This past weekend, I took on the awesome task of caring for my nephew and two nieces, ages 6, 4 and 2, while my brother and sister-in-law took a small trip for their 10th anniversary. Awesome because the kids are amazing and I'm most fortunate to be a part of their lives. And also awesome because in all of my 40 years, I have never truly appreciated the amount of constant attention and energy and selfless giving that is required in the thoughtful rearing of children...until now.
Let me say, and I hope this will in no way sound trite: Motherhood is, by far, the most important and essential role on Earth. And, it is not for me.
Instead, perhaps for the first time since we found out we couldn't have kids seven years ago, I find I am endlessly grateful (and relieved) to play Her second most important supporting role (second to Daddyhood, of course): that of Auntie.
I left my brother's house last night in a stupored awe of the toll that a mere weekend of caregiving took on me. I felt as though the kids ate constantly and I hardly ate at all. I never showered because, dear god, what would happen if someone needed me while I stole a moment to take care of a need of my own? I peed when they peed...and seemingly only when they peed. I watched the clock constantly to be sure everyone was where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there and was never more aware of every second of every day -- especially, how long it would take to get, not from point A to point B, but just packed in the van before commencing from point A to point B. It was exhausting on every level: physically, mentally and emotionally. Did I do the right thing when my two year old niece had a nuclear meltdown at t-ball when her bandaid fell off and I didn't have another one in my purse to replace it? Did I scar anyone for life when we were all spent and impatient and tensions ran high (all ten minutes of it)? Would they ever forgive me for not being their mommy when they woke up wanting her and I was only me instead?
Don't get me wrong -- we had a fantastic weekend. They were, for the most part, fabulous, as I can only hope they could say about me (if kids said such things...). Nothing went terribly wrong, no one killed anyone, no one lost a limb. We laughed, we played, we created, we got lots of fresh air. We had adventures. And at the end of each day, everyone (other than me, as it seems to go with mothers) was comfortably fed and clean, present and accounted for.
And yet, when I heard the garage door open at precisely 11:18pm last night, when I was formally off-duty, I nearly cried. And not because I was sorry it was over...
I was never happier than I was last night to be home, to have a quiet, solitary meal at midnight by the dim light of the microwave, to take a long, hot shower and to sleep like the dead in my own room with no worry that someone would cry out and need me in the middle of the night. Even going to work this morning, I have never been more grateful to be smack dab in the middle of my very own life.
I don't say any of this asking for sympathy, nor to be dramatic. Actual mothers get exclusive rights to this kind of storytelling. This was two days, not six years. No mother would ever be shocked or amazed at my tale of hyper-alertness, drained energy and self-sacrifice. I write this merely to share my sheer disbelief of the all-consuming nature of child-rearing. And I fully and humbly trust that I don't even know -- nor do I want to know -- the half of it.
My friends who are mothers have been telling me for years (and even twice today) how much easier it is when it's your own child. Thank you all for giving me an easy out. It may be true but I have to say, I'm not buying it. It feels like these kids couldn't be more mine if I had carried them myself -- I love them with a fierce passion I have never experienced and I am constantly blown away by the magnitude of it. Of all the kids I've been fortunate enough to share bits and pieces of my life with, I have never known a love like this before. I believe it is this kind of maternal (and paternal) love that enables us to want to throw ourselves in front of a barreling-down locomotive to save them at the same time that we want to sell them off to the neighbors and never see them again. It is the kind of love that keeps them safe and alive and well in our care throughout their childhood and beyond.
And maybe this is the true gift of auntihood -- being able to love like this while simultaneously conserving our own energy to jump in and offer the break when required, to play that supporting role. To be able to step in and love these kids and care for them as if they are our own, to keep them safe and turn them over to their parents at the end of the day. To be another adult who can witness them and offer them a fresh, non-entrenched perspective -- offering them different liberties and freedoms because we have the energy and desire to allow it.
I found my role as "mom" this weekend much more cumbersome than I ever have with my role as auntie. As auntie, the kids can bury themselves in the sand and stomp through puddles or make malts for dessert or read an extra five books at bedtime or otherwise push the edges of what is generally allowed because auntie doesn't mind the inconvenience of giving another bath or additional clean up in the kitchen or the like. But as "mom" this weekend, I found myself becoming more controlling and much more concerned with bedtimes and bathtimes and other fine details because my peace-of-mind, and the running of the well-oiled machine I was entrusted with, was at stake...there was little room, on any level, for extra work.
In the beginning of my forty week meditation adventure, I wrote about the desire to become a better mother to myself in the absence of physically being a mother to anyone else. I wondered if that was my calling -- to learn to better care for myself. Regardless of the what or the how, my intent for this project has been to become more authentic and more true to myself by listening more fully within and accepting myself more. And above all, become more willing to and adept at trusting my heart.
Somehow, this past weekend has given me this gift. Or perhaps this gift has been offered many times over and now, through my meditations, I find myself suddenly open and able to receive it. For the better part of my 30's I was either feverishly preparing for the possibility of a motherhood I couldn't quite reconcile wanting or lamenting the fact that the choice of whether or not to have my own children was taken away. Over the years I have made my peace the best way I know how and yet have never quite let myself off the hook -- still somehow expecting I should either be a mother (through adoption or insemination or being like one to my brother's kids) or I at least should desperately want it anyway. Which I don't -- at least not very often. The world has enough mothers than to make one of me. And god knows the kids already have the best mother they could ever hope for in my sister-in-law.
The truth is, I've known since I began babysitting as an 11-year-old that I was not cut out whatsoever for taking care of children. Somewhere inside of me, hindsight being 20/20, I've always known that it wasn't for me. But I've never trusted this knowing -- I never knew how to reconcile it. I kept trying to force myself into a role that was never mine to take on. I continued to babysit, I nannied for a family when I was in college...I was a girl, after all. This nurturing and patience stuff was just supposed to come naturally. Wasn't it? This desire to give all and be all? Or is this just the bill-of-goods we're sold?
Just as we are all our own unique mix of personality traits and temperments that make us more attuned to some jobs more than others, I believe parenthood is the same. Not all women are meant to be mothers (nor are all men meant to be fathers). Not that we can't do it -- the world is full of reluctant or ambivalent parents who simply do the best with what they've got. The question, it seems for all of us before embarking on such an undertaking is, should we?
I can safely say now, in the spirit of self-acceptance and authenticity -- and even in being a better mother to myself -- in my case, the answer is no. Even toying with that answer in past years would drive me to desperate tears. What does it mean that I feel I shouldn't be a mother? What it means, I have finally realized, is that I'm that much better at, and much happier, being an auntie. The trouble I've had is that I never knew an acceptable alternative was available. I always thought there was only one job I could be qualified for and no matter how hard I tried, I never quite fit the bill.
What a relief to finally forgive myself for all those years of wishing I was something, and someone, I'm not, and to embrace what the divine order of the Universe must have already known -- that my unique mix of personality traits and temperments suits me best as an aunt. Who knew that my calling has been here all along?
So here is my nod to aunties everywhere who support and love their nieces and nephews as if they were your own. What a gift it is to accept, with humility and enthusiasm, the role we are meant to play...whatever that role may be. Thank you to all the aunties who have come before and for the many more who will surely come after.//