How to Create a Family

If you can't be with the ones you love for the holidays, love the ones you're with

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This Thanksgiving, some 42 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles from home to be with friends and family for the holiday, according to a recent AAA report. That’s an 11% increase from last year, but there will still be 16 million fewer travelers than in 2005, the pre-recession peak.

That’s 16 million people who can’t afford to be with their families this season. I’m one of them.

In the past 12 years, I have only spent four holiday seasons back home with my family. Admittedly, they are in Australia, and I am lying in the bed I made with my American husband. But I truly, deeply feel the pain of those who cannot be with their blood relatives at the holidays.

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I’d like to offer a solution: create another family.

When you have children, you really need your extended family around you. They provide you with emotional support, years of experience in childrearing, meals, advice and, dang it, an occasional night out at the movies without the $60 babysitter’s fee.

But my parents and siblings are thousands of miles away, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. So I’ve found myself a new family. Let me tell you about them.

Last Saturday, we picked apples together and made apple butter. Some of us went to the Stanford v. Oregon football game, while others watched the kids. On Sunday, we all spent hours playing outside, feeling smug about our mid-November California sunshine. We shared a potluck dinner and made Thanksgiving plans involving three different turkey-cooking methods.

It wasn’t all fun and games. There were a few tears shed about a child’s behavioral challenges and some invaluable advice and support offered. (Okay, the tears were mine.) But all in all, it was a wonderful weekend spent mostly at home with family.

My new family members are my neighbors.

We live on a cul-de-sac of 15 houses, with 14 children under the age of 9. We have teensy houses on modest lots and treat the street as an extension of our front yards. We share a basketball hoop; a poker table that seats 10; hair clippers; produce from our gardens; car rides to Costco. We regularly get police permits to block off the street for parties; we meet every Friday afternoon for drinks; we celebrate together; and we have mourned together.

I’ve lived in three different cities over my 13 years in the United States, and in each I’ve looked for and found stand-in siblings and parents. More accurately, perhaps, I’ve found substitute aunts, uncles and grandparents for my kids. And I’m not the only one looking for those relationships.

One third of all Americans live in a different state from the one in which they were born. We yearn for family, and in the absence of them, we create deep bonds with the people who can be physically present: the people in our community. I would guess that most of us did not intentionally separate ourselves from our families. Our jobs and our spouses have simply led us down a path that strayed from our ancestral homes.

When our first child was born, we lived in New York City. The beauty of child-rearing in Manhattan is that no one can stay inside all day and stay sane. Neighborhood playgrounds provide rich opportunities to find the support network that extended family would otherwise provide.

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We left the Big Apple six years ago, but we still see our closest New York friends at least once a year. Their children were outraged recently when it was suggested that my kids were “like cousins” to them. “Noooo! They’re like brothers.” And it’s true. They love each other deeply, they fight fantastically, and they make up like family — unconditionally, knowing they will be in each others’ lives forever.

Leaving that particular branch of my technically unrelated family was one of the hardest things about moving across the country to San Francisco. But we soon realized that we had landed on a street as colorful and inclusive as the city itself. There were adopted kids, kids with two Dads, kids with two Moms, kids of all kinds. Everyone was welcome to join the family — we were soon sharing Thanksgiving, Passover, Halloween and Easter celebrations. When my husband suffered a horrific bike accident, our neighbors were there with the kind of support a family gives: childcare, meals, a shoulder to cry on.

These relationships may start out as a geographic convenience, but they can develop into real emotional attachments. I don’t know how I’d have survived without them. If you have a family like mine — spread out all over the world, and not all of them related by blood — take the time this season to let them know just how grateful you are.