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If you know me on this site, you know me as the childfree editor of Undefining Motherhood. That sounds like an oxymoron, but stay with me. I may experience what I call “fertility apathy,” but I’m also a diehard champion of moms and kids everywhere.
Just because I’m not a mom in the traditional sense DOESN’T mean that:
- I don’t like kids
- I don’t want to hang out with your kids
- I don’t want to support you in your journey as a mom or parent
All of these common assumptions are GROSSLY false. Ask anyone with kids about my childfree state, and they’ll tell that I am by no means anti-motherhood or anti-children. In fact, I get pissed if you don’t let me hang out with your kids.
And some women are different—not everyone has to love kids, but we do all have to respect their place in the world.
I REALLY enjoy being a bonus mom to my friends’ kids, but I think there’s a special category that I find myself in that doesn’t get enough love or recognition from the motherhood community at large: being an aunt.
I’m close to sobbing as I write this, and while I’m sure it’s probably, in part, due to the fact that I’m hormonal/there’s a pandemic going on/life is weird in so many ways, I also got upset over something I saw on the internet (imagine that).
While doing some research for this article (a topic so close to my heart), the internet taught me that there is an actual Aunts and Uncles day. It was a month before I sat down to write this piece, July 26th.
You might be wondering what a 37-year-old woman is doing sitting at her desk sobbing over finding out that there’s one more useless, made-up internet holiday in the world.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think that Aunts and Uncles day is equivalent to World Fried Chicken Day or National Bagelfest Day (this is an actual thing), or whatever the hell we’re usually “celebrating.” I think it should be a bonafide thing, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, or at least as celebrated as Grandparents’ Day.
When you see yourself as defined by the moniker of “Aunt,” “Uncle,” and/or “Godparent,” and you put a lot of stock into that role, it hurts to know that others don’t accept or celebrate it in the same ways you do because you’re not a parent in the traditional sense.
Heck, we even missed it here at Undefining Motherhood, and we claim to be a space that celebrates all variations of motherhood. (As the editor, this one’s actually on me).
A Call to Aunthood
I can remember the first time that I heard I was going to be an aunt. It was the Fall of 2008, and I was teaching at a small, independent liberal arts college in Salt Lake City, Utah.
My sister called me several times while I was holding office hours, and as I stepped outside my office to take her call, I knew something was off.
I stood on a little stoop outside the Humanities building and listened to her panic. She and my brother-in-law had only been married a few months, and I remember her telling me exactly how much they had in their bank account (not much) and how unprepared to be a parent she was.
I think it was raining that day, and while everything about her call seemed gloomy, I couldn’t help but find myself smiling so wide. I was going to be an aunt, and as I promised her that NO ONE in my immediate family would let ANY of that baby’s needs go unmet, I felt her start to accept the role of mama while I accepted mine of aunt.
I was the first person she told.
I was also the first person (along with my mom) to stay with my sister after the birth of my niece, and a few years later, I was the first to know the sex of her third child (they wanted to keep it a secret unknown to them until the gender reveal).
As I struggled being away from home (my family is in Alabama, and I was in Utah at the time), my sister made it easy to be an aunt.
We Skyped so much that there’s even a video of my two-year-old niece screaming “I WANT TO TALK TO AUNT SARAH IN THE MICROWAVE” at the top of her tiny lungs. Clearly, microwave was synonymous for computer in her myopic little world.
The day I presented one of the biggest talks of my life, in Jane Austen’s former home in Chawton, England, my sister Skyped with me so that my nieces (there were 2 at the time) could tell me good luck from multiple time zones away.
Shelby also made a “Who Loves Baby” book of photos of me and my family, so that my nieces would always recognize even those of us who couldn’t be physically present.
It broke my heart to move from Salt Lake City to Vancouver, BC to pursue a PhD, but it never seemed to matter where I was: my sister was as invested in me being an aunt as I was in the job itself.
And so I flew home for birthday parties, holidays, and, eventually, for the births of my brother’s children.
I’m now an aunt to 8 small humans, and if they don’t know how much I love them, it’s absolutely not for a lack of me trying to show it.
Being Childfree isn’t Always What It’s Cracked Up to Be
I’m not here to tell you how to live your life, but if you have nieces and nephews you aren’t involved with, I highly recommend it, especially if you don’t have kids of your own…and even if you do!
There’s a particular bond with nieces and nephews that 100% fills a hole in my heart and my life.
In fact, I was talking to my therapist just the other day about my fertility apathy (I’ve been on the fence about kids since, like, 2001).
I often feel like I’m beating a dang dead horse when I talk to her about having kids, but (as therapists often do) she surprised me with new insight.
She said, “Sarah, you can debate this all you want to, but in the time I’ve known you, you’ve never not wanted children in your life. So maybe the question should not be whether or not you want kids, but maybe it should be more about how to have more of them in your life.”
I was floored. What if I’ve been asking myself the wrong questions all along? What if, at 37, I can just face the music and not worry about cranking out a baby as a “geriatric” mother?
What if the hole I’m feeling isn’t some giant existential question about fertility, but rather a huge lack of children in my life as it stands?
But What About Your Nieces and Nephews?
You’re probably wondering why I spent all that time telling you how involved I am with my nieces and nephews only to then be gobsmacked by my therapist’s revelation about needing more kids in my life.
The truth is that even those of us who consider ourselves grade-A aunts can still use more children, more joy, more inclusion in people with children’s lives.
At the moment, we’re in a global pandemic, so seeing my family has become an anomaly that happens only when we can guarantee that no one feels sick or has been around anyone who is COVID positive.
The kids and my mom (a teacher) started back to school last week, so these visits will become fewer and farther between. I miss them.
I also miss Jack, Katy’s son, who I used to see on a super regular basis. I miss his laughter and how he always told me he loved me as I left.
(Editorial note from Katy: believe me, he misses her too. She’s also one of the first people I trusted with him when he was tiny and I was struggling with postpartum anxiety. Because she’s in many ways a “better” mother than I am, and that’s awesome.)
I miss being able to interact with kids in public (now a no-no as we all try to protect each other from the virus).
I miss babysitting a chubby angel named Lucas.
I miss, I miss, I miss . . . all the sweet little things about children and babies that accompany aunthood and being a bonus mom.
I also miss being able to play and have fun with kids and then hand them back to their parents when they’ve crapped their pants or are having a tantrum. Hey, I never said I was perfect.
Why Is Being an Aunt Important?
I could answer this question with any number of cliche answers, but here’s the thing: aunthood is as good for me as it is my nieces and nephews.
It fulfills a part of what I feel like is my role on earth. I’m a nurturing, caring person, and while motherhood might not be in the cards for me, being able to interact with and love children is a HUGE part of who I am.
Being a “mother” and being “childfree” are not mutually exclusive, y’all.
Being an aunt is so important to me. It’s important that I fulfill my needs, but it’s also important that I impart what I know and value to the little people who call me “Aunt Sarah.”
And so I buy them books from ALL my travels. Books in different languages; books about different cultures; books about numbers and colors and letters and animals. I send postcards and texts and little love notes.
When I can, I travel to birthday parties and dance recitals and cheerleading events and even show up at the occasional homeschooling Zoom meeting to explain poetry to my older niece and nephew.
I show up when I can, and I show up big.
And someday, maybe one of those special little people will see “Aunt and Uncles Day” in a random calendar and decide to celebrate that.
But even if they don’t, I’ll still know that being an aunt is one of the greatest roles of my life.
I love you Laynie, Addie, Caroline, , Riley, Ella Monroe, Bear, and Lilly Kate. Thank you for letting me be your aunt.
How has being an aunt impacted your life? Tell us in the comments!
Sarah Creel, PhD, is the editor of Undefining Motherhood, and Director of the Research Communication Certificate in the Graduate School at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Sarah loves to be with her family (including eight nieces and nephews!), friends, boyfriend, and animals (she has two cats and one weird dog. Wait, who is she kidding? They are all weird). At Undefining Motherhood, Sarah brings new perspectives by shedding light on nontraditional ways of being a mother.