An Aunt’s Manifesto

Amy B. is a long-time reader and friend of the blog, where she comments as HH9.

I became an aunt a month before my twelfth birthday. I clearly remember a sister and I staring through the hospital nursery’s window at our new, tiny, Yoda-looking nephew. He was followed in succession by eleven additional, slightly less Yoda-looking, nieces and nephews. So, by the time I was twenty-seven – just as most of my friends were becoming parents – I had spent more than half my life as an aunt. I played with them, watched over them, joked with them, read with them, and talked to them about sports and literature and faith. They visited me when I lived far away for graduate school and I visited them when I circulated among their parents’ households for holidays. I sent birthday cards; they sent drawings, photographs, and postcards. I attended blessings and baptisms; they greeted me when I returned from my mission with posters and hugs. For me, being an aunt was just part of what it meant to have a family.

While being an aunt was always enjoyable, I, like most Mormon young women, assumed I would supplement this role with motherhood. As middle age has crept upon me, however, it has become clear that motherhood is not in the cards. Over time I slowly, gently grieved the loss of that expectation and made peace with it. Somewhere along the way I absorbed the common view of aunthood as a sort of washed out version of motherhood: containing the core elements, but without the intense colors. And somewhere along the way I also accepted definitions of motherhood and mothering that encompassed all women, even childless women, and their ability to love and lead. [1]

But the longer I’m in my 40s and the clearer it becomes that I won’t be a mother, the less meaning I get from discussions that conflate motherhood and womanhood. In the last few years I’ve no longer found this classification of women’s teaching, loving, nurture, and leadership solely through a motherhood lens as a satisfying formulation. I’m perfectly satisfied with others finding that useful and meaningful, it just doesn’t do anything for me anymore.

I’m equally completely satisfied that motherhood, not just maternity, but actually loving and caring and raising children, is its own thing, valuable on its own terms. As a woman I understand part of that world and appreciate it, but being a woman doesn’t make me a mother. I’m happier being a woman as is than I am in trying to cobble together a version of motherhood that includes me. A lot of women do both or find more satisfaction out of the latter and I think that is just fine. It’s just that as I age that I’ve become less interested in trying to force my experiences into a motherhood box and less interested in relabeling what I do as mothering.

In the past I often described being an aunt as a type of surrogate motherhood. And I’ve heard others describe aunthood in similar terms. Such a description is often done in an apologetic tone, as if declaring anything other than motherhood as fulfilling is not proper – as if I could have washed-out, surrogate motherhood, but I could not be arrogant enough to claim real meaning from being an aunt, just an aunt. But I no longer think that, nor use that description. Being an aunt is one of the most fulfilling and meaningful relationships of my life. My feelings for my nieces and nephews and grandnieces and nephews run deep and fierce. I’ve realized I appreciate aunting more when I enjoy it for what it is – aunthood – instead of seeing it a compensation for what it is not, nor can be – motherhood. Sure, in a Venn diagram aunting and mothering overlap, but they also have areas that are unique.

By only talking about or valuing the parts that overlap, I (and I daresay many others) have overlooked or underappreciated those unique bits of being an aunt (or an uncle for that matter). I, along with my childless siblings, have more freedom than our nieces and nephews’ parents and a different degree of stewardship. But make no mistake, it is a stewardship. We don’t have favorites among the cousins, because none is our child – all are equal in our eyes. Thereby we tie the cousins together and provide bridges their parents cannot build on their own, if at all. We are mentors, adults who care, who are invested for the long haul, but who are not tainted in the child’s eyes with the stain of routines, discipline, or day-to-day, cheek-to-jowl living. We’re the lattice work that ensures no one falls through the gaps and the listening ear that can withstand tricky or difficult conversations because they won’t be seen as a judgment on us as parents. We are not, as my sister recently put it, the Miss Congeniality of motherhood.

Appreciating aunthood means being grateful for my nieces and nephews, for the chance to love them, interact with them, and learn from them as nieces and nephews. They do not take the place of the children I won’t have, but nor could any potential children take their place in my heart and my life. Being their aunt is its own, emotionally, socially, and spiritually satisfying fact – one I appreciate more when I let it be what it is instead of squishing into some lesser version of being a mother. [2]

There is untapped power in aunting that is lost to me, my family, and the broader culture when I or others describe it solely in terms of motherhood. And I’m not the only to think so. Aunties, and especially single, childless aunties are all the rage these days. [3] I think it is great that there is some effort to claim aunthood as meaningful in its own right. Such claims also have me thinking about all the other family relationships we miss out on when we don’t honor them on their own terms: uncles, in-laws, siblings, cousins, friends, and the list could go on. [4]

I will repeat that many people get comfort and insight from using motherhood to talk about women’s labor and relationships more generally and I think that’s fine. But I also think there is potential to make claim to our other family relationships. We can reclaim the rich family relationships not just for recognition, but as a way of broadening our reach – as a way of drawing others to us. And we can do so in the ways we talk about our families – clearly and unapologetically.

One of my proudest moments occurred several years ago when the FamilySearch indexing specialist in my stake, whom I had not met, called to introduce herself after she learned I had signed up to do indexing. In trying to get to know me a bit she asked if I had a family. I knew she was really asking whether I had a husband and children. But since she asked whether I had family, not a spouse or children, I went for the truth. “Yes,” I said, “I have my parents, my eight siblings, four siblings-in-law, twelve nieces and nephews, a niece-in-law, and a great nephew on the way.” Long pause. She didn’t know what to say to such a response not because she considered those relationships unimportant, but because culturally they are seen as ancillary, as auxiliary, especially once one has children. I was proud that I took ownership of that family – that I conveyed all of those people are central to me, not auxiliary, not place-holders for a spouse and children. I imagine they are also central to a whole lot of other people, even people who also have spouses and children. And I think it can only benefit us to reclaim them, speak of them, and celebrate them.

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[1] Sheri Dew, “Are We Not All Mothers?” Ensign, November 2001. See also Valerie Hudson Cassler, “Two Trees: An LDS Revisiting of the Garden of Eden” Square2, vol. 9, no. 1 (Spring 2016), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerTwoTrees.html. Even if I see gaps in Dew’s and Cassler’s descriptions, I deeply appreciate their serious, thoughtful, and ongoing discussion of women and motherhood. I’m not worried that I no longer agree 100% with them – I’m more interested in having more people join the discussion instead of assuming these are the only two perspectives.

[2] Though this is never done for childless men, childless LDS women often hear that their service in Primary or Young Women’s, or their job as a school teacher, is like mothering, is a compensation for not being a mother. In one of my (childless) sister’s words, this is “crumbs from the table”. Especially if said childless woman, like me, has spent all of a combined ten months in Primary and Young Women’s callings. And frankly, saying that the one hour on Sundays and the one week at girls’ camp that I spend with a girl is the same as her mother’s daily, painstaking efforts to raise her is offensively dismissive of motherhood’s real work. A better formulation might be to equate church callings that focus on children and youth as being a type of aunthood or unclehood more than a type of parenthood.

[3] Mia Birdsong, “In Praise of the Auntie,” Slate.com, 6 May 2016; Jacqueline Melissen, “Why Child-Free Aunties Are Amazing,” Huffingtonpost.ca, 18 June 2015; See also Savvy Auntie.com which tags itself as “the first community for cool aunts, great aunts, godmothers and all women who love kids.”

[4] Single, childless LDS women at least get some recognition of their lives, even general conference talks looking to tell their story and find a place for it within LDS rhetoric about gender and families. No such effort is made on behalf of single, childless LDS men. They are rendered pathological instead. A language of unclehood might be useful to helping rectify that stigma.

Comments

  1. xzonnia says:

    My own experience so closely mirrors this. From a mother’s day talk I gave last year:

    “When I was 33 and unmarried, attending a family ward in SLC, my faith was strong but I felt very out of place. Around mother’s day, my loving and well-meaning visiting teachers told me what a great job I was doing serving in the primary, and gave me the Sheri Dew pamphlet, “Are we not all Mothers?”

    “I appreciate all efforts of inclusion, but I did not feel like the mother I ached to become.
    Just as priesthood authority includes administering the sacrament, but is not fulfilled in the act of holding a bread tray, I didn’t feel that – for me – spending Sunday afternoons teaching 5 year olds fulfilled the essence of motherhood.”

    In my process of preparing for the talk, I returned to the themes of Eve being a mother without having given birth, and Christ being a mother without being a woman (3 Ne 10:4-6). I don’t feel I participate in motherhood when I visit my nieces or sit in primary. But I’m increasingly convinced that motherhood is not just about changing diapers and 24/7 care, either. That may be part of it for some families during some years of their lives. I believe more and more that motherhood is part of the process of leading God’s children back to Him.

    When my life feels dedicated to that work, I feel like I’m “participating in motherhood” regardless of the nature of the family unit or relationship involved. I don’t feel like a mother, and I don’t feel a need to claim motherhood any time I interact with a small child. But priesthood is about more than sacrament trays, and motherhood is about more than singing songs and distributing yellow balloons. Now I have to re-examine my stewardship as an aunt and my role in building that lattice work. Thanks for the excellent post.

  2. All of this. Very well said.

  3. Genevieve says:

    I am deeply moved by this. It is absolutely beautiful.

  4. Mortimer says:

    amen

  5. I really enjoyed this. I too am a single aunt, who likes to swoop in from the east coast bearing exotic gifts (kind of like the Magi?). I’ve traveled with my nieces and nephews to other countries, and I’ve had them stay in my apartment so that they could get a taste of a city and a lifestyle they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Definitely a relationship that I enjoy and treasure.

  6. Thank you so much for this. The timing for this post is perfect for me; I just made a long move to be closer to my sisters and their children. Though I hope to be a mother one day, I enjoy aunthood on its own terms and find it extremely fulfilling and joyful. It is so satisfying to be able to lend a hand and do some of the daily work of parenting but then be able to return to my own quiet home and pursuits. My relationships with my nieces and nephews ease some of the pain that comes from being a young single woman in the Church. It was a transforming moment when I realized that the Family Proclamation could be useful to me only when I considered my whole family, not just my nuclear one. Now when I hear messages in Conference about defending the family, I consider it a call to defend the importance of maintaining family relationships that aren’t as openly praised as parent-child or husband-wife relationships.

  7. Jason K. says:

    I’m very grateful for this perspective. Thank you!

  8. This is wonderful. I have also made peace with the fact that I will not have children (and I’m 90% at peace that I won’t marry), and my “aunthood” is important to me. Thank you for articulating what I’ve felt for years.

    Also, I love your answer to the family history specialist…I will have to remember that for the next time I’m asked the same question. Time to reclaim my familial roles I do have instead of focusing on the two I don’t.

  9. Thank you all for commenting. I feel like I belong to a auntie/uncle club now. And comparing us to the magi doesn’t sound too shabby.

  10. Thank you for this. It helps clarify for me why I’ve grown so uncomfortable with our motherhood rhetoric – it values a my life and contributions only so far as they can be reshaped to fit into a space of motherhood. I’d like to be valued for who I actually am (an aunt, friend, sister, visiting teacher, choir director, project manager) rather than as a pseudo mother, no matter how much I might long for that role as well. I imagine many mothers also want to be valued outside their motherhood as well as within.

  11. Corrina says:

    This was a beautiful piece that made me think in new ways. Thank you. I especially appreciated the Venn diagram depiction.

    Amy B., I’m interested to hear if you think this fullness of being an aunt is possible for someone (like me) who is also a mother? I really want to claim my role as an aunt and nurture my relationship with my nieces and nephews. I truly believe that “It takes a village!” In particular when you state: “We don’t have favorites among the cousins, because none is our child – all are equal in our eyes. Thereby we tie the cousins together and provide bridges their parents cannot build on their own, if at all.” This seems like a unique ability (to aunthood w/o motherhood) that I hadn’t considered.

  12. This is a beautiful piece. As a woman who is a mother and through church and life connections hangs with other mothers. Motherhood is not all it’s cracked up to be. I have served with women who love having leadership callings so that they have an excuse to do something other than “mother”. I have rubbed shoulders with women who love to mother only certain age groups (I don’t blame them, they had no way of knowing until it arrived) but some find babies are great and teens a nightmare. Or vice-versa. Life has worked out fairly LDS text book for me. I am fortunate in that way. Yet I have two daughters who have no desire to mother – ever. They see their roles as custodians of life around them. Feeding the destitute, studying history. Babying and mothering No. As you have found your peace, I hope your light can be a beacon to each of us, wherever we landed, to find peace. And I wish our religion boldly embraced the same objective. Let God do his work with our lives and let us enjoy it. – Again beautifully written.

  13. I loved this so much. As a young girl I totally embraced motherhood as my number one goal and I did it! I married young and had 7 children in 12 years. Motherhood has been my all encompassing journey for the past 13 years. I have grown from the experience, but it was not at all what I thought it would be. I love my children and am dedicated to embracing this journey, but the bottom line is, with so many children it is literally all I do. The bulk of my days and nights are spent mothering. At times it feels too heavy. At times it is too much and I yearn for something else. I have come to dread lessons and talks on mothering. I quit going to the women’s broadcast 4 years ago. I request primary callings to avoid the Relief Society lessons. I want to scream, “I got it! Message received! I’m doing it! It is literally all I do! Could we please talk about something, anything else!?!? Surely we women have something to offer besides our wombs.

  14. Truly, thank you so much for this piece. I have so many dear friends and relatives who my children see as aunts and uncles and their role in both my children’s lives and my own is invaluable and so unique. I am definitely guilty as someone who is a mother to children of trying to help other people “cobble together” their own definitions of motherhood, often times out of my own guilt. This is such a useful perspective because it helps me to realize that those attitudes of guilt are not helpful to me, my children or the person who is in the aunt/uncle role. I have so much to learn and I’m grateful for such a thoughtful post.

  15. Sister Chris says:

    In our family, aunts have been vital to the mental health and well-being of many nieces and nephews. Often, they have been able to express support and listen to unpopular opinions that might horrify parents–they have stepped into provide comfort and perspective when no one else could. Without these vital role models, I have no idea where my daughters–and my nieces specifically–would have found answers for their faith crises, their emotional challenges, their doubts and their pain. Aunties have been beacons of possibility, providing a vision of lives well-lived and adventures–of potential that some of those in our family might not have found without the examples of those women. I believe aunt is a sacred and holy calling: not even remotely lesser than or second tier. Thank you for this beautiful post.

  16. Corrina:
    You raise the same question my sister who has children raised. I absolutely think we can be good aunts and good mothers (and a host of other goodness) simultaneously. I think I make a pretty darn good sister, but that doesn’t diminish the labor I put into aunting. I think we inherited the Victorian spin on romanticism that funnels all meaningful loving relationships into very narrow confines: spouse (or romantic partner) and (sometimes) children. No one person could possibly do all we expect from those relationships, we need to go back to an early form of family life that appreciated the rich variety of emotional and social bonds found in a host of relationships, that expected to find purpose in meaning in many connections at once.

    Cat and Sara:
    The overlaps in your comments were striking. And I’d never heard someone who was in the middle of raising children point out that hearing about it constantly was a bit much! I agree with you both – let’s broaden the ways we talk about women’s lives. It seems like it has the potential to ease burdens.

    Becky, Ashmae, and Sister Chris:
    Thank you for sharing how aunt and uncle relationships have enriched your lives and the lives of your family and community.