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Musical talent runs deep on my father’s side of the family, and no one embodied this more than my great Aunt Mary.
One of my fondest memories of Aunt Mary, a professional pianist, is sitting at her side on the piano bench as a child, preparing for one of my dreaded piano exams. On one slow and understated song, she coached me to use the lightest of touches on the keys. She guided me away from the temptation to use loudness to be expressive and taught me the power of gentleness. It’s a lesson that’s always stayed with me, but for me, and my five cousins, Aunt Mary was more than just someone who helped us with piano. She was the true matriarch of our family.
Aunt Mary died this year at the age of 97, and not only did we lose her steady presence, but we also lost a major player in the overarching score of our family life.
I’m Katrya Bolger, and I just wrapped up a summer stint as a content editor at The Globe and Mail. With my aunt’s passing, I started to think about the ways women can become “mothers” without giving birth first. My Aunt Mary was a second mother to the younger members of our family (including my father, her nephew), although she never had children of her own.
Her busy career, as the principal pianist for 35 years at the National Ballet of Canada, kept her on the road and she never married. Growing up, I saw her as an impossibly glamorous woman, a sort of ballet musician rock star. By that time, she had retired and was in her 70s. But she still carried an aura of elegance and influence.
We didn’t live in the same city and didn’t even see each other all that often, but I always felt close to Aunt Mary. As a child, I lived outside of Canada for several years, and every time I saw her, she was eager to hear my stories about life with my parents in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Over time, I realized that, like me, Aunt Mary had a deep desire to explore and push boundaries. Her work took her far and wide, from the stages of Toronto to Moscow, and beyond. She used this shared sense of curiosity and adventure, as well as a shared propensity for independence, to build a bridge between us, one that always made me feel close to her, even from afar.
Eventually I learned my aunt was a role model to young people outside of the family, too. She mentored many young dancers during her career, including those who had come from other countries to join the National Ballet. Her mothering instincts, it turns out, stretched far beyond the borders of our clan.
Today, more women are choosing not to have kids than in Aunt Mary’s day. Canada’s fertility rate, at 1.6, sits below the 2.1 children per woman needed to sustain population numbers. And, as Anne Kingston writes in a memorable Maclean’s piece (titled “The no baby boom"): “One out of five women in the U.K., Ireland, the U.S., Canada and Australia are reaching their mid-40s without having had children – twice as many as a generation ago.” While these women may never give birth, some of them will still play a role akin to a mother, just like my Aunt Mary did.
That yearning to bond with a child, despite not having one of your own, is where aunt magic can begin. And, actually, there’s an acronym for that: PANK, or Professional Aunt, No Kids, coined by Melanie Notkin, founder of SavvyAuntie.com and author of Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers, and All Women Who Love Kids. “We all agree it takes a village to raise a child. We’re in your village. We’re part of your tribe,” Notkin writes for The New York Times. She urges moms everywhere not to conclude that childless women "dislike children because at the very least, we love your kids.”
Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall, it seems, can relate to that notion. The 63-year-old actor famously came under fire for likening herself to a mother, although she never had children of her own: “I am not a biological parent, but I am a parent. I have young actors and actresses that I mentor, I have nieces and nephews that I am very close to,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. “There is a way to become a mother in this day and age which doesn’t include your name on the child’s birth certificate."
This phenomenon isn’t exactly new, either: In her 1997 book, Mother Without a Child: Contemporary Fiction and the Crisis of Motherhood, Elaine Tuttle Hansen urges recognition of women who mother outside the nuclear family. They exist at the “borders of motherhood … neither fully inside nor fully outside some recognizable family unit,” Hansen writes.
I’m lucky to have a close relationship with my own mother, whom I adore. But there’s something to be said for having other women to look up to in your family and broader community. I don’t know if I’ll ever have kids of my own. But I’ll always take comfort in looking back at my Aunt Mary’s life and the family she built for herself, outside of those traditional boundaries of motherhood.
What else we’re thinking about:
I loved this eye-opening piece in The New York Times, about Thailand’s deadly roads. The country has the world’s second-highest rate of road fatalities per capita, according to the World Health Organization. Having lived in Bangkok for two years, I have seen the dangerous state of driving up close. This piece goes a step further than just describing those conditions, linking them to a larger tale of inequality. “In Thailand, one of the world’s most unequal societies, even roads have a rigid hierarchy, with the poor far more likely to be killed in accidents than the well-off and well-connected,” writes Hannah Beech. Not only does the piece deliver thoughtful reporting and writing, but the images are incredible, too.
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