The American family is broken, as approximately 40% of children are born to single mothers and an untold number of homes are infected with emotional abuse, physical abuse or alcohol or drug usage. Our children cannot succeed and they cannot become leaders into the future if they are strangled by environments which undermine their efforts for achievement. While too many young children are trapped in these prisons, it does not have to be a lifetime sentence. We can actually create new families with surrogate siblings and parents of our choosing allowing a pathway to freedom for people of all ages.  

This is a blog I wrote a while back that I re-share with you now. Why now? Because I just spent an amazing weekend with a family for whom I am a surrogate sister and aunt and it’s inspiring to see what can happen when you are brave enough to create your own future.

There’s the family we are born into, and then there’s the family we create. Thank goodness!

It’s not that I don’t love my family. I do. My parents were amazing parents, and I love my siblings dearly. But as we move through life and find our unique paths, there are things that your family can’t fulfill. Hence the importance of the chosen family.

I became conscious of the need for surrogates when my children were young. I was very fortunate to have the most amazing nanny for them. She truly was Mary Poppins and still is part of our lives today. She adored my children and they adored her, and I came to appreciate the fact that “Addy” and the girls had a special relationship that I was not part of. As the girls grew older and more private about their preteen and teenage lives, I became so grateful for that relationship because I understand that children don’t always want to share all of their questions about the world and even their secrets with their parents. That’s OK as long as they have some safe place where they can seek guidance and support. My girls had Addy.

I, too, was lucky enough to have assorted surrogates when I was young, including our next-door neighbors who still are a mother and a sister to me. And I had a “surrogate father” who died last weekend. I think I cried more when he died than when my own father died. That sounds horrible, right? But Dave played a different role in my life. My father introduced me to Dave when I needed advice early in my advertising career. That first meeting resulted in a 35-year friendship with Dave. He guided me through many career steps and both professional and personal struggles. He was at my wedding and adored my children as if they were his own grandchildren. In addition to mentorship, he provided a level of unconditional love and safety that I never had with my own dad given the complexity of our family business relationship.  After 9/11, with my father recovering from a stroke he had had several months earlier, I called Dave to get reassurance that the world was not ending. No one was stronger, had more contacts and connections and was more self-assured and generously loving than Dave. His bear hugs were legendary, and his passing leaves a giant hole in my heart but the lessons he taught me will be with me forever.

Families are complicated. Sadly, I think I hear more people complain about their families than revel in their wonderment. Sibling rivalry is not always something that we outgrow. And, frankly, some people, because of their own personal challenges, simply should not have brought children into the world. But they did reproduce, and their children grow up without support or direction.

I have a friend who was born into one of those sad situations.. To the outside world, the family seemed fine, but there were problems festering and after a family crisis when my friend was in her 20s, everything fell apart and she was left with no one but me to call family. After several years in therapy and some really tough decisions, my friend put together a whole new life, essentially creating new parents and siblings. The group she put together included some older distant cousins who she reconnected with to provide some “parental” connection…and assorted people from the community where she lived became siblings. And, of course, me.

Mind you, you don’t have to come from an extreme family disaster to benefit from acquiring surrogates. In fact, as I said above, I think that everyone needs surrogates. Our parents might be great, but they can’t teach us all of our lessons. Just like our spouses can be great, but they can’t be our everything. Dave taught me unique lessons in warmth and unconditional love, and he provided a safe space for me when there were issues I just couldn’t discuss at home.

A few years ago, a friend’s college-aged son messaged me on Facebook asking if he could call me. He had something he wanted to talk about. The only answer was “anytime.” He was having questions about his first real relationship with a girl and wasn’t comfortable talking to his parents. I was honored that he felt comfortable contacting me and grateful that he was smart enough to seek guidance rather than suffer in silence. He has contacted me several times through the years for personal and career guidance, and I’d like to think that I helped him come to some good decisions.

Athletes often are lucky enough to create special bonds with coaches, and theater people create families with every performance. But there are surrogates to be found in all sorts of places if you choose to look for them and to open your heart to them. We don’t have to be “stuck” with just our birth families. Look around and see who else can be part of your family. Who can you learn from? Who can make you feel special and safe? And…who can you help? Where can you “adopt” a child and play the surrogate parent role that is so desperately needed by many?

There is no such thing anymore as a traditional family with mom, dad and two-point-something children, so why not create your own family, filling in the gaps with those of your choosing? You can start at any time and at any age. Who says you can’t acquire more siblings through the years? And, needless to say, there are many young people out there in need of some surrogate parenting.