As a little girl growing up, I had always imagined that adoption would be a part of my journey. It turns out part of my journey was also finding an amazing husband to partner with in life. Before we got married, we discussed what we envisioned for our future family and I shared with him my dream of adoption. He was fully on board—though neither of us could have imagined quite where that “yes, we’re in!” would take us.
A few years into our marriage, Nathan and I decided to start our family with the process to adopt from foster care. As we went through the interviews and classes, we learned that there are almost 30,000 adopt-ready children in Canada waiting for their forever homes. Only a handful of those kids find their forever families each year, and stories about siblings being separated and older kids never being chosen broke our hearts.
We had no idea at that time that, as our hearts grew, our family was about to triple.
From Cozy to Chaos
By this point, Nathan and I had a few years of Christmas together, and we felt like we had a good routine established. We’d spend Christmas morning just the two of us, relaxing by the tree, drinking coffee and enjoying a large breakfast. We imagined this as a nice routine for our adopted kids, topped with extra sounds of laughter, toys and Christmas movies.
Our children came home to us at the end of their school year. As Christmas approached, life was chaos and we were still operating in a haze of shock at just how much our lives had changed.
We had adopted a large sibling set with primarily school-aged kiddos. Quickly realizing we had outgrown our modest little home, we made the rookie mistake of buying a new home and setting the move-in date less than a week before Christmas. Nothing quite says “Christmas” like a home filled with boxes, hazards everywhere, and a power outage due to an ice storm. The children had completely come unglued and triggered by previous moves that had meant they were losing something or someone. Exhausted and overwhelmed, us parents were becoming unhinged ourselves. To top it off, our social worker got to stop in for her safe home check amid the worst of it.
Thankfully, we were hosting Christmas for our extended that year. On one hand, it meant a little more on our plate getting a tree and the house ready. On the other, it meant our kids could feel in their own secure environment while we salvaged what we hoped could be a magical first Christmas together.
Nathan and I had been living in a different city then. With no family in the area to lighten the load, our lives had drastically changed. Dedicated to working hard on establishing attachment with our kids, we rarely found time for ourselves or each other. Having taken a leave from my job, I had lost regular interaction with adults and who I was apart from being a mom. It was hard because not many people understood what parenting an adopted set of siblings was like, and as exhausted as we often felt, we weren’t ones to complain.
We didn’t enter parenthood and a first Christmas as most do. We brought home kids who could walk and talk, and who came with their own sets of traditions and memories, both good and bad. Much of their behaviours were cries for help as they dealt with their past traumas, so we were afraid to tell people about our kids’ behaviours in case they might be misunderstood as “naughty.”
As we got to know our children and their needs more, we realized they needed extra down time and attention from just us, their new parents, during the frantic holiday season. That meant changing a lot of plans on the fly and trying not to worry that we might be disappointing family and friends. Amid figuring out the best way to connect and function as an adjusting large family, Nathan and I were also trying to connect with each other and what each of us were needing and feeling. We had no idea how to ask for help or even what to ask for—overwhelmed was an understatement.
Gone was the excitement of the magical first Christmas together. Instead, we had holes in the new house walls and screams of a child who was dealing with horrors no child ever should.
Thankfully, our story doesn’t end there.
God continues to be a God who heals and restores. We are now several years in, and while this season can still be a challenge, we continue to experience transformation and hope.
If you are a new adoptive family already experiencing that hustle and bustle—and trauma—of this season, don’t lose hope. We know how badly you will want to have the perfect Christmas in an attempt to right the wrongs in your child’s life. So, here are a few things we’ve learned over the years that might help you navigate Christmas as an adoptive family.
- Be prepared to leave lots of space over this next month
You and your children need space to grieve. Even with the good stress holidays bring, children with hard pasts can only tolerate teeny-tiny amounts of any stress. You as parents will grieve the firsts you missed, the Christmas you imagined, and all that your children have lost. Your kids will be grieving the loss of people and perhaps even some traditions you don’t even know about. With this in mind, leave lots of space at events.
- Make room for lots of down time before and after events
- Expect there to be tantrums and ensure you have a plan for self care as well so you have the patience and love needed in these moments
- Plan ahead to leave events early to help with the above
- Prepare safe places where your kids can go if they are overwhelmed
- Find ways to make big events predictable while also leaving room for plans to change as you feel your family needs
- Most importantly, find little ways for you and your spouse to connect, process and grieve together
- Plan a new approach to traditions and gift-giving
If you have adopted or are fostering older kids or have contact with birth families, try to find out what traditions your kids have had in the past. Don’t be afraid to start your own traditions, so you still get to experience some of those “firsts” with your kids.
Our family started an advent tradition in which we read around candlelight together and incorporate several service-related activities over the month. This helps us all put the focus on Christ and off ourselves, which helps the healing process. In addition to serving activities, we also plan a few fun events such as the parades and parties, intentionally spacing them out to minimize stress.
Decide how you will handle gifts. Obviously, we did not have as much time to save that first Christmas, but with family and friends we made it work. Now, we save throughout the whole year and stick to a gift formula I had heard about: something to wear, something to read, something you want, something you need – and, to preserve the children’s tradition, Santa brings a little something, too. Don’t try to go crazy with gifts in an attempt to replace all they have lost. While your desire is totally understandable, that isn’t something you can keep up, nor something your child truly needs. The last thing you and your spouse need is financial stress on top of everything!
- Find your people
It can be a challenge to find people who will understand and offer the support you truly need, but it makes a world of difference. At first, your world will feel small. Children with displaced attachments need to know who Mom and Dad are first, and that you will care for them. Help your family and friends understand that, while this is hard, it is so key for long term attachments and healthy relationships and will not last forever.
Increased Christmas treats led to intensified melt-downs for some of the kids, which didn’t make Christmas fun for anyone. We had to explain how important it is for us to be the primary source of food and how damaging sugar can be their minds and emotions. It’s not about restricting what they can have, rather it’s about planning ahead and not singling anyone out, so that each person could enjoy their experience.
While you do need to be the primary caregivers for the first little while, this doesn’t mean you can’t receive help. If you find yourself lying awake at night wondering how to do everything and have an influx of people wanting to help but not knowing how, try writing a list of all the ‘to-dos’ on your mind. Then start sharing that list and give people tangible ways to help your family while you focus on loving and attaching to your children. These could include:
- delivering meals or having you all over for a meal
- help with laundry (oh boy, tripling our family size felt like the laundry was endless)
- cleaning or fixing your house (or if you’re crazy enough to move during that time like us—ahem—helping to pack or unpack)
- grocery pick ups
- researching counsellors in the area for you and/or your kids
- giving a friend your Christmas lists and the money to shop for you
Whether a school or homeschool community, family or friends, and hopefully a church, too, find your people, and let them in on this journey with you.
No Perfect Christmas
It turns out there’s no magical equation to create the perfect Christmas for your family. Perfection isn’t possible. As I’ve grown in my relationship with Christ, and as a wife and mother, I’ve started to figure out what Christmas is really all about—a baby being born in horrible conditions, with a mother whose heart I’m sure was breaking knowing her son’s life would difficult.
Diving into the mess of Christmas with your kids and spouse can absolutely bring you closer together. We now anticipate the longing of this season, while looking forward to all the fun and traditions we have created, too!
Come Sit With Us
If you’re feeling alone or need more people in your corner, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. My husband and I are constantly seeking to provide more support to adoptive families. At Central, we have found a church that rallies around us when we need it. We have started a small group for foster/kin/adoptive families to have a safe place to connect and learn together. We all need each other, and there is nothing quite like the understanding of someone else in your shoes!
If you’d like to connect, email firstname.lastname@example.org or if you’re interested in more information or joining our small group, check out our Adoption Families Group here. It’s a place you can come as you are. We embrace the mess and the chaos and have found our safe place of support here.
We also invite you to “Come Sit With Us” at Central Community Church on December 23 (5:00 & 7:00) and December 24 (3:00, 5:00 & 7:00) if you need a family friendly space to celebrate the Christmas story this season. Hope to see you there!