In Praise of the Auntie

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Photo: Lisa Larson-Walker
Media Outlet: Slate

Mia Birdsong writes for Slate about Mother's Day in praise of the auntie:

“I’ve recently gotten pretty comfortable with the idea of potentially never having children,” my friend Seher posted on Facebook the other day, “Don’t want to force it and feel pressured by some clock, and don’t particularly want to be an old mom. Currently I’m in a grey area which is rapidly narrowing.” Seher is among several women I know trying to decide on the part they want to play when it comes to motherhood.

The role of mother or not-mother is such a deep dichotomy for women in our culture. A record number of women—nearly half of those ages 15-44—were child-free in 2014. Some of us know we aren’t interested in becoming mothers; others know we want it and are able to make it happen, one way or another. But many of us struggle in an in-between space. A very wise mentor of mine once said to me that if I’m ever faced with a decision and can only identify two choices—yes or no, this or that—I am missing something. There is always a third (and fourth and fifth) way. Aunties embody the third way. (And let’s be clear that “aunties” and “mothers” include transwomen, femmes, and gender nonconforming folks.)

My daughter, who is 10, is at the age where she still accepts my public affection. She asks me to stay in her room after I put her to bed so we can snuggle and talk, or I can sing jazz or Patty Griffin to her. But I can feel the taciturnity of adolescence emerging. I feel our connection being pulled taut as she stretches it to create more space between us. It’s a bittersweet feeling, and it causes me little bursts of panic. I have to fight the urge to smother her or demand her voice when she chooses silence.

Instead, I’ve put my discomfort into the work of shoring up the supports in her world, tightening the weave of her safety net. A couple of months ago, I called my friend Mariah; she has been my daughter’s auntie since she was in kindergarten and Mariah was her teacher. I asked her to have monthly dates with my daughter, so that as the distance grows between us, she and Mariah are getting closer. Mariah immediately agreed and their sleepovers have been full of doing hair, cooking healthy dinners, and eating croissants for breakfast.
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Author:

Mia Birdsong was a 2016 New America CA fellow. She is co-director of Family Story, and previously served as vice president of the Family Independence Initiative.