Illustrative GIF of photo frames hanging on a wall

Illustrations By Salini Perera

How I built my own family

Making friends that feel like family helps me survive the holidays—and the rest of the year

When you don’t have a family to gather with, the holidays can be rough. Thanksgiving-themed ads and casual small talk about holiday dinner plans (what plans?) can wear you down. Having moved out of my parents’ home at age 16 and been estranged on and off, I’m familiar with spending holidays alone. What has made things easier, over the years, has been building a support system of my own: a heart family.

There are many people out there who, like me, have made a quiet and conscious decision to spend little—or no—time with their original family (and there are many valid reasons for setting boundaries with people who don’t make you feel good). In fact, a whole range of circumstances can lead people to creating a family of choice: Sometimes their close relatives have passed away. Sometimes their kin live at too great a distance for frequent visits. Or sometimes, perhaps saddest of all, they’ve been rejected by their family, because of anything from their political or religious beliefs to their choice of partner or sexual orientation.

Today, 28 percent of households consist of a single person and one in five Canadians identifies as being lonely. While many of us are happy living alone, we do have to check in with ourselves and make sure we don’t start feeling isolated. When loneliness takes hold, it can cause medical issues such as depression, anxiety, heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure. That risk of feeling lonely is amplified around the holidays, because memories (good or bad) are triggered, and it can seem like everyone else is happily tucking into turkey at the table with parents, siblings, aunties and uncles. When you have a heart family to gather with, you can mitigate some of the hard stuff about flying solo in life—you’re not just making sure you get your piece of the pumpkin pie, you’re looking after your mental and physical health.

I don’t have a troupe of fellow “orphans” who’ve made a pact to congregate each holiday. In fact, I only have one friend in a similar situation to me: Alison* lived in a number of different cities and countries before finally settling in Toronto, while her family remained overseas. “I’ve lost count of how many holidays I’ve spent hosted by different families for occasions like Thanksgiving and Easter,” she says. “I know there have been at least 20 different venues for Christmas, including the party room at the hospital where my friend’s grandmother was an in-patient one year.”

Like Alison, I tend to feast with close friends and their families for the holidays that matter to me. For the occasions I care less about, I plan a self-indulgent few days of solo walks in High Park and movie marathons. If you know you’ll feel sad being alone over the holidays, my suggestion is to reach out to the people who care about you—no DNA match required. No friend is going to think twice about having an extra person at the table to share a meal. Also, it’s not a pity invite if someone hears you’re going to be alone and takes the initiative to ask you to their party. When you’re feeling down, it’s easy to think you’re a burden. You’re not. Promise.

Illustrative GIF of a table set for dinner

If you’re going to someone else’s house for a holiday meal, ask if you can bring a dish that stirs up nostalgia in you (that would be broccoli casserole for me), so you feel like you’re contributing something special rather than gatecrashing. And instead of dwelling on the fact that you don’t have family in the conventional sense, you can revel in having an insider’s look at how other people do the holidays. I make a mental note of traditions I enjoy from other families’ repertoires, with the goal of one day incorporating them into celebrations of my own.

If you’re the take-charge type, you might want to host a Friendsgiving celebration, as I did one year. Summon your buds and ask everyone to bring a side dish. If most of your people are going away, plan it for before or after a holiday weekend. And if you want the camaraderie of Thanksgiving but building your heart family is still a work in progress, you could always take yourself to an organized dinner, where there will be other lone celebrators to break bread with. Places like Hart House, in Toronto, put on a spread of traditional eats (as well as veg-friendly options).

One important thing to keep in mind is that heart families—like puppies and kittens—are not just for the holidays. I find that having a great support system is important year-round, both to help me through tough days and to celebrate the good stuff. It took me a little time to build mine, but it was worth the effort.

One of my close friends—someone I’ve spent holidays and birthdays with—is Sheryl from four doors down. We’re the same age, have the same values—politically, environmentally and about true love for Dolly Parton—and our friendship began because, instead of shuffling past, eyes down, I decided to strike up a conversation with her in the stairwell. Six years and counting of shared baking, movies and late-night chats followed.

I know if I need someone, Sheryl’s there, just like she knows I’m here for her. We’re not barging into each other’s homes Seinfeld-style, but it’s nice knowing I have someone like her living close enough to swap leftovers with and to vent about life’s annoyances at a moment’s notice.

The person in my life whom I consider most like actual family is in fact a former colleague. We worked together at a magazine and found common ground in our similar upbringings. (When you work in an all-women office, everything comes out.) After we’d graduated from office buddies to tight friends, she helped me with important and personal things like finding my current apartment and filling it with thoughtful vintage pieces. We’ve since spent several holidays together—including Christmases. And when she had kids, I became their honorary aunt.

Illustrative GIF of three people hanging photos on the wall

Another way I’ve built up my heart family is by getting involved in my community. I’ve been studying painting for the last four years at a neighbourhood studio. We’re a small group of five in my class, and I look forward to spending time with these people in and out of the studio. They aren’t my closest friends—more like cousins in my heart family—but we enjoy learning and laughing together, and the bond this has created means we can share more personal things. I’ve leaned on them when going through a breakup, and they’ve given me plenty of comic relief.

If you want to forge meaningful connections, with people who live close by, it’s great to do hands-on activities locally that break the ice naturally, things like joining a community garden, volunteering at a food bank or signing up for programs at your local community centre. If you’re short on time, participate in one-off neighbourhood events (Facebook is a good place to look for these).

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you share the genetic material of the folks around your holiday table. What matters more is that you nurture caring and enduring relationships with some of the people in your world. It’s not about who you’re related to: It’s about the people you open your life and heart to—and the people who love and support you right back.

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