How I Built My Family From The Internet

I’d been hurt by the facade of the “nuclear family,” and I never saw a roadmap for the kind of childhood I had.

I was 8 the first time I had a nervous breakdown and wanted to die. Some of us are born into families that, for whatever reason, aren’t able to be families to us. My journey has been unequivocally shaped by what happens when you create a family for yourself. My family is a bunch of internet strangers who have banded together, in support of me and themselves, to live authentically.

So what had happened to me? Why was I such a wreck at the age when most kids wanted to play kickball with their friends and chase the ice cream man?

My family simply overlooked my suicidal statements. In my family, secrets are secrets and the cardinal rule is that you don’t tell them to anyone, no matter what, no matter who, no matter why.

The words I’ve used to describe my childhood (emotional abuse, neglect, chronic addiction, daughters of narcissistic parents) don’t quite encompass the gravity they should, but at least there are words. 

In the past, when those words would pop out of my mouth, I’d immediately play it off like a joke: “Haha, haven’t we ALL had weird childhoods?” I’d downplay the damage those secrets had done. I’d been hurt by the facade of the “nuclear family,” and I never saw a roadmap for the kind of childhood I had.

So about 15 years ago, I started reading blogs — about how life doesn’t always work out, where the world’s not always kind and forgiving, where bad things happen to random people, regardless of how “deserving” they were of it. These people got me in a way no one else could; feeling on the inside looking out, wondering what I’d done to my parents to deserve their ire, the feelings of inadequacy, the feelings of guilt and blame, I got all that. For one of the first times in my life, I felt at home in a definition of existence I was unable to imagine before.

So I started my own blog, Mommy Wants Vodka, which is, at times, hilarious and witty, and others, tentative and unsure. It took me a long while to feel comfortable enough to expose my silky pink underbelly, but eventually I began to share stories. Secrets, really. I gave them a voice and a space to finally be heard.

What happened next was astounding.

People would write to me, thanking me for making them feel less alone in the world. People who understood that families are all different. People who taught me that it was OK to be vulnerable. People who understood my secrets, which made them feel less alone. Much to my amazement, I realized one important thing: We are not alone; we are all connected. My shitty childhood was relatable to others. Then I wrote about my battles with my abusive ex, the father of my first-born, managing children with autism, struggling as a single parent, and more.

For years, I toyed with the idea of building a bigger community site, where everyone was given a voice and the option of anonymity, a place that would be judgement-free, a place for everyone who’d been on the outside looking in to be themselves.

So in September 2010, I launched The Band Back Together Project and it quickly garnered over 5,000 posts, 3,500 registered writers, and 100 amazing volunteers. All were welcome, no matter what. No problem was too small for us to acknowledge. And people shared their stories of twisted childhoods, their current families, the difficulties they faced with any sort of illness (mental or physical), and we all supported each other. For the first time for most of us, we felt heard. We were family.

In 2018, after the world became fragmented and went upside down, we began to resurrect The Band, which had been shut down after I couldn’t afford the bill. Slowly but surely, people returned, not in the same numbers as the first launch, but people came home. It’s now clear that we need to stay afloat as the world becomes more divisive. We are family, through it all, and we love and respect each other, even if we don’t agree.

I often turn off my social media accounts because I can’t stand to watch as people are getting killed for being their true selves. I can’t bear the images of families shattered by gun violence. I can’t watch while my country locks children in cages after separating them from their families. So I tune it out. I, too, am scared and frightened.

Which is all the more reason that places like The Band (as we lovingly call it) exist. Maybe the outside world is unkind and torturous, but in here, with The Band, we can still speak our minds, support people we’d never normally interact with, and help remind people and their families that no matter what the situation, you are not alone. You are family. You are home.

Becky Sherrick Harks, known to the Internet as Aunt Becky, has been through the parenting rigamarole three times with her flesh babies and twice with her online babies: Mommy Wants Vodka and the nonprofit The Band Back Together Project. She’s contributed both good and bad things all over the web, including a weekly column at The Stir and Nickelodeon, and has recently picked up her freelancing career, which she balances neatly with all the work she does for The Band Back Together Project. She now lives in Chicago with her second husband, Nathan, and shares custody of her children, while trying to take over the world, one word at a time. 

This piece is co-published with Family Story, a think tank founded to recognize, validate, and protect the many ways individuals form and re-form families. 

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