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The false promise of being a ‘cool aunt’

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The crying starts almost immediately.

“I have to go,” Leena sighs. “The baby is fussing.”

We end our call, and I look at my cellphone. Four minutes. That’s how long we were able to talk. Not so long ago, Leena and I would regularly spend four hours together, going out dancing and ending the night slumped over diner milkshakes, recapping all the flirtatious glances and snippets of conversation we’d collected throughout the evening. Most of the time, these tete-a-tetes were the highlight of our night.

But now I have to admit: I’m losing her.

As a woman in my 30s, I’ve found that life forks sharply in this decade. Most of my friends have walked down the expected path of marriage and motherhood. And while I followed them down the aisle, I veered off track when it came to children.

I have a lot of replies when people ask me why I don’t have kids: “I want to focus on my career.” “I can’t even take care of my gut flora.”

Or I tell the truth: “I’m missing the ‘mother chip’ in my circuitry.”

Even after welcoming the pumpkin-cheeked cuteness of two nieces and a nephew, I still know that motherhood isn’t for me. My goal has simply been to be a freewheeling bohemian with an urban address and a collection of rhinestone-laden accessories; someone who throws around words like “credenza” and “rococo” in conversation over poncy cocktails. My artsy friends had similar goals, except they also wanted to become artsy parents.

As I have moved through my 30s, my friends traded their skinny jeans for breezy maternity dresses and boozy brunches for Lamaze classes. Through it all, I insisted that I would be the kooky aunt adding spice to their domestic lives. I could be the one to take these kids to lavish tea parties or palm readers. And my dress-up closet — complete with wigs, chiffon dresses and genie pants — was ready for playtime. I wanted to remain a central person in my friends’ lives, and in their kids’ lives.

But that hasn’t happened. Not long after the 4 a.m. feedings began, my friends got pulled out into a riptide of mommyhood. They’ve joined parenting groups, read blogs with names like “Pacifiers and Prozac,” and write essays on Facebook about car seats. Eventually, I’d attend a barbecue or a children’s birthday party and find myself in a room of women painfully aware that I was the only one who had never operated a breast pump.

What’s more, my friends had no need for a kooky aunt with sequin-laden clothes. They’ve needed to bond with someone in the trenches of the diaper wars, someone who could actually offer helpful advice about a teething baby. (My best: “Remind me, why is whiskey a bad idea?”)

Likewise, my friends were no longer able to join me in my world. It was goodbye to happy hours and Sunday spin classes. Conversations about work promotions or the latest movie would be met with a glassy “Uh huh.” It was as if I were describing office gossip to a co-worker who had left 10 years ago to trek Kilimanjaro.

This alone would split up even the best of besties, but geography has made it even harder to remain close. Often my parent friends follow the predictable route of looking for more space and moving to the suburbs, which means girl talk requires a three-train commute and dodging minivans and lawn sprinklers. To come see me, my friends face this trek in reverse, except they also have to pay for a sitter or negotiate a child-care swap with their spouse. It’s no surprise that our rendezvous have become less frequent.

I always knew life could be a little lonelier without kids. I chose to make that trade-off for my freedom. But I didn’t realize that loneliness wouldn’t come because my household is a tiny trio (me, my husband and our chubby tabby cat). It came from friends drifting away to be mothers. Sure, I’ve found other friends without child-care obligations, who are free any given evening to twirl around Sephora trying on fake eyelashes. Still, I miss the connections I’ve shared with people who have known me since my first tube of Great Lash.

I’ve asked my own mother for advice here. “When your life is centered on the playground, you gravitate toward the people that share that turf,” she told me. “But it doesn’t last forever.”

My husband and I laugh about that. “Okay, then,” we joke. “We’ll see ’em in 16 years!” But I do find Mom’s advice somewhat comforting. It helps me envision a future, like heaven, where you’re reunited with all your loved ones once the day-care years have ended.


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