How to Survive the Holidays When Your Heart is Breaking

by elizabeth hunter on December 20, 2012


Just the smell of sugar cookies and cinnamon candles made my stomach tighten into a nervous fist. Hearing a christmas carol piped out of a tinny department store sound system (in the U.S. this starts in November :() made me break a cold clammy sweat. Twinkling holiday lights against a cold & starless night sky sent me running away in terror.

During the years when I was single (and longing for a partner), then when I was childless (and longing for children), the holidays just  freaked me out.

I’d spend the month of December in a frenzied, overscheduled  battle to avoid–what?  Not the holidays exactly (I adore every little heartwarming, sentimental, over-the-top spiritual bit of holiday cheer). No, it was this vague aching feeling, an unnamed pain about the state of my life (and the world) that all this ho ho ho-ing brought to the surface.

My holiday avoidance/survival  ‘strategy’ worked brilliantly!  By keep myself over scheduled, worrying about what everyone in my life (except me) thought/wanted/needed, creating complicated to do lists, taking really crappy care of myself, and just generally building myself into a state of perpetual Martha Stewartistic overdrive, by around December 5th  I would be…  totally NUMB. Unable to feel anything at all-joy or pain. Which was of course the point.

So maybe you’re not in the extreme position I was right now.  Or maybe you are.  I started writing this piece to help all the women who are aching for a child to get through this holiday season.  Something about the holidays seems to shine a glaring light on all the empty spaces in our lives, doesn’t it? For women who worry they may never become mothers, this can be almost too much to bear.

But now, after the unspeakable pain that has been unleashed from the events in Connecticut last week–all I can think about is the women who are standing on the opposite side of the river from us– those mothers who have loved and lost a child. Even writing those words is almost too much to bear.  I sit here and wonder: how will these mothers ever carry this pain without falling down? How can we help them?

I don’t know.  But I do know this.  There are very few people whose hearts have not been broken open in scary, uncomfortable & unfamiliar ways by this tragedy.  There are very few of us going into this holiday season with our hearts intact.

So I offer up this overflowing holiday gift basket of nourishment and comfort to you.  Here is what I know–every little tool & technique–to help you find comfort, hope, love, connection, transformation, and, yes, joy, this holiday season.

(note: As with all gift baskets, don’t overdo or you could get a stomach ache. Be selective. Pick and choose to find your favorite. Enjoy. )

In Peace & With Tremendous Love. xo elizabeth

How to Survive the Holidays When Your Heart is Breaking (A Seasonal Gift Basket)


1.Be aware of numbing behaviors.

The line between happy social whir and negative overscheduling can sometimes be hard to see this time of year. A little less sleep or a few extra cookies might be a good thing for you.  Or not.  Everyone is different. Here’s a great way to tell  if you are pushing and overextending yourself.

Before you go to bed, take a moment to mentally review your day.  Count up how many moments of ‘exhale’ you had today– moments of gratitude, stillness, pure joy,  laughter, presence,  deep connection, or even pain that feels weirdly like beauty?

if you are going through day after day with fewer than  6  of these, this is a sign you are running on empty and possibly running from something.

2. Take the ass backwards approach to holiday time management.

if you think you may be numbing out, but feel like you just don’t have the time to  deal with it till January, hold up.Here’s why acknowledging feelings will actually save you time.

When you are in pain,your wise inner self knows it even if you don’t.  Avoiding it  just makes the wisest part of you work harder to get your attention.  You may feel incredible resistance to getting things done.  Or a general tiredness that is not of the body. Taking a quick read on what the problem is can free up stuck energy and help you get more things done faster. Simply ask yourself, ‘what is my ‘hot spot’ right now? (fear that adoption won’t work, for example). Hint: it almost never has to do with what someone else is doing wrong.  Breathe into it.  Then let it go.  Get on with your day.

3. Get still.

Create a mini ritual that helps you guarantee a few moments of stillness each day to honor what is sacred in your life.  Don’t stress out over the word ‘ritual.’ A ritual is just a beautiful way to help you remember something that is important to you. A ritual uses physical cues–tea, candlelight, a brisk walk, bubble bath, the feeling of cold winter air on your face–to calm you down. And you do it at about the same time each day. There is no wrong. It can take less than one minute. You know you’re getting the hang of it when you look forward to it. My current favorite ritual this holiday?  Waking up to candlelight, not electric lights.  Then I wake up my daughter by candlelight and we have tea as the sun comes up.

4. Get back in your body.

Keep it simple.  During a moment of quiet, take a breathe and ask your wisest self for one thing you could to reconnect with your body.  Just go with the first thing. Not what you ‘should’ do but what would feel good to your body. Like, “I just want to spend an hour in the woods.”  Or “I need to dance!”  Make a mental note of any good feelings after doing this.

5. Practice finding the ‘Body Yes!’

This is a perfect time of year to begin to practice the skill called finding the ‘Body Yes!’ or the ‘hell yes!’ When faced with a decision or choice, pick a moment in the day–maybe after stillness ritual above, or any time you accidentally find yourslef feeling good and relaxed. Let the answer to your question bubble up and zing you from your body, not your mind or your overdrive slightly manic self.  See if you can feel what this feels like when your body is truly onboard. Martha Beck calls it”Shackles Off.”   Notice how  your body tells you it wants to do something  There’s a resonance or a centeredness when something is Yes from the body and while you can still be totally excited by it, it doesn’t have that manic edge to it. This gets easier with practice.

6. Set an intention for the holidays that is yours alone.

‘Shoulds’ really don’t work for God either (as in, I ‘should get closer to God’ this season).  Get real. What is  important to you right now?  maybe it’s an overwhelming desire to rest, or connect.  Maybe you need to travel and get away from it all. Find a word that expresses how you want to feel this season and make that your mantra.

7. See beauty in pain.

This may seem like some mad science experiment at first glance,  but it helps to give you perspective.  If you do feel in a lot of pain, revel in it. It can be strangely soothing to hear a beautiful song that speaks directly to your pain and even intensifies it, or  watch a play or  experience a painting  that actually puts words or colors or melodies to your darkness. The holidays provide so many creative possibilities for this.

8. Find the reason for the season.

I’m not referring to any of the  religious elements of the season here.  I mean back in the day, the ancient ancient day, before organized religion of any kind, when it was all about nature and the flow of the seasons. In the Northern hemisphere, this is the darkest time of the year.  So go with it.  Turn out the lights. Revel in the mystery that is the darkness. Imagine what it was like when there were no floodlights on the world.  Feel it in your body.  Welcome the darkness of the season and ask it to show you something you desperately need to see.

9. Create something.

Take your pain and transform it into something tangible.  Then find a way to put it out into the world.  Take some beautiful photos and make a little album to give to friends, bake some cookies and decorate them in your own unique style and share, make some sketches and turn them into holiday cards , go caroling at a local hospital and  really get into the lyrics. Make some really kicking punch for the office party. Whatever you do, do it with your own style and with the intention releasing and transforming your pain. Let it help you connect to life again. And let it go.

10. Disassemble holiday.

Pretend the holidays are a deck of cards and play 52 card pickup: throw all the cards up in the air and see where they land. Look at all the things you normally do, are committed or scheduled to do, are thinking about doing, have plans to do.  Then think about your holiday word or intention. Does each activity fit this? If not, be ruthless: this is kind of scrooge-ey, but edit your schedule drastically. try to tone down the voice of other people’s demands. Think about January and how you want to feel when all is said & done. If you can’t quite walk away from something that doesn’t feel good, see if you can tweak it or change it somehow so it feels more aligned with your intention.  Every little move in this direction adds up quickly!

11. Reassemble holiday.

Now that you’ve created a little space by discarding one or two things that really are a drain, start shaping your holidays in an active way to make them yours alone and unlike anyone elses. .Think of each of the things you love or have ever loved about the holidays or have dreamed of doing for the holidays. What worked and how did it make you feel and what can you do to create more of this feeling?.  Feel free to Take pieces of things if the whole doesn’t work (inspired by the candelight midnight mass on Christmas Eve  but let go of some  of the other church holiday obligations, for example) Think of unconventional things that could become your own seasonal new rituals (Before we had children, my husband and I went to a local performance of Tuba Christmas, a national event of Christmas carols played on tubas. We had so much fun, we have come back every year since as our familiy has grown and now we take all four kids

12. Reach out to people who  make you feel good.

You know who I’m talking about. The people who always leaving you feeling energized & inspired after talking to them.  Make time for them.

13. Make it real.

If you are longing for a child, write a letter to him/her from your heart. Get some intention/prayer beads (they even make some for women adopting) and feel the beads in your hands while you connect with your meant to be child.  Use the heightened, mystical energy of the holidays to ground your dreams into the physical world in some way.

14. Stress presence not presents.

It is a great & rare gift to everyone around you to show up & be truly present and not stressed out! A survey  found almost nobody remembered the presents they received as a child. Rather, “rituals, relationships and feelings.” were what remained as the years passed. Have the courage & humility to make your gift giving, card sending, cookie making humble and meaningful and personal or skip it entirely if that feels right and necessary.  It takes a lot of self esteem and stillness not to try to “match” what you think other people will give or do.

15. Reclaim your right to be ‘ spiritual.’

Even if you’re not religious. Or in fact just the opposite. Especially if you live in a world where people will look at you funny if you just say the world ‘spiritual.’ The truth is we are all deeply ‘spiritual.’ it’s really just a matter of loosening up and expanding your definition of what ‘spiritual’ means.  Everything is spiritual that involves the following feelings:  reveling in beauty of any kind, love of nature,  art, a child, the joy of creativity, experiencing something new, gratitude, appreciation, love, any generous or kind impulse, deep connections (to people, a red cardinal on a sparkling icicle branch, the way your body opens up to even the faintest sunlight this time of year.)  Forget everything you know. Go to a place that just feels holy.  Sacredness and reverence is bubbling up from inside you. It makes life sweeter.  This is a wonderful time of year to begin again.

16. Lower the bar.

this one should be tatood on my sorry forehead. and this is the offense for which Martha Stewart and others like her truly should be put into jail–for tormenting all the rest of us by setting the bar so high that we forget the joy of doing something badly.  Go for memorable experiences not perfect products.

17. Be a respectful observer.

if you do find you are engulfed in sad or negative feelings and you’ve tried other things, stop trying. Cultivate the attitude of a non judgmental but interested and compassionate observer.  Give yourself space to breathe and stop berating yourself.

18. Find & prolong small moments of joy.

If you are just not feeling it this season, don’t fight it. Be where you are.  But when a moment of beauty, joy or sincere gratitude does find you, prolong it as long as you can  See if you can challenge yourself to sit with it for 10 seconds more, for a minute more, for five minutes more.  Don’t jump to the next thing and plan on feeling it later, because it may be a while (this one thanks to my friend Sara).

19. Sip the holidays like a French woman.

Did you ever watch a french woman sit at a cafe drinking coffee?  It could take her an hour.  She take the tiniest sips. And waits forever in between each sip. Staring at the people passing by. As if each sip is an entire experience in itself, not a task to be completed.  Remember: it’s the holidays not The Holidays. Enjoy small sips. Slow down. Don’t gulp trying to cram it all in. Try not to make a big fat deal of it all.  Try not to have too definite a picture of what it should be like.  Try to let it find you.

20. High five yourself.

What did you actually do right this year?  what’s going right in your life? what miracles have happened? We are so wired to focus on the Next Big Thing or the Thing That is Wrong. The things that have come our can seem  small and trivial looking back.  Because you have them now. They didn’t look so small when you didn’t have them!

21. Forgive.

Finally…Forgive yourself for every thing you came up short on this year.  Don’t just mouth the words.  Let your heart soften a little bit towards yourself.  Then forgive this messy infuriating world and all the people in it.  Not because they deserve it.  But because feeling any other way will give you high blood pressure.

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Unless you were adopted yourself, or are the parent of an adopted child, chances are you probably don’t realize just how often adopted children bear the slings & arrows of insensitive adoption comments from friends, neighbors, strangers, and the media every day.

Here’s a super simple guide to the 7 most important things you need to know to avoid  accidentally saying or doing something to confuse, worry, or hurt an adopted child.

Please share in honor of National Adoption month…

7 Ways to Avoid (Accidentally) Dropping the A Bomb on an Adoptive Parent

Over the past seven years, I’ve struggled to keep my jaw from dropping open on an almost daily basis as intelligent and well meaning people–most total strangers, some friends– have approached me at every random place & time with huge warm smiles on their faces and then proceeded to unintentionally drop the A bomb (as in, insensitive adoption comment) in front of my adopted children.

Not once in seven years have I had the presence of mind to respond.  Not once.  (although I’ve spent countless hours designing calm, witty and wise comebacks in my head afterwards).

What was my problem?  Looking back, I can see now that I wasn’t tongue tied, just  busy. Usually doing one of the following things:

  1. trying not to cry (“When are you going to have children of your own ?”)
  2. trying not to yell (“Do you run a daycare?”)
  3. changing a diaper in an unsanitary public restroom (“How much did it cost for her?”)
  4. desperately trying to distract my children so they wouldn’t confused by the intruder’s comment (“Are they REAL brother and sister?” “Are they yours?” “Where do they come from?”)

As my children get older, I see them becoming more and more aware of what’s being said.  And I worry.  How can this be good for their self esteem?  Their feelings of security?  Their confidence in themselves?

I’m definitely not a fan of an uber uptight, whiny, politically correct approach to life.

And yet…

An innocently intended &  random comment, like, “Are they yours?” (no, I just found them in the freezer aisle! think about it.)  can have a powerful impact on a child.

So here are the 7 most crucial rules of adoption etiquette every considerate person should know about:

Rule #1: When the urge to approach an adoptive family whom you don’t know in a public place hits you: Stop!

Count to ten. Take a deep breathe.  Then answer the following question: what is my motivation for doing this?   Am I  curious?  Do I want to tell them how ‘great’ I think adoption is (they know this or they wouldn’t have adopted ).  How wrong it is? Do I want to tell them about my coworker’s sister who adopted?

Recognize that while these are all fine,  they are your needs, and may not be in the best interests of the adoptive family at that moment. Before approaching, assess how you might be received. Pay attention to the setting and the action. Will your conversation be a delight to an adoptive parent who is changing diapers, choosing pumpkins, reprimanding a child, or laughing together over a private joke? Bottom line?  Ask yourself, ‘would I want me to come over and say what I plan to say right now?’ Only approach if the answer is a resounding, YES!

Rule #2: Don’t initiate a conversation about adoption when there are adoptive children present.

I can’t state this strongly enough: If adoptive children are anywhere within earshot  do NOT initiate a conversation about adoption. It’s just not appropriate.

You may inadvertently introduce words or phrases or vital information that the child doesn’t fully understand yet. Even very young children pick up the mood or tone of a conversation, and understand that their family is being repeatedly singled out.   If it is a transracial or transcultural adoption, the children have most likely heard comments from other children at school pointing out their differences (That’s not your real mother!  That’s not your real brother!) and are already struggling to understand how the world sees them and their place in it.  Children need security. They need to be told about adoption from their parents. It’s complicated.  It’s sensitive.  Children are smart and incredibly aware. This is not ‘small talk.’ It is very very  big talk. Avoid it.

Rule # 3 Words are kryptonite.

Just like Superman had his kryptonite, words are the young child’s secret weakness. So choose your words with the ears and heart of a child. Children do not yet have the life experience which creates associations and subtler meanings in language,  If you say to the mother of two adopted children, “Are they yours?” what you  really mean of course is “are they your biological children?” But this question can provoke a much more primal, fear based response when overheard by an adopted child  who was abandoned,  raising disturbing questions in their mind  like –”Do I belong here?‘ ‘Where do I belong?”
Also listen to the words used on TV show plotlines where one child punishes another by telling them “you were adopted!” and  ads for  “pet adoption” events with the ears of a child.

Rule #4: Bring adoption into the intimate places in your life.

The  best thing you can do to avoid accidentally saying or doing something boneheaded with an adoptive family is to reach out to an adoptive family.  They may look fine, but often adoptive families feel isolated, different and alone.  Especially in the beginning.  So invite the woman who is in the process of adopting a child to your new moms group. Offer to take that family with the new adopted child a meal when they get home. Take the first step. Not only will this make them feel SO much better, it’s the best way to get all your questions answered about adoption!

Rule # 5: Try not to idealize.

Far and away the most frequent comment me and my husband get about adoption is “You are so amazing (for adopting)!”  I estimate hundreds of people have said this to me over the years.

And yes, I am aware I do have four adopted children from two different continents, so maybe I am asking for trouble….(people also said this when I had only one adopted child) but for the record…

Adoption is not a charity thing.   Parenting adopted children is not drugdge work for which we deserve a medal.  Its a joy!! Just like any parent, we get way more than we give.  Plus many of us could not have been parents otherwise.

So…can you –pretty please– stop saying this?  :)

Rule #6: Move towards differences that make you uncomfortable.

This is weird, but profound. Don’t most of us decide in life that there are “comfortable” and “uncomfortable” differences? For instance, we may be comfortable with diversity in terms of race but not with someone who is gay.  Or we may be okay with both of these but NOT okay with transgendered people.  Or maybe we’re okay with all these.  But I promise you,  unless you’re Jesus, Gandhi or spend several hours daily meditating for world harmony, we all have our unconscious limits.

Be ruthlessly honest: do you have an immediate 100 percent positive reaction to the man with one leg, child with severe Down syndrome, the seriously overweight person, the very very tall person, the person with a thick accent, the boy who dresses like a girl in your child’s class?

Begin noticing your reflexive negative reactions to differences in your day to day life. Then start busting your comfort zones open when reacting to ALL differences you encounter. Train yourself to appreciate the wild untamed beauty of this ridiculously, crazily, overflowingly diverse world we live in–from the gzillion wildflowers in the field to the kindergartener who wears thick glasses.

How will this help adopted children?   in my own kids’ school–an incredibly liberal, enlightened, nurturing place where 99% of all families are white–the vast majority of parents have, in the interests of being “color blind,” never brought up the subject of diversity with their kids as it arises naturally. Instead they (falsely) believe they are doing my family a favor by trying not to see diversity at all.

This just makes their child’s first encounter with my four children of color all the more novel  & noteworthy. And it makes my children have to bear the brunt of their children’s natural curiosity, edgy comments and questions. Why not start early getting comfortable with what makes you uncomfortable?  Over time, your kids will pick up that you dig diversity as one of the joys of being alive & the natural order of things, not the exception.

Rule #7:   Don’t buy into limiting stereotypes about adopted children.

Adoption is a huge thing. A profound, wrenching disruption at a crucial time. Adoption always involves some loss. But so do many other situations children experience: imperfect parenting, divorce, death, illness, any major life disruptions, abuse, poverty.

So many people tell me they don’t want to adopt because the children come with ‘baggage.”  Really?  Who doesn’t?   Yet no one goes around screaming, “Your parents are divorced so give it up, you are damaged goods.”  How can we do that to our adopted children?    A culture that tells children they are forever damaged is arguably as damaging or MORE damaging than the initial disruption and wound of adoption.

Keep an open mind.  Don’t assume anything.  Always allow for the possibilities of healing,  redemption, resiliency, creative use for past pain, & transcendence.  And never ever underestimate the (yes I said it) power of love.

And finally (for Extra Credit)…

Rule #8: Lighten up.

Note to any person who has ever said or done one of the above mentioned things to me or another adoptive parent.  Please know: We love you and we don’t blame you.  A generation ago adoption was this big dark secret, rarely talked about. So how were  any of us supposed to know how to talk about adoption in a considerate way?  But now you have some tools.   And thank you for reading all the way to the end of the article,  it’s impressive.  It shows you care. Which in the end is what really matters    xo Elizabeth.

Please share your own etiquette tips and how you are celebrating National Adoption Month in the comments below.

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