Advice and support for someone with no family
January 19, 2011 6:43 AM   Subscribe

I am an unmarried only child. My mom died in December. My dad is 82 and has Parkinson's. Once he goes, I'll have no blood family. I need advice and guidance on how to make the best of things and build the best unfamilied life possible.

In a nutshell: I am an only child, not married. One parent dead, the other old and in poor health. I have no living grandparents, uncles or aunts (both parents were one of two siblings, both of whom are long since dead). My various cousins are not near me in age, outlook, lifestyle, etc. In fact, I cannot say for sure whether my dad's nephews are dead or alive. I'm not sad at my lack of family; in fact, my gut reaction is "Hallelujah! Yay! No more albatross around my neck!" I never liked my family much, except for my grandmothers and uncle, and they are dead.

I do have friends - in particular, two close girlfriends whom I call sisters. One, however, has married and moved overseas. I have my own business, plenty of social contacts, lots of outside interests, and once my life settles down a bit in a few months, I'm joining my local Unitarian Universalist fellowship. I also have professionals - lawyer, financial planner, therapist - in my corner.

I may or may not marry in the future - I'm perfectly comfortable being single, but if the right man came along, I'd go for it.

What I am looking for is advice and support in getting along in the world without the kind of blood ties that most people have. I'm not of the age where most people make friends through school and so on. Many people my age are busy with their own blood families. I'd like to be able to tighten the contacts that I do have - and no, it's not just "what can you do for me?" but "how can we help and support each other?" In particular, I'm worried about situations where I might really need to lean on people and impose on them for lots of time and help. I've done this once - gone through chemo - and my friends DID step up and help, though I lucked out in being able to keep enough stamina that I could still go to school and take care of myself. I realize that something could come up in the future where I might not be so lucky.

Unfamilied MeFites, let me know how you do it! And please, do NOT tell me that I need to keep in contact with my cousins. I don't want to. Period. Finis. And no, I'm not joining a traditional church, either. The Unitarian Universalists suit me - a Robert Anton Wilson-ish "mystic agnostic" - just fine. If I WERE religious, I'd get on with what is left of family much better! I want to have people in my life whom I really like and who like me.
posted by Rosie M. Banks to Human Relations (21 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
I live half way across the country from my bio family (and all of my college friends), but I have a huge family of choice here. Most of my connections were formed in some way or another from (consensually) non-monogamous relationships - partners and former partners and friends and partners of those folks. We're not related by blood or marriage but I feel just as much (if not more) love and support as if they were. I'm not sure if these people feel more like family because of the way that non-monogamous people tend to feel about relationships, but I'm guessing that meeting and connecting with people through other means could produce similar results.

I guess my advice is to be open to family in it's many forms, one of which is formed by blood, others are formed by loving relationships (sexual or not). I wish you luck in building your family of choice!
posted by radioaction at 6:55 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

A good source for family-of-choice is other people who also don't have a birth family around.

They're more likely to understand the need for family, more likely to be in need of family themselves, and more likely to have room in their lives for family.

A friend of mine without local family is recuperating from an operation, and she's been co-ordinating care with Facebook - just broadcasting requests for visitors, lifts, grocery shopping and so forth. It seems to be working pretty well, with the work shared out among a relatively large group of local people who might not be family but don't mind doing a small favour every now and then.
posted by emilyw at 7:04 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You are in a unique position to CHOOSE your family. How many people wish they could do that rather than live with the ones that fate chose for them?

The down side of this, of course, is that you have to find that family. But, it sounds like you have many opportunities to do so and you have the right frame of mind to get there.

I think joining the UUs is a great idea as well. I had an atheist aunt who joined them because she wanted a community and she loved it.

It won't be easy to find the right people, but they are out there and you will be able to surround yourself with people who you genuinely want to be with, not people you feel that you have to be with out of obligation.
posted by Leezie at 7:10 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

In particular, I'm worried about situations where I might really need to lean on people and impose on them for lots of time and help.

You might want to look into long term care insurance and disability insurance to ease your mind about needing care. A few months ago I posted this question about long term care insurance and concluded it wasn't for me yet, but it could be a solution for you. Disability insurance might be something else to check into -- it replaces your income if you're unable to work temporarily.

As for the more day-to-day stuff, I think a lot of people are interested in a more communal form of living than modern society generally encourages. Not a 1960s style commune, but simple things like having a regular movie night with friends, potluck Sundays, childcare coops, teaming up to go to Costco together, ride-sharing, reciprocal helping with moves and big home maintenance like painting and yard work... you just need to get the ball rolling.

Taking it up a notch, I also think that there's a lot of demand for modern style cooperative living situations, like cohousing and such, but without the hippie baggage (e.g., quinoa, patchouli, free love. Not that there's anything wrong with quinoa.) Consider starting your own cooperative living arrangement.
posted by yarly at 7:16 AM on January 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

Meet your neighbors. Seriously -- these are not going to be your "family of choice" but they are the people nearest you, and you can be an invaluable social safety net for each other. I live in a smallish town, near a live volcano and in an earthquake prone area; the city government brilliantly decided to spend money to encourage people to meet everyone else on their block, make a list of names and phone numbers and both tools and skills, and distribute the list on the block. You don't need the government to do this; introduce yourself, suggest meeting each, on the block or in the apartment building.

And your neighbors are a lot more like a "blood family": you may grow fond of some of them, you will definitely think some of the them very peculiar, but you can't help being somewhat aware of their lives, and you're stuck with them.

I also strongly suggest volunteering. Some of the closest people in my life are people I met during training to be a hospice volunteer, or who were family of hospice patients I volunteered with, or people I met and worked with as part of a Books To Prisoners group. Maybe it's because of the volunteer-based beginning of our relationship, but it seems easier to ask and give help with these people.
posted by kestralwing at 7:32 AM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: So far, great advice! Keep it coming.

Radioaction - non-monogamy isn't for me, but I can definitely learn from how polyamorist folks build their relationships. Thanks!

Yarly - because I am a cancer survivor, I don't think I will be able to get long term care and/or disability insurance (at least any that is worth the price). Maybe as more years pass from my cancer diagnosis I can. Cohousing, however, is something I have thought about for a long time; I would need a setup that has compatible people, allows pets, and allows me to conduct my business onsite (my business is very quiet, Web and phone based, still, some cohousing doesn't allow it). Starting my own might be my best option.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:35 AM on January 19, 2011

Oh right, I hadn't considered pre-existing conditions. But there is a federal long term care insurance plan in the health care reform legislation, which does not exclude on the basis of pre-existing conditions. The benefit isn't huge (only $50/day if you're disabled) but it's not nothing.
posted by yarly at 7:54 AM on January 19, 2011

I am in a very similar situation. Feel free to memail me if you like.
posted by chicainthecity at 8:07 AM on January 19, 2011

I keep my family of choice strong be keeping regular contact and engagement. Get together for something once a month at least, more often if it's not an imposition. Familiarity builds relationships. say your friends are busy with their blood families, but why does that exclude you? For example, unless you really don't care for kids, be part of your friends kids life. I wasn't so big on other peoples kids until I became a de facto uncle for numerous friends kids. I keep kids sometimes (especially appreciated by single parents), have done emergency pick up from school, help them with homework, taught a few to fish and play soccer. They end up being pretty entertaining most of the time, and it gives my own daughter lots of playmates. Once the kids see you as part of the family, you are part of the family.

And getting consistently involved with your church of choice will definitely give you a support network to hedge against bad times. It's a big part of why churches exist, and good churches have well developed support networks. Again, regular engagement (especially being someone known to help out others in a bad way) will make individuals in the church more interested in devoting their time to helping you if the need arises.
posted by kjs3 at 8:27 AM on January 19, 2011

I do not have a big family. really its just my parents , moms parents and my sister.

I just so happened to marry a woman who has a huge family. I wouldnt worry about it too much. If you do Marry somebody you will probably find their family as an adopted family . :)
posted by majortom1981 at 9:18 AM on January 19, 2011

My aunt is 82, was a college professor, and was single her whole life. She bought a condo back when she started teaching and became good friends with her immediate neighbors. Over the years they have all helped each other out, picking up groceries, dry cleaning, running other errands. She's had 10 surgeries in the past 5 years, and those same neighbors/friends are her biggest help (our family is spread out and not physically close enough to her to help on a regular basis). They're the reason she's not had to give up her life and move into a nursing home.

Also: she was frugal her whole life and has a decent amount in the bank to pay for things like visiting nurses and a maid and so on.

The trick seems to be: pay it forward when you can, collect it later when you need to. And have some money to fill the gaps.
posted by clone boulevard at 9:29 AM on January 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

Hope to not get grilled by this, but, here it goes.
You are in a priviledged situation. If you read Ask on a regular basis,
you will see that posts or questions regarding toxic moms and dads, and family,
tend to pop up quite periodically.

All I'm trying to do here is to help you see things in a different light.

Yes, blood ties are great, but ultimately, you are in control of the people
you *CHOOSE* to be around with. You can create "family" with non (blood-related) people.

Focus on choosing the people you want to share your life with, and do it!
posted by theKik at 9:59 AM on January 19, 2011

I'm not quite in your situation, but we're looking at the possibility of having a kid (if we have one!) with no grandparents or cousins. I just want to add my support and commiseration.

I feel like making close friends is hard, but KEEPING close friends is even harder. The good and bad part about family is that even if you consciously disassociate from them, you're still technically connected. You modify your actions based on the fact that you know you'll have to interact with them, or people who are close to them, at some other unspecified point in time. The same goes for romantic partners (including those whom you're no longer seeing); there's something about saying, "Okay, you've done something that upsets me, but I can't escape it/you by going home, staying away from you, etc. so I have to learn to live with it and manage my reactions."

With friends, it's easier to let yourself break that connection if something goes haywire. You get the benefit of time and space away from someone else, but that can also lead you to a) stew about something and/or b) let "bad behavior" slide because you don't live with it on a daily basis. If that happens, resentment can build up and explode, even if you don't consider yourself passive-aggressive.

So yeah, having a network that isn't just based on a relationship with a few people will probably help the most.

Being a Unitarian probably helps a lot; boy, do UUs love their groups! I'd bet you could especially make some meaningful relationships with kids in the youth activities. In my experience, they've lasted long after the kids have grown. The UU philosophy sounds like it would fit really well with the kind of life you've laid out for yourself: very deliberate, but desiring a relationship in which people care for those around them.

Here's a more individual idea kind of based on what kjs3 was saying: we have some good friends who run "Soup Sunday" at their house every week. It's kind of a ritual; anyone is welcome, it doesn't cost a lot, it's fun and casual, and it's a great way to set up something to look forward to every week. (Which is more or less the purpose of church, too: you get a chance to gather yourself each week, and the anticipation of knowing that you'll have that time is calming as well.) Even if you just have game night, or craft night, or Let's Watch Grey's Anatomy and Complain How Crappy It Is Night, having something -- and some people -- to look forward to each week really builds that feeling of wanting to make sure the people around you are doing okay.

posted by Madamina at 10:00 AM on January 19, 2011

Response by poster: More great answers. I can't pick one to mark "best" so consider all of them "bested!"

Re kids: I don't like kids that much so I don't think I'd be a success at the surrogate auntie thing. I know that's limiting, but I don't want to force myself to be around kids since I don't like them.

Marriage: I know several women who married for the first time in their 50's. So I'm optimistic that it might happen for me - though I'm perfectly happy being single, too. I'm not, however, banking on acquiring a lovey-dovey family of in-laws/step-children; they may be wonderful and embracing, or they may be monsters - I've seen it go either way.

Church: this is one reason I'm joining a UU fellowship. Church is community for so many, yet I'm NOT a churchy person. From what I know, that is why there are UU fellowships! I'm looking forward to meeting interesting people there.

Neighbors: I'm moving back into the family home (with my dad - wish me luck). I know many of my parents' neighbors already - one couple has lived there since I was a kid and I was friends with their daughter growing up. And many of the new people seem super-nice. So that is a plus.

Money: there is an estate, and I will have it if - and this is a BIG IF - my dad doesn't circle the drain for years with his Parkinson's and require major amounts of expensive care. I'll deal with that when the time comes. There are benefits to only-child-dom, and one of those is not having to fight over estate matters, elder-care matters, and all those fun things which estrange so many families. I'm working with a financial planner in order to be able to provide for myself long-term. Also, I own my business (that means I can't downsize myself) and hope to be able to work for many more years (I'm of the firm belief that retirement can be a killer). Worst-case scenario is my living a long life in poor health, but I won't sit up nights worrying about that now.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:05 AM on January 19, 2011

Response by poster: Added: the Kik, believe me, I know I'm privileged in a way. My own family was toxic - not in that epic soap-opera way, but in a more chilly way. I'm actually doing the family-free happy dance. My dad is my only obligation at this point, and as I said, if he doesn't hang on and on for years, I'm looking at family-free life down the road. I'm not bending under the burden of caring for people I hate, like I see so many on Ask MeFi and other places doing. So yay.

Madamina, good point about being able to walk away from friends in a way you can't with family. I'm an only child, AND I had parents who were in the habit of walking away from friendships with great frequency (oddly enough, not jobs or hated dental visits or, in my mom's case, toxic family - they were duty martyrs except for friendships, hah!) - so I have to consciously work at not detaching and walking away from people, friends and romantic partners alike. It's very hard to stick with "for worse" when you don't have vows or blood ties, yes.

The more I read, the more the UU's sound like a perfect match for me. The wonderful hospice chaplain - himself a UU-type - who counseled me after my mom's death thought the world of the UU's.

Soup Sunday type events sound great, too. I'm moving, so I can't do anything for a little while, but when I'm settled in, I might do a regular potluck type of get-together. And when time and lifestyle permit, I'm getting more cats. I recently lost my last remaining old cat (this grieves me more than the loss of my mom, frankly). I crave some keetins!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:14 AM on January 19, 2011

Oh, hugs to you. I am so identifying with your situation (my dad, who died in October at 82, had Parkinson's and it was a tough journey). I'm also from a rather chilly extended-family environment (much as I loved my dad and love The Brother), so I know how hard it is to unlearn those patterns of disengagement.

I also have two very dear friends who are like sisters, one of whom has lived overseas from me on several occasions, and my own experience has been that closeness in those relationships has peaks and valleys with the natural stresses of life.

But note, this is also true of my relationship with The Brother, and I think of most strong family-sibling connections. So if you're feeling less engaged with your sister-like friends, maybe reaching out to them might help (and I know that's not simple for those of us whose emotional Overton windows are on the chilly side).

Seconding the UU suggestion. So many people I know have met best friends and/or partners and spouses and/or posses of super-nice, smart, kind people through their local UU.

Get-togethers and cats and generally trying to keep open house for the good eggs in your life all seem like fantastic ideas as well.

Also, I have a great fondness for you because of your Wodehousian user name and your smart posts, so you've always got a cranky friend here in Cambridge.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:43 AM on January 19, 2011

Yes, neighbours. I did not grow up in a tightly-knit community, but I live in one now, and it's quite wonderful. (I do have family -- not huge though, and not all nearby.)

Not having grown up with it I was a bit clueless as to how to do it, but making friends in the community comes along once you get your feet wet. I am extremely grateful to the neighbours who pretty much just dragged me in off the street. "Come in and have tea!" Chat chat chat. Beware of "We must have tea sometime" as it is too open-ended; be aggressive: "I made pie this morning, do you want to come in for a slice?"

I have been dealing with some joint problems, occasionally severe joint problems, and here and there I have been all but in tears over how much help I've received. The mail doesn't get delivered to the door here; one has to go to the PO. So while off my feet I had a neighbour bringing me my letters, I had the postmistress dropping off parcels, a neighbour who invited me to drop my kid off with her if I ever needed babysitting for a doctor's appointment, a neighbour who said to just ask if I ever needed anything from the stores in the nearby towns, and so on. Amazing.

One of the first things I noticed after moving where I am was that whenever there was a happening of some sort in the community -- a holiday, a funeral, a concert -- out came these giant platters of sandwiches. Also cheese and crackers and pickles and fruit plates and stuff, and...sandwiches! Somewhere an unseen sandwich army was clearly pretty tightly run, able to bust out mass quantities of sandwiches on short notice. Eventually I tracked down the source, and my first stint on the sandwich army rota comes up this March. Look for little stuff like that, and sign yourself up.

A big plus of making friends with neighbours is that one befriends people one otherwise might not have; you're not restricted to people within your own age group, for example. This is nice and also much more "family-like." (Don't totally overlook kids -- they are not all alike!)
posted by kmennie at 12:41 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I live in a rural area and know all the neighbors well, they don't all get along with each other, I get along with all. I say 'I' as I am single, 59, about to retire. I have 2 living sisters, we don't talk (long story). As a neighborhood, we take very good care of each other, we do not intrude on each other. Knock on doors, bring cookies or booze, TALK, get to know each other, RESPECT each other (OK, I'm high).

Old hippie type, miss it!
posted by raildr at 7:15 PM on January 19, 2011

Sorry if I am suggesting something that's already been said, but once your dad passes and you have more time on your hands, perhaps you could start mentoring kids/teens. I realize that these will probably be transient relationships, but to get that "family" effect, interactions with varying age ranges would be an asset. Plus, with this economy, there are probably more people than ever who need some kind of stability in their lives.
posted by msk1985 at 9:33 PM on January 19, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all again for your terrific advice and support. I see the question has been favorited 41 times at last count which means there are a lot of us in this same boat! Maybe we need to have a "Family-less MeFi Meetup?"

I've actually gotten the idea of hosting a messageboard or Facebook page just for those of us with no blood family, to share our insights and schedule meet-ups. I have a psychology degree, so I'm sure I could post off organizing meetings and support groups. Looks like they are needed!

Everything else here is fantastic food for thought - except the "mentoring kids." I'm not a kid person and I can't see myself gracefully enduring a lot of one-on-one time with a kid or multiples thereof. So I'm going to skip the kiddies at least for now. The UU church and getting to know my new neighbors I can put into action right away once I've moved.

This is some of the best advice I've ever received on the Green. Thanks again!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:37 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was reading through this thread a while ago after a Google search and found it interesting simply because I am in a similar situation. I have chosen not to have children, and both my parents are dead. My siblings all have their own lives and I havn't spoken to any of them for years. They just do not care which is fine as the feeling is mutual. I work for myself from home. I have friends, but my dream would be to have a family of real friends who really care. Rosie, I see you mentioned something about starting a Facebook Page for people in similar situations and wanted to tell you I am interested.

I love the idea of meetups and making genuine friends who look out for each other. I am not interested in meeting people who feel sorry for themselves and can't be bothered to do something about it. I made the mistake when I posted in another forum on this subject - all I got was self pity. Yes it's sad, but we are adults and we are the only ones who can change our situations. I would love to know if any of you from this thread are still out there.

posted by Krista35 at 8:59 AM on October 11, 2011

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