Elizabeth Gilbert and the “Auntie Brigade”
Written By Savvy Auntie Staff Writers
“Auntie Liz” talks about why she couldn’t leave aunts out of her new book Committed, why she believes her wedding day was important to her niece, and offers some advice for all of us Savvy Aunties.
Things tend to come full circle in life, even when you don’t know the cycle has begun. In the summer of 2007, I was 38, single and I did not have children. (All except the age are still true.) I was also unemployed and looking for a career that I would love. I decided to start my own company, investing in a journey I hoped would bring me immense life satisfaction and happiness. (It has.)
It was also the summer I stumbled upon Elizabeth Gilbert’s runaway best seller: Eat, Pray Love. (When I say “stumbled upon” I mean I couldn’t help but discover it, with umpteen friends recommending it and Barnes and Noble seemingly decorating its Upper West Side store with it.) And it was by reading Eat, Pray, Love, which I tended to savor at the end of the day as I lay in bed, that I would go to sleep inspired. I was saddened when it ended, and until recently, I left the book on my nightstand as a reminder that the best stuff was ahead of me. It was that summer that I started the work behind SavvyAuntie.com, to give aunts, godmothers and childless women who love, adore and nurture the children in their lives a destination to learn, share and connect. I set off to offer them a badge of honor, a place to call home.
So it’s not surprising that I anticipated (along with millions of others) Gilbert’s next book: Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, the next ‘chapter’ in Elizabeth’s life. And, I could see the circle closing as Gilbert takes special care to talk about her life as “Auntie Liz” for many pages of the book, and refers anecdotally to her nephew and niece throughout.
And then came the day that sealed the circle: Elizabeth agreed to an interview. She’d heard about Savvy Auntie, in fact she had discovered it when researching her book, and was thrilled to talk to me. (Her exact words were: “I love your website!”) And here we are full-circle: Eat, Pray, Aunt:
-- Melanie Notkin, Founder, SavvyAuntie.com
In your new book Committed, which trails your journey toward marriage and commitment, you chose to include a part on being an aunt and what you call the ‘Auntie Brigade.’ Why did you feel it was important to include that?
Well it’s still almost impossible to talk about marriage without talking about marriage and children because we still link those ideas in our mind almost incontrovertibly, like: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage…” And it was a long time in my own evolution that I realized those two things do not have to necessarily go together. And I think one of the reasons I was wary of marriage was that I had already learned in myself years earlier that I was not here in this life time to be a mother. It’s just something I know to be true about my own role and my own place in the world. And like everyone else, I had linked motherhood to partnership and matrimony so closely that it was kind of a shock for me to finally realize that I could have this intimate, loving, monogamous, long-term - hopefully life-long - relationship with this wonderful man and not be expected to also be a mother.
I thought it was important to discuss that because I think of myself of an evolved modern person and it still kind of took me by surprise, so I thought there must be other women out there who might be amazed and liberated to learn that the ‘mommy train’ is not something they are obliged to ride and not something everybody is meant to ride. And that there are many interesting and important roles for women outside of motherhood.
I also turned 40 this year and I realized after all that pressure to be in the race to get married and have kids by that age, that it probably wasn’t my race to be in in first place.
Yes, and I think there are lots of different ways that story can go. There are people like me who decide that they don’t want to have children and there are people who become childless aunties unwillingly, and who have to go through some sort of grieving along the way through that journey. But either way there’s no obstacle to a rich and generous life. There are so many ways to nourish the future. And that’s what I feel the “Auntie Brigade” is there to do.
I read somewhere that it was your niece, Mimi, who said to you one day: “Auntie Liz, you were born to be an aunt.” That was a pretty astute observation for a little girl. How old was she?
[Elizabeth laughs with pride] She was about seven and she lives in fear that I’m going to have child someday… [laughs] …and I keep reassuring her that that isn’t going to happen. At this point, she’s 11, and she’s starting to believe me. She just feels really strongly that if I had a kid, she’s going to lose that really special relationship that the two of us have. She’s my only niece and I tell her all the time: “You’re my favorite niece.” That’s my favorite thing to tell her. And she always says: “But I’m you’re only niece!” “Ya, but you’re my favorite out of all of them in the whole world.”
She has a very special position in my heart and I think she knows that and I think she’d see a child as a rival. And so it’s a great relief to her that I’m her aunt and only hers and that we belong to each other in that very special way.
Oh I love that…
Well it’s a really important thing for kids to feel like that and I think one of the reasons why aunties are so important is because every child needs a responsible, loving, caring, adoring adult who is not a parent where they can go to visit and be safe and be loved and be cared for. And that’s also where they can practice expressing different sides of their personality, in a new environment that’s got different rules but the same amount of boundaries of love.
Your relationship with Mimi is clearly very strong. There’s a poignant moment in the book when your niece is so determined to get you and Felipe married that she decides to conduct the ceremony herself in the middle of your sister’s kitchen. And later at your real ‘real’ wedding, she was the flower girl she dreamed of being. Obviously your niece and you have very different points of view on marriage, hers somewhat more romantic. Can you tell us what it was like to share that experience with her?
She was the only one who dressed up that day! [laughs…] We had a really causal wedding in our living room and we all wore, you know, clean and tidy clothes, but that’s about as far as we went in terms of spectacle. But she was really decked out…she seemed to recognize that this was her only opportunity to be a flower girl and she wasn’t going to miss a moment of it! She had crinolines and flowers in her hair and her mom was astute enough to recognize that this was far more important to her than it was to the rest of us maybe [laughs…] and I think it was important for her because… well one of the things I recognized in the book was that there are many reasons why marriage still exists…as archaic and frustrating it can sometimes seem, and one of them is that the ceremony itself gives people the assurance of what the nature of the relationships are between everybody. And what Mimi really wanted the entire time was clarity over whether this man who I lived with was somebody that she required to treat as family or whether he wasn’t. And the fact that we had made solemn vows to each other in private didn’t do it for her. She needed some sort of sealing event that she could witness so that she could take the words “uncle” and “husband” out of air-quotes when she referred to him and know that there was some more security in that this really was her uncle, that this man really was my husband…and that we could all move on with our lives and know what the relationships were. It’s really important to children, I think, but I have of friends who are really bohemian who swore they would never get married until their 10 year old children made them do it… [laughs].
We talked a lot about your niece, but we haven’t spoken about your nephew, who is older. He was the one who transformed your life from Liz to “Auntie Liz.”
He was. And that was a really important day. He was born right before Halloween fourteen years ago and my dad and I decided that for Halloween we’d dress up as a “grandfather” and an “aunt.” These were our new ‘costumes;’ our new roles. Life would never quite be the same again.
Did you feel that the moment you met your nephew?
The first thing that I did after I saw him – I saw him an hour after he was born – I went home and I wrote him a letter. And this is something that I’ve started to do now because part of my role in embracing auntiehood is not only to my sister’s children, but children of all my friends and accomplices in life. I do kind of consider myself “Auntie to the world.” I’m a “freelance auntie” available for auntie duties across the board because I’m good at it and I enjoy it and I think they need it.
So one of the rituals that I’ve undertaken whenever a special friend of mine has a child is something I first started the day when Nick was born. I just sit down and write a letter to that child and tell them who their parents are and how loved they are and how grateful we are that they are here. And I also mention that they must be very, very wise and very smart already to have chosen these parents and they have no idea how much we’ve been looking forward to their lives and that we will always look after them and take care of them. So it’s almost like a letter of introduction that they can read later from somebody who knows their parents… to say that you were so anticipated and you were welcomed with so much love.
That’s beautiful. You know, there’s this idea we hear too often that women without children are frivolous, selfish, and even pathetic, for not having their own children, but you obviously see it differently.
The problem is the general random consensus that a lot of people have about anyone who is childless is that they are not an adult, they are not responsible… But I do think that people think differently when they look at specific childless people in their own lives. I think there’s a disconnect between what everybody knows to be true from intimate experience with their childless relatives and what everybody believes to be true through some sort of mistaken, general cliché. It doesn’t vibe with anything that I have ever encountered to say that childless women are selfish. On the contrary, as I said in the book, they are caretakers to the entire community. Some of the most generous, compassionate, selfless people that I know are childless women, and that’s true of childless women throughout history. They serve a very important role in society as loving, responsible adult women who take all of that instinct for nourishing and all of that instinct for love and for giving that comes with being a woman and they spread it evenly across the community rather than focusing it all on their offspring.
Not having children makes you more available to others and childless women have always taken on the responsibility of caring for people who are not their biological necessity. They care for the homeless. They’ve been teachers, nuns, nurses, educators and dispensers of charity. It’s always been that way. And often times I see this occurring in large families. Again and again, it’s the childless aunties who end up caring for the elderly parents so it’s not just that they are looking after the children in the community, they are also looking after the elders in the community.
Yes! We’ve witnessed this many times in the Savvy Auntie community.
So it’s a bum rap! It doesn’t hold water and I think we also know – if we can be really honest -- (though it is not always the case obviously), there are a lot of selfish reasons to have children. And when you hear the things that people say about the reasons they have children it can sometimes be quite shocking to hear what the motive was. I think selfishness is not determined by whether or not you have children; selfishness is determined by whether or not you’re a selfish person. I just don’t stand for that anymore because it just doesn’t make any sense to me based on what I’ve seen.
And of course, aunties add a lot of value to a child’s life. There’s something magical about that special time with Auntie that a child feels. What is it about the time with their aunt that can be a little more magical than time with mom?
Part of it is that everything you do with them is special because you don’t have an ordinary, quotidian, daily routine with them. So when you get to see them, it’s about them. Whereas parental time -- because of the obligation to raise a responsible citizen and a good human being – so much of it is about the things that must be done every day. And a lot of that falls away when you step into the world of an auntie. My time with them is about indulging our relationship and our joy together.
I took my niece and nephew to New York City a couple of years ago to see The Nutcracker. I rented a nice hotel room… the kids were probably 8 and 11 and we went to see the matinee and we came back to the hotel room and I said: “OK you guys are allowed to stay up as late as you want and we’re going to order some BBQ chicken and orange sodas!” And they sat in bed and I surrounded them with towels so they wouldn’t trash the beautiful white sheets while they were eating chicken and ribs and drinking orange soda at 11 o’clock at night watching the cartoon channel. At one point, Nick looked at me and his eyes were just glowing and he said: “My mom would never let us do this!” [laughs]
And meanwhile his mom and dad were having a date night and the entire weekend alone together in a way they never get to do because of the kids…so it’s a total win-win situation for everybody.
And one thing that I always make really clear to say to the kids is: “If I were your mother, I wouldn’t let you do this either.” Because what I don’t want to do is make them wish Aunt Liz was their mom because that’s unfair to my sister – and it’s unfair to them.
It’s not because I’m a more indulgent person; it’s because I have a different role.
Yes, one of the first rules of a Savvy Auntie is to respect the parents. What auntie advice do you have for the Savvy Auntie community?
Embrace your aunthood!
I think it’s a precious role to play, not only in the family but in society. My screensaver right now is a picture of a little guy named Cyrus who just got adopted from China a couple of months ago by my dear friends Sam and Terry. He’s 3 ½ now and in the photo he’s holding up a notebook and on the notebook his mom has written: “Hi Aunt Liz! We miss you and love you! Cyrus.”
I have no biological connection to this child. But just as his parents have adopted him into their family, I have adopted him into my heart. And he’s my nephew – because I decided that he’s my nephew and because his parents welcomed me as an extra auntie because this child needs all the family he can get. Like every kid.
You’re an ABC! An Auntie By Choice!
That’s great! So I would tell aunties, look for an expanded role. Don’t merely be a wonderful auntie within the family but an auntie to the world. There is no shortage of children who need love. And there are no shortage of families out there who need an extra hand and an extra heart. And that’s your job. And there’s plenty to be done. And that’s where we step in as ‘sparents’ (spare parents); the roving, temporary loving adult. There’s no bottom to the need for it.
The Auntie is such a wonderful person to be.
We agree. Thank you Auntie Liz!
Photo: Shea Hembrey