When my longtime friend Wendy Vallier went into labor, she called my mother, who rushed to the delivery room. For Vallier, 35, calling her own family to the hospital was impossible. Her father, brothers and grandmother live many states away, and her mother died when she was 15.
Not having her family close by has been difficult at times, but Vallier has created her own network of surrogate “family” members who are there for her whenever she needs them. Just as my mom cheered her on during the delivery of her two daughters, now 4 and 6, more recently, neighbors gave Vallier support during a difficult divorce.
Years ago, women like Vallier got help and support from their biological families, but today, living next door to mom and dad is rare. “Because people tend to live away from their own families, it’s important that they develop close ties with others in their area,” says Amy Stark, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Tustin, Calif. “There is something irreplaceable that comes from being able to share special occasions and daily life occurrences with other people. Developing a history and having long-range ties gives women and their husbands and children a priceless gift. They and their surrogate family feel more connected to each other and to people as a whole.”
Besides lending emotional support, a surrogate extended family helps people develop traditions that provide children with a sense of grounding and security. Holidays are a good place to start building those traditions. In her Boulder, Colo., neighborhood, writer Jane McConnell celebrates most holidays with her neighbors. “All our kids know they can look forward to these celebrations,” says McConnell, whose children are 1, 3 and 4. “Our surrogate family is the glue that binds the holidays together and makes them meaningful for our kids.”
“Surrogate-family situations are definitely win-win,” Stark says. “A couple and their children benefit, as does the ‘adopted’ family. This is especially true when the surrogate family members are older or have no children of their own.” An especially beneficial relationship for the new mom is one with an older woman. “She can share her years of hard-won wisdom,” Stark says.
Although you may be eager to develop your own extended family, it can’t be done with just anyone or overnight. To make the relationship work, it’s helpful if you share similar challenges, views and values. Besides neighbors, consider teaming up with families involved in the same kinds of activities, such as Mommy and Me classes, play groups or Cub Scouts. Also take a good look around your place of worship, local health club and any special-interest group you belong to. And don’t rule out single friends. Just because they may not have kids of their own doesn’t mean they don’t want to share in the joys of yours.
Once you do find people you can connect with, give the relationship time to grow. “It takes a while for rapport and trust to develop,” Stark says. Then, don’t forget to nurture the friendship. Never take advantage, and always be honest with each other and willing to forgive.