I was driving through my neighborhood recently, and saw someone hanging up Christmas lights. I said to myself, “It’s not even Halloween, yet.” It was barely October and I was already growing tired and in some ways beginning to resent the holiday season.
For many, the holidays are a time for happiness, rejoicing and honoring family traditions. The holidays can also bring up difficult emotions: the guilt of eating too much food or spending too much money, the resentment that comes with feeling forced to spend time with and buy gifts for extended family you barely know.
For most though, these run-of-the-mill holiday problems are offset with moments of joy, like seeing the excitement on your nephew’s face as he unwraps the gift you thoughtfully picked out for him. Or hearing your elders share stories from their childhood, in awe of their journeys and life experiences.
While some folks have the privilege of a nuclear family to spend the holidays with and to cope with the anxieties and insecurities the holidays can create and magnify, others do not. The holidays promote traditions, gifts, culinary dishes, and even how family gathers.
There is nothing “traditional” about growing up in foster care. In fact, being raised in a system that polices you and your family is dehumanizing. As someone who emancipated from foster care, it can be difficult to navigate the holidays – seeing my peers living out an idealized version of the holidays we see in Lifetime movies can be disheartening.
I spent over a decade supporting college-going foster youth. A difficult time for the foster youth I worked with was when the entire campus would shut down for nearly a month for winter break. While most of the student body would flock home, many of these students stayed behind, alone in the dorms with the residence dining halls and other campus amenities closed.
Not being able to open gifts, see your siblings, enjoy your cultural foods, or spend time with your religious/spiritual community together has a deleterious impact on the experiences foster youth must navigate. I must underscore that for foster youth, the surveillance of child protective services and the family regulation system in many ways robbed them of these opportunities.
The commercialization of the holidays, the advertising and marketing almost forces an expectation of happiness on us, regardless of how we actually feel. Research shows that many people find the holiday season to be difficult to get through, and that being alone during the holidays can be far more painful than your everyday loneliness.
The emotions that were triggered by my neighbor (guilty only of being a little too eager to hang up their Christmas lights) are fighting the unrealistic idealized version of the holidays that is pushed on us and how it will never be real for me and many other people who experienced foster care. What triggered me were the memories of awkward, disappointing, and sometimes absent Christmases because I was in foster care. What was triggered for me was the fractured family I navigate like land mines in part because of the trauma child protective services and the family regulation system had on my entire family.
On the surface, the holiday season can seem innocent and innocuous. On a deeper level, the holiday season reveals the ways in which American culture has an unhealthy relationship with consumerism and in this case is an annual re-entrenchment in upholding heteronormative, nuclear, middle-class to affluent family units. Family privilege recognizes a certain type of structural and social family system that advantages those who fit within the narrow and rigid definition of family. Dr. Bethany Letiecq asserts that family privilege is rooted in supremacy; the performative nature of the holidays goes hand in hand with this truth.
There are silver linings, things we can learn from those who lack family privilege. What has always amazed me is the ways in which I have seen foster youth create their own village. During the holidays, it is dope to see how foster youth have created their own chosen family, finding safe spaces with their peers and mentors as they create their own holiday traditions.
For well-meaning people who support foster youth, and want to invite foster youth into their homes, please be self-aware of your own family dynamics. It is already awkward meeting your partner’s family during the holidays, let alone a well-meaning volunteer or advocate (and relative stranger) who might have extra space at their dinner table. It reminds me that not every gathering around the Thanksgiving dinner table or Christmas tree is a safe space — there is a fine line between holiday “tradition” and exclusion. I often grapple with the gross inaccuracies of Thanksgiving and how it impacts the Native American community.
And for some foster youth, please respect that there is utility in being alone for the holidays. Just pushing through and forcing ourselves to be with people we really don’t want to be around has the potential to negatively impact our mental health.
For foster youth the holidays still remain a tricky and at times traumatic time of year. There is real emotional, financial and physical labor and vulnerability that is required to step into someone else’s home during a time that is deeply personal. Whether it be your biological family’s or chosen family’s home, it can trigger all sorts of emotions that have yet to be unpacked. Just pushing the narrative that we are supposed to be happy is disingenuous at least and dangerous at most.
This season we have the ability to subvert traditions that do not serve us. Let’s bolster the support networks for foster youth, and meet foster youth where they are (not impose our own expectations on them) and participate in their lives authentically – not just during the holidays, but daily.