“Aunt Kath….” My four-year-old nephew looked up at me with his big brown eyes, my sister’s eyes.
“You know what I’m doing right now?”
“Nope. Tell me.”
“I’m pretending you’re my mommy.”
My heart swelled to three times its size before I felt like it was then ripped out of my chest. Choking back a sob, I said, “That’s so sweet. Thank you. Tell me….” But before I could ask him about this imaginary family of his, where he got the idea, what kind of mommy I was (funny, strict, a lot like his real mommy), he had moved on to a new topic, something to do with a game he likes to play at his preschool. Hours later, alone with my thoughts, I revisited this exchange and struggled to come to terms with what it did to me.
I’m not new to this conversation. This sweet boy is the youngest of six nieces and nephews, and each has gone through this phase of wanting to pretend I’m their mommy. Out to lunch or shopping with a niece (“Let’s pretend you’re my mom.”), playing in the park with a nephew (“Maybe they think you’re my mom.”). They’re all great kids, so I’m flattered and touched by their game. And they’re all great kids, so it also slays me emotionally. I would have loved being their mom.
I expected to grieve my losses, feel left out, and wrestle with difficult choices in the coming-to-terms-with-being-childfree dance. I just didn’t think that the same moments that fill my soul with unanticipated joy could also send me into new cycles of depression. Brutal, right?
Kathleen Guthrie Woods is a Northern California–based freelance writer. She is mostly at peace with her childfree status.