Children in foster care need a warm safe place to land, no matter the time of year they come into care, but the holidays can be especially painful and lonely for them. Foster parents and kinship caregivers can serve these precious ones more fully and respectfully when we take the time to understand the unique struggles that holidays present for them. This is one former foster youth’s story of years of holiday seasons before one foster mother changed everything.
The Holidays Before Foster Care
I grew up poor, in the ‘hood. Christmas, for my parents, meant choosing between paying bills and buying food or buying us gifts. Sometimes we got toys from the dollar store or thrift shop. Sometimes we got expensive toys from Toys R Us when it was in business. Sometimes my parents would find good deals and stock up. Sometimes my aunt or grandmother would help. Most of the time, we didn’t have a tree or Christmas lights. My siblings and I would create a tree out of paper and tape it to the wall. We would ask for stuff and hope we would get it.
I didn’t even know I was poor because my parents did a good job of trying to provide for us and shielded us from this realization. I thought every family celebrated Christmas like this. The best thing was when my mom and grandma would cook things from scratch. Especially Christmas pudding, Bueno, cake, and cheese. They only made them at Christmas. I remember watching the Christmas parade and movies on TV. We created our own Christmas. This was my Christmas.
Losing My Dad Was Just the Start.
Then my dad died. Christmas wasn’t the same. Life became harder. Christmas became harder. The year that he died, I didn’t even care about anything else. He died suddenly from cancer. It rocked my world. “Here today, gone tomorrow,” as the saying goes.
My mother also got sick. I feared losing my mother and the ones closest to me. If my dad can die from cancer suddenly, then everyone else can die too, right? Then I did lose everything suddenly as well.
The Losses Kept Piling Up.
I lost everything within one day. They took me from everything I loved and everything I knew. I entered the foster care system. Christmas in foster care wasn’t like Christmas at home. In fact, my foster parents stuck their noses up at not only my parents but the Christmas I had at home. They felt bad and sorry for me. They stuck their noses up and judging by the tone of their voice, my Christmas wasn’t acceptable to them. They wanted me to acknowledge and accept Christmas in their home — their traditions and their gifts if I was lucky enough to not be placed in respite care for the holidays. The different foster parents I had never even asked what my family did for Christmas. They didn’t acknowledge how hard Christmas was for me. Disruptions at Christmas time are common.
There Was So Much Conflict and Inconsistency.
Not visiting your family for Christmas while in foster care is also common. Gifts? Well, that depended on many factors. One time rent wasn’t paid, and my mother spent the rent money on gifts. Stupid? Sure, but she wanted us to have a Christmas. This caused so much conflict in my foster homes.
I remember being told to write down the things I wanted. One holiday, I got everything I put on the list. This created a conflict because the biological children in the home didn’t get these things and it “was unfair.” The foster parents brought up that they “treat them all equally and foster kids shouldn’t get more than bios.” So, I had to share or give some gifts away. Sometimes I knew Christmas was just put together at the last minute and that no thought went into the gifts for me. Other times I was punished and didn’t get any gifts or Christmas celebrations.
My Traditions Didn’t Matter.
I was just expected to follow my foster families’ ways to celebrate Christmas and ignore my own. Things I wanted or gifts I got were “unfair” to the bio kids. It didn’t matter if Christmas triggered me or if I had my own traditions. As a foster kid, you’re expected to fit right in and be grateful. Heck, my caseworker told me I was lucky I didn’t have to spend Christmas in a group home or shelter. My foster parents showed me (their feelings about this) and I could feel they wanted some gratitude from me, too. I wasn’t dumb.
I Didn’t Matter.
When you are a foster kid, your inner senses are kicked in overdrive. I remember one foster home couldn’t wait to get rid of me. She packed my things, called my worker, and said my Christmas gift is being removed from her home. She wanted me out now because I “ruined everything” for her family.
Sometimes I would just stay in my room and cry, wondering how my life ended up in foster care. What did I do so bad to deserve this? I was alone with nothing. I was being punished for things I had no control over. I had to be part of a family that wasn’t mine. They were foreign to me. It didn’t help that I’m shy and reserved. It didn’t help I couldn’t just be myself with these strangers. Only one foster parent actually gave a damn.
Ms. Harris Changed it All.
Ms. Harris was my 24th foster home. She was the only one – I mean, THE ONLY ONE – who asked me directly what I would like to do for Christmas or if I celebrated Christmas. Even after I acted out, there was still Christmas in her home. She even called my mother and asked how to make the special Christmas pudding and Banuelos. She googled it too. Was it perfect? Nope. But it was mine. She tried. She went out of her way to get the ingredients and cook them for me.
She acknowledged Christmas might be hard for me and asked if I even wanted a tree. She asked if I wanted anything. I knew to say “no.” The things I wanted were either too expensive in the eyes of foster parents and caseworkers, so I knew I wasn’t getting them anyway. Or they would be taken away anyway, so why bother? Nobody cared what I wanted, and I knew my own family couldn’t afford the things I wanted. It’s still crazy to me that she didn’t take my “no” for an answer.
You Fit the Kids, the Kids Don’t Fit You.
Ms. Harris took me shopping and asked me to pick out the things I liked. Things that I wanted. I thought it was a joke. I knew the money she got for me didn’t come in yet. She noticed the small things which even surprised me: nobody notices the small things that mattered to me.
Christmas with Ms. Harris wasn’t Ms. Harris’ Christmas. She wanted it to be MY Christmas. I had never had eggnog before, or cornbread dressing either. She made both from scratch and asked me if I wanted some. In my previous experiences, nobody asks you what you want when you are a foster kid. You just take it and fit yourself into the foster family. The foster family doesn’t fit you.
Ms. Harris acknowledged and accepted how hard Christmas would be for me. Maybe it was due to her own background (she grew up poor too). Maybe it was her way of acknowledging “you fit the kids, the kids don’t fit you.”
The Power of One
We’re thankful for the vulnerable and candid memories of the holidays this former foster youth has shared with us. It’s a vital reminder that welcoming a child into our home – no matter the season – means making space for all that the child brings with her – hard and glorious both. May we all be mindful of the need of every child to be cherished, sometimes felt even in the smallest of thoughtful gestures.
Moreover, let us all remember that it only takes ONE adult to change a child’s life — at the holidays, and every other day in between.
Foster parents and kinship caregivers, how do you welcome a child into your home and make room for all the child brings to that space? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!
**November is National Adoption Month. If you are interested in joining the voices that are raising awareness of the need for permanency for foster youth in care, check out Child Welfare Information Gateway’s #NAM2021 resources.**