Each year, I split my daughter's school photo package with my ex-husband. The basic package has a few large photos and then a whole bunch of smaller ones. I wondered how he would split up his pictures — maybe some would go to his mother, sister, brother, girlfriend, aunts. I imagined her picture would hang on some fridge doors, or find places in a wallet or on a wall.
There was less of a mystery about what would happen to my half of the package. I'd frame one; the rest would sit on a shelf. Throwing them away would make me feel like the most heartless mother ever, but who would I give them to?
I have no relationship with my family, for reasons I promise you'd understand. And while I do have friends, I don't think they'd want a picture of my daughter on their fridge.
It stings just like when the receptionist at a doctor's office looks over my paperwork and tells me, "You forgot to fill in an emergency contact."
"I don't have one," I say.
Moments like these punctuate my solitude and dent my self-worth. They make me wonder how I got to this place and if I'll ever find a way out.
Based on my online life, nobody would know how alone I am. I've always socialized easily in the digital space, but that has rarely translated to substantial in-person interactions.
I posted about this sadness in an online group where I mostly lurk; it seemed like an okay place to let out personal thoughts without making real-life friends feel uncomfortable. I should have expected what happened next.
Well-intentioned people — lots of them — told me: "You have us. We're your family now."
The absurdity of it glistened. None of them knew a thing about me. None of them even knew my daughter's name, where we were from, what our interests were, anything. Of course I gave a polite thanks. And not one of them has ever contacted me again. That's an interesting sort of family.
Instead of making me feel better, their hollow words had the opposite effect. I wondered if they had walked away from that online exchange thinking, "Well, we solved that problem! She's all familied up now!"
Here's the thing: It's not just me. LGBTQ folks with unsupportive families are often on the receiving end of this well-meaning phrase. Thousands of people have shared viral images declaring variations on the theme "If your family rejects you, we're your family now," but I've experienced that promise as nothing more than a feel-good pat on the back.
What they really mean is: "I support you, and I'm sorry your family sucks," and I wish that's what they'd say. Because when you tell someone who doesn't really know you that you're now their family, it's a mirage. It may sound like a cute line, but it exposes a deep vulnerability for those of us without family. If you haven't been there, it's hard to imagine how much pain goes along with not having a family regardless of how it happened. And how much we wish your words were real.
The threshold for family cannot be: "I will occasionally type words on a screen at you." When faced with a person expressing this kind of loneliness, it's far better to offer real friendship; a phone number to call when that person might need to talk; a visit; a card; a ride; a meal; a movie. Include them in groups. Offer a spot at your table for holidays even if you think they must have somewhere to go. Mostly, just offer one-on-one conversation.
Loneliness kills. The American Psychological Association has said that chronic loneliness is a greater threat to public health than obesity — partly because the ongoing stress of feeling alone inhibits the immune system, raises blood pressure and cholesterol, and increases risk of all kinds of diseases. Even short-term loneliness affects you physically, but people who lack deep social connections on an ongoing basis are in the most danger. Those without family are at high risk of chronic loneliness and all the health problems that come with it.
When people say you can make your own family, that's true, and it's terrific. But it's not something that happens instantaneously. It's not based on a simple declaration from a stranger on social media. It's a matter of figuring out who shows up in your life, sticks around and makes you feel like you matter.
In the end, all I really want is for someone who cares about us enough to hang a picture of my daughter on their fridge.