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.
My last look at my childhood home was entirely digital.
Our family had met in person at the house over a week earlier to say goodbye to the only home we had ever known. I had expected it to be an emotional farewell, but at the time, it really wasn’t. We spent our time cheerfully reminiscing as we sorted through old report cards and school photos and preschool graduation certificates, as we loaded furniture onto the trailer and made trips out to the dumpster. It still felt like we had so much time left. We knew it was only a week, but a week there felt like forever because we had no concept of anything else within those walls.
That home had already been ours forever.
It had only ever been ours.
It was the ancestral Miller family home. I could not yet comprehend the idea of it belonging to anyone else.
But today, that all changes.
Today, after five generations of Millers living on that farm, a new family will take ownership of it.
My last look at my childhood home happened last night, on on the small, smudged screen of my iPhone. It felt so surreal, listening to Mom narrate a tour of the most familiar place I’ve ever known. By the end of the video, she was crying, and Dad put his arm around her, and he said a beautiful prayer over the home, that it would continue to be a blessing and a refuge.
It had certainly been a blessing and a refuge for us: The yard was tranquil, an idyllic acreage of full of trees and aging outbuildings, with space made for childhood joy: a trampoline and a swing set, a treehouse and a pool. But the actual house, built by my great-great-great grandfather, felt like an embrace. That house was a silent witness to our lives, sheltering us like a sentinel as generations of Millers grew within its walls. Passing over its threshold kindled the warmth of centuries-old emotion, as though the memories of laughter and fun, of play and love and kindness had been left behind for us to enjoy, an inheritance from my ancestors.
That home had been a refuge for others as well—a literal, historical refuge: the Miller farm, north of Wells, was a known safehouse for American Indians fleeing persecution. My heart swells with pride at the thought, that my family used their home to offer safety and shelter to those in need. Though my own adult home is bereft of that same historical memory, having been built more than a century after my childhood home, I have still tried to make similar use of it, offering it as a refuge, as safety and shelter for children in need through the act of foster care.
In that way, the spirit of our home can live on, even when it is no longer ours.
As a family, we shared our tearful goodbye over the phone, miles apart, as Mom and Dad packed the final load into their minivan and drove away.
That was the end.
We will never share another meal together there. We will never again dump our coats in the porch and sweep into the kitchen to receive Mom’s hugs and snitch bites of whatever she had cooking on the stove. We will never again gather around the fireplace at Christmas to sing carols and unwrap gifts. We will never again play card games in the dining room or tag in the yard.
Starting today, a new family will begin their own history there, in the loving space five generations of Millers left behind.
And while that home, the Miller farm, north of Wells, is no longer in our family, we can still carry the legacy of generosity and hospitality with us.
Five years ago, child, you came to me, delivered not by a doctor, but by a social worker. You arrived at my front door with your entire world in a sad plastic sack: two changes of clothes, a pink hoodie, and a quilt that your last foster mom had given you. Before that, I couldn’t conceive of motherhood, because the doctors had told us it was impossible. Then I saw you, seven years old and fragile, dressed in pink capris with holes in the knee, a fringe of bangs above your beautiful blue eyes and a pink pad of paper in hand, already full of your colorful drawings.
“Can you take her?” your social worker asked me.
Five years ago, I said, “Yes,” and I’ve been learning how to love you ever since.
It has been five years, child. Five rich, hard, beautiful, and complicated years.
Five years of your sweet voice calling me “Mommy,” which you only called me in those first few weeks because you didn’t have another word for me.
Five years of gradually becoming your mother—not in an instant as in birth, but over the course of time, feeling my heart warm and reshape and melt around you, transforming you from complete stranger into my daughter.
Five years of pink dryer lint spangled with glitter.
Five years of you looking for my hand and squeezing it tightly in yours. Five years of breathing silent prayers of thanksgiving at the miracle of your touch.
Five years of watching you make fairy gardens out of antique jewelry and bird nests out of scraps to house eggs blown out of their tree by a storm.
Five years of “What Shape Is My Food?” played at the dinner table as we examine our meals bite-by-bite.
Five years of the sweetest nicknames: Doodlebug and Twinkles and Snuggle Nugget from me to you, and Poopy Loops from you to me.
Five years of Bob’s Burgers on the TV and snuggles on the couch, my favorite way to spend a Sunday night with you.
Five years of junk food picnics on the living room floor.
Five years of pet houses crafted from cardboard and duct tape and yarn and whatever things you found in the garage and probably weren’t supposed to take.
Five years of being moved to tears by the beauty of your voice as you sing in the shower, unaware that I am listening outside your door.
Five years of being completely amazed by your artistic ability. Five years of your drawings lining my office walls.
Five years of making space for you. Five years of learning how to push myself aside for you, of putting your needs before my own.
Five years of crying over dead grasshoppers and butterflies and raccoons with you. Five years of your tender little heart breaking at the sight of baby animals without a mother nearby, of swallowing my tears as you ask why the mother animal isn’t taking care of her babies.
Five years of tiptoeing around discussions of the past you don’t know that I know you have.
Five years of hearing you scream, “Mommy, don’t leave me!” when I walk into the next room and out of your sight because you are so afraid that I will leave you as you have been left before.
Five years of Reactive Attachment Disorder. Five years of “I love you’s” given but rarely returned.
Five years of you pushing me away and pulling me close, of alternately rejecting and demanding my affection. Five years of trying to love you but feeling like I just don’t know how.
Five years of crying in secret over your broken sense of attachment. Five years of locking myself in the bathroom and filling the bathtub so the rush of water drowns out my sobs.
Five years of hiding the pain you’ve caused me because I don't want you to hurt.
Five years of finding the strength to keep trying to show you love and push past the feelings of rejection.
Five years of catching you up in sweeping hugs as you run past me, of holding you as long as I physically can because I know that both you and I need it.
Five years of not having answers to the hard questions you have about your other family. Five years of only being able to offer you my arms, which always feel like not enough but are all I have to give.
Five years of holding you while you sob and ask, “Why did they leave me?”
Five years of only being able to say, “I don’t know.”
Five years of watching your understanding of your past grow, piece by awful piece. Five years of watching your confusion, of watching your love for your other family mingle with your pain at what they have done to you.
Five years of watching my own words, of being careful not to tarnish your precious memories of them with my judgment and disapproval. I know they are all you have left anymore.
Five years of biting my tongue to hold in my rage about the circumstances that brought you to me in the first place.
Five years of tempering that judgment, disapproval, and rage with joy and gratitude, because those ugly circumstances are what brought us together.
Five years, child.
Five years that feel at once instant and eternal: I always feel as though I’ve known you forever and yet have only just met you.
Five years ago, I said, “Yes.” I became your mother, and you saved me from the crush of loneliness, the landslide of infertility that had buried me.
Five years ago, you gave me hope for the future, for both mine and yours.
Five years ago, I met you, child, and nothing was ever the same.