When I was pregnant with IEP we did not reveal our chosen baby names to anyone. I was anxious about dissenting opinions and well-intentioned meddling. So we kept them under wraps. But we did give hints. And one of those hints was that the middle name was a family name. In actuality the E comes from our best friend. It is his middle name, and we thought it perfect for IEP.
This friend was the best man in our wedding. GAP was the best man in his. We have driven and flown long miles to see each other – both in times of crisis and times of leisure. We have seen each other through hook-ups and break-ups. We have spent weekends together laced with wine, beer, and witty banter. We have braved first jobs, unemployment, graduate school, and cross-country moves in each other’s embrace. We value and trust each other immeasurably.
And so, in offering the hint of a family name, I didn’t really factor it in that our friend is not technically our blood relation. He may not be. But he is still our family.
Similarly, GAP and I are both fortunate enough to come from happy and in-tact families; families who are indeed our friends. I talk to my mother, father, and sister multiple times weekly. GAP is slightly less communicative, but still talks with his parents and siblings regularly. We also have extended family members whom we consider friends, despite longer breaks between visits.
Now this is all quite lovely: friend = family and family = friend. Très charming… But I wonder about the boundaries of family and friendship. I’ve been blessed with a family whom I love and enjoy. But, like most people, there are a few outliers; people I don’t know as well, can’t relate to, don’t quite know what to say to. What’s a girl to do with these folks?
I sit here and say that I value family. I believe they are important. I believe they are worth sacrifices. They merit a not-altogether-insignificant amount of time, effort, and expense toward the end of nurturing the familial bond. They are relationships that cannot be replaced, and they should be treated as such.
But yet, when I look at the family members to whom I’m closest, they are the ones whose lives most closely resemble my own: similar ages, similar lifestyles, similar interests. And once some imaginary threshold of difference is met, my efforts to nurture and build that relationship diminish.
So I worry about being two-faced and duplicitous. I worry about where I draw the line. I worry about whether or not I should match the level of effort I extend to certain relatives to the entire lot of them. But it’s not a small group of people. So I then worry about how quickly I might go positively batty if I did go down that equitable path.
A few generations ago the family – both nuclear and extended – was the lynchpin of society. Before the interstate highway system was built; before transcontinental flights took off from every airport hub many times daily; before cell phones and the internet made us accessible at all hours of the day and night; before all these things came about, the radii of our lives were shorter. We stayed closer to home and closer to our relatives. And these questions of how awkward to feel upon seeing a family member who is indeed your blood relative but whom you hardly know were rarely asked. Similarly, less frequently did we all jet-set about the country (or world) for the purposes of career, climate, or courtship. So less critical was the need to develop friends who became stand-ins for our families.
It seems disingenuous to say that these two relationships – friendship and family – are interchangeable. In some nuanced way each relationship is distinct. But I struggle to discern what that distinction is. Where do the lines of friends and family become blurred? What does each type of relationship lose (if anything) by being labeled as the other? Do we overload friendships with pressure and commitment by thinking of them as family? Are family relationships undersold by being outlined with the same, sometimes fickle, brush strokes as friendship? And further still, such questions presuppose that the family bond is always stronger than friendship. But history has borne witness to far too many family feuds for the family bond to masquerade as invincible.
I do not know the answers to these questions. Frankly, I’m not sure what answers would bring to the table. We are all different; in our families; in our friendships; and in the ways we bridge the gaps between the two.
What I do know is that as human beings we need both; or at least people who fill both roles. We need people whose bond to us is temporary, allowing us to learn, grow, and move on in our lives. Not all relationships are meant to last forever. But we also need people whose ties to us are enduring and permanent. We are social animals, in need of many forms of companionship.
I am lucky to have been blessed with both friends and family. Not only that, but friends and family who defy the boundaries of conventional labels. This doesn’t mean that I have perfect relationships; that I don’t sometimes still feel lonely or isolated. But it means that when I do have those feelings I have people to share them with. And whether it’s the door of a friend or a family member that I knock on, the presence of the door itself is what matters the most.