Recently, I had the chance to spend some time with several kids of various ages, all under ten. Many people with children (none of whom I knew) joined my husband and I in helping friends of ours move house. Since carrying boxes is against my RA’s religion, I volunteered to look after the kids, who otherwise would have spent the time getting in the way of the movers, stuffing donuts in their faces, and running after their parents asking for things. I led the herd away towards a park and as we walked along the sidewalk, afraid that they would smell my fear and the fact that I, personally, wasn’t a mom. At each intersection, I told them all to hold hands with each other – and me – which they did, and they came back when I told them they were running too far ahead.
I was impressed, however, that even though none of these kids knew me from Adam, they were very good about following my directions and doing what I told them. Kids just generally accept the authority of an adult, even one they have never met, even if they might not want to. This fascinates me, because I would have expected them to scorn my directions, while yelling, “You’re not my mom!” at me but they didn’t. They were all good kids, and well-behaved. Is this something that’s taught by parents, or just something we decide when we’re little and realize that the tall people have all the power?
Kids interest me so much, in part because I don’t have any and it’s like observation time at the Zoo for me, but also because when I’m with them, I’m doing a kind of split-screen reliving of my own childhood; remembering what I said or did or felt in similar situations, seeing those same things happen in present time. I also can’t help but wonder how I would be doing it differently if one of them were mine. (I can’t help but Monday-morning mother, occasionally.) And let’s face it, this is really part of what having children is all about. It’s a way of repeating our childhood, reliving the good and bad things, and, in essence, having a do-over by looking at how we were parented and maybe filling in our gaps and learning how to parent and care for ourselves.
I didn’t actually make a conscious choice not to be a mother. As a girl, I talked about when I would have kids, as most girls do, but as the years went on, it became less and less likely. I developed my chronic illness in college and it has affected every single aspect of my life since. My first marriage ended in divorce and then I suffered some relapses over the years that took more and more from me physically. In my thirties, I reached a point where I realized that I would probably never have the energy or ability to have my own children, and I was okay with that; being a basically selfish person who likes being able to sleep, do what she wants to do, and not share the food on her plate.
Despite not wanting my own children, I still have motherly feelings and love to share, so I acquired several “honorary” children. I have two beautiful and talented god-daughters, who I have known since birth, and I am a happy, honorary auntie to my dearest friend’s daughter, who I have known since she was two. I also have one step-daughter, who is not, actually, my step-daughter since I never married her father, but my relationship with her has far outlasted my relationship with him. I have known V since she was six years old, and this September she will celebrate her eighteenth birthday. We’ve played together and made up games. I’ve talked with her about her body, about sex, about clothing and style, about growing-up and what she might want to do with her life. I’ve gone shopping with her, and watched her go to dances and have crushes, and we’ve talked about love.
I made sure she knew that she could ask me anything and I would talk about it – and then made sure I talked about all the uncomfortable things she asked me. I’ve tried to be that person she can go to, an ear to listen, and a shoulder to cry on. I’ve worried about drugs and drinking and parties, pregnancy and sexual partners, and dropping out of school. We’re almost there – there at that point where I can stop worrying so much because she’s almost out of high school and almost grown up – but I know I will probably worry about her forever, just like her real mother. Being a step-mother and auntie has been perfect for me. It gave me a sense of kinship and understanding with my friends who are mothers because I understand some of the difficulties being a mother entails. I’ve been able to understand – and be compassionate for – my own mother, and the struggles she must have had raising two little girls, primarily on her own. Although I wish many things had happened differently, it cannot have been easy.
I love my girls. I don’t think anyone is less of a mother – or father – if there is a “step” or “auntie” or “uncle” in front of the word; blood doesn’t make family, effort and love do. Girls, in particular, need positive female role models other than their mothers as a way to detach from their mothers in a healthy way, and to experience other ways of being the kind of women they might want to be. Boys might need a masculine role model, or just someone to hang with and talk to. This is where I think being a good step-parent or honorary something can be such a gift. The biggest gift that these girls – especially V – have given me is the chance to really see what was missing in how I was parented, what I needed and how I needed it, and finally, how to now give it to myself. In essence, they helped me fill in the gaps – my childhood ones, certainly, but also the one I felt from not being able to have my own kids.
Without my “spare” kids, I would never have gotten to experience the special joys of Halloween and Christmas with children. I would not have had the chance to play and imagine and explore with a child. I would have missed the exquisite – and frightening – pleasure of helping shape a young person’s mind and character. And most of all, I would have missed the opportunity to explore, understand, and heal my relationship with my own childhood.