I could only stay sane with two families. I have my birth family, like everyone else, along with my in-laws. But then I have another family. This family has no ties made of blood or obligation; we weren’t forced together. While I didn’t pick my birth family, I did choose my other family. I found them, picked them out, and chose them for my own, just as they chose me. And I am deeply lucky, and very grateful, to have this surrogate family.
Before we had kids, we had close friends. No tragedies could strike that couldn’t be dealt with by best friends or biological families. Your parents bailed you out of car accidents. Your best friend stood up for you at your wedding that your parents paid for. Your girlfriends held your hair when you barfed up all that tequila. Friends helped you study; friends picked you up when you were too stoned to drive. Your mom listened to you cry over the phone about your latest boy trouble, and your girls perked you up with ice cream and marathons. Between your friends and your parents, you didn’t need another family.
And then you had kids.
At first, your parents and in-laws appeared to help you. They doled out enraging advice about things like sleeping and feeding and circumcision. But they did cook a few meals and hold the baby so you could shower. However, you felt like you had to clean for them since you always cleaned for them before. You felt like you had to cook for them since you always cooked for them before. You felt like you had to play host, except this time you had to do it while holding a baby and bleeding from your uterus. Your parents were only sort of helping.
Also, you were determined to raise your child your way. You knew how you wanted to feed your baby, and get your baby to sleep, and if you wanted to circumcise him or not. All of these decisions probably directly contradicted the way they raised you. And the more you thought about it, the more your parents raised you in a way you’d never raise a child. They spanked you or didn’t spank you. They yelled instead of talking things out. They snarked at you in ways you’d never speak to a small child. So not only were your parents wrong about how to raise your precious bundle of joy, you were angry at them. You chivvied them out the door before you killed them.
And your friends — well, your friends were sort of clueless. They showed up scared they’d drop the baby, proffering wildly inappropriate, but kind-hearted gifts, like 2T hipster onesies and labrador-sized stuffed animals. Maybe they even baked you cookies or knitted booties, if they were the knitting kind. Then they disappeared, because you had a baby and they had a party to get to, a poetry reading to oversee, a job to run to. And you had a squalling bundle of baby who just pooped and barfed simultaneously.
You felt fucked.
But then you remembered that one friend who had a baby a year ago. She showed up, after calling first, with a pre-baked meal and some plain white onesies. She actually wanted to hear your birth story and talked you down about your bleeding uterus. Then she held the baby while you showered, showed you how to put on a baby wrap, and dragged your ass to Target since you hadn’t left the house in two weeks.
Or you got up the courage to attend a La Leche League meeting, a Babywearing International meeting, a Stroller Strides group or the mother-baby library storytime. You met not one, but many moms who’d been through the same thing you had — who were living it, just like you. You talked to some who seemed cool and got their numbers. You scheduled some playdates at Starbucks, because babies don’t care. It felt like making friends the first day of high school, but you did it. And you found some BFFs. These are some of the best mom friends I made, some of whom I’m still close to years later.
Then there were those childless friends who were close enough to make the transition into kidhood. They might not change a diaper, but she might babysit for you in a pinch, and he’ll still come over for movie marathons. The baby loves him, and as time passes, so do the kids. If you get lucky, you’ll have a few of those. One of ours is a lawyer. Another two are a professor and an artist. Kids need aunts and uncles without children. They are treasures.
And if you get really, really, really lucky, you’ll find an older couple who loves your baby, then your children. Maybe they couldn’t have kids of their own. Maybe their kids are grown up. We meet our surrogate older aunt and uncle at church, but you can just as easily meet them in the neighborhood, or at a gardening club, or anywhere else people over 40 gather. Because they aren’t your parents, they can give you advice that your parents can’t, without causing resentment. You don’t have the same expectations of them as you do of your parents. But while you bond with them over mutual interests, they can bond with you over a shared love of your kids.
Having a second family — a village, a tribe — is amazing. Your family’s great, of course, and you need to keep them around. But your kids — and you — will benefit from having another family, one bound by love, not blood. These are the people who bring you chicken soup when you’re barfing and make Target runs when you have the flu. They pick you up when you’re stranded and lend you their car when yours breaks. They’re your local emergency contact, your babysitter-at-the-drop-of-a-hat. They enrich your life and your world. You need these people.
And they need you.