Auntie Kim

There Are So Many Ways To Have Children In Your Life

Once I figured this out, missing out on motherhood was no longer the foundational disappointment of my life.

by Kim France
The Aunties Issue

One night, around 10 years ago, when my stepfather, Howard, was weeks away from dying of cancer, he called me on the phone. “You need to come over,” he said. It was 11:30, I was already in bed, and he and my mom were more than 90 blocks away. But Howard would be dead soon, and we all knew it. I got dressed and ordered an Uber.

When I got to their apartment, most of the lights were out. My mother was in the bedroom, already asleep, and Howard was down the hall in the guest room, lying in the hospital bed they’d rented for him when he started requiring around-the-clock care. His attendant left us alone. I sat at the foot of the bed and waited for him to talk. He was so weak that even just that was difficult, but finally he did.

“There are so many ways to have children in your life,” he told me. “Don’t forget that. You have your nephews, and maybe one day stepchildren. You’ve got the children of your friends. They can all be in your life, and they can all be your children.”

I listened and smiled, kissed and thanked him, but I didn’t believe him. I was in my early 50s, and I felt badly out of step with my siblings and friends, whose lives were wrapped up with their mostly young children. I was childless, several years divorced, dating only occasionally and rarely successfully, and convinced I’d be on my own for the duration.

“There are so many ways to have children in your life,” my beloved stepfather told me. “Don’t forget that.”

I had wanted to be a mom for as long as I could remember, but for a variety of reasons — bad health, bad marriage, bad timing, and no desire to do it alone — it didn’t happen. And I hated that. I hated it every May when I was wished a happy Mother’s Day by doormen and bodega cashiers. I hated it at Halloween when everyone took to social media and posted pictures of their children dressed up as lions, or superheroes, or ironically as vacuum cleaners. And I loathed it when people I’d just met would ask “Do you have kids?” I found myself stuck as to what tone to take when I answered. There was simply no way to respond, I thought, without sounding like I either hated children or was too sad for words. Not being a mother felt like the foundational disappointment of my existence, and I couldn’t stand that.

Howard knew this, of course, and was trying to help me find an easier path — if it was (close to literally) the last thing he did. And though he died before that actually happened, it did happen. Some time between his death and today, something just switched. I still love kids as much as ever, but I no longer hate that I don’t have any. And that’s at least in part because I realized there are, as Howard had reassured me there might be, a number of significant kids in my life. None of them belong to me, in the strict biological sense, but that has, in many respects, made the relationships more meaningful to me and — hopefully — them too.

When my brothers’ sons were little, I’d pin them to the ground and tickle them until they said I was their favorite. From early on, I was resolved to be the fun aunt, the cool one, the most loved. I spoiled them constantly with toys and books, and when they had sleepovers at my place, I let them skip their vegetables at dinner, stay up late watching slightly inappropriate movies, and eat all the chocolate they wanted. This, as we well know, is an aunt’s prerogative, to indulge and to treat. But really, I did it to be more than just the favorite. I felt like one day, when they got older, they’d maybe want to confide in me, an adult who listens mostly without judgment.

Further, it was my hope that as they reached adolescence and became mortified by their parents pretty much inevitably, that I would be one of the few adults they had patience for. And in some respects, this has turned out to be the case. (It’s amazing, I have found, how much less annoying an adult you can be just by merit of not being somebody’s parent.)

At times in my life when close to nothing made me happy, my nephews always, always did.

These days, my middle nephew (there are three), who’s the sports editor of his college paper, subscribes to my Substack newsletter and texts me when he reads something he likes so we can discuss. The oldest nephew, also in college, called me on a Sunday morning not long ago, bleary and demoralized, because he’d gotten drunk the night before at a party and was afraid he’d made a fool of himself. I shared a couple of my most embarrassing college drinking stories, and assured him he wasn’t alone. During Covid, when my brothers, their families, and my mother all crammed into our family summer house on Long Island, my youngest nephew and I had a ritual of walking my dog together after dinner. His parents had recently divorced, and he was puzzling through the many changes, and we covered a lot of ground on those walks.

At times in my life when close to nothing made me happy, my nephews always, always did. When I was going through a pretty deep depression, they were the only people who could put a smile on my face. And a number of years ago, after I was fired from a big job, I found the act of picking them up from school to be deeply comforting. They were easy company.

I do even, as Howard predicted I might, have a stepchild, whom I adore. He’s 21 and making his way in the world, and in addition to that, he has a mother who is more than up to the job. So my relationship with him isn’t one I’d qualify as maternal, which is fine. He’s smart, precocious, funny, and exceptionally good company, and we have fun together. This year, I took him to see Liz Phair play live; he, in turn, took me to see Kim Gordon as a birthday surprise.

I actually kind of like the fact that I am not any of these peoples’ mothers.

Then there are also the many friends’ children I’ve watched grow up. My friend Michelle’s toddler Simone has been taught to say “Hello, Auntie Kim, you look beautiful” whenever we see each other. One can’t put a price tag on that.

I actually kind of like the fact that I am not any of these peoples’ mothers; for many reasons, primary among them the old trope about how you can always hand your nieces and nephews back to their parents when you’ve had enough. But also because I can be their friends in a way that parents really can’t, or don’t even aspire to. I try to set a good example for them, but it’s not my job to do that; I can be goofy and silly and irreverent as I want, and I don’t have to worry about college essays, math tutors, carpools, or the rest of it. The fact that I’m not responsible for them lets me appreciate these kids as the fantastic, surprising, fun creatures they are and for them to — one can only hope — experience me as something approaching the same.

Kim France is a writer, editor, and the founder of Lucky magazine. She co-hosts a podcast for women over 40 called "Everything is Fine” and is the author of Girls of a Certain Age, a newsletter about style, shopping, and pop culture. She has contributed to Spin, New York, Sassy, ELLE, Vibe, Rolling Stone, Allure, The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Village Voice. You can follow her on Instagram.