Something big happened to me this year, something I didn’t know was going to happen. I grew fully and completely into being an Aunt.
It’s true, I officially became an aunt in 2004. Here’s a photo of the day I met the gorgeous Willem.
I was an aunt before then, through children born on Sean’s side of the family but Willem was the first child born to one of my siblings. I was excited about being an aunt. It was a true thrill that my sister became a mother and her little bundle was a blood relation. Over the coming years, I fell deeply in love with him, truly enthralled by being around a little person who was growing and changing every time I saw him, and who eventually started to call me, for a little while at least, Aunty Balls, not Bells. That thought still makes me smile.
During those years, we were also trying desperately to have a baby of our own. Sean and I wanted very much to become parents and a handful of times, I wrote about it on my old blog. After several years, we stopped trying. There had been so much sadness. There were miscarriages. Those grey ultrasound screens with no flickering heartbeats where they ought to have been will haunt us forever. In 2009 we ended the fight for parenthood and began the quiet, private, painful process of accepting our lot in life. And our lot is definitely the way to see it, just in case anyone wants to jump in and tell us differently. There is much to enjoy about a life unhindered by children, but when it’s a role forced on you by circumstance and not by choice, it feels at times like a life sentence.
For the rest of my fertile life, I believe I will wonder time and again if maybe a miracle has occurred. That’s what I mean by a life sentence. I believe I can never really be free of the quiet little voice that lingers in the back of my mind wondering if maybe, just maybe, the seemingly impossible has happened. It’s just something we’ll live with.
Some time this year a wonderful realisation dawned on me. I am an aunt and this is not a consolation prize. For a long time, even though I loved being an aunt, a niggling doubt loitered in my mind that this was a ‘second best’ kind of place, that as much as I loved the little people in our lives, it wasn’t the same as having my own. And it’s not. It really isn’t. I’m not going to pretend for a minute that having nieces and nephews is a state of pseudo-parenthood. Even when they stay at our house, they get to go home again and their parents get to do all the really hard stuff. We get the fun stuff. And yes perhaps there’s an element when they stay over of us engaging in a little imaginary parenting but that’s all it is.
And yet that’s not all it is.
It’s so much more. At some point it struck me that to give ourselves fully and completely to being very much a part of these young lives is no less valid than parenthood. It’s real and different but the love and the bond is everything we choose to make it. I knew it to be a real, complex and satisfying experience several months ago in a way I hadn’t understood before.
Being their aunt is not second best. To see it as second best diminishes the value and reality of the relationship.
This isn’t a call for pity or sympathy. We’ve had bucket loads of that and in the end we have had to leave it behind us. This is a call to celebrate the role of extended family in the growth, development and experience of children. They say it takes a village to raise a child and I know from what my sisters have said that they value and appreciate the commitment Sean and I have made to being a part of the community that raises their children.
Just recently, Willem, who is six, had to do a homework assignment about feelings. He had to name five people in his life who he could go to when he felt sad, scared or troubled. After Mum and Dad he listed me as the person he would go to if Mum wasn’t around. When Adele told me that, I knew it was a revelation and a gift.
If I talk about the children in our lives a lot, and particularly Willem and Alice, it’s partly because it’s a way of feeling included in that world we’ve been denied entry to. Sean was at a conference recently and when other men were showing pictures on their phone of babies and children, he too was able to pull up a couple of photos, and proudly showed a video of Alice playing with a knitted sock as a puppet. For all the hardship parents face, there is a lot of joy to be experienced and that these children are a part of us is something we love to share.
The other important aspect of this journey is the willingness of our siblings to share their children with us. It’s not something every parent can do so fully. I imagine letting go for a night is both relaxing and challenging. Will they be ok? What if we don’t know the little tricks and comforts needed to make the visit ok? What if there’s distress or fear?
Alice has been coming to stay at our house regularly enough now for all those things to be much easier. Her parents have told us they take great joy and comfort in knowing that she’s perfectly at ease and happy here. She has toys here, her special cups and bowls and the room that we make up with her porta-cot and her own linen. She brings a blanket with her that her mother used as a baby. She walks into the house now with great familiarity and confidence. It’s another home for her.
As she and Willem and the other children in our lives grow, we want them to always know that beyond their own home is a place they can come to that’s always here for them and that what we offer is as much love and happiness as they have in their own homes. Security, fun and ease. It will always be theirs. The relationship will change over the years. I can’t imagine them as teenagers yet but when those years come, I hope we’ll have set a solid foundation of all the good things that will make those potentially trying years as rich and valuable as these early years have been. Maybe they’ll have times when they need someone other than Mum and Dad to talk to. Maybe we’ll be able to offer support in confusing times because we have a different perspective. But hopefully they’ll continue to know that an aunt and uncle are as much a part of the fabric of their lives as parents and grandparents. We’ll still be part of that village.
Discovering the riches to be found in the role of being an aunt has been a gift to emerge from the rubble of the IVF years that I never knew was possible and I’m so very thankful.