“Zia, can I have some Mentos?” my seven-year-old nephew, Samson, asks me this every Wednesday when I pick him up from school. When I’m fuelling up my car before I get him, I stock up on rainbow Mentos from the servo to ensure he will not be disappointed. It is a ritual I adore.
I have never desired to have children. Whatever that feeling is, I don’t know it. Since I was a teenager, this proclamation was met with a monologue of why I am a defective woman. I was told I could never understand what it means to love a child. That I must hate children, that there was only one real way to have them in your life; to have your own. I internalised this narrative and rejected the idea of children being important to me, believing I was missing the child-loving gene.
As a natural progression from this message, I never thought about the role of aunt in the same way I had about the role of mother: legitimate. I always thought of aunt, or Zia as we say in Italian, as just a way to identify who was kin. In 2013 I became a Zia and was ready for it to mean nothing. To my surprise, it is the happiest experience of my life, and my notion of Zia-dom changed when I started making my life choices around what could give me more time with my nephew (Samson, 7) and niece (Ophelia, 3).
I upgraded my car so I could fit both of their seats in it, I give them baths, help with their homework and we have a weekly sleepover. My love for them erupted out of me, challenging how I felt about children in general. Caring for and helping to raise these two children is a central part of my life, but it does not dictate my life as it would if I were a mother. It is this intense love and tiny insight into motherhood that confirms for me more than anything that I do not want children.
Adrienne Rich states that motherhood is a patriarchal institution. It shames mothers into a specific set of expectations that are impossible to attain. Mothers are judged for allowing their children to use devices, co sleeping, engaging in paid work, not engaging in paid work, being fat, being thin, breastfeeding, using formula – the list goes on. I have seen what must be sacrificed – body, career, relationships – and how this is never enough for a culture that is always wagging its finger at you. I have witnessed the bravery it takes to be a mother in a patriarchal world, and I do not wish to cast myself in that net. It is the act of mothering, Rich defines, which is the potentially empowering experience.
Mothering is the work done by anyone who loves and cares for a child, states Andrea O’Reilly. If women know they can partake in mothering without being a mother, its less likely patriarchal motherhood can control them with impossible standards.
This is the intersection I choose to live in. I must state that while I perform mothering, I do not understand the multi-faceted intricacies of being a mother. It is important however that perspectives of women like me – who love children but have no desire to have their own – are made active members of this narrative, rather than being branded as selfish and unaffectionate.
People ask me what my “problem” is. Some don’t seem to believe I love Samson and Ophelia so deeply. They don’t see the role I have in their lives as legitimate. They don’t think of an aunt’s love as anything special; I didn’t until I became one. An aunt’s love is not the same as a mother’s, but it is just as real.
I am deeply involved in my niece and nephew’s lives. I have discussions with them about race and consent. I know Samson’s library day is Thursday. Ophelia will only drink out of the glass with the pictures of trees on it. It is this effortless love I was falsely told I was incapable of feeling because I don’t want children.
I have spent my whole life knowing I don’t want children and believing I couldn’t love them. Now, I know the truth: I can be child-free while experiencing the bliss of loving and being loved by children. Being a Zia is the joy of my life, and I don’t need or want anything else. When will our culture at large start to see it this way?
• Lara Holmes studies and writes about the relationship between feminism and comedy