What is a good aunt’s legacy? What does a woman without children leave behind in the world?
One of the women I spoke with wants to make sure her American niece knew the Nancy the Spider (or Anansi) stories that she inherited from her African background. Another spoke of her struggle over not having somebody to pass material things down to, saying with a bit of relief, “That’s where my nieces come in.” Others spoke of the way they are teaching nieces and nephews to carry on other family traditions: baking together or learning to cook a family recipe, going on family vacations together, and passing on the stories of past generations.
For those of us without children who have family heirlooms and traditions we want to pass down, this issue of heirs can be something that weighs on our minds. What will be our legacy when we’re gone?
Elizabeth Gilbert writes:
In leaving no descendents, [sic] however, childless aunts do tend to
vanish from memory after a mere generation, quickly forgotten, their
lives as transitory as butterflies. But they are vital as they live, and they
can even be heroic. … Often able to accrue education and resources
precisely because they were childless, these women had enough spare
income and compassion to pay for livesaving operations, or to rescue
the family farm, or to take in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill. (Committed, 192) Continue reading
I’m a newcomer to the BBC’s wildly popular Downton Abbey, and have worked my way through Season 1 and 2 on DVD. If you haven’t made it through season 2 yet, let this serve as your spoiler alert (but come back and read this post after you’ve caught up on the series).
Toward the end of Season 2, Lady Grantham receives a letter from her daughter Sybil with news that she’s expecting her first child. Lady Grantham is thrilled, but Lord Grantham is not, for the simple reason that he never approved of the marriage between his daughter Sybil and the household’s Irish chauffeur, Tom Branson. He threatens to disown Sybil because of her decision to marry someone outside of her class, but because he really does love her and is generally a decent chap, he softens his stance, and the marriage takes place.
Lord Grantham sounds resigned as he says that Sybil’s fate is sealed now that she’s pregnant, as if before her pregnancy, she could or would have undone her marriage to Tom. Lady Grantham’s response to him is that it wasn’t the pregnancy but the marriage itself that set Sybil’s life on its current course. (She further cements her place as one of my favorite characters by assuring Lord Grantham that she won’t be kept from her first grandchild simply because Sybil’s marriage doesn’t fit with conventions of the day.)
Lord Grantham isn’t alone in his thoughts that children are the cementing element of a marriage. The term “starter marriage” became popular in the late 1990s, and I remember some coworkers teasing a newlywed among us that she could have a starter marriage (as several of them had already had): a short marriage that ended in divorce and never produced children. How sad it is to me that there’s even a term for such a marriage and a prevailing attitude that the end of such a marriage can be taken lightly because it doesn’t matter as much as one that produced children. Continue reading
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.
(190-191) Continue reading