Do I have to be a mommy to “opt out”?

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 24, 2007

I’m crazy in love with my two sisters’ five kids. I feel like helping to raise them would give my life meaning.


Dear Cary,

My younger sisters each recently had two babies apiece — two boys on one side, two girls on the other side. There’s also a fantastic 7-year-old in the mix. I have, quite frankly, fallen in love with these children.

I am not a big lover of kids in general. When I was little I never dreamt about babies. As a teen I hated baby-sitting and did office work to make extra money. I married (then divorced) a man who didn’t want kids. At 35 my biological clock has finally kicked in, but I’m unlikely to have my own; I have hormonal health issues and there is no man in the picture, nor a lucrative career, nor a healthy savings account that would make single parenting or adoption feasible.

But being with my sisters’ kids has been this amazing, heart-opening experience. They say that the love a parent has for a child is overwhelming and unconditional. I must be feeling some small portion of that. They are gorgeous, utterly imperfect, joyful, maddening little people. And they are ours — the next chapter in our family’s story. Incredible.

I understand for the first time the importance of generational history — how children represent hope for the future, and why some families really function as clans, fiercely protecting their own. I wasn’t raised with those values. I missed the value of extended family and blood connection. But now, for me, that is changing.

I had a plan, after my divorce, to get myself out of my financial hole and go teach or volunteer in Asia or maybe New Orleans. I would see more of the world (I’ve already been to five continents, but is that really enough?) and maybe help build some schools or distribute food. And then I would move out West and live on the side of a mountain and hike every day and write a novel and move in with a guy who looks like the Marlboro man. If I wanted to, I could take off in six months to a year.

But now all the babies have been born. And I find myself not really wanting to leave the East Coast because I don’t want to miss anything with these kids. When I think about being far from them, or gone for many years, my heart just breaks. And doing what I’m doing now, my single, working-gal routine, being an auntie who mails gifts and visits on long weekends seems silly and pointless too. (If I am going to work an unsatisfying 9-5er, why not live near the people I love?)

My whole career, I’ve been working for nonprofits or groups in the business of helping people and the planet. It seemed the best place to put my energy, but it has been frustrating and unsatisfying. The world seems just a sick, sad, unfixable place. I don’t feel young and idealistic anymore. I feel like circling the wagons — around my nieces and nephews.

I am thinking of moving closer to one of my sisters to be more fully a part of these kids’ lives. I would find a decent job that pays the bills, but nothing I have to devote myself to 100 percent. I would save my best energy for being part of an extended family, and find my pleasure (and challenges of course) there.

I’m wondering, is that lame? Is it lame to “opt out” of career and travel to help take care of someone else’s children? Am I avoiding growing up by refocusing on my family of origin instead of going out into the world and forming a new life and a new family? Is it selfish and insular to prioritize hanging out with my family over helping others in the world? Will I be the old spinster aunt who borrowed someone else’s life instead of having her own? Would I be vamping these children to meet my own emotional needs? Would I be stunting my own creative and spiritual development? Would I be acting out of fear? Abandoning my dreams?

It’s not like I’m considering “opting out” to have my own kids. The “mommy wars” aside, most people understand that choice. But who opts out to be an auntie? I fit a certain profile — mid-30s career gal with lots of sexual freedom and few financial obligations. Should I not be enjoying “the prime of my life”? Experiencing my freedom, climbing the career ladder, reaching my potential, traveling the world, making some art or buying some real estate? Or looking for my next man on Match.com and pricing out fertility treatments?

But if it’s really true I’m just here, in the unlikely and meaningless circumstance of being alive on a planet, doing my thing day in and day out, until I kick the bucket and am forgotten by time, then why not give the very best of myself to the people I love the most, i.e., my family? Here are five beautiful kids, to whom I am profoundly connected, who will need plenty of love and financial support to make their way in this insane world. I could devote myself to their well-being, like any good parent. Except that I’m not their parent, and they aren’t my kids.

Is that lame?

Optin’ Out Auntie

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Dear Optin’ Out,

I don’t think your idea is lame at all. I think it’s courageous and decent.

Nor do I think you are avoiding growing up. I think you’re accepting who you are, how you feel and what you want. That is growing up. Growing up involves recognizing that who we really are doesn’t always fit the categories of value that we have learned through studying history and sociology.

A century ago, doing what you propose would have seemed perfectly sensible. Now, strangely enough, it seems a little daring. Now, as always, you have to decide for yourself.

I think you have largely decided already. But you are thinking it through and sharing your thoughts, trying to make sure it isn’t the wrong decision.

I think it’s great. Trust your instincts and your emotions. Accept who you are.

Must I make an argument for the utility of your decision? No, I don’t feel that I must. I am not a utilitarian. But I do think that our instincts are often powerful and wise, and that when we do what we are drawn to doing, social good sometimes comes of it. Can I prove that? No. Nor do I think we can always know what social good might come from our inclinations. For instance, we might be driven to write, or paint, or play music, not to change the world but to make ourselves happy. In the process, however, much unexpected social good might come. On the other hand, I might have an intense personal desire to rob your house. I would not argue that social good would come from that.

But do I want to really want argue about any of this? No. I just think that if you’re worried that you’re letting the world down, you can let go of that. The world is bigger than we think.

In fact, this impulse you have in no way implies that you are leaving the world or forsaking it. You are not a separate thing from the world, someone sent here to fix the world. You are a part of the world. It’s the same world telling you to do this that was telling you to do the other. Your impulse to help raise your sisters’ children is no more or less valid than your impulse to help strangers. If you were to ask where these impulses come from, I think you will find they all come from the same source: You have a burning desire, a passion, to act according to your conscience. Acting according to your conscience satisfies your sense of who you are. So keep following your passion wherever it leads you. If you feel in a few years that you are needed elsewhere, you can change yet again.

Frankly, your profile of the “mid-30s career gal” does not sound very attractive to me. Having had a taste of business life, I would think many women would find the same thing that many men have found — it kinda sucks. So why do it if you don’t have to?

Why not do what makes you happy?

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