Some time between now and early September, my life is going to change. There’ll be first-time experiences, chances to share knowledge and many new things to learn. There’ll be a new guest at family dinners. There’ll be an avalanche of teeny, tiny items in my life all of a sudden.
There's going to be a baby.
And best of all, it's not going to be mine.
My sister is due at the end of the month, and I’m becoming an aunt for the first time. I’m pretty stoked about it, which may puzzle some friends because I’ve made the decision not to have kids. It’s a decision that I feel even more confident about on the eve of my 35th birthday and in the midst of a pandemic in a world facing huge ecological, financial and geopolitical challenges.
Instead, I’ve been eagerly awaiting to join the ranks of PANKs: Professional Aunt, No Kids – a role that I don’t think gets its societal due.
I’ve been lucky to have important and influential aunts in my life. I have my mother’s sister and sisters-in-laws, who have taught me about the importance of extended family and my French-Canadian heritage through a shared love of baking things like butter tarts. My dad’s sister-in-law, still very much the cool woman I knew before she had my three cousins, has shown me that you don’t have to lose your pre-child identity when you become a mother.
But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my Aunt Peggy. She was actually my great aunt (my paternal grandmother’s sister), but she was crucial to my becoming an independent, strong woman.
Peggy was fascinating to me as a child for many reasons. First off, at around six feet, she was a lot taller than most women I knew. She struck me as sophisticated, urban and modern. She had her career in health care and a cool midtown Toronto apartment, and every outfit she owned had a fancy silk scarf to go with it. (A few decades later, the parallels between us go beyond our height: I’m passionate about my role as senior audience editor at The Globe, live in a similar Toronto apartment and occasionally don a silk scarf when I want to feel fancy.)
But the thing I remember the most about Aunt Peggy was that she had no kids of her own.
This didn’t stop her from being a big part of my life. I have fond memories of Peggy insisting we go to the ballet, museums and art galleries together, even if at the time I was deeply bored and unappreciative of these activities. When I look back though, I realize she was sharing her view of the world with me, and how generous that was.
Unfortunately, Peggy died when I was 14. After her death, I started to realize that the most important thing she did for me was lay out a new example of womanhood.
Her childlessness was at odds with a deep historical legacy in our culture. As writer Jessica Valenti puts it in her book Why Have Kids?: “American culture can’t accept the reality of a woman who does not want to be a mother. It goes against everything we’ve been taught to think about women and how desperately they want babies. If we’re to believe the media and pop culture, women – even teen girls – are forever desperate for a baby. It’s our greatest desire.”
It’d be a lie to say I didn’t at some point in my life feel like I ought to have kids. But I don’t recall ever feeling like I wanted to have kids. Some time in my twenties, I started to consciously acknowledge that I didn’t want children of my own. The reasons are personal, complicated and unique for every woman. For me, they range from anxieties over the state of the world (cough, cough ... climate change) to realizations that pregnancy and giving birth were not experiences I desired. I am lucky that my long-term partner is on the same page.
But like many young women who decide to traverse this path, this highly personal decision can come with societal consequences. People think you’ll change your mind, which can be a huge hassle for women who want to tie their tubes while they’re still of child-bearing age, only to be turned away by doctors who insist they’ll one day regret it. Others think that you hate kids (I don’t) or that you’re judging them for having children (I’m not). And politicians and employers so often only see women as mothers, which can leave the rest of us feeling ignored, unseen and taken for granted as childless, professional women.
Luckily, I’ve become good at letting other people’s and society’s expectations go. But I did have one worry: if I don’t want kids of my own, does this mean I won’t be able to have time with kids?
That has, thankfully, been disproven as my friends have started to have babies, I’ve become an unofficial aunt to many little ones. And I’ve especially had the pleasure to be an honorary aunt to my friend Michelle’s daughter, Adina.
My relationship with Adina, 2, has given me a taste of how fun aunt responsibilities are: I buy her ridiculously priced clothes and toys, I’ve experienced the joy of unclogging her stuffed-up nose with a baby aspirator, and I’ve had countless silly FaceTime calls with her during the pandemic.
It has also delivered me a new kind of happiness that I can only describe as Aunt Afterglow.
I do understand there is more to being an aunt than just spoiling and goofing around with a child. And I also know that being an aunt does not mean I understand what motherhood is and how hard its challenges are.
But as Peggy taught me, the most important thing I can do for my sister’s child is to live authentically, find my own happiness and be an example that there are many ways to live your life.
I am really looking forward to being there for this child and helping him, her or them navigate the world as only a PANK can.
What else we’re thinking about:
Birds. Maybe it’s feeling trapped by the pandemic restrictions, but my once casual interest in birds and bird-watching has gone into overdrive in 2020. I spent much of spring watching the drama of two red-tail hawks raising their chicks on the roof of a nearby Toronto apartment tower. Or spying on owls, red-wing blackbirds and finches in the nearby park. I even found the time to walk the entirety of the Leslie Street Spit and log all of the birds I spotted on my Merlin app. This obsession goes beyond envying their ability to fly free. I’ve also been reading about them and I can’t recommend these two bird-focused books enough if you’re looking for a last-minute summer read. Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom is a bizarre and hilarious sci-fi book about the zombie apocalypse as told through the eyes of a domesticated crow. It’s as insightful as it is strange and deeply poignant thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. And for something completely different but equally bird-centric: H is for Hawk. This memoir by falconer Helen Macdonald will leave you in awe and tears.
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