Who Is Your Family?

Who Is Your Family?

My immediate family is small. It’s just me, my father, mother, and brother. For a while, my brother and I hoped we’d get more siblings, and my family even toyed briefly with the idea of adoption, but it never happened.

One of the things I wish I knew as a child is that your relationship with your family is never the same after you leave home. Moving away at 15 from a small town in the south of Nigeria opened the world to me. I lived in Europe for three years, learning to speak fractured Russian and exist in sub-zero temperatures for a quarter of the year.

Then I moved to the Caribbean, where I turned 20 and began to figure out my place in the world. In the first four years away from home, I returned to Nigeria every summer. My most fraught, self-determining years, however, were spent away, so I did what anyone in my place would do -- I made homes of other places and people. And dare I say, I made fantastic homes too.

friends turned family.jpg

In the last two years, my life has taken several (not completely unpleasant) unexpected twists, leaving me gone from home at least two years longer than I planned. My brother has also left home, making my parents empty nesters.

Moving often changes you. The longer I’ve been gone, the more ties I’ve watched fray and snap. I never had many friends growing up, but in my late teens, I gained a handful. At first, I tried to stay in touch, checking on each one, remaining updated on the latest job changes, heartbreaks, new goals, and re-examined priorities. But I’ve slipped a lot in the last two years.

Part of my slippage is because for the first time in my life, I have friends who align with my current goals, and shocker: live in the same COUNTRY as I do. It’s easier to stay friends when you see each other often. I haven’t discarded my old friends and still keep in touch with three or four of them, but I’ve lost many.

While friends come and go, extended family is a completely different story. Depending on your fortune, you may have a loving, supportive circle of aunts, uncles, cousins, and nephews, or your extended family might be indifferent, having little or nothing to do with you. My extended family is … complicated.

When we were younger, my cousins, their families, and ours saw each other often, even lived together for stretches of time. Now, months have rolled into years and I can count on one hand the number of times my cousins have texted or sent a Facebook message in the last couple of years. I don’t resent them for it. Could I genuinely be upset if I neither texted nor called them? If I didn’t even respond on time when they got in touch?

Communicating with family is hard for me. I don’t know half the people on my paternal grandfather’s side, and the ones I know seem to share nothing in common besides our surname. Because of my socially awkward nature, since my childhood, meeting family has been synonymous with awkward silences, sweaty palms, and wondering when we can go home. Sadly, the extended family I knew, I’ve grown apart from over time.

Over the years, I realized that these circumstances are not unique to my family. Many of my friends are more open with their friends than with their families. They love their families, and feel a sense of duty, and even affection, but are most at home with their friends and spouses. I know a few are afraid they’ll worry their parents if they confide too much.

My tiny immediate family is made up of four people who are perfectly content to be left alone. We love each other, think about each other, worry for each other, and will show up in a flash for each other. Yet, we will not text or call daily.  I was surprised to find that people actually call their parents every day. I talk to my parents once a week, sometimes after longer periods. My brother and I have a big catchup every other month.

My father texted me a month ago. He was worried his children were isolating themselves; that we wouldn’t have any family if we didn’t try to stay in touch. “Talk to your cousin,” he said. In that moment, I said what felt truest to me: “I think your family doesn’t have to be blood; sometimes family can include your close friends.”

And that’s where I stand -- families are chosen. If you’re fortunate, your parents and siblings will choose you as friends, and maybe your extended family will too. You can try to communicate dutifully, but you can’t force anyone to keep in touch. Still, I feel a twinge of envy when I watch members of a close-knit extended family interact. I remind myself that I have mine, even if we don’t share the same blood. Blood isn’t always as thick as we think anyway.

So how about you? Who is your family - Do you have a chosen family, or is your biological family all the family you need? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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