust you enough to want you to understand why we are who we are. It's hard for anyone to open their wounds and darkness to another, and many fosters have deep cuts.
4. Please don't meet our trust in you with pity. We have survived to tell our tales. We are survivors. Treat us as such.
5. Help us create new memories and holiday traditions.
What's your relationship with the holidays like?
Share your thoughts in the comments!