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Melanie Notkin

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The Truth About The Modern Aunt

Posted: 09/23/11 11:00 AM ET

I sat in the theater biting my tongue. In the newly released film, "I Don't Know How She Does It" about the challenges of a working mother, Sarah Jessica Parker's character Kate Reddy describes her female, child-phobic junior associate, Momo, as a "robot" and went on (and on) throughout the movie pointing out how 'cold' yet dedicated and hardworking she is.

Why is it that the modern mom can love children and her career but the childless woman can only love her career? And are cliché characters like Momo -- played by actor Olivia Munn -- reflective of a common antagonism overburdened moms have for those without children? In America today, has feminism morphed into mommyism? More importantly, are we all losing something because of it?

I became an aunt a decade ago, and from the moment I heard that my sister-in-law was expecting, I experienced the deepest, unconditional love for a child-not-my-own. Now, as Auntie Melanie to many more, there is nothing I would not do for my nephew and nieces. While not a mother myself due to circumstance -- not choice -- I have, and have always had, strong maternal instincts for children. And as the founder of SavvyAuntie.com, the community designed for the nearly 50 percent of American women who are not mothers but love the children in their lives, I see evidence of thoughtful and selfless dedication to others' children every single day. A few in the tribe, what I've dubbed the "Savvy Auntourage," even go as far as to take over as "ParAunt" when the mother can't care for her children.

That's why instead of labeling women without kids as "childless," I prefer to say we're "childfull" because we choose to love the children in our lives.

Yet, even in our modern, politically correct society, the auntie -- when she is a woman without children of her own, is often made to seem cold, selfish, pathetic or "less than." Or, she's depicted as a high-flying, eccentric "Bon VivAunt" with little care for anyone or anything of true value. How can this woman, when everything she does for a child-not-her-own is a generous gift, ever be called selfish? How can this woman, who is every other woman in the United States, be an oddball?

Helen Gurley Brown asked similar questions about the single girl 50 years ago with her revolutionary 1962 book "Sex and the Single Girl." "Nobody was championing [single women]," Brown said in a 1967 interview. "Volumes had been written about this creature, but they all treated the single girl like a scarlet-fever victim, a misfit, and . . . you can't really categorize one-third of the female population [a figure that's only grown since then] as misfits."

What we need is a movement that celebrates the culturally, politically and financially influential force that is the childless woman. Unmarried or married, gay or straight, and childless by choice, by circumstance, by biology or because of her stage of life, we are the other half of American women. For some pretty lucky kids, we're also what I call PANKs: Professional Aunts No Kids.

There is something purely magical about the relationship between an aunt and the children in her life. But it's more than just that universal visceral feeling children get from being around Auntie, and it's certainly more important than the cool gifts we often shower on them. The magic we sprinkle on children is the exact kind that is critical to the children's cognitive, social and emotional development -- and their future academic success. Seemingly non-magical moments like reading to a niece, building a castle of blocks with a nephew, or even simply paying attention to a child are extraordinarily impactful. As Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, VP Research and Education, Sesame Workshop, explained to me: "Auntie time IS quality time." Time not dedicated to chores, homework and quotidian things like eating and brushing teeth -- things parents are obligated to ensure happens -- but rather the joy of uninterrupted play, is what is so crucial here. I've since dubbed this time 'QualAuntie Time.'

It's not just time with the children that make Auntie's role important. The PANK makes sacrifices, contributing to the family village indirectly by working later, on the weekend or on holidays (as depicted in the movie) so a co-worker mom can spend more time with her children. She may contribute part of her discretionary income toward a niece's or nephew's education, extra-curricular activities, even their first trip aboard. And while this woman may be highly valued within her immediate family and circle of friends, in the greater, national conversation about family, she is woefully underrepresented and under-appreciated. Sadly, she is often caricatured a stumbling, child-phobic "robot" that lacks any emotion or maternal instinct until the very moment she becomes a mother herself.

To draw a line between those with children and those without isn't constructive and certainly doesn't help the children.

Here's the truth about aunthood. Unlike parents, aunts have no legal obligations. Aunthood is a gift. It's a gift to the children who never suffer from too much love. It's a gift to today's overburdened parents who can always use more hands and hearts when it comes to their kids. And it's a gift to us because it is one of the wonderful things that fills our lives with joy, love and purpose.

We do love the children in our lives. And in one way or another, we all contribute to a mom's ability to do it all. Now isn't that an idea we can all warm up to?

 
 
 

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