My friend Mel walked into my house last night, breezing through the door with just a cursory knock to give me time to cover up if I were, like, naked. Not that it matters, since she’s seen horribly stretch-marked parts of me that I’d die of embarrassment for anyone else to see. And I was in the room when she gave birth to her youngest daughter, so it’s safe to say we’re pretty comfortable with each other.
She had come over with a bottle of aloe vera for my sunburnt son, chilled from the fridge. I didn’t rush to greet her, just waved her in from my spot on the couch. Because it was the end of the day and I was exhausted, but also because we’ve moved past the need for formalities like official greetings.
I treat her like I would treat my sister. Because, in a certain sense, she is my sister. My actual, blood-related sisters live several states away; Mel’s family is on the other side of the world in Australia. In the lack of a sisterly presence, we’ve created our own, a friendship that goes deeper than lunch dates and gossip. She has become like family, and I can’t imagine navigating my life without her love and support – or that of any of my other closest friends, the ones who fill the void that sometimes opens up when I think about the geography separating me and my relatives.
Technically, family is a matter of DNA. But nobody who says “I want a family,” means “I want a group of genetically similar people.” They want an unbreakable bond. The unconditional love and warmth. A soft place to land when everything seems difficult. And sometimes, getting those things means looking outside our genetic circles. We don’t have to swear allegiance based on the blood running through our veins. Sure, blood may be thicker than water, but water is equally necessary to sustain life.
Sharing the same brown eyes or pointed chin doesn’t make someone loyal or loving. Sometimes our families are toxic. We don’t all come from white-picket-fence backgrounds, where family always has our back and our best interests in mind. We’re born into our familial lives by chance. If fate deals us a rough one, we can break off and make our own, branching out from the family tree.
Sometimes we’re lucky enough to be born into wonderful, close-knit units, but then grow up and move away and don’t see them often. When that happens, our friends are like surrogates, making sure we never have to spend a special occasion homesick, crying into a pint of ice cream.
Whatever the reason we can’t – or won’t – be with our families of origin, there’s so much to be said for choosing someone to stand in their place. Emphasis on “choosing,” because unlike actual family, we get to pick them: people who share similar views, people who understand, people who accept.
Friends who become family see us for who we are now, not through the lens of someone who knew us through our awkward, wild, or straight-up dumb phases. They don’t see us for who we used to be, or who they wish we had become. There’s no pre-judgment based on stupid shit we did when we were too immature to know better, or which side of the proverbial tracks we come from. They love us for the people we have grown into, and are there for the growth we have yet to experience. They’re a support system because they want to be, not because of some sense of familial obligation. When our friends help us, we know it’s a truly genuine act.
My siblings and I share an unmistakable bond because we’re siblings and fortunate enough to actually get along. And I do miss them, because I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like. But when I sit back and observe at a gathering of my family-friends, I see so much of the stuff I’d see at a regular family gathering. It may not be exactly the same, but it fills me with contentment. My kids ask my friends to help them with things, play with their kids, and bicker like cousins. The adults joke with each other, talking and laughing. We all stuff our faces. There are audible burps and farts followed by a chorus of ewwws, and somebody inevitably nods off in their chair.
There’s a level of comfort and familiarity that you just don’t achieve with regular friends. This friendship is next-level shit, and I’m so here for it. Because they’re here for me: the family I chose in the absence of my own.