Does Being an Aunt Beat Being a Mother?

My niece sent me a link to the New York Times.com article by single-no-kids Kate Bolick, “Let’s Hear It For Aunthood.” Bolick makes some interesting points, starting with-because nearly 1 in 5 American women in her early 40s does not have children and that more women are marrying and having children later, if at all, “they have more time to…

..enjoy being an aunt.” She asks, “How many of these single, childless women wonder, as I have, if being an aunt beats being a mother?” This married, childfree aunt can weigh in on that.

To me, advantages to auntihood and uncle-hood for that matter include:  if you want, you can play a role in young people’s lives without having to take on the huge role of parenthood, and you get to have a special kind of relationship with the kids of family members, without having to be the “authority figure or disciplinarian.”  As Robert M. Milardo, a University of Maine sociologist says about aunts and uncles, “Their knowledge is unique, and to a certain extent, unburdened by the conventional expectations held of parents,” and “this may be especially true of childless aunts who are free to deviate from traditional views of mothering, domesticity, and femininity.”

In interviewing childfree women for Families of Two, more of them than you might expect spoke to an aunt they had who never had children, and how this opened their eyes to the fact that one is not destined to have kids.  Too often, however, the aunt who is not married and does not have children is characterized less than positively, from a bit odd, to a spinster, or the like.

Me, when I was very young I had a single aunt with no children, and I sure did not see her this way, and neither did my family. Sadly, she died at the age of twenty-nine. There we are on the right. As a girl, I also had a special relationship with my then single, childfree uncle, UB, on left, and our bond remains special today.

With Godmom Kathleen
Me w/Aunt Kathleen

Now, I am the childfree aunt to several nieces and nephews, and a non-blood auntie to my dear friend’s daughter. In thinking about Bolick’s question, it seems to me that it is not so much whether one “beats” the other–it boils down to whether you want the childfree life or the role of parent. For some who really want the experience of raising children, being an aunt or uncle might not be enough. For others, like Bolick, they may find that being an auntie or uncle makes them feel, as savvy auntie would say, “childfull.” Whether one “beats” the other, is a matter of how much you want the role and lifestyle of parent–or not.

Parents, however, still get the higher billing. While aunts and uncles can play a special role in children’s lives, Milardo points out that there has been little or no interest in studying this; aunts and uncles have been “conspicuously absent in his academic field of family studies.” But he has started to change this; he has recently authored the first comprehensive study of aunts and uncles, The Forgotten Kin. There is also the recent The Complete Book of Aunts by Rupert Christiansen.

Bolick speaks to how “the aunt does seem to be gaining some traction in celebrity circles.” Maybe if and when the role of aunts and uncles, childfree and not, were more touted and recognized, the question of whether one “beats” the other would not need to be pondered. Here’s to the day when people could choose their role when it comes to kids without judgment, and when one role is not ultimately “better” than another.

Do you have a special aunt or uncle? Are you one? Let’s hear some stories…

8 thoughts on “Does Being an Aunt Beat Being a Mother?

  1. My brother is a happy childfree uncle to a nephew (my son), and three nieces. He remains unmarried and childfree to this day, and he enjoys the freedom of not having kids. He works with theater groups and has for the last 15 or more years. He’s had to travel extensively in the past, which he wouldn’t have been able to do if he had gotten married and had children.

    One of my uncles was also childfree, but he always welcomed visits from us, and enjoyed playing with us when we came. He was a lot of fun to go out with when we became teenagers and young adults, and was very generous too. When my siblings and I were kids, he was dating a woman who had two children, but not surprisingly, he didn’t marry her. I suspected it was because he simply didn’t want children around 24/7. He never dated women with children again. He finally got married at 48, to a great lady who was also childfree and enjoying it. Sadly, they’re both deceased now, but both of them will always remain in our fondest memories.

    I guess one of the reasons I’m a strong supporter of the CF choice is because there are three generations of CF folks in my family, my brother, uncle, and my great-grandmother’s sister too. I have a strong feeling that my son will be the next CF person in our family. The CF gene seems to run pretty strong among us. 🙂

    1. Susan, love the background on your bro and uncle, and how you are obviously a shining example of how a parent and family can send the message that parenthood is Optional. More of you, please!

  2. Let’s not forget that there are many aunts and uncles out there who are essentially the parents of their nieces and nephews, either as legal guardians or as de facto parents. And there are aunts and uncles who could take on that role if they had to. The boundary between mommy and auntie isn’t always very clear-cut.

  3. Hi Laura, I’m glad you liked the family background. I think that growing up with childfree family members has really shaped my feeling that parenthood is simply not for everyone, and that is okay.

    I have seen too much dictating from what I call “religious authoritarians” that people, particularly women, must have children when they get married, and I think that has caused immeasurable harm. When women are told they “must” have children, regardless of what their personal feelings about having kids might be, the consequences can be — and have been — disastrous. We have all read the horror stories of terrible neglect, abuse, and even the killing of children by parents in the news. Every time I see one of these stories, I always wonder whether the parent(s) who committed the crime have a child because she (or he) WANTED to or because she was told she was “supposed to?”

    There is a really big difference here, and I strongly believe women who are either unsure about having kids or just unwilling to have them need to be stronger and tell family members who pressure them to back off. Although I do know that in some cases, that’s easier said than done.

    1. To help people be stronger to not just do what they think they are supposed to, seems we need to change the “supposed to” to something more like “if you choose to” — in my lifetime I would also like to see some mandatory structure for people to have to assess their desire and readiness to become parents. Spend funding on that instead of billions on all of the repercussions of unfit parents …

  4. As seen on the OTG question in May, my aunt is my favorite CF person and kids or no kids, she’s one amazing lady that I am so grateful to have in my life. It’s upsetting that more research hasn’t been done on the roles of aunts and uncles, whether they be CF or not. We’ve talked quite a bit about her and my uncle’s decision not to have kids of their own, and they mentioned what you stated in this article on how they have “the best of both worlds” because they have time with their nieces and nephews but can still have a CF lifestyle. Even if they wanted kids, their lives are just so demanding with their jobs and hobbies, they just don’t have time, but come visits/vacations to my area, we are inseparable!

    I, too, am a CF uncle and I’m lovin’ it! They are a joy in my life and I love spending as much time with them as possible, but at the end of the day, they go home! It really is the best of both worlds. I can guide them, spoil them rotten, but in the end, I am free to live my life as I wish. On that note, I look at teaching the same way. As I get ready to depart for Korea in a few months to teach, I have kids in my life, but on my days off and evenings I’m free!

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