I spend a great deal of time in the car driving. And I have taken to listening to audio books – recently I have been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book “Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage”. I bought this book for a few reasons – I loved “Eat, Pray, Love” – and as a woman who has been married since I am 20 years old and will turn 50 next December – I have been married a very long time. And I will have you know – that even after 29 some odd years of marriage – I am still a skeptic about marriage. You know – just because you have done something well enough to keep it together for a life time doesn’t mean that you are not a skeptic!
Perhaps what Elizabeth and I share is a skeptic’s view on what a marriage should look like. And everyone has their own idea of that – for me – a woman who married at a very young age and who deeply loves her husband and her family – the meaning and contours of my marriage is often softly shifting over time. It is that willingness to bend with the years and what life brings to us – that has kept us out of divorce court. That and a deep willingness to forgive.
What is the secret to a long term marriage you might ask? For me it has been about a man who has been willing to love me while I changed, and morphed over and over again. But this entry really isn’t about marriage – it is really about something else that Elizabeth Gilbert a woman who is childless by choice, had to say about being an Aunt – and the world of childless women who were either childless by choice, infertility, the lack of men or marriage. What she had to say caught my attention – and my heart and I wanted to bring it here – to my blog to give you a taste. And to remind us all of the incredible role that childless women play in the lives of children, families, and society at large.
“Childless women — let’s call them the “Auntie Brigade” — have never been very well honored by history, I’m afraid. They are called selfish, frigid, pathetic. Here’s one particularly nasty bit of conventional wisdom circulating out there about childless women that I need to dispel here, and that is this: that women who have no children may lead liberated and happy and wealthy lives when they are young, but they will ultimately regret that choice when they reach old age, for they shall all die alone and depressed and full of bitterness. Perhaps you’ve heard this old chestnut? Just to set the record straight: There is zero sociological evidence to back this up. In fact, recent studies of American nursing homes comparing happiness levels of elderly childless women against happiness levels of women who did have children show no pattern of special misery or joy in one group or the other. But here’s what the researchers did discover makes elderly women miserable across the board: poverty and poor health. Whether you have children or not, then, the prescription seems clear: Save your money, floss your teeth, wear your seatbelt, and keep fit — and you’ll be a perfectly happy old bird someday.
Just a little free advice there, from your Auntie Liz.
In leaving no descendents, however, childless aunts do tend to vanish from memory after a mere generation, quickly forgotten, their lives as transitory as butterflies. But they are vital as they live, and they can even be heroic. Even in my own family’s recent history, there are stories on both sides of truly magnificent aunties who stepped in and saved the day during emergencies. Often able to accrue education and resources precisely because they were childless, these women had enough spare income and compassion to pay for lifesaving operations, or to rescue the family farm, or to take in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill. I have a friend who calls these sorts of child-rescuing aunties “sparents”— “spare parents” — and the world is filled with them.
Even within my own community, I can see where I have been vital sometimes as a member of the Auntie Brigade. My job is not merely to spoil and indulge my niece and nephew (though I do take that assignment to heart) but also to be a roving auntie to the world — an ambassador auntie — who is on hand wherever help is needed, in anybody’s family whatsoever. There are people I’ve been able to help, sometimes fully supporting them for years, because I am not obliged, as a mother would be obliged, to put all my energies and resources into the full-time rearing of a child. There are a whole bunch of Little League uniforms and orthodontist’s bills and college educations that I will never have to pay for, thereby freeing up resources to spread more widely across the community. In this way, I, too, foster life. There are many, many ways to foster life. And believe me, every single one of them is essential.
Jane Austen once wrote to a relative whose first nephew had just been born: “I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible. Now that you have become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence.” Jane knew of which she spoke. She herself was a childless auntie, cherished by her nieces and nephews as a marvelous confidante, and remembered always for her “peals of laughter.”
Speaking of writers: From an admittedly biased perspective, I feel the need to mention here that Leo Tolstoy and Truman Capote and all the Brontë sisters were raised by their childless aunts after their real mothers had either died or abandoned them. Tolstoy claimed that his Aunt Toinette was the greatest influence of his life, as she taught him “the moral joy of love.” The historian Edward Gibbon, having been orphaned young, was raised by his beloved and childless Aunt Kitty. John Lennon was raised by his Aunt Mimi, who convinced the boy that he would be an important artist someday. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s loyal Aunt Annabel offered to pay for his college education. Frank Lloyd Wright’s first building was commissioned by his Aunts Jane and Nell — two lovely old maids who ran a boarding school in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Coco Chanel, orphaned as a child, was raised by her Aunt Gabrielle, who taught her how to sew — a useful skill for the girl, I think we would all agree. Virginia Woolf was deeply influenced by her Aunt Caroline, a Quaker spinster who devoted her life to charitable works, who heard voices and spoke to spirits, and who seemed, as Woolf recalled years later, “a kind of modern prophetess.”
Remember that critical moment in literary history when Marcel Prouts bites into his famous madeleine cookie, thereby becoming so overwhelmed by nostalgia that he has no choice but to sit down and write the multivolume epic Remembrance of Things Past? That entire tsunami of eloquent nostalgia was set off by the specific memory of Marcel’s beloved Aunt Leonie, who, every Sunday after church, used to share her madeleines with the boy when he was a child. And have you ever wondered what Peter Pan really looked like? His creator, J.M. Barrie, answered that question for us back in 1911. For Barrie, Peter Pan’s image and his essence and his marvelous spirit of felicity can be found all over the world, hazily reflected “in the faces of many women who have no children.”
That is the Auntie Brigade.”
I can’t tell you how that passage moved me. You know – we forget how important woman are in our society – in all of the different roles that we can hold. And the role and the importance of an “Aunt” is incredibly under acknowledged. It’s not just about what she can give to society, but what I love about Elizabeth Gilbert is that she also talks about the life that being a childless woman can offer to herself. Now this may not ring with happiness for you if you are dealing with involuntary childlessness – and if you are in the midst of unbearable pain of giving up a dream that you are not ready to give up.
It’s important to understand that Elizabeth does not want any children. But how often do we get to hear a woman talk about even that?
But still it worried me about posting this – because frankly I wasn’t planning on putting on having to pull up my big white panties for the week if I triggered some of my readers who are in the midst of terrible grieving about their childlessness and would not be ready to hear about how childless Aunts have helped support countless communities and families – as well as having fabulous lives without kids.
But I wanted to remind all of us – of this incredible contribution that these women make – because until I heard Elizabeth Gilbert read those words – I hadn’t thought about The Auntie Brigade at all. Not really. And you know how it is – once you think about something in a new way – you find new resources. Did you know that there was a really cool website for women who are Aunts, Great Aunts, God Mothers, or any woman that simply loves kids? It’s called Savvy Auntie! I love that there is not a website community that is celebrating these women. Are you an Auntie? Do you love an Auntie? Send them the link!
Sometimes I wonder if I would have made a better Auntie than a Mom. I would enjoy nothing more than being my nephews or even my own kid’s bigger than life “Auntie Mame”. That woman who has enough money because it is not being spent on braces, summer camp, and college to take her beloved nephews to the theater or Europe, instead of worrying about the SAT Tutor and homework. For me – I will have to wait until I am a Grandma to be Auntie Mame – but that is another blog for another day. Today – we are talking about women who love, mother and support not only families, but entire communities without giving birth in the traditional way.
Great Aunt Resources:
The Complete Book of Aunts By Rupert Christiansen