June 18, 2024

When Caroline was growing up, she pictured herself ending up surrounded by children. Now in her 50s, that is exactly how her life has turned out, except not in quite the way she imagined. While she was “never in a position that it made sense” to have children herself, Caroline is a proud and very involved aunt to eight nephews and nieces. 

“I sometimes describe it as my brothers have reproduced very successfully on my behalf,” jokes Caroline, a forensic psychologist who lives in Shoreham-by-Sea in southern England. “I’ve got all these lovely kids around who I really enjoy spending time with, and I haven’t had to give birth or have sleepless nights.” Caroline, whose surname is being withheld to protect the children’s privacy, relishes the time she spends with her nieces and nephews, and feels she has a tangible connection to the next generation through them. 

For her, aunthood isn’t a runner-up prize, but instead “it feels like a total bonus”. She sees her embrace of the role as pushback against the “fierce” promotion of motherhood, and wishes more women were aware aunthood can be “a totally valid choice” instead. 

The aunt without children has always been an object of fascination in culture and literature. Whether the nurturing aunt who takes on an orphan like Peter ‘Spiderman’ Parker’s Aunt May; the embittered Aunt Lydia of the Handmaid’s Tale; or the worldly eccentric like Aunt Augusta in Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt, the aunt has always illustrated a sort of ‘other’.  Many portrayals have tended to position aunthood as a second-best option to motherhood, or a cautionary tale about women who operate outside the mainstream expectation of what women ‘should’ be. 

Patricia Sotirin, professor of communication at Michigan Technological University, US, says it “speaks to the paucity of our language” that we don’t really have a meaningful way of describing a woman who makes a positive choice to pursue aunthood over motherhood. Sotirin, who has co-written two books about aunts in culture and society, argues aunts still “don’t get the respect and recognition that they deserve for their importance in our lives”. 

As an adoring aunt without children myself, I’ve often found myself wondering quite where I fit in, in a culture where motherhood is seen as a marker of adulthood. As increasing numbers of women are not, for whatever reasons, having their own children, experts say it’s time we looked again at the role that aunts play, and recognise aunthood for the rewarding, socially beneficial and even transgressive role it can be. 

‘No scripts, no baselines’ 

It’s no secret the developed world is going through a demographic shift, which is forcing society to rethink traditional expectations of family. Growing numbers of women are exiting their child-bearing years without having children. In the UK in 2019, 49% of women born in 1989 reached 30 without having children. In the US in 2018, more than one in seven women between 40 and 44 had not had a child and recent Pew Research Center data showed rising numbers of Americans aged 18 to 49 expect never to do so.