When Holidays Don’t Measure Up

The holidays can be a difficult time, particularly for those struggling with infertility or children missing their birth parents. Minimize your holiday stress with these tips.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

Holidays are times when families gather to celebrate in traditional ways. Each of these elements of holidays — family, tradition, and recurrence — contributes to the joy. But each can also contribute to stress. In adoptive families, the associations that different family members bring to these elements may create different expectations or more intense feelings.Our culture has created the expectation of Hallmark holidays. Families are seldom greeting-card perfect, and adoptive families are no different. Yet, during the months and years we waited for our children, the fantasy of our ideal family may have crystallized into a holiday image. I remember one Easter Sunday, a few weeks after my husband and I had filed our application for our first adoption.

As we sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast, we watched across the street as a four-year-old girl hunted for colored eggs. All our longing for a child was wrapped up in the joy of seeing a little girl in a ruffled dress and ski parka race around her yard clutching an Easter basket. Is it any wonder that, once we had children, our Easters would include an egg hunt that had never been part of my family tradition or my husband’s?

When a ritual carries more meaning for some members of the family than for others, it may cause stress. My husband shared my association between an Easter egg hunt and my dreams of what my family would be like. But what if he hadn’t? If he’d made even a casual comment that perhaps the children were getting too old for that sort of thing, it would have struck me as gross insensitivity.

Other aspects of “family” can also cause stress. If extended family members make insensitive remarks about adoption or a child’s ethnic or racial group, if they favor the cousins who were born into the family over the ones who were adopted, or if they have little patience for the behaviors of children with special needs — all of these things can cause hurt feelings.

Parents don’t look forward to spending the holidays biting their tongues, but at the same time, they may not want to disrupt the occasion to deal with the problem either.

For infertile parents, seeing nieces and nephews who look like their parents can trigger feelings of loss they thought they had overcome. For children, the emphasis on being with family members whom they don’t see often can remind them that they have a biological family somewhere else.

This can be a tremendous loss for children old enough to understand that they have birth relatives, but who have no memory of them. Yet, we hold the hope that the holidays are a time for adopted children to celebrate being part of their new families — not grieve for families they don’t remember.

The Impact on Older Children

As adopted children reach adolescence, they begin to question what makes them part of a family and sometimes have difficulty believing that they are authentic members of their extended family. Family traditions that are distinctly ethnic may be problematic for the adoptee who does not share her adoptive family’s heritage. For example, non-Jewish children adopted into Jewish families may question whether their own religious identity is valid.

Children adopted at an older age may have memories of holidays with birth families, or traditions that aren’t practiced in their adoptive homes. And they may have unrealistic expectations that they will hear from their biological relatives at holiday time. Holidays are usually times of indulgence for children, so they may be disappointed if all their wishes don’t come true.

Some families find that holidays are stressful because it is difficult to make arrangements to spend time with all the grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Open adoptions add more layers of family; more relationships to negotiate; more expectations to satisfy.

A Time of Mixed Emotions

Because the holidays are idealized as times of joyful celebration, people can be surprised that they feel sad, or unsupported if they express that grief. Parents may come home from a family gathering reluctant to admit feelings of loss at not having a child who looks like they do. Children may take to heart the admonition You’d better not pout, better not cry, believing Santa Claus will not come to their house if they are sad.

Claudia Jewett Jarrett, author of Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss, says the emphasis on “being good” at Christmas can stir up children who believe they were placed for adoption because they were bad. In the book How It Feels to Be Adopted, author Jill Krementz quoted one boy who thought if he was bad he would get coal in his stocking and be sent back to his birth parents.

Children who were removed from their biological families due to abuse, neglect, or substance abuse may associate the holidays with traumatic times. Rather than approaching them with a sense of joyful anticipation, these children may unconsciously associate holidays with disappointment or violence.

How to Minimize Holiday Stress

  • Acknowledge that holidays can bring up a variety of feelings. Take the opportunity to talk with your children about them. Use stories, like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, to discuss how people sometimes feel they don’t belong because they don’t look like those around them.
  • Let go of any expectations that your family needs to experience holidays in a certain unvarying way to be a real family. You may find it works better for your family to rendezvous with a few relatives at a ski resort and save the big family gatherings for less emotionally charged holidays, such as the Fourth of July.
  • Admit that holidays don’t have to be “perfect.” All the food that grandma used to make might not get made — but you can still have a meaningful celebration. Talk openly with your children about expectations you have for the holidays and how you may change them or let some go. Tell them you feel sad about some of them not being realized. Be sure to take ownership of those feelings so that your kids don’t feel they have to make up for what you’re missing. The point is to model the reality that holidays sometimes don’t live up to our expectations and that we own the expectation.
  • Sustain a relationship with your child’s birth family in an open adoption all year long so that the relationship doesn’t depend entirely on the holidays. With open communication all year long, and opportunities for contact throughout the year, there may be more flexibility during the holidays.
  • Examine the patterns of your holidays. Rather than repeating those patterns each year and hoping for a different outcome, change the patterns. Develop rituals and traditions to fit your family, even if they may be different from the rituals and traditions you had growing up or those you imagined your family would have.
  • Recognize that the human experience brings sadness as well as joy. Children could not experience the benefits of adoptive families without the loss of the birth family. Often, adoptive parents would not experience the joy of family without the pain of infertility. Holidays are not failures if they bring both sadness and joy. The abundance and joy of the first Thanksgiving would not have happened had there not been near starvation the previous year. The deliverance of Hanukkah would not have happened without there first being death. A Redeemer’s birth would not be celebrated had there not been human failings.

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