Growing up, I never saw my parents socialize with anyone outside the family. The two of them did practically everything together, which, although rare for other families, I always thought was cute.
Thanksgiving and Christmas were the two times when the extended family got together. We had traditions that are still dear to me, but as the years passed and the family grew, our celebrations dwindled in numbers. I always wondered why new spouses and their families didn’t gather with us. My parents always said it was because of space constraints.
Now, I would do anything to stand in a crowded apartment, holding a paper plate full of cold food with all the friends I’ve ever met.
But for much of my past, I’ve had tunnel vision — prizing romance over friendship.
I spent the majority of my 20s away from my home state of Maine: traveling, working and falling in love. I was always falling in love — with cities, ideas, people. Especially people. The bittersweet thing about wanderlusting through your 20s is that you leave a piece of your heart everywhere you go.
And for me, continually falling in love meant that I put romance above friendship. All socialization stopped when I met a potential love interest.
When I was married, all of my time and energy went into trying to make sure the marriage stayed intact, reaching out to friends only when it wasn’t. It had been ingrained in me that a husband and wife were supposed to be best friends and do everything together. My ex-husband did not share that belief, which I could not understand when we were married.
Long-distance friendships were the only ones I maintained because I didn’t have to work hard at them. With miles between my friends in Hawaii or Saipan and me, technology was the only communication we had. Texts and e-mails became the method I used to keep in touch with pretty much everyone, regardless of whether they were five or 5,000 miles away.
When I lived in Hawaii eight years ago, I couldn’t make it home to the mainland for Thanksgiving one year. I ended up going to a dinner at a house I’d never been to, with six friends and 15 other people I’d never met (but who ended up becoming my friends). A mix of locals and transplants like myself, we were eager to learn about one another. We exchanged travel stories, talked about local surf spots, and why we both loved and despised our jobs or classes. What I cherish most about this memory is how we celebrated our differences as much as our similarities.
This year, at 32, I have begun to create and be comfortable with my own definition of family. I am thankful that my parents taught me their version, because it instilled the value of unconditionally supporting the ones you love. But it took living alone with my daughter to understand that a romantic relationship is not what defines me. In fact, there is not one person or relationship that defines me. Nor are blood relatives the only people whom I consider family.
Remember that common icebreaker question about who, dead or alive, you’d like to have at your dinner table? I always struggled with it. But now I’m confident with my answer: Everyone.