In Praise Of Aunts

Blogger Margaret Magowan has a somewhat unusual defense of childless women: they make great aunts.

Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle's City Brights blog, Magowan says women without children are "often pitied; people wonder at what point in their lives they veered off onto their unnatural, unfeminine paths, becoming lonely 'spinsters' or crazy cat ladies." But she quotes Elizabeth Gilbert, who writes in Committed that "It's as though, as as a species, we need an abundance of responsible, compassionate, childless women to support the wider community in various ways." One of these ways apparently is the time-honored practice of aunty-ing. Magowan reiterates Gilbert's list of luminaries raised or influenced by childless aunts, including John Lennon, Virginia Woolf, and Coco Chanel. She concludes, "to the 'Auntie Brigade,' thank you for working hard to continue the human race."

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I grew up really close to a childless aunt. She introduced me to the Archie McPhee catalog, let me stay up late while she told embarrassing stories about my mom, and taught me why they don't send donkeys to college (nobody likes a smart ass). She's been a pretty huge influence on my sense of humor and on my cultural tastes (though her tendency to remember only the one funny line from an otherwise shitty movie means I no longer go with her to Blockbuster), and she had a big enough hand in my brother's and my upbringing that my mom used her to explain the concept of an allomother. That's an animal who provides some care for other animals' young, which seems to be sort of how Magowan understands aunts.

But: my aunt has also spent much of her life not caring for anybody's young. She works, she plays with her dogs, she has a big network of friends and cousins she often travels to see. Helping raise us has certainly been part of her history, but she has many other identities besides "aunt," and she deserves recognition as a person in her own right, not just as a contributor to my family. As Magowan points out, childless men are often "admired, or even envied, as the self-sufficient bachelors they are." Childless women deserve to be admired for themselves too — not just for what they can do for others.

Best-Selling Author Elizabeth Gilbert Says Childless Women Are Just Fine [SF Chronicle City Brights Blog]