The Aunt’s Story

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.

Me and Willem at the park

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.

Alice, me and Icarus

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.

Me and Willem fishing

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.

Girls in Red

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.

Me and Alice

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.

Alice and Willem

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.



45 thoughts on “The Aunt’s Story

  1. Yeah. There was a point when I was heavily involved with the online infertility community, and I met some seriously bitter, angry women, to the point that I wondered what kind of mothers they would make if their treatment succeeded. I had to withdraw from that and think about what kind of person I wanted to be if ultimately we never had kids of our own. In what ways could my life be fertile and creative, how could I express my mothering instincts? I wanted to think about something other than what I didn’t have, and be more positive about the life I did have.

  2. Thank you for such a heartfelt post. It makes me more aware of the relationship that is being built between my son and his aunt who lives nearby. I truly appreciate her love and affection of him. It will be interesting to see how the relationship will develop.

  3. Damn you, you made me cry! How absolutely beautifully written. I was an aunt long before I was a mother and I always knew how special a relationship it was. Those children are so very lucky that you’re part of their village.

  4. I am just sitting here crying. So beautifully written. I’ve often thought about you and the challenges you’ve faced. It shouldn’t be that hard. And now you are part of a gorgeous bigger family and how lovely that you have realised the role you can play….that alice is a real little blonde bombshell and we love you sharing her with us too.

    big hugs,

  5. Great post! I am in a similar position, childless due to circumstance and not by choice. I have only recently started to think the way you describe – I have shifted the focus from seeing my god daughter and now my nieces as a second best to acknowledging being an auntie as my true role. I have a god daughter, two nieces and my partner has two children.

  6. What a wonderful aunt you are.
    Those children are blessed to have you in their lives.
    I wish we had someone like you in our kids lives.
    My 3 girls are the result of IVF
    13 pregnancies,15 babies,we brought 3 living children home from the hospital so I totally get the stress of IVF.

    lots of gentle hugs

  7. Your words are simply wonderful! Even though I am a parent, I feel the same about my neices and nephews. Four of them live next door to us and our relationship is very special – not parent/child, but something wonderful on it’s own. I love being the one they come to to tell something that maybe they aren’t quite ready to discuss with Mom or Dad. I have found that they often come to me to get some individual listening attention – living in a househould with 4 kids can sometimes ( maybe always . . .) be chaotic. I love providing that space for them and I know that my daughter does the same with her aunt!

  8. You openhearted, generous, loving woman! Those kids are so lucky to have you and Sean! And the cool thing is that you see each one of them as seperate, unique people and are capable of enjoying their friendship. That can be kinda hard for the parents who are responsible and burdened with all those hopes and dreams. Bravo for a close-knit family!

  9. My best female relationship was my aunt. Aunts and Uncles are not parents which gives them leave to have a different relationship with the children in the family. Alice and Willem are also lucky to have another set of adults in their lives who adore them and to have a haven to go to where there is love and warmth and caring. I can’t wait to see them as teenagers. Teens are amazing. Watching their brains catch on to new concepts is as fascinating as watching toddlers.

  10. oh yes! aunts are so very special. growing up, my aunts held a huge place in my life and affections. as a child, it is so important to have adult role models apart from your parents to broaden your horizons (and to tell tales about your parents when they were young!). i wish my kids had someone like you in their lives.
    Amazing and beautiful post, bells. j x

  11. OK, I’ll admit it: I’m crying like a baby here. The combination of your writing skills with the depth of of your soul and the fineness of your mind is so very powerful. This is an amazing post, and I hope you find a second home for it where more people will be able to read it.

    As the single mother of a bipolar child, I can vouch for the power of aunts/uncles. Having those loving relationships for my child saved both of our lives. It is not second best by any means. It is its own unique animal — and a beautiful one at that. What you have with your niece and nephew is deep and true and enduring.

  12. Oh Bells…what a beautiful post! It is so important for children to have love and security beyond their immediate family…Willem and Alice are two very lucky children to have an Aunt and Uncle such as you and Sean 🙂

  13. such a lovely post, Bells; so beautifully expressed.

    the part about you being on Willem’s people to go to if he’s sad, scared or troubled brought a tear, and all your readers have seen the special bond you have with Alice, too

  14. Such a beautiful post. I loved the close relationship I had with my nieces before I was lucky enough to have my own children. Of course I still love my nieces, but my relationship with them now that I have the time pressures of children has so little of the closeness that it used to, and that yours continues to have.

    Your nieces and nephews (and their parents) are truly blessed to have you, and I believe their relationship with you will only become more important as they grow, and especially in the pre-teen and teen years. Maybe they’ll have times when they need someone other than mum and dad to talk to? Definitely.

  15. This has made cry. I’m an aunt & godmother to my nephew. I turn 38 next year. I’m single. I don’t think I will have have children. Thank you for the normality. I’ve emailed this to my sister.

  16. There’s nothing like being the aunt who taught her nephew how to catch worms and float leaves down the snowmelt in the gutter in spring. I didn’t grow up living close to either of my special aunts and I miss them to this day.

  17. I LOVE your post. As a fellow childless aunt who also spends lots of time with her niece and nephew, you have hit home with your comment that being an aunt is not a consolation prize.

    This post is so well written, it brought tears to my eyes. 🙂

  18. What a beautiful and touching post. My girls are lucky to have an aunt (actually she is my aunt but I digress) in their lives – you are right, it is a treasured title to hold and they certainly cherish her above all others.Her childless world is now touched by the input she has in my children’s lives and I wouldn’t be without her help and support. Alice and Willem are very lucky x

  19. oh bells, such a lovely post, I had tears welling up. I feel really sad that my children aren’t growing up around their aunts and uncles, and I need to try really, really hard to keep reminding my children who they are and how they fit in the picture (skype helps alot!). You are in a priviledged position of being both a mentor and friend to little Alice and Willem. xoxox

  20. That was a really lovely post.

    I don’t think I’ve embraced Aunt-hood like I could (should) and I think the IVF did get in the way of that, being so all-consuming and ‘blinkering’ at times. Here’s to being a better Aunt henceforth!

  21. What a beautiful story Helen.
    I can relate to it.
    I’m an aunt too and I adore my niece and nephews and god daughter.
    If I knew nieces and nephews were this rewarding I would have had them sooner. 🙂


  22. Bravo!!! My husband and my boys are so very fortunate to have just such a relationship with their Aunt Marie. She’s an amazing part of our lives, and is actually someone to whom my husband turns for advice even more often than his mother. It seems sometimes that she is able to address him as a grown up when his mom still sees him as a little boy. And to our boys, she holds a position just below God and Santa. While it wasn’t her first choice either, she embraced her role believing that everything happens for a purpose and not one of us can imagine our lives without her. So I know from experience EXACTLY how important you are and how it is the furthest thing from second place. Much love and applause for sharing this with your fans/groupies. XOXO!!!

  23. Bellsy, this is so beautiful!
    You almost had me wiping away some tears!I believe that those kids are truly blessed to have you and Sean so involved in their lives. And I know it goes both ways.
    So lovely. There is nothing else I can say!

  24. What a truly honest beautiful post Helen. I am always amazed at just how devoted you are to your nieces and nephew. It must be so wonderful to have such a relationship with them, and also for their parents to know that they have a second home full of people who can look after them and totally trust and love them just as they do.

  25. Willem and Alice are really so very lucky to have you two as their aunt and uncle – I have many nieces and nephews but do not have the special relationship with any of them which you both have (for a range of reasons, mostly distance).

    Having a special aunty and uncle, ones that you can talk to about feelings (for example), ones that have special toys just for you, that is a great gift you can give nieces and nephews, and is a truly special way you can share and enrich their lives, as well as your siblings and your own.

  26. What a lovely post. I know we certainly appreciate the part you and Sean play in Willem’s life. He mentions you often, and only this morning requested to come and visit again (the giant egg was a draw card). Being an only child – Willem’s bond with his Aunts and Uncles is just so important. It warms my heart to see the love between you both. And you’re right – being an Aunt is NOT a consolation prize at all. It’s so important and a role to be treasured.

  27. OMG! You just wrote OUR story….thank you. I have printed it off to keep. We have LOTS of nieces and nephews and now some great nieces and nephews. Every single one is special to us. This was really brought home to us when a nephew died. Yes, everyone was sad, but for some reason my husband and I felt that we were having a tougher time than his other Aunts and Uncles. One day it all became clear and my husband said ” you know the reason why we are soooo sad? He was ONE of our twenty odd children”…… yep, being an Aunty certainly is FIRST class 🙂

  28. Now you’ve gotten me all misty-eyed.

    I know it’s been a hard journey for you and Sean, and my heart aches for you both. It’s wonderful that you have such a close bond with Willem and Alice.

    Hugs to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s