We recently returned from a family vacation. I would love to say that I am refreshed, renewed and ready to tackle the world, but the truth is that I am completely exhausted. And a bit grumpy. And if I am being completely honest, I am frustrated with myself, with the emotional machinery it takes to operate our clan, and with the lack of simplicity in our family dynamics. In fact, I am mostly frustrated with my own frustration.
We live the reality of growing our family in this unique way daily, and for the most part I know what to expect. I wouldn’t change anything about the way God invited us to grow, but let’s face it: some aspects of the daily grind (and all aspects of traveling!) can knock me over and kick me while I am down. It’s really hard and sometimes I just need permission to express that.
And just so you get a fair idea of the frustration that I am talking about, and what many adoptive parents experience when they are attempting to vacation, do anything fun with their clan, or simply live life most days, let me introduce you to UniKitty’s rage. For those who have seen The Lego Movie, no explanation is necessary.
For those who have not seen The Lego Movie, let’s just pretend UniKitty’s happy side is Dr. Karyn Purvis, the super(naturally) calm and collected expert on anything and everything related to parenting children from hard places and troubled backgrounds. And let’s also pretend that UniKitty’s inward battle between staying calm and flipping your lid, is how most of us feel on a daily basis. Yes, I just compared Dr. Karyn Purivs (and all of us) to UniKitty, but I think you’ll be able see why:
Am I speaking to anyone? Adoptive and foster parent friends, parents of children with special needs or special circumstances: Can you relate to UniKitty? Do you ever get upset with yourself for getting so frustrated with the reality of the challenging, complex, and misunderstood nature of parenting children with unique and broken life stories?
Like UniKitty, I don’t want to be frustrated. I want to stay positive, to stay calm. In fact, I desire peace more than anything else. I want life to be rainbows and butterflies, with organic, naturally colored cotton candy for treats. Like UniKitty, adoptive families often take daily trips to Cloud Cuckoo. Like you, I’ve read the books; I’ve listened to Karyn Purvis and promised to do as she does. And yet, when I attempt to mimic her calm and collected tone in the heat of a struggle, what can sometimes come out is similar to to UniKitty’s verbal explosion.
About vacations, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy them. I love getting away from the Beltway, breathing fresh air, and I especially love being on the water. I love seeing family, watching our children play with the cousins and make new memories.
AND YET, the emotional and physical energy required to pull all the things for all the people together can be so daunting. When I get frustrated with it all, I become most annoyed with myself for losing my patience-via-Purvis-persona.
Let’s face it: traveling with children is tiring enough. Most people joke that families often need a vacation from their vacation. However, traveling with children who have suffered any sort of loss or trauma, or have a history of instability, can be a complete nightmare.
What’s worse, extended family and innocent bystanders often don’t notice the intricacies, manipulations, peaked anxiety, or other ongoings that trauma parents have been conditioned to spot. Behavior is often written off as “normal childhood antics” when it may or may not be.
Here a few things that parents [vacationing with] children from hurt or hurting backgrounds may understand:
- No, it is not normal to snack all the live long day. Yes, people on vacation do tend enjoy more snacks and food in general; however my child was malnourished in utero and for the first two years of life. The effect is that her survival instinct around food will soar whenever her eyes glimpse a buffet. She switches into survival mode. So, please don’t judge me or look at me like I am “jerk mom” because I am trying to limit her snacking and her interaction with food in general. Her early childhood trauma has lasting effects. We have been living this reality for 3 1/2 years and I have learned that food needs to be kept to mealtime and healthy, timed snacks. There are consequences to allowing her to indulge (as she would choose on her own) that you may or may not see. It’s not pretty.
- Routine is important, as is predictability. While on vacation, routine often goes out the window. This unplugging and relaxing is much needed for many of us, as we attempt to claim some freedom and fresh air with nothing pressing on the agenda. However, I learned something very important about myself and my children during our recent trip. Planning our days, even if nothing extra special is happening, is critical for everyone’s sanity. Knowing what to expect and when to expect it helps some of my children (and me!) stay calm in new situations and around new people. Some of this is personality dependent, but my big “aha moment” this year was that I need to do a better job laying out the daily schedule for my kids. In an orphanage setting, the daily routines are what keep an otherwise chaotic situation in check, and the routine is what provides comfort when all else is out of control. While orphanage days are long gone, the principle of the matter remains: routine limits chaos which limits anxiety, which helps stabilize all of us. Yes, please!
- New situations and people may cause regression. Finally, traveling often involves being around unfamiliar or marginally familiar people and places. For children who have suffered trauma or loss, new situations cause anxiety and fear to soar and may cause children to regress in their behavior, demeanor, or even skills and abilities. All sorts of bizarre behaviors may surface when children are taken out of their routine and secure environment: bed wetting, whining, rages, fight or flight, constant chatter, manipulation, etc. etc. These regressive behaviors may happen on the vacation or when returning home. OR, if you are lucky, both. 🙂 Either way, when a parent knows in advance that their child will probably regress, this reality is simply daunting and stressful.
Weeee! Are we having fun yet? These are just three of the many little quirks we have experienced before, during, and after traveling with children who have experienced early childhood trauma or trauma in general. While I have found it helpful to insist that we, the parents, remain the primary “go to” source for all decisions, big and small, regarding our children while on vacation, that too is another “fun” discussion, that would take more space and time than we have here to address.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade our family vacations because awesome memories are being made. An article I read the other day stated that most children verbalize that their earliest childhood memory often involves a family vacation. So, while I wouldn’t trade our vacations or write them off, I will continue to make the tweaks necessary to ensure that our time spent away from home is healthy, fruitful, and who knows…maybe one day even relaxing!
What have you learned about traveling or vacationing that could benefit our village? Share your comments and suggestions below!