Christmas was pretty complicated at our house this year.
It hasn’t always been that way—at least, not for me. For me, Christmas has always been pure joy. It’s my favorite holiday, and I have nearly four decades of happy Christmas memories, all made of love and connection and celebration, of singalongs and game nights, of delicious cookies and even more delicious anticipation and, best of all, the people I love and care about most.
We always spend Christmas Eve with my parents and siblings, and I was thrilled to have my adopted daughter, current foster daughter, and former foster son joining us. I wanted to give them the same sort of joy and love and connection that I share with my own family. I wanted to do everything I could to give them a good Christmas. I went all out, and so did my family.
And it wasn’t just good. This year, it was great.
It was one for the ages. It was magical, filled with love and laughter and joy, with card games and too many gifts, with hugs and snuggles, with carols sung around the fire and way too much food, and the sweet, sweet comfort drawn from the simple company of those who truly love and accept you.
But that joy proved too sweet for some.
I did not think such a thing was even possible, but it happened when one of my kids broke away from the game we were playing and asked for my car keys, saying he needed to get something. I couldn't imagine what, but I gave him my keys anyway.
He didn't come back inside.
After some time, I followed him out to the car. I assumed that something had set him off, that he’d gotten an upsetting phone call from one of his biological family members. But that was not the case. He was just sitting out there, in the dark, alone. I asked him what was wrong, and he could only shake his head, but we both knew what it was.
It's always the same thing, after all.
He had felt the joyful magic of Christmas, and that was exactly the problem. This joy was a glimpse into the life he’d been denied. He had retreated to my car to escape, to hide from the joy because all that sweetness was just too much.
Like a toothache.
Having these kids with us was beautiful, but any joy they experienced with us was undoubtedly tempered by the knowledge that they were not experiencing it with their biological families. No matter what I did, I would never be able to fill that void for them. I had wanted them to experience pure joy this Christmas, but the best I could give them a diluted version that we’ve learned to call happy/sad.
I wish I had a better word for it, but I don't. Happy/sad is a very real emotion. It's not quite the same as bittersweet. It has the same juxtaposition and contrast of pleasure and pain as bittersweet, but there’s an element of competition and confusion that happy/sad has—an internal war is waging. Sometimes, there’s a third contender, and it’s happy/sad/mad. You don’t know what to feel, what you should feel, but you feel it all, all at once, and it’s overwhelming.
Adoption itself is happy/sad. So is foster care. There’s always that stab of pain, that element of loss. Nearly every holiday and milestone we celebrate with the kids in our cares come with this complicated feeling. We have come to expect this, and we are doing our best to help them endure these emotional tsunamis. I spent an hour crying outside in the cold in my pajamas on Christmas Eve, apologizing through the window of my car for things that I knew were not my fault but felt bad about all the same. When happy/sad struck him, I wanted to help, but the only things I could only offer were my presence, my tears, and my reassurance.
It didn’t feel like enough. (It never does.)
My mom told me that there’s nothing worse than watching your children suffer, and I know now how true this is. Watching my kid experience happy/sad made me feel a version of the same. I did my best, but I couldn’t get him to come back inside. He just wanted to be alone. He asked--begged—me to leave, so, because he asked, I did.
I returned to the house alone, with puffy eyes and shuddering breath and a heavy heart, and when my dad asked me what was wrong, I started to cry again. I felt awful, like I’d been caught inadvertently flaunting my happiness. Dad saw my pain, put on his coat, and went out to talk to him. His efforts were successful, and they returned together and shared a hug.
Happy/sad—that I have a loving biological father, yet he does not.
My foster daughter saw my crumpled, tear-ravaged face, and she opened her arms to me. “It’s okay,” she said. “I get it.” I fell into her arms and cried into her shoulder.
Happy/sad—that she cared about me yet likely felt the same thing he did.
Happy/sad—the feeling is maddening.
This Christmas had been joyful, and my kids did enjoy the holiday—they told me so, all three of them. But there will always be an underlying sadness there that no amount of sweetness will ever soothe. This will likely always be the case when celebrating with children who have endured foster care, and that’s happy/sad for me, too. I love sharing the holiday with them, but I am saddened by the pain and grief that the joy of this holiday evokes.
Family is about finding those who will help us weather the storms of our feelings. Sometimes, you’re born surrounded by them; other times, life brings them to you. Either way, I’ve been blessed by both kinds. I know I’ve experienced my own share of emotional tornadoes, and I’ve been unconditionally sheltered by my family circle as they’ve raged. I’ve had a good, steadfast example, and I believe it is my calling to go and do likewise, to build a shelter around these kids and help them withstand their storms.
It’s a holy calling, even if it’s a happy/sad one.
I wasn’t expecting it, but doing foster care radically changed my views on abortion.
We are all carrying a heavy burden right now.
We have engaged in this distance learning experiment with a begrudging willingness because we love our children, because we care about their education and want them to succeed. We do this because we understand the necessity of social distancing and want to do our part.
But sometimes, it’s a real bitch.
Right now, I am watching my child smash her fists into her computer keyboard while she screams at the screen that the computer is wrong, that she did type the correct answer to that math problem. Her breathing is fast. Her cheeks are red. She’s near tears.
Governor Walz just announced that Minnesota schools will be closed for the rest of the year.
So I will have to go through this with her every single weekday until June.
I’m near tears myself.
I know my child doesn’t behave this way at school, even when she’s frustrated with the work. She has always struggled with math--she receives reduced assignments and extra help from a para, but in spite of this, I have always heard reports of her “cheerful” disposition.
It’s hard to imagine that when she is punching her tiny fist into the “frickin’ stupid” textbook.
(Mine, too, if I’m completely honest.)
Even though I was quite good at math in school, even though I am explaining this as clearly as I know how, even though I am a teacher by trade, I have no idea how to help her learn this stuff.
My explanations and efforts are not enough to make her understand.
I have a teaching degree and over a decade of experience. I have cried after a day of teaching exactly one time--my first (and last) day as a kindergarten substitute on the east side of Des Moines. That venture included no class roster, no seating chart, no lesson plans, no paras, no help of any kind, just me and 30+ screaming, combative five-year-olds who knew entirely too much about domestic violence, reproductive organs, and curse words and not nearly enough about sitting down and shutting up.
It was like trying to herd cats that were both tweaking on meth and lit on fire.
When I signed out for the day, I was in tears. I told the secretary to never call me again, and she glibly responded, “Yeah, we hear that all the time. No one ever comes back to sub here.”
I am no stranger to difficult teaching scenarios. I am battle proven. I have earned my stripes.
But this--working one-on-one with my own child--somehow feels more overwhelming than anything I’ve dealt with before.
I have cried more times over teaching in the past month than in the past decade. There are days when I would prefer herding those flaming meth-cats to helping my own child solve an algebraic equation. I feel a lot of guilt about this, and the only reason I can come up with for why this seems to be true is this:
It is very, very hard to be Mom and Teacher at the same time.
It also seems to be very, very hard to be both Daughter and Student at the same.
In a simpler time, we played these roles separately. When we were together, I was merely Mom and she was merely Daughter. If I helped her with school work, it was as Mom: my role was only to ensure that she completed it, not to step her through the entirety of the lesson. I did not have to be Teacher, and she did not have to be Student. She was just Daughter.
Student and Daughter are two conflicting identities. Daughter whines and throws her books across the room. Daughter rips up papers and screams at Mom. But Student, I am told, is "pleasant." Student is “a ray of sunshine” who is "cooperative" and "well-behaved."
I guess I wouldn't know.
Daughter pushes Mom’s buttons. Daughter tests Mom's boundaries. Daughter has always taken out the school day’s frustrations on Mom.
Daughter uses Mom as an emotional punching bag.
Teacher has thick skin. Teacher knows not to take harsh words from kids personally. Teacher is professional and strong. Teacher maintains an emotional distance.
But Mom cannot seem to do any of these things.
Mom’s skin is onion-paper thin because Mom is completely in love with Daughter. Mom takes every harsh word she utters like a dagger to the heart.
Mom is vulnerable.
Mom is emotional.
To be honest, Mom is kind of a mess.
When Mom wants to quit, Teacher wants to keep going. When Teacher says, “It’s time for school,” Mom wants to give up, to throw that “frickin’ stupid” math book across the room and light it on fire.
It is a strange tug of war within me. Sometimes Teacher wins. Sometimes Mom.
Teacher is oil and Mom is water.
They can be poured into the same vessel and shaken, but they will never fully combine.
Many days, I am overwhelmed by this strange solution that I carry within me: the oil of Teacher and the water of Mom. That oil sits on top in fat, round globs, covering the water in a slick layer, but the water of Mom always is beneath it, bearing the burden of its weight.
They are meant to be separate things, Mom and Teacher.
But for now, they must coexist.