Friday, May 4, 2012

Barren in Books: Eat, Pray, Love and the Auntie Brigade


And so, inevitably, Barren in Books arrives at Eat, Pray, Love.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller came out right around the time I was grappling with my own decision about whether or not to have children, and I guess this is one of the reasons I liked it so much. Millions of other women liked it too, which, by extension must mean that even if these women had kids, the decision about whether or not to have them is something a lot of us relate to. Of course Gilbert’s book was about other things too, but it was the first book I remember reading where childlessness was laid out as a reasonable choice rather than the unfortunate outcome of being a lesbian or a spinster or -- the worst and most pitiable -- infertile. What I find most amazing about that statement is that I was thirty-five when I read the book.  THIRTY-FIVE.  At the risk of sounding immodest, I will point out that I had read rather a lot of books up until then.

In her follow-up book, Committed, Gilbert asserts that she is a happy member of the "Auntie Brigade." She even outlines a sort of defense for the necessity of this childless community of women:

In leaving no descendants ... childless aunts do tend to vanish from memory after a mere generation, quickly forgotten, their lives as transitory as butterflies. But they are vital as they live, and they can even be heroic. Even in my own family's recent history, there are stories on both sides of truly magnificent aunties who stepped in and saved the day during emergencies. Often able to accrue education and resources precisely because they were childless, these women had enough spare income and compassion to pay for lifesaving operations, or to rescue the family farm, or to take in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill. I have a friend who calls these sorts of child-rescuing aunties "sparents"— "spare parents" — and the world is filled with them.

She goes on to establish its lineage throughout history, including Jane Austen and the childless aunts who raised Leo Tolstoy, Truman Capote, and the Brontë sisters.

As much as I liked both of Gilbert's books, the Auntie Brigade is not a sisterhood of which I particularly feel a part. For one thing my sister, my only sibling, has no children, and at forty-four -- the lesbian part is less of an impediment these days -- that is unlikely to change. My three closest childhood friends all have children but only one has daughters, and I am really only interested in the girls. It’s not just that their clothes are way cuter and the present giving opportunities are therefore much more interesting, which they are. It’s as much about the fact that little boys are alien creatures to me. In fairness they are as disinterested in me as I am in them and our engagement is usually limited to that moment at the end of my visit when their mother traps them and prods them to give me a goodbye kiss before they run screaming back to whatever fort they were building prior to capture. In short, I do not feel obligated make up for my childlessness by assuming my appointed role as the lovable, generous, if sometimes eccentric – think Auntie Mame – aunt.

And this sense of duty is the thing that bothers me just the slightest bit about the Auntie Brigade. There is a whiff of an apology, a “look at my good work in the supporting role” about the whole thing. At least this is what I wanted to argue when I started writing this blog some weeks ago.  But the truth is I started investigating college savings plans for my friends' little girls not long after I re-read this part of Gilbert's book; I guess I always did like Auntie Mame.

Other Barren in Books posts:
On Jonathan Franzen's Freedom
On Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman

2 comments:

  1. "...and I am really only interested in the girls. It’s not just that their clothes are way cuter and the present giving opportunities are therefore much more interesting, which they are. It’s as much about the fact that little boys are alien creatures to me. In fairness they are as disinterested in me as I am in them and our engagement is usually limited to that moment at the end of my visit when their mother traps them and prods them to give me a goodbye kiss before they run screaming back to whatever fort they were building prior to capture." Agreed. I feel the same way much of the time. Thank god roughly 60 to 70% of the people in my classes are women. But when do you first remember having these sensibilities re finding females more "interesting" than males? I wonder about that with regard to my own case. So thank you for the provocation to reflecting on that. Because, as we both know, we're operating in the realm of generalizations, even stereotypes, and there are both females who "run screaming back to whatever fort they were building prior to capture" as well as males who like "cute clothes" and "presents" (although if they're hetero, like your hubby, they have to manage these characteristics carefully ), right? Loved the "screaming/fort/capture" thing, though. Nailed it.

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