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The Auntie-Dote To Motherhood

© Marco Ceschi on Unsplash

Sophie Wilkinson knows she's a great aunt, but would she - should be - be a good mum?

Knowing that the gender-neutral term for nieces and nephews is ‘niblings’ is helpful, because I talk about my littlest relatives a lot. Between my two older sisters, there are three boys and one girl, each a delight in their own special way. The nine-year-old boy asks me about crime and mythical realms, while the seven-year- old girl and I choreograph dance routines to the same songs I listen to in gay bars. The four-year-old boy, who I live a little closer to, likes poo-related limericks, and the youngest, at two, loves hide and seek.

When I’m with my niblings, I watch adoringly as their soft, dewy cheeks chatter and their wrinkle-free faces try out adult reactions. I listen intently as they shape their tiny mouths and gappy teeth around new words. I tickle them until they kick (and they can really kick). And when I’m hungover and far away, I watch videos of them. With every zoom-in my heart beats a little closer to the surface of my skin. Maybe I should get a cat. Or perhaps consider having kids of my own? After all, I’m 30 and cohabiting.

Years ago, I would have written off motherhood. My logic was that, ecologically, children are perhaps the worst thing we can inflict on the world, while socially, badly raised kids can have terrible ripple effects. But now, as I’ve learned how much joy and comfort comes with the challenge of raising kids, I’m not so sure. Being good with kids comes naturally to me, so maybe motherhood could, too?

As a practicing lesbian, I’m not going to get pregnant by accident, and I’m grateful to have avoided both the burden and fear of contraceptive responsibilities I see my straight friends having to deal with. However, an inverse logic runs, ever so subtly, even through my own head, that people who struggle the hardest to have children don’t take them for granted, therefore raise them very well. And the pressure to perform under that assumption, however internalised, is terrifying. I’m a perfectionist in so many aspects of my life, I’m not sure that’s compatible with the messy realities of parenthood. Plus, the parenting options available to me are IVF with donor sperm, donating my eggs to my girlfriend so she carries the baby for me (which involves some elements of IVF and donor sperm) or adoption.

I’d need not only the money, but the confidence to spend that amount of money on something I can’t say for certain I could deal with. The practicalities don’t daunt me; I’ve changed the nappy of a child who has, the night after a lentil supper, spent an afternoon submerging himself in a sandpit. And while I don’t doubt the difficulties parenthood presents, I all too regularly see – thanks, social media – people objectively underprepared to have kids simply having them and getting on with it, and it’s fine, because that’s what (straight) people have always done.

What concerns me, though, is being a queer parent in a society where father- mother relationships, no matter how haphazard, are still considered not only the norm, but preferable, by far too many. I know parents outside that rubric can succeed – my mum raised me and my sisters on her own, from when we were each two, six and nine-years-old. But a big part of me feels I’ve done my time coming to terms with my sexuality, and the way the world treats me because of it. I’ve felt and overcome the heartbreak of rejection, derision and harassment, and finally, I feel that I and my girlfriend of four years can sometimes hold hands in busy places without fear. Would a round of IVF and nine months’ gestation prepare us to feel any more comfortable walking down the road together behind a buggy? That’s assuming we have the money to finance IVF and we find a decent donor before the quality of my eggs deteriorates beyond the point of no return.

Reading Lena Dunham’s devastating account of her hysterectomy earlier this year, I suddenly felt concerned for my own reproductive capabilities. What point is there in feeling pity for another person’s torturous decision to remove her choice of becoming a biological mother, when I’ve spent so long willfully pretending that I don’t ever need to make a decision to become one myself?

Maybe I can put my eggs on ice, at expense of both my body and purse. Or perhaps that’s not my role in life. It might be that I’m here to be a great auntie to my niblings. I’m in no doubt that my influence on their lives barely stretches to the inner perimeters of the fields of growth that caring and attentive parents can nurture in their children. Yet, since learning that scientists have discovered, in parts of Samoan society, that gay brothers are more likely than straight ones to perform uncle duties for their sisters’ children, I wonder if the ‘helper in the nest’ theory (as they call it) could apply to me. I can’t back this up with science –research into the occurrence in lesbians is depressingly limited. What I can back it up with is the feeling of pride I get when my niblings achieve, the joy I get from being in their good-humoured, curious company, the protectiveness I foster over these vibrant souls, and the thrill I get when I feel my next nibling kick, on the other side of my sister’s tummy.