For a whole host of different reasons, Christmas is a very difficult time for many. Today I welcome a guest writer who is reflecting on the challenges Christmas brings for adoptive parents and their children.
It will come as no surprise that adopting children has changed our experience of Christmas. It has changed our experience of almost every aspect of life. Christmas however, holds a particularly toxic mixture of demands and uncontrollable external stresses, the like of which I had not begun to imagine two years ago. Although I am writing this from the perspective of an adoptive parent, it struck me that most of us probably suffer from some of these stresses, albeit in a less dramatic way. There is such an enormous pressure to have a picture-perfect Christmas that it’s inevitable that the reality for most of us is far from what’s portrayed on TV, media and even our friends’ Facebook statuses.
Our children thrive on predictable routine. It makes them feel safe, and goes a long way to sooth the unpredictable experiences that were so damaging in their early lives. Any break from the normal school routine take some adjustment, but Christmas is by far the worst – it leaks in for weeks before the holidays actually start, coming in the guise of trips to the pantomime, class parties, a Christmas dinner, an after-school Christmas fair and the most dreaded of all – the nativity play. If I could run a parallel universe from November 1st where it was all just business as usual, I would do it in a heartbeat. Excitement is just a step away from terror, and when the brain hasn’t had the chance to develop normal emotional responses, one can very easily switch over to the other. Once the terror or the fight, flight, freeze response has been triggered, it can take days to sooth our children back to a more normal regulated state. The effects are physical and there for all to see, if you know what to look for. A child who is pretty confident at maths, suddenly can’t count along a number line correctly. All spatial awareness disappears, and the scabbed knees and bumped elbows crank up a notch or twenty. Hearing becomes very patchy and even when you’re right next to a child, they often aren’t able to process very simple instructions. So strategy number one for navigating Christmas in our house is keeping as many things normal as possible. We stay at home. We eat our normal breakfast cereal. We do bedtime routine at the same time and in the same order. No variation. On top of that, we make a visual timetable for the whole of the holidays. Each day has all the members of the family and little clip art pictures for what that person will be doing in the morning and afternoon. It doesn’t prevent the 20 or so questions I’m currently fielding every day relating to what’s happening over Christmas, but it definitely helps! It makes a big difference this year that we can look back at last year and remember some of the standard parts of our Christmas routine.
Some of the Christmas lore is also troubling when life hasn’t always been safe. It has surprised me how many parents have nodded agreement when I’ve mentioned how scary our children find the thought of a stranger coming into the house at night when we are all asleep. I loved the thought of Father Christmas (definitely not Santa in this house!), but somehow he doesn’t seem quite so appealing these days. I don’t think it will be long before we have to explain to even the youngest that Father Christmas isn’t a real person, and it’s actually just us giving them presents. This year the stockings will stay downstairs, and we will supervise the filling of them.
“Do what Mummy says, or Father Christmas might be watching and you won’t get any presents.” Yes, a parent in the playground at school actually said that to my youngest as I was asking him to put his coat on. One of the most common effects of early trauma is a complete lack of self-esteem and a huge underlying fear that you are bad. If you were a good baby, or child, these things would not have happened to you. This isn’t something that is fixed by the traditional view of adoption as a happily-ever-after end to the story. It doesn’t go away because we tell them they are good, and that no-one in our family is naughty. It is the hard core at the centre of their being. If you don’t accept it, then you simply don’t understand them. Given this strong sense of self as bad, what sort of message are we giving when we say that Father Christmas won’t bring you presents unless you are good? “Being good”. What does that even mean? My children often don’t do as they are asked. Why not? Because they have learned the hard way how to keep themselves safe. The learning that takes place in the first two years of life is hard-wired into the neural pathways of the brain. Undoing some of it will be a lifetime of work for us as therapeutic parents. Our children deserve presents no matter what. As far as possible treats and fun experiences aren’t related to behaviour at all. They are a part of childhood that all children deserve. Don’t take that to mean I’m an anything goes type of parent (Far from it! To most eyes I’m pretty strict.). We just don’t plan activities that our children can’t manage. And when we realise that we were over-ambitious because one or more has not coped with something, we try to learn from it so that they are successful next time. We have a different framework, and more realistic expectations of what our children can manage. And most importantly at this time of year, Father Christmas WILL be filling their stockings.
Christmas without loved ones is hard. I remember so clearly the first Christmas after my father died. It just wasn’t right. It wasn’t how it should have been, and his absence was keenly felt. It’s almost impossible to imagine then how it must be when you are no longer with any of your birth family, or even the foster carers with whom you enjoyed last Christmas. Everything has changed – the people, the food, the music, the activities. The sense of loss is unavoidable, so we try to hard to talk about it in the days preceding Christmas. We talk about memories of Christmases past. We have incorporated a couple of Christmas traditions from their foster carers. And we acknowledge that they may not feel happy. You are allowed to feel sad on Christmas Day. Indeed many people feel sad on Christmas Day. We talk about the fact that their birth family will be thinking of them, and we pray for them all. If we put pressure on ourselves and them to feel happy because it’s Christmas then we are in for a tough time.
Finally, we are trying hard to reduce the Christmas pressure on ourselves. We will not be eating a roast turkey, or indeed any roast meal again this year. Sunday roast dinners are our least successful meals of the week. No-one manages to sit at the table, cutlery is barely used, and youngest only eats the potatoes. If I have spent all morning slaving in the kitchen to create a special meal, I find it hard when the overwhelming reaction is, “this is disgusting”, followed by children running away. There seems to be an indirect correlation between the amount of time I spend preparing a meal, and the amount of that meal that the children actually eat. Therefore I will be cooking in advance. Next week in fact. I’m making a large curry and buying all of our favourite side dishes. On Christmas morning, when we get home from church, I will shove everything in the oven and go and play board games with the kids. Total preparation time on the day will be no more than 15 minutes, and I’ll be long enough separated from the donkey work of it not to care who likes it or doesn’t. Funnily enough, if I’m relaxed and enjoying myself, the kids are more likely to be as well. On which note, I must go and firm up my plans for food over the holidays, and order a nice selection of my favourite treats. If we are to survive the rough and tumble of the end of the year, I need to make sure that my reserves are fully topped up. I will be squeezing in some time to indulge in my favourite activities, getting loads of sleep and making sure that the snack tin is always to hand.
I wish you a Merry Christmas, and should it all go tits up, don’t worry, it’s only a few weeks until January, when life can try to get back to normal. I’ll be the one in the playground lying through my teeth about how much fun we had over the holidays.
Posted anonymously for the safety of our incredible children.
Information and support for anyone struggling with any of the adoption-related issues raised can be found on The Adoption Social and Adoption UK websites. Also remember that you can contact The Samaritans any time of the day or night to talk.