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  • Writer's pictureCary Martin Shelby

Finding my Holiday Joy as a Former Foster Youth

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

The chaos of our home always seemed to intensify during the holidays. Dreams of holiday cheer were instantly replaced by the realities of broken people, broken things, and broken systems. During my teenage years, the constant movement of foster care made it all the worse. From the shivers of institutional settings, to feeling awkwardly wedged within a myriad of families and homes with no sense of belonging. When I became a college student, I found myself feeling even more alone. My peers would gleefully pack their bags to go home for the holidays, while I scrambled to figure out where to crash for those extended breaks. Envy would initially consume me, until it subsided into a hollow and everlasting grief. The conclusion was painfully clear. People like me weren’t entitled to the joy that the holidays seemed to bring for others.

It took me well into adulthood to unlearn this burning assumption. Recognizing that I am in fact entitled to experience all forms of joy was the necessary first step. Whether it was the holidays, or simply existing in my space—I had to defiantly acknowledge that joy is my birthright. Next, I had to become intentional about creating my joy in the same way that I tend to work or familial obligations. This meant developing actual strategies for bringing this joy into fruition. This framework has helped me in navigating both old and new life challenges, even when the pain of past holidays makes an unexpected appearance. These strategies have become even more important in plowing through the holidays during the treachery of this COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned along this journey:

1. Create Your Own Traditions

Creating traditions that reflect your own definition of joy can help to crowd out bad memories. For me, this meant delightfully enticing all of my senses through cooking, decorating, and even sight-seeing within the confines of my own city. When it came to holiday meals, I’ll never forget promising myself that I would someday host massive holiday dinners for my own family, in my own home. I spent time perfecting the countless holiday recipes that I was exposed to during foster care. It started with just one recipe since I couldn’t afford to purchase ingredients for an entire spread. With each passing holiday, I continued to build on my repertoire. I am now known as the “hostess with the mostest” amongst my family and friends! Joyous memories that I facilitated in my own home have brought me a level of peace that I didn’t think possible. The simple thought of sage’s aroma filling the air makes my heart sing.

With the limitations of the pandemic, I’ve been even more intentional about creating my joy. Although I can no longer host my extended loved ones, I’ve taken time to learn new recipes with my daughter. We have since learned how to make chocolate cake and pie crusts…from scratch! We’ve also taken more care in decorating our home and seeing as many Christmas lights as possible in light of social distancing requirements. One of my favorite evenings entailed making s’mores while carving pumpkins in our backyard. I never realized that my own home could be the source of so much happiness.

2. Service to Others

The sense of loss that often accompanies the holidays can be unpredictable. The pandemic has multiplied these losses exponentially. Sometimes the best way to appease this pain is to serve others in whatever way that you can. This can mean a simple phone call to check on your loved ones. It can mean dropping off a meal for someone who is going through a hard time. Even small donations to causes that you care about can make a huge difference in the lives of others. The pervasive injustices unveiled by the pandemic have likewise caused our family to pursue collective service projects such as creating toy drives for children in need, and modest scholarships for students from underserved communities.

During some of my darkest moments, serving others provided me with a strong sense of purpose and connection to humanity that drove out familiar feelings of loneliness. It further elicited a heightened sense of gratitude for what I have, and for the blessings yet to come. And sometimes…creating joy for others leads to joy for yourself, sparking a perpetual cycle of happiness!

3. Implement Boundaries

As I have gone through the process of creating traditions and spaces to experience joy, I’ve also had to implement healthy boundaries with those around me in order to guard that joy. This necessarily involved deepening my self-awareness to fully understand what safety means to me. It encompasses every aspect of my mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. These needs are enhanced during the holidays when I’m sometimes triggered by old traumas. Once I identified my needs, it became easier to gain a stronger sense of discernment in weeding out harmful energy. It further helped me to realize that blood is not necessarily thicker than mud. I have the freedom to choose who to celebrate with and how because I am entitled to feel safe, every second of every day.

Implementing boundaries initially felt uncomfortable, especially when others made me feel guilty for doing so. Yet, I’ve come to realize that my safety is nonnegotiable. Advocating for my safety is something that I should never have to apologize to anyone for doing. Engaging in these ongoing dialogues with myself is also essential in understanding how my boundaries can sometimes shift as my needs and expectations change over time.

4. Build in Rest Time

In the midst of creating your own traditions and serving others, do not forget to rest. It can be easy to disregard your own rest while ensuring that the holidays are enjoyable for both you and your loved ones. Being intentional about your rest could mean squeezing in a nap in between preparations. It could even require that you cancel an event due to unanticipated exhaustion. Sometimes, things can go wrong even with all of your extraordinary efforts. This makes rest and recuperation even more important. If you’re plowing through exhaustion, the holidays become nothing more than a performative task. Prioritizing yourself is key to creating the holidays that you rightfully deserve.

Happy holidays!

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