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.
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.