I have no blood relatives
February 9, 2013 5:45 AM   Subscribe

What do I need to do to feel connected to people who don't have any "obligation" to be in the world with me?

I have no blood relatives, being an only child whose parents died when I was in my 20's. I have a great husband, but his family is not close, and we have no children. I make friends, but do not feel the closeness I think blood relatives must feel (for good or ill--I know a blood relative is not always the answer, but still....) I also am conscious of what I imagine the family members of friends think when I am included in their holidays or special occasions--why isn't she with her own family? People at work talk about their family tribulations, but I never can chime in, and they have no reason to ask. I want to love and be loved and accepted like a family member, but I know I will never have that feeling as I imagine it, so what to do to fit into this world of families?
posted by Vermillion to Human Relations (22 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about volunteering at a senior home near you? There are undoubtedly an abundance of folks who never had kids with more or less the same problem.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:54 AM on February 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

Make your own family.
posted by dydecker at 6:00 AM on February 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry for your loss.
I think part of the closeness you are looking for comes from people who have a long history with you. They remember when you were a goofy 7 year old, when you won the science fair, those weird clothes you wore that one summer. Do you keep in contact with any of your old school pals? Try re-establishing and cultivating those relationships.
Look up your family tree. Where are your parents relatives? Cousins, second cousins, cousins twice removed. Go visit them, even if you never met. Send them cards and emails. One of them may click as family.
And as dydecker and blasdelb said, make your own family. Ask some other family-less people if they want to hang out with you and husband. Do that with them over several years and they will feel like family. Maybe even at the one year mark have a ceremony and say you are now my sister or grandma. That's how my son got his Aunt Charlotte.
posted by SyraCarol at 6:18 AM on February 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

I come from a large immediate family, and only rarely are we able to attend holidays with all present. There is a rotating cast of about four people in your position that semi-regularly celebrate with us over the years and decades. They are introduced as, "meet Ryan, he's like family to us."

Now, "Ryan" may not be getting our help with pulling together the down payment on a house, but he can count on a ride to the emergency room, or first dibs on a piece of furniture that is being given away. Ryan would be uninvited for a while if he, say, screamed at our mother, in a way that blood relatives would not be. But he could apologize his way back in most likely.

Far from being a burden, these people are more than guests, as we expect to watch each other grow old together. The family proper enjoys the abundance of goodwill and humanity they add. Maybe the dynamics would be different in a smaller family, but for us they are more than welcome, and new candidates are introduced from time to time. It would be sad to not have any extra "family."
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:49 AM on February 9, 2013 [18 favorites]

If you find the right church community, you can develop a family-type closeness with other members. You can wind up being godparents to other people's children, or the beloved Sunday school teacher or youth group volunteer. Or "adopt" an elderly person who has no family nearby and bring them to church, sit with them, help them up for communion, etc.

Sing in the choir, volunteer for various outreach programs, join a women's group. In the Episcopal church, local and regional chapters of the Daughters of the King can be very close-knit and sisterly.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:02 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Vermillion: "I also am conscious of what I imagine the family members of friends think when I am included in their holidays or special occasions--why isn't she with her own family? "

I feel pretty confident in asserting that nobody, unless they are a seriously petty individual, is thinking this.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:07 AM on February 9, 2013 [25 favorites]

Like StickyCarpet, my family has several 'extra' members. We call them Honorary Mylastnames. They are "aunt X" and "uncle Y" to any of our kids, they have open invite to all our holidays, and they can call me anytime, day or night, for any favor they need.

I don't have to wonder why they aren't with their own families. I've known them for years and consider them my family, and I know exactly why they're not with their blood relatives (death/illness, drug addiction, being disowned, whatever). But I am not just sitting there pitying them. If their blood relatives are alive I feel sorry for those people for missing out on a chance to share life with these wonderful human beings.

Sadly, just because people have blood relatives doesn't mean that they will be close with them or will be treated well by them. Some of these people's "family" have alienated them and seem to only want to cause them pain and stress. Although I know it is terribly sad for our honorary family members for whom this is the case, their "family's" loss is my family's gain.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:14 AM on February 9, 2013 [13 favorites]

why isn't she with her own family?

I have never thought this. In general, if someone is spending their holiday with my family rather than their own, I assume that there's a good reason for it and have one of the following thoughts:
  • This person is a delight and I'm so glad she's here.
  • I don't think this person and I are ever going to be best friends, but my aunt/cousin/whoever cares about her, and I care about my aunt/cousin/whoever. Plus, it's [Holiday] and on [Holiday] you show love and hospitality.
  • (rarely) This person is toxic, and I'm going to cut her off like I did [relative from whom I'm estranged].
Usually, I have the first reaction--my family members often have awesome friends. The only time I want the person gone is when they behave in ways that I wouldn't accept from anyone--blood or not.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:23 AM on February 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

okay...I think there are 2 things here: (1) how you and your husband spend your holidays and (2) having friends that are as close as family.
I am semi-estranged from my family so I get how the holiday thing is kind of upsetting. I found friends who are kind of estranged from their family too, and they really are like family to us (they even have Xmas stockings for us and we go on vacation together and wow I'd rather be with them than my own family. So it actually can be done, it's just really hard. Also I read book recently that had a line in it that I found comforting: "a family of 2 is still a family." in other words, even if just you and your husband spend a holiday together, you are still spending it with family.

But back to the friends as family thing. I think you have to invite people into your life as family. What do I mean by that? Well, I have a friend who has been asking my husband and I to buy a group retirement with her and her husband and some other friends. At first I thought this was nuts, but then one of our single friends (who also doesn't get along with her one sibling) spoke up and said I don't want to spend my old age alone and well the idea's been germinating. So invite people to your house for the holidays, be as opening and loving and warm as you can be (like my friend who made a christmas stocking)and I think you may be surprised that you can find friends who will fill in as family.

Also, one final thought: my parents are divorced and my mother never got to spend Christmas with us. So she made up polish Christmas for us. Well polish Christmas can occur whenever you want:) and polish Christmas has its own special traditions. This year I held a "polish" thanksgiving (well okay I called it practice thanksgiving) the Saturday before thanksgiving. We had so many people we couldn't even fit them at our table.but I learned something important from my mom: a holiday doesn't have to occur on the 25th of December or the last Thursday of November. It can happen any time you gather people you love. So have a polish Christmas or a polish practice thanksgiving with the people you love who need to be with grandma on December 25th and then go to the movies on the actual holiday.
posted by bananafish at 7:26 AM on February 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

I'm an only child and my (long-divorced) parents died a few months apart right before I turned 30.

gingerbeer, to whom I am married, is my family, and her parents and her sister and her sister's partner are also family. My oldest friend - we met in 1984 - is family, as are her parents (and step-parents!) and her partner; they live across the country so we don't see them all the time, but still. Our friends who live downstairs, with whom we share Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner hosting duties, are family. When our friend L got breast cancer, we all rallied around to make her food, drive her to appointments, and like that. (She's fine now.)

Maybe it's because I'm queer, and so for a long time have been used to the idea that family is what you make and not necessarily what you're born into (although my mom was never anything but loving an supportive - I was never in danger of being kicked out for being a lesbian); or maybe it's because my mom was an only child, and so we always kind of made our own family.

I think maybe you need to stop trying to think about what family "should" be, and stop trying to fit your actual life into what you imagine it's supposed to be and how it's supposed to feel. Before the big holidays, when everyone in my office was talking about what they were doing for Thanksgiving or Xmas or whatever, absolutely no one looked at me funny when I said Oh, we're hosting Tday this year, looks like we're going to have either 16 or 20 people. Every once in a while a newer co-worker will ask me something that indicates they don't know my parents are dead, so I just say Well, my folks are dead, so we (gingerbeer and I) will be doing blahblahblah. If they pity me they have the good manners to keep it to themselves; in any case, their pity is their problem and not mine.

It's still early here and I'm not fully caffeinated. Please feel free to memail me if you want. I really understand the almost existential sense of being alone in the universe. I still kind of feel it, but it doesn't overwhelm me the way it used to. Mostly I live in the "what is" and not "what it's supposed to be," if that makes sense. It's funner here, that's for sure.
posted by rtha at 8:15 AM on February 9, 2013 [14 favorites]

I think this is a quintessential how to manage without what other people have got question, and it's not a selfish or greedy one but really very human and understandable.

I don't think there's another shortcut besides trying to keep things in perspective (it's not only good stuff that you're missing out on by not having blood family but also a lot of difficult and bad stuff, everybody has things that feel like they're missing, etc), accepting your feelings and being kind to yourself about them (giving yourself a break if you need to from an event, letting yourself feel sad if you're sad), and keeping on making the best of things.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:44 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I also am conscious of what I imagine the family members of friends think when I am included in their holidays or special occasions--why isn't she with her own family

What they think of you probably has little to do with whether you are blood or not....your company adds to the merriness and good cheer or it doesn't, regardless of whether you are 'really' related. some of my best holiday memories are connected to people who aren't technically related to the family and the some of the worst are connected with my 'real' family.

i get how you feel somewhat disconnected to people....this can happen with blood relatives too, even if you have a history with them. and you can remedy it with non-family, simply by building a history... people who talk about being so close to their family are either incredibly lucky ( i know, i am jealous of them too) or perhaps they are not as introspective as you and i are...they just may assume they are close and involved and be oblivious to the matters that 'separate' them. it sounds like you are very conscious of the things that are 'between' people and the hurdles that we all mount to 'accept' one another...maybe just try ignoring those hurdles a bit and assume that others want to be closer with you the way that you do with them...
(not that i think this is easy or simple, but maybe a framework to put your actions into)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 9:07 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm an only child, with both parents dead, and only 1 cousin, with whom I'm cordial, but he lives far away. I suggest trying to make better bonds with your husband's family, unless there's some compelling reason not to (abuse, etc.). I know that reaching out to my husband's brothers and sisters really did pay off, despite distance and time apart. Also, making friends of all ages is useful when assembling your own close circle--people with little kids, teens, older people--they can be woven into a social network that can function like a family, with a little effort. Maybe you have a regular birthday or 4th of July or some other holiday gathering, and you make your own rituals, so that people look forward to the event, and take part in the planning, just like a family reunion, with no shared DNA. For us, it's Russian Easter, even though we're not religious.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:55 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've also "found my way" into various families where I feel very much welcome and "like one of the family" (minus the shared history going back decades). I spent Christmas 2011 with a close friend's family (close friend herself however was at the other end of the world) and at no point did I feel like a third (or 8th or 9th) wheel. My best friend's (small, immediate) family also feels like this to me and I am "aunty" to her child tho of course she is not my sister. So it's definitely possible to forge these close relationships, tho I guess it takes a certain kind of family to be that inclusive. But you can find yours too!
posted by ClarissaWAM at 9:57 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

" I also am conscious of what I imagine the family members of friends think when I am included in their holidays or special occasions--why isn't she with her own family?"

As someone in a big extended family that often has tag-alongs, I am thinking, "Yes! I brought the cool people this year!" or "Wow! My sister brought someone really cool!" The non-family people are always the most interesting people there!

I know why people join us -- they don't have extended family nearby and travel is a hassle, aren't close to their families, don't have a family, or have a family who don't celebrate whatever holiday we're talking about. I've also been the outsider joining someone else's big family for the holiday. It's not a big deal and nobody is judging.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:23 AM on February 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm estranged from my family so I know how it feels to ask this sort of question. For me, it really helped when I realized that my concerns about this were more about my shame than they were about how the other people felt. People with families don't always realize what it's like not to have one, so they most likely aren't judging you. They have a privilege that you don't -- they don't necessarily think it's because something is wrong with you.

As for how to get family... whew, I struggled with that for a long time. I was really bitter about the suggestions I got, like "Just hang out with OLD PEOPLE!" because they really didn't work for me. I mean, old people are as various as young people, and some of them have families and some of them don't like families and you can be compatible with them or not just like anyone else. It was also really re-traumatizing to me to keep trying to have a family and then being rejected (or feeling uncomfortable and wanting to reject others when it was a poor fit.)

So, my suggestion is this: I hope this doesn't sound glib, but just hang out with people you like who like you. Young, old, married, single, whatever. Make an effort to have truly intimate bonds with them. Help them when they are sick, hold their hands while they cry, spend goofy time together doing boring things like laundry. If they invite you to a family event, go, and don't feel self-conscious. Create family-oriented (not necessarily kid-oriented, but all-ages friendly) spaces and events in your life. Have a movie night where people bring their extended family members, or a barbeque that is family-themed.

I did all this, but what ultimately worked for me was finding a significant other with a family that I really like. But knowing what I know now from observing that family, I could probably create a better family for my friends and family going forward.
posted by 3491again at 11:50 AM on February 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

You don't have to be blood to feel familial with people.

Myself, I have church friends who are closer to me than any of my own relatives. I am an only child and I have some friends who couldn't be closer to me if they were actual blood sisters-we joke that we are "sisters of another mother."

And quit feeling selfconscious when you attend other people's events. If they didn't want you there you wouldn't be there. Connection is what matters, not genetics.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:06 PM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would just really encourage you not to unrealistically idealize what "blood family" relationships look or feel like.

I'm a person without much family, and the family I've got isn't really people I enjoy being around or feel like I can always count on. At family functions, I feel less understood by/connected to those people who share genes with me than I do with some friends I've known for only a year or two.

And I also work with kids in the foster system, whose biological parents have let adults molest them in exchange for drugs, or burned them on purpose while they were cooking dinner, etc. I agree that this is a "world of families" because humans are evolved to be socially sustaining and work with each other. But the secret is that you can still make a family however you want to, out of whomever you want to. You aren't stuck with what you've got.
posted by so_gracefully at 1:43 PM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

The strange thing about families is that you often can't get away from them. So, the cousin who is an insufferable bore? You get stuck talking to him again at the family gathering. Whereas, it's easier to cull your friend group. So, yes, I think you are romantisizing the family bonds. In my own family, we all got together for the holidays. It's not often that you get me and the brothers in one place. But, sadly, we don't have much in common and the topics we can discuss get worked over pretty quickly. We all have different ideas of what is fun so it's not like the big, awesome hug Fest of love that everyone imagines for their family. I've cut off contact with my craziest relatives and the few that are sane seem to be keeping their distance due to a family inheritance rift among the older generation.

I am trying hard to "make my own family" but it isn't easy. What I have are smart and wonderful friends of all kinds of background and I guess that's enough. Those kind of heartfelt connections of youth seem harder and harder to come by the older I get. Also, none of my friends have known me my whole life as I moved around so much, so that bond isn't there to rely on.

Try not to project your feelings of inadequacy on other people. I'm trying very hard these days to loosen up and project love out into the world (as hippy as that sounds) and just relax. Maybe next time you hang out with your spouse's family or your friends think consciously to yourself: I accept you into my life. It might change your perspective a bit.
posted by amanda at 3:56 PM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I make friends, but do not feel the closeness I think blood relatives must feel (for good or ill--I know a blood relative is not always the answer, but still....)

I think you are vastly over romanticising this. I do not experience what you describe.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:19 PM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I make friends, but do not feel the closeness I think blood relatives must feel

Then all you need to do is change what you think blood relatives must feel, or change the set of people you think of as blood relatives, and you're sorted.

On the first: there is no "must feel". Really. That's completely and utterly something you made up, and it's perfectly within your power to unmake it.

On the second: this one is of particular interest to me, because I am childless by choice and a foster parent. The way I see it, I share 99% of my DNA with any randomly selected chimpanzee - how much do I need to share with another person to consider them a blood relative?
posted by flabdablet at 5:47 PM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

My blood relatives in this state, well... let's just say half of them no longer speak to me and the others pretty much tolerate me a few times a year. So that family feeling? Not guaranteed even if you have blood relatives. However, I think the chosen family idea, while sweet, is not an easy thing to pull off either. My chosen families have drifted off and moved on upon having kids/marriage/moving away, so they didn't last once they got families of their own or lives somewhere else. I'm still friends with one family, but since they live in another state, we don't exactly see each other more than once every few years and we're not doing holidays either.

I think your best bets for "chosen" family are (a) single folks/people without families themselves, or (b) people in huge families that also have a "welcome strangers!" culture. People in between the two seem to drift off into their own family worlds eventually, but those who aren't already occupied, or are all "the more the merrier!" may be keepers.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:21 PM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

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