Margaret is a 50-year-old administrative assistant, married and childless. She has four sisters with whom she speaks several times per week. They visit often and because of the number of children in their respective families they have monthly birthday parties as a matter of routine. She says, "I am probably as close to my sisters as I am to my husband."
Margaret was present at the birth of her niece Brice who is now a college student, and in fact at the time of our interview they were enrolled in a college class together. The sisters arrange occasional weekend trips to distant cities – New York, Montreal, Boston – where they shop, visit museums or attend evening performances. As a young adult, Brice is now invited to participate in their adventures. For Margaret, the importance of her niece, her own love of children, and the depth of her relationship with her oldest sister, Brice's mother, is illustrated in a story she shared with me. Some years ago, Brice's mother offered to have a baby for Margaret. Margaret relates the story:
"After having her last child my sister said, 'I would like to have a baby for you."
RM: "And what did you decide to do?"
"I would have loved to, but my husband said no. If I could turn back time, I would have. So that's love, and that's Brice's mother."
Margaret's story speaks volumes of her devotion to her family, and a community of women who freely share their intimate lives and their children. Childless aunts and uncles often share a sincere interest in parenting, and their nieces and nephews serve as surrogate children with the full knowledge and encouragement of parents.
Childlessness influences the relationships of aunts and uncles with their nieces and nephews with some regularity. Half of the uncles and slightly more of the aunts I interviewed were childless. These figures are higher than the general population where approximately 18% of women aged 40 to 44 (i.e., women of similar age to the aunts I interviewed) remain childless including those who elect not to have children and those who are unable to do so.
Several qualities influence the involvement of childless aunts and uncles. Aunts often mention they have the time, and consequently the opportunity to become involved with their nieces, as well as the inclination to do so. Aunt Sandy states: "I have more time to give to my nephews and nieces and the desire to do that, to incorporate them into my life." She goes on to observe how busy life can be especially for parents: "I know how stressed out and busy parents are. It's just a whole different world....So yeah, I have a busy life, but I don't have that 24/7 demand they do, and I have the time and the desire."
For some the opportunity to be with children and to participate in their upbringing is significant and this is true for both aunts and uncles. In these cases the children of siblings were eagerly anticipated, and relationships with them began in infancy and were often highly developed. Uncle Nick enthusiastically recounts being present at the birth of his nephew. "I cut the umbilical cord," he states with obvious pride. Nick is 28 and lives with his female partner. Much of their social life revolves around activities with his sister, her husband, and their three children. They visit on Saturdays and stop by one another's home during the week for coffee, and occasionally he and his nephew "have a kick around the local school" (i.e., play soccer). The nephew's biological father has been largely absent for most of his life. Encouraged by his sister and his own interest, Nick maintains a consistent and frequent influence in his nephew's daily life.
Uncle Robert, a catholic priest, and Uncle John a single gay man, both commented on the importance of their respective nephews, and sometimes their nieces. Robert comments, "Having really good relationships with my nephews and nieces satisfied a lot of my need for generativity and seems to nullify my own need for children." John expresses a similar sentiment about his nephew: "He is about the closest thing I've got to a son so that is why I take it so seriously."
Parents recognize the significance of their siblings in the lives of their children, and they certainly recognize the importance of their children to aunts and uncles. Aunt Sandy says of her sister and her husband: "They've been really good with their kids, sharing their children. I'm just so grateful to my brother and sister for having children." The gift of children reverberates across households and for childless aunts and uncles opportunity and generative interests freely mix. When family communities work well, everyone benefits.
© Robert Milardo