The Invisible Year

Lonely teddy bearBefore a household can be licensed to accept foster children, the parents must complete hours and hours of training. They learn about foster care law, about the physical requirements for a foster home, and how the child welfare system works. Not until they’ve had a few children come and go, or possibly come and be adopted, do the foster parents pick up on the child’s invisible year.

bear-cub-playing-with-teddy-bear-bigIf a child who has seemed to make a good adjustment to the home starts running into inexplicable troubles, I’ll ask the foster parent, “When was the child originally removed from Mom or Dad?” Often, we’re coming up on the anniversary of the day when the child was taken from all he or she knew–for better or for worse–and placed with strangers, perhaps never to go home again. Maybe we’re coming up on the time of year when Mom or Dad was sent to prison, and the child hasn’t seen that parent since.

polar bear and cubOr the day approaches when a sibling, formerly place with the child, went off to a psychiatric facility. Even with children too young to know how a calendar works, these milestones can create annual behavioral and emotional problems.

I’m no different. I’ve concluded I perk up in the fall because I sleep better in cooler weather, but it’s also the case that when I was five, six, eight and eleven, my entire summer was spent away from familiar places and people. My dad did visiting professor schticks during those summers, and thus mom and the kids schlepped along to places with very little for the kids to do except watch the summer slip by and miss friends.

many cubsMaybe I perk up in the fall because some part of me still associates fall with “when I get home, my very favorite place to be in the whole world, and away from this wasteland of my father’s choosing.”

I raise this topic as the winter holidays approach. Is there any one among us who doesn’t have some powerful memories of the holidays, or the dark days, or cold days? One friend lost her husband holiday bearwithout warning shortly before Christmas. I can’t imagine, even twenty years from now, that December won’t occasion some very mixed feelings for her.

The heck of it is, for me, I’m often unaware of the landmines buried in the calendar. My daughter was born in early February. Three days of induced labor, followed by more fatigue and anxiety than I knew I could manage, and every year… I get a little testy when everybody else is ordering flowers and picking up their fave dark chocolate assortment. Then I’ll realize I need to get Beloved Offspring a card (at least), and some crankiness, inability to focus, and weepiness abruptly makes sense–in hindsight. I’ve had twenty-five years to pick up on this pattern, and I can still be surprised by it.

pooh and eyore at ChristmasSeparations–death, divorce, children disappearing to college–and traumas can pepper the year with quagmires we don’t see until we’re stepping in them. Similarly, we’re uplifted by the robins or daffodils, though their arrival coincides with when we began dating our present spouse, or when we conceived a long-desired first baby.

The year is divided into months, but it’s also divided into memories. Are there any dates or times of year that have particular significance for you? Any with associations that catch you by surprise? If you were going to add a personal holiday to the year, what day would you choose, and why?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amex gift card.


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59 comments on “The Invisible Year

  1. Interesting post. I hadn’t thought about such milestones until I read your post but you are right about the annual anniversaries of very bad things. I used to work with parents whose kids were killed by drunk drivers and not a month went by without noticing a parent or parents were somewhat “off”. Eventually, it just got to be a norm that I would pick up on this off-ness and ask if the anniversary of their child’s death was coming up. Sure enough it would be. There would be prayers and tears and rituals and the anniversary would pass and the parent/s would become more normal and then the same thing would happen the next year. The term “invisible year” is so very accurate in these situations.

    • The experienced social workers and foster parents know to watch for this, and the therapists are usually on it too… after some kid has had a complete meltdown “for no reason” three anniversaries in a row. And then the poor child has compounded his initial trauma with a sense that “they always move me when summer comes…” ARGH!

    • I try to call my mom in mid February, because that’s her mom’s birthday. My brothers tend to recall my dad’s mom’s birthday… I think the little losses add up too. One friend dreaded every autumn, and she thought this was because her children went off to school then. We realized SHE had been the first in her family to go off to school, nobody to tell her how to cope with the homesickness, nobody to call and make sure Orientation went OK.


  2. We always celebrate the anniversary of our first date, in the summer, because it was such a momentous occasion for us. And there are seasonal flowers associated.

  3. Thoughtful post.

    This week my husband “celebrated” his sixth anniversary of being laid off. He worked for the company for almost 30 years and had survived 5 or 6 layoffs. Husband will tell you that it was the best day of his life. Molly, the corgi, would agree with him.

    I remember thinking why was he let go the week before Thanksgiving? What about Christmas? Would Daughter go to college? And my house…would we have to sell? Health care!?

    Sitting at the restaurant Thursday with my husband, I realized that things do work out for a reason.
    Counting your blessings makes you realize the positives.

    I am grateful that we were savers, nor spenders. I went full time at work. We are still in our home and our daughter is a junior in college. Husband was home to take daughter to her college visits, her school volunteering, he does the grocery shopping and laundry (tasks that are not my favorites) and he watches my dogs. He has been a huge help caring for our older dog Irish. And in many ways our life has less stress. All good things! 🙂

    Enjoy your holiday Grace– Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Good things, but there’s a still a sense of having dodged a bullet. Yes, you’re functioning as a family better than ever, but what if he’d been turfed out in round one? What if you didn’t have the option of going full time? When the rug gets pulled out from under us, we’re never quite the same.

      But you’re exactly right: The blessings for most of us far outweigh the burdens, especially if we pull together and appreciate each other.

  4. I’ve got quite a few of these days in my year some happy and some sad and some are just days that I remember little things happening. When you have a better than average memory almost every day of the year makes you think about something.
    I think the dates that stand out the most are the week of my birthday because 6 years ago I went through a miscarriage that week and had a D&C the day before my 32nd birthday. Along with that week is the due date of that baby, which was January 25th.
    I also spend the last week of September remembering two significant hospital stays. The first one being a very traumatic week while pregnant with the twins where I was very close to not making it and the twins were pretty close to that as well. The other hospital stay changed my life almost as much. It’s a week I become very grateful to be alive and also a week where I try to remember a life without chronic pain.
    There are happy dates through out the year and silly ones as well. I still remember the date of my last period before conceiving the twins. I know the exact date that I conceived Luke. The first time I met Eric face to face. Dates of trips I have taken and so many more.

    • I’m struck by how closely your body insists you keep track of yourself. Birth, reproduction, pain, hospitalizations… This is hard, hard stuff, but I think it gets women in shape for a terrific time later in life. The challenges of aging don’t strike as a great indignity, as they do many men. Aging in some ways brings us freedom and control over ourselves we didn’t have when gestating, lactating, menstruating, and menopausing. It’s that business Sue brings up of counting blessings. The clock moves forward, and we lose some aspects of ourselves we’ve had for a long time…
      And we gain new ones, often benefiting from the trade.

  5. I had my 2nd miscarriage on Memorial Day week-end about 17 yrs ago. I remember the following year I was very melancholy that week-end & couldn’t figure out why. When I remembered, I realized I had blocked the memory, but it came out anyway. The next year, I was lucky enough to become pregnant with my daughter, but I had a big scare right in the beginning, which was in December. She is 15 now & doing great, but those memories are always in the back of my mind. A good memory I have is when I first met my husband, we had gone on 2 dates right before Thanksgiving, then he went out of state to visit his family for the holiday. He called to wish me a happy Thanksgiving. I knew I had a keeper when I got that call!

  6. The holidays are hard for me every year because of bad childhood memories–angry mother with father because he wouldn’t help, fistfights at family gatherings, and discovering my brother in the throes of a grand mal seizure when I was five on Christmas Day. I usually just try to pass them quietly by…

    • Maria, I’m sorry those are your associations with Christmas. Makes it tough when you’re surrounded with ho, ho, ho on every side. Your experience, unfortunately, is not unusual. Christmas Eve in the United States is the second worst night of the year for domestic violence. Yes, you read that right. The only worse night is Super Bowl Sunday in the city that wins (more booze?). So for many of us, a silent night on Christmas Eve would be a holy night, compared to the noise and conflict we experience or recall.

      For this year, I hope a little peace comes your way. That in itself can be a big gift.

  7. Hello Grace! Gosh your most are always ones I have to really think about because until then I really didn’t think about it but now that I have (which I am glad) I love how our children are all born each month after the other was born .. It helps keep everything evened out. And then we get to end it all with Christmas which is always in our face but having my last baby in December does make Christmas seem like it “pops” up because I am just finishing the last birthday lol.

    If I could make a holiday it would be called “family” holiday a day where it’s just for the family to be a family no presents involved just family time!

    Have a great day! Love your blogs! Gets my mind thinking 🙂

  8. My birthday is right after Christmas. I thought all the hoopla was for me, until I realized everyone got presents. My mother hated February because her father died in that month. For the same reason, I get the blues in July.

    • My mom was born December 30th, and figured out early on that she simply got half her Christmas presents late. I think is part of the reason she makes such a big deal about Christmas for everybody else, because she doesn’t want anybody to feel forgotten or overlooked.

  9. I haven’t notice a time the year, but I do know that I can hear a song, smell something or see something that will bring a memory up, good or bad and it can knock me off kilter for a few days. The other day I was thinking about the Christmas cookies my grandmother use to mail to us every Christmas from MI to FL and my favorite ones were the Christmas wreaths. They would turn our teeth green, very green. Lol. I make them every year now for my kids and grandkids, but that memory has had me thinking of her for the last couple of days. I can hear a song that was played at my sisters funeral and then she will be on my mind for a couple of days. That can happen at any time of the year for me. I guess it’s kind of the same thing as the time of year that brings back a memory. I love how you get me thinking Grace! I hope you a great Thanksgiving.

    • My grandmother owned a candy store, and there’s a certain smell a good candy store will have. Blend it with the scent of Houbigant perfume, and I’m back in Nana’s candy store, allowed to pick out ONE chocolate for a treat. Scent is link powerfully to memory, way down in the old brain, and that means emotions can get snagged up with it too.

  10. Christmas itself is hard for me because my dad left on that day when I was 12 and then, years later, my own marriage ended on Christmas. I dread December and struggle to make it through, especially for my own children. On the other hand, February is a great month for me. That month, I found myself, my daughte, and later my current spouse.

    • I think a lot of families have those dark Christmas memories. It’s a stressful time, with high expectations, high expenses, plentiful alcohol, and often, bad weather. I’m glad that as the days lengthen, you move toward your happy time of year, but geesh, you bring to mind the song, “If we make it through December…”

  11. Wow, yes as usual you set me up thinking! I am going to have to do some inside my self searching to see if this is something that I do and have not recognized. I, as most everyone – have those events that could trigger something like that. Another interesting discussion and one that I will remember for those around me in the future.

  12. Growing up, Christmas had always been a production at home. From the day after Thanksgiving up through Christmas Eve there was always something going on at home. The house was decorated like some sort of Winter Wonderland with garland strewn about every available surface, including the pet cages. Some of the best memories are of my Sister and I singing Christmas carols wearing holiday sweatshirts, tree skirts and Christmas stockings on our feet (and yes, my Mother still has a picture of that!). My favorite times, though, were when all the lights would be turned off except for the cheery glow from the Christmas tree, carols playing low on the radio and my Mother, Sister and I snugged up under blankets while Mom told us stories about growing up in Cuba and the Christmas traditions they followed there.

    About fifteen years ago, my cousin was killed in a traffic accident three days before Thanksgiving. He was my only first cousin on my Mother’s side and her only nephew. To say that the holidays were subdued that year is an understatement. My Mother didn’t get out of bed for weeks and somehow the glow of the holidays didn’t seem as bright. She was always the one who was so gun-ho about Christmas and that year she wouldn’t even look at a decoration, much less help set anything up.

    In an attempt to bring some Christmas cheer to the house, I stayed up Christmas Eve in a marathon decorating session. I was in the process of hanging the stockings – by hammering them to the wall – when who should come down the stairs but my Mother. Apparently, I wasn’t hammering as quietly as I thought I was and woke her up. The look on her face was priceless as she took in the room. The tree was lit and ornaments hung, and the presents were laid beneath. All that was left was to fill and hang the stockings.

    It was an off year for us all, some of the shine and magic of Christmas had worn off. Even all these years later, there is a subdued feel to the season. Only last year, seeing Fave Nephie experience his first Christmas, did it start to feel like Christmas again. Leave it to the children to bring back the magic!

    • What a tender memory, and what an example of what the season is supposed to be about. I’m glad you could bring Christmas to you mom, even when she couldn’t reach for it herself.
      Fave Nephie has the magic now… long may he Nephie!

  13. Tomorrow would have been my Mom’s 87th birthday. She passed away July 29 and this whole year, I am told, will be a series of *firsts*—her first birthday without her (my b-day was in October and was probably the worst b-day of my life), first Thanksgiving without her and since she was born on a Thanksgiving, it’s gonna be doubly sad. Am told, once you get through the first year, you should be *okay-ish*. We’ll see.

    She was an opera singer and did “Messiahs” every Advent throughout my childhood and now, as a conductor, I often conduct a “Messiah.” This year, the funding fell through for our local production and I am relived since I don’t know how I would do it while crying!

    I love fall and winter because I loved going back to school as a kid–eventho I loved going to music camp every summer–and I loved the preparations for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I loved the cooking and baking and caroling and decorating aspects. Spring was always kinda sad for me for some reason, not really sure why, but as soon as May comes along, I’m fine.

    I can understand those unknown and unexpected anniversaries for the foster kids. I still am saddened by the anniversary of my dear cousin’s death four years ago, with no reason for his death other than him not going to the ER after a bad bout of stomach flu leaving his electrolytes too low. I am angry at him for not wanting to *bother* going to the hospital!

    • Music is a minefield. The good stuff is so evocative on its own, and then we add associations to it. When I wrote “Lady Sophie” I played the Christmas portion of Messiah over and over, and would occasionally stray to “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth.”

      And then I would cryeth. I wish you the Finale of the Ninth, when you can hear it for joy.

  14. The holiday time of the year is really hard for me and on me. I lost my dad a couple of days after Christmas a few years back. Besides that, both my kids birthdays are around Christmas my son’s birthday is 3 weeks before Christmas and my daughter’s is 3 weeks after Christmas. My son is grown but he still wants high dollar Christmas and birthday presents so does my daughter. That makes our finances really tight:( I am going to grab all my Grace Burrowes books and go into hibernation until spring when the flowers bloom and maybe I’ll bloom then too. Maybe next year maybe Christnas will be what it should be and not just a day when you spend a lot of money to say I love you. There is always hope.

    • Christmas in a nutshell: There is always hope, sometimes from the last likely places.

      I want to bean your son for his expectations, but I kow I was in my thirties and a mom before I figured out that my parents now got to be the “babies” in our relationship. My job was to get over my old baggage, and appreciate them for all they’d done for me. I hope your son is quicker to grow up than I was.

      Let me know if there’s anything I can do help, Gail. I’m writing as fast as I can, though!

  15. I would celebrate my son Tim daily, as I do, not just on his birthday. Why? Because Tim has been the biggest surprise to me. As a son, husband and father there is no man more selflessly dedicated to his family. Tim has turned down opportunities for professional growth because the work hours would make time with his wife and 2 children sporadic. He has been a calm advocate for his daughter. Tim and his wife could have filed a law suit against his children’s school division as his daughter was denied FAP. Instead he chose an alternate route one that now realizes a happy little girl. Tim takes community service time from work to volunteer at his children’s school. Looking back at his earlier years, Tim surprises me and I thank God for him daily.

  16. Late November is when my Father died, several years ago. I always find myself missing him around Thanksgiving. Thanks for an interesting post, Grace.

    • Stands to reason if we live long enough, we’ll acquire some sadness at every time of year, also some joy. I think it’s hard though, when the sadness contrasts with everybody being merry and bright.

      But there’s no easy time to lose a loved one. None. Not a cat, not a dad, not a best friend, not no loved one, no how.

  17. This post made me think, and you’re right, I can see some patterns. I perk up every year in the fall, and I think it’s for two reasons. One, I was born on November 1st, so it’s just my time of year, and two, I’ve always lived in a very warm climate, Southern California and now Central Florida, so the cooler temperatures are nice. I even like the shorter days, I’m not sure why. I get sad every year right around September though, because both parents were born that month, and they both passed away right around that time – Mom a week or so after her birthday and Dad the week before his birthday. So around the time that I used to start thinking of a birthday gift, I realize once more that they’re gone.

    • I sleep better in cooler weather, which I’m sure is part of why I get friskier when it cools down. Sorry your losses bunched up that way, and had to pile in on top of happy associations.
      But was for the birthday gifts, you can still give them, but give them forward….?

  18. I have many times like that, the earliest that I remember is when my maternal grandfather passed away on New Years Eve on 1960, I believe that was the last really happy Christmas I remember as a child as we always spent it at their home. And then I had a bad second half of ’78 as there were three unexpected deaths in my family starting August 14 when my husband was killed in a work accident in the Marshall Islands. Then in October, just a day or two before my birthday, my maternal aunt’s husband was killed in a work accident in Seneca, SC. And last, but not least, my mother passed away the Sunday after Thanksgiving marking the end of several bad months. In August of ’02 I my brother passed away and two days later my son’s daughter, my second grandchild, passed away at the age of two years and six days.
    This year the bad time was September 24 when my sixth granddaughter was born but only live about an hour due to an extremely rare birth defect. Late October was also bad because we had her memorial service on October 21, her due date.

    I still prefer still prefer fall though and also have happy memories as we’ve got four birthdays starting the day before Halloween and ending November 16. August is also a joyful month for me because of my daughter’s birthday, my son’s is mid September, and mine comes in early October. Then I’ve got two more to look forward to, one in mid January and the last on March first. Living in south central Texas I’ve come to appreciate the cooler temperatures of fall even though they don’t bring the wonderful changing colors that other, colder parts of the US get.

    As usual you have made us sit back and think before posting a comment here.

    • Molly, you have known so much sorrow. Condolences, condolences, though the words are little comfort against losses of that magnitude.

      What I see in you, though, is valor rather than inert grief. You are fiercely devoted to your children and grandkids, and though they might too be taken from you, or you from them, the way you live ensures they’ll know they were endlessly loved in the time you had together–whether it was an hour, eighteen months, or decades.

      You are a heroine of an epic story, Molly. I wish you many more chapters to love and set an example for the rest of us.

  19. September has always been a special month for me. The school year started up around that time, I graduated summer term from university, so September 1st I held my degree. My husband and I had our first kiss, our first date, first…other things 😉 but were also married in September. I love autumn too, so shifting away from summer is a welcomed sensation. I also happened to meet some really awesome people in September of 2013. I think you might have too? xoxo

  20. June 9th sneaks up on me every year and when I realize it’s near I’m filled unspeakable joy. That’s the day our daughter Robyn got off an airplane and became mine. For over ten years her birth mother and my husband’s first wife had kept his two daughters hidden away. One had been allowed to marry at a very young age but after a series of events we were able to locate and bring “R” to us.

    I was filled with worry, fear, apprehension beyond sanity and yet the knowledge that it was absolutely the right thing to do. My mind was filled with concern that I would be able to help her feel wanted and loved or would she always feel left out and see herself only as a “step” child in our home. I was also filled with a fear that I wouldn’t love her because I couldn’t imagine anything worse than living with a step-mother who didn’t love you. But the moment she stepped off the ramp and into view what swept over me was the pure, soul wrenching love a mother has for her child. It was the exact same tidal wave of love that I’d experienced when seeing my son for the first time after giving birth. I could barely breathe and thought for a moment I’d pass out from the sheer unadulterated love I felt for my scared, little girl.

    From 10:07 pm on June 9th, 1990 she has been my daughter. In fact for years I’d get confused and tell people her birthday was June 9th. Now that she’s grown she’s also my dearest friend and when you ask her who her mother is, it’s my name she gives. June 9th is a tremendous day.

    • Wow.

      That’s an especially meaningful story to me, because in foster care court, we often roust long lost parents out of mothballs, and tell them, “Your child needs you. She has no one else, and no other good options. Time to Dad up!” (Or Mom up!)

      The state can keep an eye on things for a little while, but mostly, families have to figure life out for themselves. You remind me that happily ever afters can result from such odd conceptions, and that a good option can become a great one.

  21. Let me see. When would I put my holiday? At the moment it would be the last Friday in October. For the last few years my sister, brother-in-law and I have met in Michigan and gone walking over our nostalgia favorites. It is a beautiful time of year in Ann Arbor and it is such a pleasant way to spend time with the people I cherish so very much. I would make that an annual holiday forever if I could.

  22. Every year my dad, daughter & I used to celebrate our birthdays together (dad..2/28 – daughter..3/14 & myself..3/4). We’d go out to lunch or dinner every year. My dad passed away in 2002, but my daughter & I still get together. 🙂

  23. Spring. I used to think it wasn’t my favorite time of year because it meant we were heading into five or six months of unrelenting heat. After reading your posting I now think it’s because that is the time of year my father left; an event that triggered so many negative reactions. Even with a loving, supportive mother I think I always assumed that everyone would eventually leave and to avoid that pain, I made sure that I always left first.
    But then, I met my husband and decided the pain of not having him in my life wasn’t as bad as the risk of not taking a chance. January 1st will be our 30th anniversary. Linda happy in Phoenix

    • My daughter grew up not knowing her dad. I think I was a pretty good mom, certainly conscientious and an adequate provider. But when a parent walks out (sometimes for unavoidable reasons), the one left behind can be a super-parent, and it doesn’t heal the damage to the child of the desertion. As you’ve figured out, for the abandoned child, time, love and courage can surmount even that obstacle.

      Well done, you and hubby!

  24. Hmm… I love Christmas, but my husband and mother do not. They are always relieved when it is January 2nd. My class finishes on December 8th, so I am excited about that. I might do something different with a girlfriend. We’ll see what happens.

    • I wonder why they BOTH abhor the holidays? Is it Mom’s baggage passed down to her kids?

      My mom tried so hard over the holidays, cooked up a storm, shopped til she dropped (seven kids), and many of my holiday memories are of Mom, a glass of bourbon in hand, and a very determined look on her face.

      Not exactly ho, ho, ho.

  25. Oh, never had thought abut how deep in our brain we know an anniversary is approaching and we unconciously respond. Almost like a form of PTSD. I’ve never noticed this in relation to an event. I seem to prefer my PTSD to rear its ugly head everytime I see a train, drive in the rain, or drive a curvy road. Of course do joke that I shouldn’t drive in November because that seems to be the magical monah for me and fantastical car wrecks.

  26. For a long time September was a time of year where I would get irritable. I tended to think it was because it was because of the shorter days but after several years I realized that it was the anniversary month of losing 2 friends who were killed in car wrecks 2 years apart. As upsetting as it was for me there were many who were worse off. The first wreck also injured another friend and for several weeks we didn’t know if she would live or not.

  27. I imagine most of us do have those times, hurtful and/or sad. I really do think I’ve moved on from them and have made those occasions into special ones instead – at least I think I have.

  28. I celebrate my journal anniversary. I started to keep a journal, “with intention,” on April 2, many years ago. Now, more than 20 years later, my journal is piles of volumes, hundreds of pages. My compass, my North Star, I call it. Every year on my journal anniversary I write about my journey in the past year.

  29. REAL life is sometime ‘too much with us” as is so evident in many of the comments. A good read of fiction always helps me get back on speaking terms with the daily must-do things. I’m a Great Depression baby, so I’ve have LOTS of anniversaries of downers–I read a lot.

    Love your books, Grace. They take me away to special places with great characters to spend time with.

  30. September when my fiance died can send me widdershins…knowing the milestone is coming can be worse than the actual day. Oddly though is the holidays we didn’t spend together that can up-end me. Widow Chick’s Blog discusses these vagaries of grief. Hearing that someone else go thru an iteration of it is comforting. For personal holidays I celebrate the days I adopted my cats or the day they showed up and chose me. Kind of a random reason to focus beyond daily gratitude for sunshine or their love or even no Dr appointments.