I recently Googled “holidays” and clicked the images button toward the top of the page. As I scrolled down the screen, I found pictures of families having a good time, in nicely decorated living rooms with Christmas trees, in beautiful homes with lots of lights lit up. It was affirmed – the message of the holidays is family, home and love.
But what if you are not able to be around your family, in your home and feeling loved from the very people you wish you could feel it from during the holidays? Think about what that might be like.
Seriously. Stop what you are doing right now. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes and spend the next two minutes letting those thoughts swirl through your mind and tug at your heart. Let that reality soak in.
Now, be honest with yourself. If that happened to you, would you act like everything was hunky dory? Could you muster up a smile? Do you think you’d just go with the flow and act like everything was okay?
Would you act out? Feel sad? Depressed? Maybe you’d feel angry – maybe even angrier than you’ve ever felt – and snap at others. Life might just be spinning out of control so fast that all the nice gifts and reminders that everything will be alright may not be enough to weather the storm without drowning in all your emotions first.
Sounds tough, right? And yet, roughly 11,000 children in Oklahoma and 400,000 children in the United States will spend Christmas in foster care, in a foster home instead of their own homes and around a foster family rather than their own families.
Being a foster parent in the midst of that emotional storm is difficult. But there IS hope. Staci and I don’t have it all figured out, but we have learned a few things during our three year journey. Here are four rules we try to follow during the holiday season:
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay – Really, it is. If a child in your home is angry, sad or simply out of sorts, then be okay with that. Even if it puts a damper on your holiday. Sometimes a child just needs to know it’s okay to not be okay.
Keep It Simple – You can’t give enough, buy enough and love enough to replace all they are missing. Early on in our foster parenting experience, we took all of our kids to Disney World for Christmas – quite possibly the polar opposite of keeping it simple. At one point, I asked our foster son what he thought of The Most Magical Place on Earth. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s okay, but we didn’t go to the Splashtown.” Ever heard of it? Of course not. Because Splashtown is the local water park in Amarillo. Are you kidding me, kid? Santa ponied up the money for Mickey’s House and you want the water park in Amarillo? But it makes sense to me now. He wanted something attached to his comfort, his norm. Lesson learned. You cannot buy a child a new normal, but you can love them in simple ways throughout the holiday season.
Prepare Them – Our family has a lot going on over the holidays. We see a ton of family and it’s overwhelming, especially for someone who isn’t accustomed to seeing a ton of your family. Let me tell you how that might play out if you’re like me and might not have prepared anyone. You could be driving down the highway when one of them has a really bad case of anxiety and pukes all over herself and the car. So you might pull over, get out, and proceed to clean up the mess (all alone because your wife has a strict policy that she doesn’t clean up throw up). And then in a perfect it-can’t-get-any-worse-fashion, it gets worse when another child throws up, too, and instead of making it into the bag you handed her, she throws up all over her pretty Thanksgiving dress, and you’re forced to clean it up WITH YOUR BARE HANDS. For the love of Jesus, prepare them and save everyone the sights, sounds and smells of vomit! Seriously, tell your kids who they will see and explain what will happen. Allow them to process it as they need to. Give them a safe word to use if they begin feeling overwhelmed. Go over the rules that family members have in their possibly not kid friendly homes.
Embrace Their Traditions as Your Own – Remember you are bringing a child out of their normal and into your, dare I say it, chaos. Don’t expect your traditions to override the things they are used to. Ask them about what they liked with their biological families during the holidays. If it is a tradition you can add, then add it. Show them this is their family too and not just a stop-over while they wait to go home.
Holidays are a stressful time for everyone. So take a deep breath, give up perfection, and focus on loving the child in your home through the highs and lows. Santa and his reindeer will understand, I’m certain of it!
Keith & Staci Howard are the fearless leaders of Howard Party of 8. For their day jobs Staci is a stay-at-home mom and Keith oversees Circle of Care's foster care program throughout Oklahoma. Learn more about them on our foster bloggers bio page.