Motherhood Lite

There’s nothing like grocery shopping on a national holiday. Aisles teem with grumpy middle-aged men hauling cases of Miller Lite and buckets of salsa. Young low-lifes flex their tattoos and pocket soft packs of Marlboros. And above the hustle and bustle can be heard a distinctive and soothing sound: the lively chatter of children.

Yes, holidays mean Family Shopping Trips. What joy to hear the fresh young voices screaming at their mothers: “Not the TreeTop apple juice! Get the Capri Sun. I want the coloring book!! I WANT THE COLORING BOOK!!” What a thrill to turn a blind corner and nearly snap a 6-year-old’s spine with my shopping cart. Heavens, I almost interrupted his youthful activity–no doubt some whimsical game that apparently involves emptying the contents of each coffee bean dispenser from the bulk espresso bins onto the floor. And in the distance I can hear from Aisle 3 the sweet strains of a procreative lullaby: an infant, shrieking at the top of his or her little lungs.

Don’t get the wrong impression: I’m not your classic single gal with a bitter, jealous heart, masking my maternal desires with a cynical attitude. I didn’t have a horrible childhood, and I avoided the physical and sexual abuse that often makes people leery of having a family. Children themselves aren’t a problem. In fact, I rather like children–as long as they belong to someone else and are kept muzzled in public spaces. I reserve the right to change my mind and squirt out brats later on, should the biological clock suddenly take hold of my usually sensible uterus, but for now I’m into letting other folks have the morning sickness, hormonal swings, stretch marks, and college-savings funds. After all, why be a mom when you can be an aunt?

Aunties, like grandmothers, get to play with children and watch them grow. Like grandmothers, we can spoil ’em rotten if we please–the kids’ parents will have to cope with the result. Unlike grandmothers, we don’t have to produce infants ourselves, and as aunties we’re often younger than the kids’ parents. We can be a part of the beautiful cycle of life, the passing on of dubious genetic characteristics from one generation to the next, but without those pesky responsibilities. Where a mother has to spend most of her waking hours attached to her little ball and chain, an aunt can come and go as she wishes.

The childless auntie is both romanticized and satirized in our society: In books and movies, she might be a crazy old loner living in a haunted house with her dozen cats. Or she might be fussy and lovelorn, the sort of aunt who comes around the house entirely too much, like Charlotte in A Room with a View. Then again, she might be a dashing young career gal or entertainer, fluttering in only at Christmas to beguile the children with strange gifts from faraway lands. The intentionally childless woman is demonized, or at least questioned, by straight America, but the loving auntie is happy to satisfy her maternal instincts on a purely vicarious level.

In my family, the Wacky Auntie stereotype has kept things interesting. Without our Wacky Aunties, the whole family would have devolved into a dull remake of the 1950s. There were Clara and Louise, my great-great-aunts who lived as spinsters back East and constantly sent me wonderful little boxes, jewels, handbags, and trinkets from as far back as their swinging years in the ’20s. “The Aunties” were certifiably nutty and got me started early on a lifetime fixation with vintage shopping.

My mother’s sister Deeb had a kid, but since she lived in a van and told us of her ’60s adventures in Haight-Ashbury, Aunt Deeb supplied a much-needed awareness that there was more to life than our nice house in the country and the little white church where my brother and I went to Sunday School.

And Aunt Cy’s daughters may not have enjoyed her wild, arty lifestyle, but it saved my life. She was, in fact, one of the few people I actually looked up to. When, as a wee tot, I started acting, drawing, writing, and playing music, everyone could say, “Look, she takes after Aunt Cy!” I took it as a compliment, and Aunt Cy became one of the very few people in my life I could actually look up to. In boring teenage years, when I wanted to nuke the small town we lived in, I’d visit Cy in Hollywood during the summer. She helped me fulfill my need for excitement, bright lights, big cities, weird people, and trendy clothes. And to do it, I didn’t even have to become a runaway and live on the streets. My mom, who sheltered us to the best of her abilities, probably considered her a “bad influence.” On the contrary, Aunt Cy’s willingness to introduce me to the Big Bad World kept me from discovering it all alone and in much more dangerous ways. Who would you want to introduce your daughter to the big bad world: Your arty little sister or some dodgy guy with a gold Trans Am?

Now I’m the Wacky Auntie. I’m very careful about my brother’s family values: I don’t smoke or swear around the kids, and when they talk about Jesus I just smile and nod. On the other hand, by the end of my Christmas visit a couple years ago, the kids were running around yelling, “I want a blue Mohawk! I want a blue Mohawk like Aunt T’s!” As my niece Sasha grows older, she may follow in her aunt’s footsteps and evolve from being bright and precocious to being rebellious and angst-ridden. If she does, I hope she knows there’s someone cool around that she can run to: her wacky aunt.

What if you’re an only child, or live far away from your estranged siblings, and would like to be an aunt? Fear not: All you need is a friend who intends to procreate. Family friends are routinely re-ferred to as “aunt” and “uncle” in a society whose extended families tend to fragment or disappear altogether. It’s pretty weird when close friends start getting hitched, settling down, and having kids, but playing auntie is one way to enjoy the experience. It shows that you love your friend enough to be a part of his or her new lifestyle, and you get all the benefits of being around children, but on your own terms.

You can always find new friends to go on drinking binges with or to take backpacking in South America. If you don’t want to stop doing those things just yet, hold off on motherhood and try the auntie thing. Packed with flavor but only half the calories, being an aunt is Motherhood Lite: tastes great, less filling!

From Bust (Fall/Winter 1996). Subscriptions: $11.95 for 4 issues (2 issues/yr.) from Box 1016, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276.

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