Shared Mothering: When Aunts Step in with Unconditional Love
My nephew Riley turned fifteen years old a few months ago and he’s a sophomore in high school. And even though he’s girl crazy, has been caught ditching school several times, and may be taking a driver’s license test soon, my precious memories of him as a baby and a young boy are securely wrapped in my heart. I can tap into them in an instant, as if it were yesterday.
While I already had three nieces and a nephew before was he born, there was something unique about Riley. I felt a bond that I didn’t quite feel with the other kids. I was 31 years old and for the first time I felt a maternal instinct. I attribute this to his baptism. As I sat alone on a pew, something the priest performing the ceremony said resonated with me.
He said that everyone in the church would be a role model for Riley. That each and every one of us would have a hand in helping to raise him. In other words, as Hillary Clinton stated a few years before, raising him would take a village.
Like most large families, everyone in mine would pitch in to help take care of the kids. My older cousins and sisters were my babysitters and my playmates while my aunts were like second mothers to my sisters and me. Only recently had I heard of the expression “shared mothering” and I believe it is well-suited in describing the kind of relationship I had with my aunts.
Growing up, both of my parents worked full time and owned a side business. But running the household was my mom’s responsibility. She was the primary caregiver for my three sisters and me. She cooked three meals a day, cleaned, did the laundry, ironed clothes, went grocery shopping, made clothes for us, and took us to church.
On top of all that, she didn’t drive so sometimes she had to take the bus to work. Yet she never complained and never took a sick day. Because my mom was so busy she ran a tight ship and she wasn’t always able to give us her undivided attention. She also wasn’t always able show us a lot of patience or tenderness and rarely doted on us. But we knew how lucky were. She reminded us all the time.
Since we didn’t know any different, we accepted my mom’s limitations and even though she didn’t tell us she loved us until we were adults, she showed us in a hundred different ways. I can’t really say, however, that I knew her love was completely unconditional. And while that may sound bit sad, my aunts, particularly, my Aunt Gloria, made up for this by treasuring us like precious gemstones.
Aunt Gloria was my dad’s sister and didn’t have children of her own. While she wasn’t close to the rest of our extended family, she adored my sisters and me. Whenever she and my Uncle Arnold would come over, it was like royalty was visiting. The house was even more spotless than usual. My mom would break out the fine white china and the formal silverware we only used on Thanksgiving and Christmas. And she would always serve my aunt’s favorite dish: ginger chicken and rice.
My Aunt Gloria was beautiful, glamorous, and, in my eyes, the height of sophistication. Even her white and black toy poodle, Fifi, was sophisticated. She was taken to a beauty parlor once a week where she was properly groomed and got red ribbons wrapped around her ears and a pedicure to match. (This was long before dog grooming parlors existed, mind you.) My aunt fed Fifi straight off her plate and she was the only dog ever allowed in our house. Even our dog wasn’t allowed in our house.
Every time my Aunt Gloria and Uncle Arnold would visit us they would give us gifts. My uncle was an office supply salesman and they would bring us a huge box for school supplies like extra thick green lead pencils, pencil sharpeners, geometry compasses, Pink Pearl erasers, old school extra wide ruled paper for elementary school students, plastic protractors, and carbon paper for my mom.
They also bought us some very special presents. One year for Christmas she gave us statues of little angels with wings and red dresses with white trim around the bottom that looked like snow. My two older sisters’ statues were holding small lamps. Since my other sister was Aunt Gloria’s goddaughter she always received something a little distinctive from the rest of us. In this situation my sister’s statue was holding a wreath. The final statue was of a mother carrying a baby for my mom and me.
On another occasion, she gave us statues of little girls with pretty pastel dresses and banners which also had each of our birth months inscribed on them and tiny birthstones. I can also vividly recall one Christmas when she surprised us with attachés. Mine was red and my sisters’ were blue, green, and yellow and each of them had our names embroidered on them.
Early on these gestures made all of us feel special in our own way. She also always took the time to speak to us with her soft-spoken voice and ask about school and our lives giving us her full and loving attention. It was as though she bestowed us with the concept of individualism.
As I reflect on my Aunt Gloria now, I recognize that she set an example of how to be a good aunt and how to cherish and love my nieces and my nephews unconditionally. The love I have for each of them is boundless and like none I have ever known, especially since I don’t have kids myself.
For more than 25 years I’ve fed them, rocked them to sleep, changed diapers, and played with them. I have been there for baptisms, recitals, soccer and softball games, prom nights, graduations, first loves, and broken hearts. All this time I was practicing shared mothering and never realized it. I feel so blessed to be an aunt. It has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.
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