The Holidays Are Not Always Full of Cheer

Dear Parentless Adult Survivors of Child Abuse,

As you know it’s the time of year that for some is not so full of cheer. For so many, myself included, the holidays highlight what we don’t have. As a result of my mother’s abuse I ran away from home at the age of 13 – and stayed gone for over 3 years. When I was “found” and returned to my mother it was anything but a happy ending. The end result was the total loss of my entire maternal family. The family that I grew up with; the family that I lost for good when I was only 25 years old.

There are so many moments that I have felt that loss in real time. “Normal” moments like my children’s high school graduations where I was stood alone as I witnessed other people’s families turning out in numbers. The births of my children were not filled with family members visiting the hospital room bringing balloons and flowers … such a simple little thing. For adult survivors of abuse there are no such “simple little things,” no such family-filled moments. Not being able to pick up a phone to gush to my mother over things like my children’s first steps or first words or first laugh … it was a palpable loss. And as proud and happy as I was in these moments, there was always a dull ache for what I would never have … a supportive, connected, and loving family.

Beginning with Thanksgiving straight through to New Years that ache is anything but dull. I push through most of it, and then something … a fleeting thought … a silly Christmas movie … someone innocently asking what my plans are for the holidays … sets off a longing that creates a cloud of sadness so strong that it engulfs me, body and soul. I have learned over the years that it’s best to give in, to let the tears flow and to forgive myself for not being grateful for the blessing I do have in that moment. I cannot remember a holiday season where I wasn’t reduced to a sobbing mess at least once.

Even so, I realize that I am one of the lucky ones. I have beautiful healthy children and grandchildren, for many years I had a marriage and a home filled with holiday cheer. I embraced it and overcompensated for everything I was robbed of. My kids will tell you that the house was decorated floor to ceiling, the air was fragrant with freshly baked goods including a gingerbread house the size of a dining room table. We would prepare Christmas Eve dinner for two solid days beforehand, our children had matching holiday pajamas, and their Dad would read the “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” before we put out cookies and milk out for Santa’s impending visit. One year, to our children’s delight, Santa passed on the cookies and ate the chimney off of the gingerbread house. When the kids began questioning his existence we bought a Santa suit. I am laughing out loud at the thought of their Dad dressed in the suit running by their windows with a flashlight yelling HO HO HO! By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I am Jewish. I happen to love Christmas and married a Catholic ...perfect excuse to have the tree that I always coveted as a child.

I cherished those moments for my kids and yet still longed for the one gift I would never have: My mother and the family that comes with her. It’s actually crazy when I think about it. I long for my mother, a mother who never was. She was never what we think of when you picture a mom, unless you’re picturing “Mommy Dearest.” And as if the hole that has been left behind as a result of coming from an abusive environment was not enough, to add insult to injury there is a huge segment of the population that judges me for not speaking to her. People who have decided I must simply be a bad daughter. What kind of person doesn’t call their own mother?! I find myself having to defend my position and explaining why I don’t speak to her. Most times I get my point across and other times it is lost in the fog of that person’s judgment.

People like me make our friends our family. It works … to a point. It works until it’s “real” family holiday celebration time. When I am invited somewhere I always regret going, even more than I regret staying home and crying into my ice cream … or wine … or both. It is simply too hard to view what I don’t have. It’s like being on the outside of a bubble with my face pressed against the glass, wishing with all of my heart that I was real, a real family member with the history that only other “real” family members share.

As I know there are so many out there like me … parentless adults. I am sharing my story, not for anyone to feel sorry for me, but for those like me to know they are not alone in their feelings of loss during the holiday season.