I'm Not Close To My Extended Family, And That's Okay

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
photography by Rick Lowe / Getty Images

I have a decent-sized extended family. Both of my parents have siblings, and most of those siblings have had children. I also have four half-siblings from my dad’s previous relationships. In spite of that, I don’t really have much of a relationship with my family outside of my parents.

When I was a kid, because we were close in age, our parents forced me to hang out with my cousins, and sometimes we had fun, but it always felt awkward. Being forced to be friends because we were cousins just didn’t feel natural to me, and as we got older, I let it go.

Some people will bemoan the fact that they aren’t closer to their family, but it doesn’t really bother me. I hate disingenuous relationships, and being close just because you’re family is a perfect example of that.

I have many friends who do have close relationships with their extended family, and while it does seem nice sometimes, it also seems stressful. When you’re dealing with close-knit families, it’s inevitable that some sort of drama is going to come up. Who doesn’t like who’s spouse, who’s mad that this one gets more attention, grandma seems to favor one grandkid over the others. Then it all turns into a blame game and fracturing because that’s just how people are. Drama happens with smaller familial units, as well, obviously, but it’s much easier to confront it (or not) when there’s five of you versus 15 of you.

Society feeds us a narrative that there are no stronger bonds than the bonds of family. There are entire television shows — like Parenthood, for example — devoted to a family who spends a lot of time together. They have these weekly or monthly family dinners where all of the kids and cousins sit around the big table. And everyone swoons.

Well, except me. First of all, how do they even coordinate such a thing? Second, how realistic is this? Sure, they may not always get along, but ultimately, they forge through whatever the problem is and wrap it up in a couple episodes — tops. That may be true for some people, but largely, I don’t think it is.

Bottom line: Family is what you make of it — whether it’s people who share blood with or not.

With the invention of social media, it’s easier for families to keep up with each other without fostering a deep bond, which is more practical to me, but still a bit awkward. The superficiality of being friends with family on social media suits me, because I feel like I’m fulfilling some sort of obligation, and yet, I don’t need to have any substantial interactions with anyone. But even that sometimes feels disingenuous.

I generally have no problems accepting friend requests from family members, but sometimes the timing is off. For example, a handful of my family members — some of whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to since I was a preschooler — all sent me friend requests right after my son was born. I accepted some of them during the highs of having birthed a human, but then quickly felt awkward about it and unfriended all of them.

If they didn’t care enough about my life to friend me before they found out I had a baby, why did they suddenly care? It all felt super awkward, and I didn’t like the idea of suddenly letting them into my life just because I had a child.

Speaking of my child, some say I should maintain these relationships for my son’s sake. But that’s just not something I ever felt comfortable doing. People may feel like I’m depriving him the opportunity to get to know his family, but I don’t care if my son has a million cousins his age — if their parents never made an effort to be my family when it was just me, why do I owe them access to my son?

I’ve heard members of my family say things like: “The elders in our family are turning in their graves because we have let the family go.” And yet, they don’t make any sort of effort to be truly inclusive and embrace everyone. When I get a text message inviting me to a formal Sweet 16 party only a couple weeks before the party, I’m calling shenanigans. It’s not fair to use dead relatives as a flamethrower argument, when you’re still having family get-togethers and I’m hearing about it on Facebook or Instagram after the fact.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided that I’m not going to chase anyone down to be a part of my life, regardless of whether they’re family or not. Call me a bitch or ungrateful, but so be it. If you want to be my family, then you’re gonna have to meet me halfway. I understand that things happen, and sometimes I can be shitty at keeping in touch. But I also know that true family members won’t care if I flake out on them now and then.

Do I sometimes wish that I had a closer relationship with more of my family? Sure. But in the end, I know who is truly there for me and for my son. I’ve created a pretty awesome surrogate family with friends who I know will be there for us when we need them. And that’s all that matters.