The realization hit me at a family barbecue. Actually, something my cousin Tom said hit me—and then I hit him. “You’ve become Aunt Shirl,” he teased as he watched me tussle with a pack of rowdy kids near the buffet table and then grill them about their summer plans.
I glared at Tom and swatted him with my paper plate. Those were fighting words.
Most women fear the moment they become their mothers, but I’d always been terrified of turning into my mother’s sister. Long-divorced with no children of her own, she would fly in from Ottawa on a thick cloud of Giorgio perfume, her long hair backcombed and smoothed into a chic, impenetrable chignon. An art gallery director, Aunt Shirley wore dinner-plate-size clip-on earrings and boldly hued caftans. Her presence, my Uncle George once quipped, turned holidays into a “royal visit.”
Our very own Auntie Mame (that archetypal eccentric aunt from the stage and screen) was a capital-C Character. She was generous and PhD smart, with a worldly flair for the dramatic. “Chapeau!” she’d say, when others would opt for a simple, “Good for you.” I was drawn to Auntie Shirl and craved her approval, but somehow, to my kid brain, her life always seemed a little sad behind all the flash, a little lonely. Now 44, I feared that was how people saw me.
I shouldn’t have been so self-conscious. As the number of child-free women in North America hits a record high—the “no-baby boom,” as Maclean’s called it—we are everywhere. The 2014 US census revealed a higher-than-ever number of child-free women at 47.6 percent, a leap from just 35 percent in the mid-’70s. Here in Canada, more people live alone than with children. According to Canadian census data, only nine percent of households consisted of one adult in 1961. Now, it’s close to 28 percent.
Savvy companies like Canadian Tire and Royal Caribbean are even marketing to PANKs (Professional Aunt, No Kids) with campaigns for everything from gadgets to getaways in the hope we’ll splurge on the kids in our lives (guilty).
Though we’re driving a demographic trend, we PANKs are also keenly aware of our outsider status. I kept thinking about the response Sex and the City actress Kim Cattrall got when she told BBC radio that she resented the “childless” label. “I am not a biological parent, but I am a parent,” she said, citing the emotional and financial support she provides her niece and nephew. “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.”
Her remarks drew a Theodore Tugboat-load of criticism, as biological mothers flooded her social media feed with their great disapproval. Me, I silently cheered.
While Cattrall’s use of the M-word might be overstating it, we aunts have a crucial role to play in our official and unofficial nieces’ and nephews’ lives, from helping out with child care to acting as non-parental confidantes. And ever since my Aunt Shirley died, I can’t stop thinking about that.
Not only was Auntie Shirl the first adult to field tentative questions from my cousins and me about sex, but she also taught me how to make a mean vinaigrette and to read between the lines of literature’s greatest hits. I reflect, too, on all my other aunties who showed up at birthdays and took me to plays and listened to my career aspirations (figure skater was a recurring theme) with straight faces. These “other mothers” left impressions that run DNA deep, whether we were actually related or not. And now it’s my duty—my pleasure, really—to do the same with all the kids in my life.
So I set up sleepovers with Marlo, who calls me “Auntie B,” where we gorge on mac ’n’ cheese and play fashion designer. I read books and build SpongeBob-watching forts with Naomi and Ava, and discuss gender roles and One Direction crushes with Sophie. While Benjamin, Abigail and Addison don’t call me aunt, they always crowd around when I visit and trust me with their toughest questions: “Beth, I asked my dad if Santa was real, and he said no—do you agree?”
In the Sliding Doors alternate version of my life, where I meet the right man at the right time under the perfectly aligned stars, I might have become a biological mother. But after making peace with the fact it wasn’t likely to happen, I’ve realized the child-free life isn’t that lonely after all. These kids—your kids—occupy just the right amount of space in the mother chamber of my heart.
I forgave my cousin Tom, of course; his words were meant as a compliment. It’s a wonderful thing, a privilege, to be an Auntie Hero like our Aunt Shirl. And though I can’t promise to live up to her legend, I’ll sure try.
“Bravo, darling,” I can almost hear her saying as she swishes past in her caftan. “Chapeau!”
Beth Hitchcock is working on her first book, a decorating memoir. You can follow her on Twitter @HitchWrites.