Christmas is a trigger word in our house.
As much as I want the word to conjure visions of sugar plums and feelings of goodwill toward men in my children, it doesn’t—not entirely.
I call them my children, but legally, they’re not. One is now, after years of fostering and a hard-won adoption. But the rest are not and probably never will be in the eyes of the law.
But Christmas--oof. Sometimes my kids almost flinch when they hear the word. It often triggers a cutting and bittersweet pain, a longing for a reality that will never come to pass, a second chance with a family that I’m not part of, a family that has abandoned or betrayed them. The only visions that dance in their heads are memories of a past I barely understand.
And if I’m honest, sometimes the word makes me flinch, too. It conjures visions of a reality I’ve longed for but will never be able to have, one that I watch play out around me over and over and over for friends and family and strangers in Target commercials alike: natural-born children with their mother’s eyes and father’s smile, all dressed in matching Christmas pajamas as they sit around the tree.
I bought my girls matching pajamas this year, but no uniform can bring that vision to life.
We have this in common: we are each other’s substitute.
This is hard, because I’ve always loved Christmas. I love everything about the season, even the snow (and I’m typing this in a Minnesota blizzard warning). I love to give and bake and eat and laugh and celebrate and share, and the only thing that makes any of those things worthwhile is doing them with the people I love most in the world. There was no shortage of love in the home I grew up in. I didn’t understand it at the time—I thought it was normal. I see now—now that we take in so many children with such tragic stories—that it wasn’t.
It was special.
I’m trying to create a substitute holiday that feels magical for the children in my care, trying to build traditions for me and for them, for the makeshift family we’ve created by embracing each other. But all the while, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing.
(How much of motherhood is just wondering if you’re doing the right thing?)
I’ve learned over the years that my brand of Christmas gluttony can give indigestion to kids who aren’t used to such rich fare. It’s not uncommon for the moments of joy I provide to be accompanied by tears of pain or fits of rage.
It’s so hard to strike a balance.
It’s so hard to live with someone who has experienced an entire universe without you, even when you cannot imagine your own small world without them in it.
An entire universe.
So I conjure the best Christmas I know how, leaving as much room as I can for that universe and the multitudes it contains. I try to remember that I am not their whole world, even if they are mine.
It’s hard to live this way, especially around the holidays, to hold that much space in a relationship. It’s hard to leave room for others, when I want to rush in and give them all they lack, but it’s a hole I cannot fill. I can patch it, maybe, but I will never fill it. I am not the shape of the hole, and I never will be.
We are substitutes, every one of us.
So we spend our Christmases with these children with this hard truth in the room, giving them space to cry when what we provide is too much or not enough.
I try to give love and support.
I try to give patience and grace.
I try to understand. I try to offer compassion.
I try, and it is all I can do.
It is, in the end, the only good and worthy gift I can give.