In Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, she writes that the term matrimony comes from the Latin word for mother. She explains that while she is childfree by choice, many women throughout history have chosen the same path, or maybe nature has allowed for it to be so. Gilbert notes that, at any given time in history at least 10% of women are childless worldwide. And during the Great Depression, in America, the number was up to 23%. Today the number hovers close to 50%.
Does nature know something that we’ve all but ignored? Does it really take a village to raise a child? Gilbert wonders if maybe there are extra women around to be “sparents” – “spare parents” to help out.
The popularity of author and blogger Melanie Notkin suggests the answer is a resounding yes. SavvyAuntie.com celebrates the childfree women who lend a hand. It is, “the first community for cool aunts, great aunts, godmothers and all women who love kids.” I am a proud member of this auntie brigade, with three gorgeous godkiddies. Savvy Auntie instructs kid-free aunts on everything childfriendly, from the perfect birthday present to how to save for a niece’s education. A review from Kirkus says it best: “A chic guide for new and experienced aunts that establishes their valuable family role. Challenging the cultural stigma associated with childless women, Notkin creates a distinctive voice that draws attention to the value of an aunt’s role in families…Communal childrearing at its finest.”
Of course the stories of the famously heartbroken and lonely “old-maid” aunties persist, and are part of our literary history. But Gilbert writes that these are merely creatures of myth, “recent studies of nursing homes comparing happiness levels of elderly childless women against happiness levels of women who did have children show no pattern of special misery or joy in one group or the other.”
Perhaps several works of fiction wouldn’t even exist without the help of aunties. Childless aunties helped raise and influence notable artists including: Coco Chanel, Virginia Woolf, Truman Capote, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
From Gilbert we also learn that J.M. Barrie’s inspiration for the spirit of his forever, youthful fictional character, Peter Pan, was found “in the faces of many women who have no children.” That would be me. And I only hope my own role as a Peter Pan makes me a valuable auntie and an excellent “sparent”…