But I am also an aunt, and that means there are many other things I have never experienced: I have never had that hollow, workaholic feeling that I have nothing to come home to but a Lean Cuisine and a plant. At my house, there is likely to be at least one urgent personal message on the answering machine. "Hello, Tish? It's me, Kerry." (She is 6, going on 42.) "You have to come to my birthday party." I've also never stuck with a dead relationship for fear that if I didn't, my old age would be a matter of splitting tuna dinners with the cat. (Clearly, my twilight years will involve being treated to sumptuous, lively repasts, once all my little darlings have become wage earners.) I have never covered a political campaign or traveled to an exotic land that didn't later come in handy for somebody's show-and-tell. I have never encountered a stay-at-home mom at a cocktail party and felt that we had absolutely nothing to say to each other. And in all of my 33 years, I have never had a Christmas without Santa, an Easter without an egg hunt, a Halloween without an invitation to at least one haunted house. I have often lost my mind, but never my imagination.
You would think that all this aunting would sharpen my eagerness to have my own children. If anything, though, it has only deepened my sense of relaxation about that whole issue.
This is in part because even the least active form of aunting cannot help but serve as a flashing neon sign spotlighting the difficulty of actual parenting. There are nonparents who have not spent any time with children since they last babysat in 1980, and then there are nonparents like me, who have fresh memories of reading the same story 12 times in one night and watching the same video over and over again. I have seen my nieces reenact the long forgotten winter-bitter fights between me and my sister, over who took what from whose closet. I have heard their small, cold voices say, "I hate you." (Not to me, of course. They love me.)
I am also relatively unworried about my own chances of becoming a parent, because although aunting will never give me anything like the full course of motherhood, it does give me a wonderful, powerful—and possibly sufficient—taste of it. While I will never be the children's mother, I will always be their family, with all the history, complexity, and fidelity that entails. I couldn't drop them like a yoga class, a book club, or a waning friendship, even if I wanted to. I have known them forever, and they have known me.
That's it, really: We just know each other and know, as one so rarely can these days, that we will always know each other.
Plus, they are among the most interesting people I know.
The other day I came across my 11-year-old niece, Fiona, as she emerged, looking zippily reptilian in her pink bathing suit and purple goggles, from a swimming pool.
"Hey, Fiona Bologna, what's big and exciting?" I called out to her.
For some reason, that's how I always greet people. And the answers are usually what you would expect:
"Same old, same old."
My gal, however, replied without a thought, or any particular drama: "My oriental fire-belly frogs."
Now, that's an answer.
Tish Durkin is an opinion columnist for the National Journal and the Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.
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