Blogger, Writer, Urban Adventurer
Five years ago, on Thanksgiving morning, our nearly three year old came into our room to wake us up for the day. As I opened my eyes, I was suddenly aware that something was very wrong. At the time, I had been on home bed rest for nearly four weeks due to a placenta previa diagnosis with our twins. Placenta previa is a condition where your baby’s placenta is laying over your cervix and makes you a bleeding risk with any sort of pre-term labor. My case was particularly nerve-wracking as I had two babies building up pressure in my uterus and I was on daily blood thinner injections for a clotting disorder. We knew it wasn’t a matter of if I would eventually have a bleed, but when.
It dawned on me fairly quickly that morning that my “when” was NOW. I did my best to wake my husband and not completely freak out our toddler, but I needed to get to the hospital ASAP. We called my parents to come get their granddaughter and we began the longest 15-minute ride of my life to the hospital. Luckily, they were able to stop the bleeding, but as we expected might be the case, I was checking in to my lovely new hospital home for the remainder of my pregnancy. In the end, I was in the hospital for nearly a month and our boy/girl twins were born at 34 weeks, 1 day. They spent two weeks in the NICU before coming home with us just before New Years Eve.
What added insult to injury during an already difficult time was being sidelined over the holidays. I missed all of the business of getting ready for the season. No turkey dinner. No visiting Christmas lights. No pictures with Santa. No decorating a tree or making cookies. I was able to shop online and my wonderful sister did all of the wrapping for me—truthfully, that part was awesome. Overall, I felt like I was missing out on all of the good stuff. Friends and family were amazing at trying to bring Christmas to my hospital room, but I shed a fair amount of tears wishing the situation were different.
Unfortunately, people’s holidays get hijacked all the time by unexpected events—a death in the family, injury, sudden job loss, or even a natural disaster can force you to reassess your plans. Living in Houston, we know countless families who are still displaced due to Hurricane Harvey. Our family’s home also flooded and we are spending yet another December in a limbo state while our home is being fixed, but this time we have three kids with various needs to attend to.
If this happens to your family, what do you do? How do muddle through the holiday season that’s not going according to plan? How do you make the most of the situation you are in? I spoke with Dr. Laura Spiller, clinical psychologist at the Wellness Collaborative, to come up with a few ideas on how to cope.
As much as I love the holidays, it is also a time when I think mothers are the most stressed. The level of expectation of getting everything “just right” coupled with a “to do list” a mile long and the pressure to somehow have the season be magical for our kids, it is just too much even on a good day. Throw in some unexpected turmoil and forget it. Sit down and think about the things that you really care about. My guess is there are only a handful of activities you would honestly miss if you didn’t do them. Then ask yourself if there is any way to accomplish those in your current state. If not, is there a compromise or substitute that will fulfill the same role for your family?
Of course, going through this assessment comes with sense of sadness as we alter our expectations and take on the reality that we simply cannot accomplish it all this year. Dr. Spiller says, “We hurt now because our memories of past holidays were happy. Can we connect with what matters to us in those memories of past holidays or expectations? How can we show up to those things that matter, the things we really care about, in a different way, even in just a small action?” While the flood spared our Christmas decorations, they are in storage. The kids wanted to decorate a tree, any tree. It didn’t need to be our tree and our ornaments. The best solution for us was to all work together to decorate the tree at my parents’ house. It ticked all of the emotional boxes I was looking for.
Ask for help
Asking for help is not something that comes naturally to everyone, but when the unimaginable happens, leaning on your network can be your saving grace. There is no shame in reaching out to people to help you accomplish some of holiday tasks that are most important to you. I took my list of holiday priorities and figured out whom to ask to help me fulfill them. For me, a Santa visit is a must. While I was on bed, my mother and sister took our daughter to see Santa. I may not have been there personally, but we will have the photo to prove someone took her!
Disappointment is natural
Even when you are doing your best to piece together your family traditions and keep things as normal as possible, despite feeling rattled by whatever life event has you off track, it is natural to be disappointed that things aren’t as you originally intended. While our first instinct might be to hide these emotions from our kids, Dr. Spiller suggests that sharing them might be more beneficial. Remember, your children are going through this along side you and looking to you for the appropriate response.
“Sometimes, as parents, we fear giving voice to sadness and disappointment less we intensify those unwanted feelings. When we share our own difficult feelings and send the message that it is okay to be sad and disappointed, then we help our children open up to and manage their own difficult feelings. We can’t protect our children from sadness and disappointment, but we can be with them, beside them as they learn that sadness is part of life. Practice allowing all emotions to be ok,ay” says Dr. Spiller. We’ve been trying to model this kind of talk for our kids. I have caught myself more than once saying, “Mommy is really disappointed, too. I wish things were different as well. What do you think we should do about it?” The resolution of whatever feeling we are tackling is more satisfying when we find it together.
Listen to your kids
I often times find myself trying to project my own grown-up feelings on my kids. If I am upset that we are unable to do something, I assume that they are also heartbroken. That is not always the case. I’ve learned to ask open-ended questions and wait for the answers. They sometimes surprise me. “Once you have made space for sadness or other difficult feelings, you can explore how sadness is connected to what we care about, “ Dr. Spiller adds. Our oldest asked us if Santa flooded. We told her, “No, Santa lives in the North Pole and did not flood. He is more than fine, but you know we did, so Mommy and Daddy’s Christmas budget is going to be a little different this year.” What she cared about was that Santa was still coming. Not about the amount of gifts or the hows. We didn’t need to expand on the issue for her to make her feel satisfied that despite a great number of things being different, some things will stay the same.
We have now spent two different Christmases displaced from our home, albeit with drastically different circumstances. In between, we spent four years with “normal” holidays. When I compare, I realize that the rough years are actually easier in some ways than the normal years. When my ability to control a situation was taken out of my hands, all I could do was give myself a break. Face it, I never really had control anyway. With the pressure off, we could focus on the heart of what the season is really about, time together and memory making. While Christmas in the NICU might not have been what I had in mind, it will forever be a part of our story and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I know one day I will look back at the time spent at my parents’ home while we rebuilt after Harvey and smile about my parents getting in on the act of moving the Elf. It might not be what I had planned, but it is perfect in its own way.