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