In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed, she writes mostly about marriage but devotes some of her words to aunthood and its role in human populations across time and place:
… here’s an astonishing fact that I discovered in the margins of my
research on marriage: If you look across human populations of all
varieties, in every culture and on every continent (even among the
most enthusiastic breeders in history, like the nineteenth-century Irish,
or the contemporary Amish), you will find that there is a consistent 10
percent of women within any population who never have children at all.
The percentage never gets any lower than that, in any population
whatsoever. In fact, the percentage of women who never reproduce in
most societies is usually much higher than 10 percent—and that’s not
just today in the developed Western world, where childless rates
among women tend to hover around 50 percent. …
In any case, the number of women throughout history who never
become mothers is so high (so consistently high) that I now suspect
that a certain degree of female childlessness is an evolutionary
adaptation of the human race. Maybe it’s not only perfectly legitimate
for certain women to never reproduce, but also necessary. It’s as
though, as a species, we need an abundance of responsible,
compassionate, childless women to support the wider community
in various ways. Childbearing and child rearing consume so much
energy that the women who do become mothers can quickly become
swallowed up by that daunting task—if not outright killed by it. Thus,
maybe we need extra females, women on the sidelines with undepleted
energies, who are ready to leap into the mix and keep the tribe supported.
In my own conversations with women – both with children and without – aunts seem to be synonymous with “extra hands.” They are the extra hands parents need at times, and some parents need more extra hands than others, which is why Gilbert’s description of the evolutionary necessity of childless women makes so much sense to me.
In remembering her own childhood, my mother will talk about her Aunt Grace as the one whose job it was to entertain the children and keep them outside and out of the hair of the other adults who had gathered together to harvest and cook and can and otherwise stock the store for winter.
A culture of Aunties
One of the women I interviewed comes from the Ghanaian culture where she describes family lines as blurred in general. She grew up in the United States, but within an extended network of “Aunties” who were extra parents to her. In some cases, these women had older children still in Ghana, and so, without active mothering duties of their own, they had extra time and energy for her. They doted on her but also helped raise her and discipline her when needed.
Though US culture doesn’t have the same tradition of “Aunties” as many African cultures, several of the women whose nieces and nephews live nearby or who have neighbors with little children have become the trusted “aunties,” too, go-to babysitters, or the essential family savior who can swoop in at a moment’s notice to help. These are women who are entrusted with the care of the children when both parents need to travel for work at the same time or when the parents simply need a break to rest and recharge for more challenges of rearing children.
Several of the women I interviewed have fond memories of “maiden” aunts who lived with them, or nearby enough to visit regularly, who really were warm and loving caregivers, who served as extra hands that could love all of these children. One of the women told me about her aunt who let her play at her house to keep her and the other children out of her mother’s hair. She went above and beyond by making clothes for the frogs they played with. Not plastic, bought-at-the-store, toy frogs. Real, live frogs. Now that’s a good aunt.
The safety net
Aunts offer a valuable safety net to their siblings and their nieces and nephews. “Instead of replacing a mother, they supplement her: an aunt is a reassuring rather than disruptive figure, representing security and stability, patience and wisdom” (The Complete Book of Aunts by Rupert Chritiansen, 182).
Our society has plenty of disruptions to offer, and sometimes those disruptions come from within a child’s own home. One of the women spoke of her father’s sister as the gentle, loving one who always held her or a sibling on her lap. She has no memories of sitting on her own mother’s lap, a woman in a difficult marriage who probably did not know how to handle the unhappiness of her situation. For her, her aunt became the security she craved.
One of my closest friends is a single mom of four. Her aunt, who helped raise my friend and her brother and really became a second mom to them, has continued with the next generation by helping my friend with her own children now. And let me tell you, even the best single mother of four needs extra hands from time to time.
Other situations are even more difficult for children who need extra adult help: Whether it’s a child with severe developmental disabilities whose mother needs support from anyone in her family who has the time or energy, or children growing up in a home broken by drug or alcohol abuse who need the extra support and comfort of a responsible adult presence in their lives. There are so many children whose broken homes are made just a bit safer because of an aunt’s presence looking out for their welfare.
Carrying on the caring tradition
The common thread through these stories becomes the care and love women have extended to their nieces and nephews and other young people in their lives. One woman whose parents have both died, spoke of the birthday cards and letters she still receives from aunts. What a wonderful testament of family continuing to show love for its younger generations.
Another woman, in addition to being an active aunt to her biological nieces and nephews, extends her love and care to young teachers as their mentor. For those of you who have never taught, teaching is a profession much like mothering. It’s draining and all-consuming, and so to take what spare time and energy you have left to mentor the next generation of teachers is such an invaluable gift. And it’s very much like being a loving aunt.
Aunts teach us things our mothers don’t know how to do or don’t have the energy to teach us. They watch over us and correct us. But most important of all, they love us.
Is there something an aunt taught you that you might not otherwise have learned? Or do any of these stories sound like your own? I’d love to hear your own stories of aunts who loved you. Or maybe you’d like to share the ways you have been an extra set of hands when your brother or sister needed help with their children. Feel free to add your story to the comments below, or email me. I look forward to hearing from you!