A skeptic makes peace with marriage.
by Liz Gilbert
January 5, 2010
Childless women – let’s call them the “Auntie Brigade” – have never been very well honored by history, I’m afraid. They are called selfish, frigid, pathetic. Here’s one particularly nasty bit of conventional wisdom circulating out there about childless women that I need to dispel here, and that is this: that women who have no children may lead liberated and happy and wealthy lives when they are young, but they will ultimately regret that choice when they reach old age, for they shall all die alone and depressed and full of bitterness. Perhaps you’ve heard this old chestnut? Just to set the record straight: There is zero sociological evidence to back this up. In fact, recent studies of American nursing homes comparing happiness levels of elderly childless women against happiness levels of women who did have children show no pattern of special misery or joy in one group or the other. But here’s what the researchers did discover makes elderly women miserable across the board: poverty and poor health. Whether you have children or not, then, the prescription seems clear: Save your money, floss your teeth, wear your seatbelt, and keep fit – and you’ll be a perfectly happy old bird someday, I guarantee you.
Just a little free advice there, from your Auntie Liz.
In leaving no descendents, 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. Even in my own family’s recent history, there are stories on both sides of truly magnificent aunties who stepped in and saved the day during emergencies. Often able to accrue education and resources precisely because they were childless, these women had enough spare income and compassion to pay for lifesaving operations, or to rescue the family farm, or to take in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill. I have a friend who calls these sorts of child-rescuing aunties “sparents”– “spare parents” – and the world is filled with them.
Even within my own community, I can see where I have been vital sometimes as a member of the Auntie Brigade. My job is not merely to spoil and indulge my niece and nephew (though I do take that assignment to heart) but also to be a roving auntie to the world – an ambassador auntie – who is on hand wherever help is needed, in anybody’s family whatsoever. There are people I’ve been able to help, sometimes fully supporting them for years, because I am not obliged, as a mother would be obliged, to put all my energies and resources into the full-time rearing of a child. There are a whole bunch of Little League uniforms and orthodontist’s bills and college educations that I will never have to pay for, thereby freeing up resources to spread more widely across the community. In this way, I, too, foster life. There are many, many ways to foster life. And believe me, every single one of them is essential.
Jane Austen once wrote to a relative whose first nephew had just been born: “I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible. Now that you have become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence.” Jane knew of which she spoke. She herself was a childless auntie, cherished by her nieces and nephews as a marvelous confidante, and remembered always for her “peals of laughter.”
Speaking of writers: From an admittedly biased perspective, I feel the need to mention here that Leo Tolstoy and Truman Capote and all the Brontë sisters were raised by their childless aunts after their real mothers had either died or abandoned them. Tolstoy claimed that his Aunt Toinette was the greatest influence of his life, as she taught him “the moral joy of love.” The historian Edward Gibbon, having been orphaned young, was raised by his beloved and childless Aunt Kitty. John Lennon was raised by his Aunt Mimi, who convinced the boy that he would be an important artist someday. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s loyal Aunt Annabel offered to pay for his college education. Frank Lloyd Wright’s first building was commissioned by his Aunts Jane and Nell – two lovely old maids who ran a boarding school in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Coco Chanel, orphaned as a child, was raised by her Aunt Gabrielle, who taught her how to sew – a useful skill for the girl, I think we would all agree. Virginia Woolf was deeply influenced by her Aunt Caroline, a Quaker spinster who devoted her life to charitable works, who heard voices and spoke to spirits, and who seemed, as Woolf recalled years later, “a kind of modern prophetess.”
Remember that critical moment in literary history when Marcel Prouts bites into his famous madeleine cookie, thereby becoming so overwhelmed by nostalgia that he has no choice but to sit down and write the multivolume epic Remembrance of Things Past? That entire tsunami of eloquent nostalgia was set off by the specific memory of Marcel’s beloved Aunt Leonie, who, every Sunday after church, used to share her madeleines with the boy when he was a child. And have you ever wondered what Peter Pan really looked like? His creator, J.M. Barrie, answered that question for us back in 1911. For Barrie, Peter Pan’s image and his essence and his marvelous spirit of felicity can be found all over the world, hazily reflected “in the faces of many women who have no children.”
That is the Auntie Brigade.
- Read an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert!
- My Life As A Wacky Aunt: Every kid needs an art-star slacker to lead him.
- Better Than Family: My life as the “aunt.”