My 11-year-old daughter really, really, really wants a phone for Christmas. She knows she’s not going to get one because we’ve told her as much. Still, she hopes. She will get the thing that is second on her list and there will be lots of other stuff too. I know she’ll smile and act surprised. She’ll say thank you (and she’ll mostly mean it). In truth, anything after the phone will be a distant second – a consolation prize. Nothing can replace the one thing she feels she must have. After all, “everyone else has a phone.”
Over the last few weeks her behavior has signaled the intensity of her emotion. She has been reactive, distant, contrary, self-sabotaging. She has been difficult to be around. She has rejected my attempts to engage with her, but still she seeks connection. She wants to be filled. She longs for something she cannot name, something I cannot provide. It has taken form in the substance of a phone, but her desire is rooted in something much deeper. What she craves does not exist in a physical sense. I am here for her, but my presence is akin to the consolation prize. She hurts (and it doesn’t feel all that good for me either).
This is a season that challenges limits. Our expectations rise – those we create for ourselves and those we take on as inferred or implied by our children, our parents (dead or alive), extended family members, the ghosts of our own childhoods, and the generations of generations who sat at the holiday table before us. We rely on faded recollections of our own experiences to produce idealized images of what we want to recreate or what we feel we need to repair. It is not just our children who get lost in flights of fancy. It is a time-honored holiday tradition.
At this time of year more than any other, it seems that there is pressure to get it right (whatever that is). Spoken or unspoken, it haunts us. It is in our heads as we think about what to do, what to buy, what to make, what to wear, and what would happen if we didn’t do any of it at all. Consciously or not, we pass it on to our children. We teach them to believe in magic at Christmastime. They take it as a sort of super-charged hope that somehow the thing they want most will materialize. For some, the ritual becomes a reminder of all that is not.
Children adopted after adversity have a deep awareness of loss and longing. Adopted families are beautiful, and rich, and whole. We are joined in the way that all families are joined, but we also hold the shadows of grief. There is a void that lives in the heartbeat of children once separated from a primal source of safety and security. My daughter’s wish for a phone is just that. It is also a mix of pain, sorrow, desire, uncertainty, and magical thinking. Getting second best, even when it comes with “lots of other stuff,” is a metaphor for the sum of her experience.
Our challenge is to embrace the whole, to be with our children when pleasure and pain collide and also to have compassion for the breadth and depth of our own feelings. The ghosts of Christmas past live within all of us. They are what bring tears to our eyes when we hear a silly song or taste a favorite food. We remember, but our recall is not always vivid. Sometimes it comes as a wave of emotion, a body sensation, a lump in our throats, or a warm feeling in our hearts. Other times it is a longing that we cannot name.
Our children’s expression of grief at this time of year is not a reflection of our sufficiency as parents. It is not a declaration of ingratitude or entitlement. It is the echo of a long-ago cry that links them with another time. Magic materializes when we give them, and ourselves, the gift of unconditional presence. It happens when we connect through it all without the filters of judgment or expectation.
Christmas is about giving for the sake of giving, opening our hearts, and sharing what we have. That our children trust us enough to share their longing and to let us hold their pain, is a bittersweet gift. It may not be what we hoped to find under the tree, but it is real. Our acceptance of them, just as they are, is an expression of the deepest gratitude – and that is the magic.