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Building strong relationships, finding support and community.

There are certain relationships our society views as fundamental to the human experience. Movies, TV shows, magazines, the Hallmark Channel, and social media feeds all provide idealized versions of what they should look like. We compare our relationships with parents, siblings, children, and partners to the expectations attached to this fantasy of the “perfect” family. But, as you already know, we don’t always get the family or experience we want.

Before I continue, I want to add a disclaimer that there are many who don’t have these relationships and aren’t looking for them. For example, those who are childfree by choice, happily single, enjoy being an only child, etc. You’re happy and at peace, this post isn’t for you. It’s for those who long for something other than what they have.

We don’t always get the family we want.

Over the years, I’ve talked with so many friends who are grieving the loss or absence of a relationship: some lost one parent, both parents, or a sibling at a young age; some divorced, never found a partner, or were widowed; some have parents who were abusive, neglectful, or who abandoned them; some were disowned for leaving their religion or coming out. There are countless ways that relationships can break your heart. That heartbreak stems from the reality that people you think should always be there aren’t, that those who should love you unconditionally and fulfill your needs and expectations don’t or can’t.

I’ve thought about these friends a lot since my infertility crisis. When the grief from realizing I will never experience motherhood feels overwhelming, I think about them. I think about the grief they’ve had to wade through and how it’s similar or different to mine. But, what I think about the most is how good they are at creating family.

The family you choose.

We don’t choose our biological relationships, we’re born into them. But friends are the family we choose. In some ways, friendships can be even stronger because the bond isn’t maintained out of obligation but is based on mutual affection, shared interests and values, and compatible personalities. How many of us have a relative that we would never choose to associate with if we didn’t share DNA?

My friends who weren’t born into the family relationships they wanted or expected have taught me a lot about how to expand your social support system through friendships. They invest time in relationships with their friends and communities and are rewarded with life-long bonds that are just as strong as family. While these connections can’t replace the original loss, they do a damn good job of filling in gaps, alleviating grief, and meeting emotional and psychosocial needs.

Creating your family.

For me, one of the most alluring aspects of having children was the idea of building my own social support system. I watched siblings and friends make this transition and always felt a bit jealous. As their families expanded, I became less of a priority as their primary bond naturally shifted to their children and the new microcosm they created.

Part of my transition to making peace with a childfree life has been to look for other ways to expand my own family in nontraditional ways. Those of us who are grieving the dream of parenthood can learn a lot from our friends who have shown us there’s more than one way to create a family. The first step is to find and cultivate new relationships!

With this in mind, here are some ideas of how to fill some of the space in your heart that was previously reserved for baby:

  • If you’re partnered, embrace the advantages that come with being a family of two. Without children, you have more time and energy to invest in your partner. According to Matthew D. Johnson, “Thirty years of evidence is in, and the results are conclusive: the relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along.” Check out his article, “Want to save your marriage? Don’t have kids.”
  • Research whether adoption or fostering is right for you. Both of these options are complex and require a lot of research and contemplation. Adoption or fostering shouldn’t be seen as the automatic next step to “cure” childlessness. That being said, it can be a great way to expand family for those who decide it’s right for them.
  • Find volunteer opportunities that connect you with youth who need mentors or support. There are so many kids out there who need the support and mentorship of a caring adult. Your local United Way or online resources like Volunteer Match can help you find opportunities in your area. Some of my favorite organizations are: Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America; CASA for Children; Girls Rock Camp Foundation; and Girl Scouts of America. There are endless options!
  • Embrace the special role you can play in the lives of your nieces, nephews, or other children in your life. Use some of the time you would have spent parenting to invest in the lives of the children around you. You are in a unique position to provide extra love and support to your nieces, nephews, godchildren or friend’s kids. Check out Savvy Auntie to connect with community and find new ideas on how to nurture these relationships.
  • Collaborate with others on a passion project. Is there a cause or idea you’re passionate about? Find a partner who shares your passion and get to work! Or, start a solo project that will bring like-minded people to you. This blog is one of my passion projects and has been a fantastic way to meet new people who have a shared experience. If you need a creative spark, check out Mind of Mica’s article on “350 Passion Project Ideas” and this article by Pam Bauer on “Why You Should Start a Passion Project”.
  • Connect with others who share your hobbies or interests. Love knitting, yoga, bee-keeping, hiking, archery, whiskey, stamp collecting? Whatever your hobby or interest, chances are there are others in your community who share your enthusiasm. Use your Googling skills, community boards and Facebook groups and events to find them.
  • Volunteer for a cause you’re passionate about. Spend a few hours at a local animal shelter, food pantry, national park, or community library and you may connect with other volunteers or nonprofit employees that share your values. Not sure where to start? Check out this article on “13 Websites That Will Match You With The Perfect Opportunity to Make a Difference.”
  • Host a foreign exchange student. Hat tip to Brandi at the blog Not So Mommy for this idea. Check out her video “Should you host a foreign exchange student?”
  • Use Meetup.com or Bumble BFF to meet new friends. As someone who has lived in four new cities in the past six years I know the challenges of making new friends as an adult and wholeheartedly recommend these two websites. If you’re unfamiliar with them, here are the basics:
    • Meetup.com provides a way to connect with others in your community based on common interests. Getting started is easy, just create a free account to start browsing groups already established in your area. Join groups that interest you and you’ll be able to view and attend their local events. For $10 a month you can also host your own group. I started a group in a city I previously lived in and had 400 members in just a few months. Within a year I had made a new circle of close friends through the events I hosted.
    • While you may be familiar with the dating app Bumble, many haven’t heard of the friend-making version, Bumble BFF. Bumble BFF is similar to its dating counterpart. Users create a profile for free with photos and basic info. The app shows you profiles of other users in your area and you can swipe left if you’re not interested in connecting and right if you are. If the other user swipes right on you too you’ll be matched and will have a chance to start chatting with each other. I recently moved to a new city and tried Bumble BFF for the first time. In just a few months I had made so many friends through the app that I stopped logging on because I didn’t have time for new connections. I live in a fairly small town and was surprised by how many people were using the app.
  • Invest the time and energy needed to maintain relationships with those you consider family. Relationships take time. In fact, a study published last year by researcher Jeffrey Hall found that it takes about 200 hours of time together to become “good friends.” If you are looking to expand your “family” through friendships, you need to be willing to prioritize your relationships. For tips on how to create and maintain close friendships, check out the following articles:
  • Support and build relationships with members of the online and in-person communities you belong to. Examples of communities include: members of your faith or spiritual practice, the childless not by choice community, those affected by an illness you or a loved one suffers from, those who share your political affiliation, or any other aspect that is core to your identity. There’s nothing like a shared life experience to provide a foundation for a close friendship.

It’s been said that loneliness is a voluntary condition. If you’re feeling like your circle or “family” is too small, start investing time and energy to expand it. That expansion may look different than what you’d envisioned when you were trying for a baby, but we can learn a lot from our friends who have shown us there’s more than one way to create a family.

Start by reinvesting in relationships you already have. Maybe some of these were neglected during your quest for baby, maybe some grew stronger. My infertility crisis put distance in some relationships, as people I expected to be there for me dropped off. But it brought depth to others, those who were unwavering in their support for me. They called and texted regularly, checking in on me to see how I was doing. They took on my grief and still answered the phone when I called crying for the millionth time. Now that I’m in a better place, I want to give them the best parts of me too. I invest in these friendships and look for ways to be there for them and let them know how much they mean to me.

If you find you’d still like a bigger circle, look for opportunities to cultivate new relationships. It can be tough to make new friends as an adult but if you’re willing to invest the time and energy, it’s a fantastic way to create a family. After all, friends are the family you choose.

How have you expanded your family as you move to a childfree life?