Recently, I was back in Indiana visiting my quadruplet six-year-old nephews. There we all were, busy with SpongeBob coloring books, when one of the boys looked up at me with a sly grin. “Man Jo . . . ” he began. (Man Jo being their nickname for me, derivative of a garbled first attempt at “Aunt Jo.”)
“Yes?” I asked.
“Um . . . Are you going to get married and have a baby?” he grinned.
His question caused my other nephews to look up and hoot with laughter.
“Ha!” One of them guffawed. “Man Jo isn’t going to have a baby!”
Feeling both bemused and a smidge defensive, I turned to him, an eyebrow raised, and asked why on earth not.
“Because!” He looked at me, shrugging at the obviousness of my question. “You’re Man Jo!”
I am one of eight children. That’s six brothers and one sister. And my family is growing exponentially. Three older siblings as well as a younger brother have already procreated. As of this writing, there are eleven grandchildren. My sister alone has six kids: the aforementioned quadruplets, as well as a nine-year-old and a ten-year-old (Hayden, Hayley, Hammilton, Harrison, Houston, Holden).
I, however, am still unmarried and childless at the ripe old age of thirty-one. Which I realize isn’t so huge a deal in many parts of the world. But back in my hometown of New Albany, IN, it’s a bit unusual. And by unusual, I mean I may as well be an albino werewolf. To further garner myself the label of the “bohemian” (see “possibly lesbian”) aunt, I am also the only one to have moved away from New Albany. I migrated first to Chicago, and for the past eight years have lived in the land of all things bohemian and possibly lesbian – New York City.
It isn’t easy being the one to have left, as my family is a close-knit bunch, and one of my greatest joys. I try to go home every three months, and for almost every major holiday, which is pretty often, considering the distance. Yet, no matter the frequency of my visits, I still feel somewhat dumbstruck by my family’s recent metamorphosis. Holiday gatherings used to consist of us siblings elbowing each other around a crowded dinner table. Now a typical Christmas looks more like a cracked-out preschool. Children ranging in ages from one to ten blaze through the house. There’s a distinctive din of screams and giggles that rises and falls at intervals – a non-stop soundtrack of child.
While my sister and sisters-in-law and mother discuss how to dry up breast milk with cabbage leaves (who knew?) or the trials of potty training, I sit and listen, no diaper rash tips to contribute. Whenever a small voice calls out, “Mom!” I’m the only menstruating female over the age of twenty-two whose head doesn’t turn.
Inevitably, during one of my visits, my mother will turn to me with a wistful smile, and says, “I sure would like for you to have a child . . . while I can still pick her up .” She says this as though seemingly unaware of the swarm of toddlers already crawling about at her feet. To my mother, “the more the merrier” isn’t so much a pleasantry as it is a maxim for life. When she was my age, she already had five kids pulling at her pants legs, so it’s understandable that my unmarried and childless status proves a bit baffling to her. I try to bear this in mind when she calls – as she did recently – to say that she’d just watched The House of Mirth and become “worried” about me.
My older sister, for her part, is more frank. With her beautiful brood of six, she has already claimed the crown of top breeder, and she doesn’t waste time with subtle references to Lily Bart. She has no qualms about openly chiding me with “You know, you’re not getting any younger.” As for my sisters-in-law, they aren’t won’t to pry, though occasionally, if one is in a teasing mood, there will be a wink and whispered “tick tock” – indicating, of course, my obviously cuckoo biological clock.
But if I’m truly honest with myself, the person most obsessing on the kid question is, in fact, me. Being the only woman in a large Catholic family who doesn’t have a Baby Bjorn swung around her neck, well, it can put you a smidge on the defensive. I often feel the urge to hop up on a dining room chair and deliver a PowerPoint presentation about why a child is in no way practical for me right now. I want to explain to my family via laser pointer that while thirty-one in Indiana years means I should already have kids in organized sports, in New York people my age are more concerned with concert tickets than playdates.
Of course, my family would no doubt respond to such a speech with a round of yawns – assuming they could even hear me over the general racket.
The thing is – I adore children. I always have. True, I’m a bit anxious around newborns, but it’s only because their fragility turns me a bit Lennie la Of Mice and Men. But once their skulls close and their necks are less lasagna noodle, I am very confident with children, and have even worked with them professionally several times – at daycares and YMCAs, as a babysitter and a tutor. I can say, with conviction, that I am a “kid person.” Given this, one might think that watching my siblings become parents would kick-start my urge to get a bun in the oven. Right?
For while it is true that there are myriad practical reasons for why I haven’t had a child (finances, career, a brand-new boyfriend) there is another reason as well, and one that I hadn’t really anticipated: as much as I adore my nieces and nephews and would gladly throw myself in front of a train for any one of them, there’s something about the sight of so many small humans . . . each of them clamoring for juiceboxes-Cheerios-Nintendo-Elmo-noses-to-be-wiped-shoes-to-be-tied that seems to throw my womb into lockdown.Watching my family’s ever-growing army, I find myself questioning my potential parenting skills. I am gripped by a strange unease, and suddenly my uterus wants to tiptoe backward out of the room saying, “Easy now . . . I’ll be riiight back . . . ”
For the first time, I find myself overwhelmed with how much, well, work being a parent is – a fact that somehow eluded me at those daycare and YMCA gigs. Watching my family’s ever-growing army of little people, I find myself really questioning my potential parenting skills. Am I really selfless enough to allow my own meal to go cold while trying to coax chicken tenders into someone else’s mouth? Do I really have the stamina for leaping out of my chair every four minutes because someone has possibly swallowed the dog’s vet tags?
Sometimes, when I’m crawling into bed after having helped my mom put the pieces back into four dozen woodblock puzzles, I wearily think, No. Or, at least, Maybe not. Maybe I am only meant to be “Man Jo.” The name itself almost sounds like the Anti-Mom anyway, conjuring an image of a failed drag queen in a too-tight gown. No wonder my nephews laughed.
Whenever I moan about this to friends, they are quick to point out that my interaction is never with just one child; it’s with an entire T-ball team’s worth, so of course it feels insanely overwhelming. True, true, I nod, quietly hoping they are right. For I’d like to think I might still make a pretty good mom someday. Even though I’ve had to make peace with the fact that – miracles of science aside – I’ll never pull off the Von Trapp stats that my mother and sister have managed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m destined to be that film’s uptight baroness either. (God love her.) No, if I ever do add my own to the flock, I’ll simply have to introduce my family to a new breed of parent: the older mom.
There is, of course, the downside that in a few years, the announcement of another grandchild may engender about as much excitement as the UPS man. But still, being one of the last to reproduce could have its perks. How much easier will my job be with quadruplet babysitters?