For two decades, Nancy Darling, a psychology professor, lived the itinerant life of a rising academic – moving 10 times before settling at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she now teaches.
She and her husband moved their older son five times before he left for college, their younger son three times. So Darling knows what it’s like to create a village of support from virtual strangers.
“You learn to let people into the private space of your life,” Darling says.
More than 60 percent of Americans have moved to a new community at least once in their lives, according to a 2008 Pew Social and Demographic Trends survey.
Close to 36 million Americans moved between 2012 and 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Fourteen percent of families with children younger than 17 moved in that period.
Often those moves mean settling farther from blood relatives and in-laws, leaving many families scrambling to make the kinds of connections that prove so critical during the child-rearing years.
As Darling puts it, “Having someone to call and say, ‘I’m running late. Can you pick up my kids at the bus stop and watch them for five minutes?’ makes the difference between life running pretty smoothly and totally losing it.”
But how do you begin to forge familial-like bonds with people who aren’t your family?
It’s helpful to contemplate what we gain from a close-knit family before we figure out how to re-create one.
“We all crave a nonjudgmental ear who we can call at 4 in the morning,” says Jeanne Safer, a New York-based psychoanalyst who specializes in sibling and family relations. “We crave that sense of connection that reminds us we’re not alone, that someone in the world sees us and hears us. I think that’s a fundamental human need.”
We also crave consistency, adds Darling.
“What’s really important, especially for younger kids, is stability and ritual,” Darling says. “One of the really nice things about nearby relatives is you know forever and ever, whether you want to or not, you’re going to do Sunday dinner at grandma’s, and Uncle John is going to fall asleep at the table, and you’re all going to play bingo.
“Stress is something you have to adjust to,” she adds. “Ritual is something you never have to adjust to. You just walk into it. It’s the opposite of exciting.”
The beauty of a self-made village – made up of friends and neighbors and other folks who don’t share your gene pool – is that you can fill it with people whose lives and values and schedules (no small matter) match up with yours.
“There’s a saying: ‘Home is the place you go and they have to let you in,’ ” says Safer. “But maybe you don’t want to go there.”
Maybe it’s an expensive plane ride away. Maybe it’s full of dysfunction. Maybe it’s just full. That’s when you create your own connections and rituals.
“Many people lack that warm village of extended family,” says Safer, who writes extensively about family strife, including “Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings From a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret” (Basic Books). “And there’s much about that that’s good.”
Darling recalls her mother’s German immigrant parents who came to the United States shortly before World War II and knew no one.
“All the people I grew up calling ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle,’ none of them were blood related to me,” Darling says. “But they were multigenerational, sustained relationships. My grandparents and these other adults created shared rituals – Sunday dinners, vacations together, the exchanging of favors. They let each other into the private parts of their homes – not just the public parts.”
Darling found herself following that model when she was the new mom in town. Cheering at soccer games, waiting at swim lessons, standing around at birthday parties, she would watch for the other parents with whom she seemed compatible.
“You like how they parent; you think you’d like to get to know them better,” she says. “Then you find ways to set up a situation where both the kids and the parents are getting to know each other better. Not just a play date for the kids but, ‘Why don’t you come over, so the kids can play together and you and I can have a cup of tea?’ ”
Amanda Mouttaki, a native Midwesterner who moved with her husband and two sons to her husband’s native Morocco in 2013, says children are an “easy conversation starter.”
“I think it’s a bit of luck, some trial and error and some cosmic intervention,” says Mouttaki, who blogs about her life in Morocco at marocmama.com. “Honestly, the best advice is be yourself and forget all your preconceived notions of politeness. You really just have to put yourself in somewhat uncomfortable situations.”
That often includes extending invitations that may be rejected.
“You learn to break down boundaries between public and private domains without being too intimate,” Darling says. “You might not invite your new friends over to an intimate Christmas dinner, but you could invite everyone over to make Christmas cookies. Or … you could call them up and say, ‘We’re all watching a movie tonight, and we’ve got popcorn. You want to come over?’ ”
With luck, rituals will evolve over time. And rituals can breed bonds.
“I got in the habit of calling my neighbors, ‘I’m running to the store. Do you need anything?’ ” Darling says. “And, sometimes, ‘I’m running to the store. Can I drop Sean off for 20 minutes?’ Little favors make everyone’s life so much easier.”
Above all, Darling says, pay attention to the details that bring joy and kinship to your created village.
“Remember their kids’ birthdays,” she says. “And send cards.”
“Close family is a wonderful thing if you’ve got it,” Safer says. “But a lot of people don’t. And friends are our safe place. Friends are there because they want to be there. It’s not just a ‘blood is thicker than water’ situation.”