Auntie

I posted this this morning on Fit is a feminist issue as I leave for Uganda for the 10th time. Reposting here in full because it fits here too. Pics are embedded in the other post -/can’t reproduce on my phone.

Embracing the role of Auntie

As  this posts, I will be in the air, on my 10th trip to Uganda since 2008. A decade ago, I accidentally ended up one of the volunteer directors of a learning and development program called Nikibasika, for kids and youth with no family support. Now, I’m part of a tiny group that raises all the funds and supports this group of kids as they transition through post-secondary school and into adulthood and community leadership. This picture is of me, with Smith, one of my favourite people in the world. He’s studying to be a public health officer and he’s curious, kind, warm, caring and so smart and committed to changing his world. I love him.

Nikibasika is a long and involved story of its own — a book, really — but what I want to focus on here is the identity that’s emerged for me doing this work over the past 10 years — Auntie.

I never really had much of an identity related to the fact that I don’t have kids. I never really yearned to be a mom, but I didn’t deliberately “choose” not to be one either. I’ve noticed the emergence over the past couple of decades of women who actively identify as “childfree,” a “movement” of women redefining femaleness without the expectation of kids. That’s all great and interesting — but I can’t relate to it. I assumed I would have some kids, I happened to be with someone who didn’t want kids during prime kid-having years, that was okay. It didn’t have a big impact on my sense of self.

Then Nikibasika found me, in a culture where women who are mom-age in any nurturing role are called Auntie. Around the same time, my sister had her first daughter. So as I entered my 40s, the role of Auntie found me. At first, it was just an affectionate title. But as I’ve gone through my 40s and into my 50s, it’s actually become a central element of my sense of who I am.

It’s pretty well understood that being an Auntie can be a special role, the one who gets to do fun things with the kids, “hand them back when they’re crying,” be the safe space for the conversations adolescents can’t have with their parents. Community and family advocate Mia Birdsong has said that aunties “expand children’s internal and external boundaries,” and I like to hope that that’s what I do with the people I’m auntie to — at least some of the time.

I took my 12 year niece to London for a few days over Easter, and the time inhabiting each other’s space had a unique intimacy to it. She sent me a handwritten thank you letter that said “London is awesome and I’m so glad I got to share my first time going with you.” I’m grateful for what I got from her in those five days too.
I have an Auntie role with some of my friends’ kids too, especially my friend Jessica’s. I was there at the beginning of her precipitous and early labour, I drove her and her partner back and forth to the NICU while the twins baked into humanness, I drove their tiny selves home from the hospital for the first time. In February, I got to spend a few days with Ivan and Felix (and their parents) in Barbados, introducing them to the sea.
Why am I writing about this in a fitness blog? Like many of the regulars on this blog, I have written a few times about how community and family are an important part of self-care, and important part of balanced health. The extension of that for me, particularly as I’ve gotten older, is a really explicit need to live with a sense of meaning.

A few years ago, I was in a hotel room in Rwanda reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed, and serendipitously came across her musing on the need for aunties: “It’s as though, as a species, we need an abundance of responsible, compassionate, childless women to support the wider community in various ways.” Right that moment, I understood that even though I hadn’t set out to “be Auntie” to the kids of Nikibasika, it isn’t just “a thing I do,” but one of the ways I get to live into the person I most aspire to be.

For me, Auntie is one of the ways that I’m living this stage of my life in a generative way, to use Erik Erikson’s phrasing for the 7th psychosocial stage of development. Erikson’s theory was that mid-life can either be a time of stagnation and self-absorption, or it can be a time of “generativity” — i.e., working to creating a better world. “Auntie” captures that perfectly.

I didn’t set out to make a 15 year commitment to a group of kids and young adults in a country I had no ties in. Running an NGO in another country as volunteer isn’t for the faint of heart, and the fundraising and operations can get extremely wearying. But like everything that makes me more of who I am — whether it’s riding my bike really far, my work that challenges me, or improvising my way through this project, the day to day discomfort, pain and difficult moments fade into the background. What rises up is the purpose — the moments of profound connection, seeing the young adults who had no family support graduate from university, start businesses, get married, start volunteer projects in their own communities.

Me, kagame, Andrew and baby Nana 5 years ago Me and Innocent 6 years ago Me, my sister, my sister-friend Tina, and Tina’s daughter Nana
Over the next 10 days, I’ll be continuing to improv my way through this project. I’ll be hot, and a little sick, and jet-lagged — and I’ll be fully in my grateful Auntie glory.

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