My nephews turned 18 today. Twins, they are identical in appearance — both handsome, both 6 feet+ tall with shy smiles and long limbs that seem only loosely attached to their rangy frames — but are each definitely their own person.
Knowing my deep desire for children of my own, my brother and sister-in-law were kind enough to let me barge into the hospital and hang around in the moments just before and after William and Holden’s births. During one of the most intense, focused and private events of their lives, David and Jessica tolerated my intrusion and my boundless joy at the prospect of their boys’ arrival. I can never thank them enough for this act of profound generosity.
William was the first to make his appearance. The exact sequence of events is lost to me now, but shortly after he emerged, someone — a nurse, I think — handed him to me while the rest of the room turned its attention to ushering Holden into the world. From the folds of his hospital receiving blanket, William, this small person only minutes old, looked into my eyes and gave me the deepest shock of my life: I knew him. It was the shock of recognition. I can’t explain it. It may have been nothing more than the familiarity of his features, the mix of his parents’ unique traits, the bits of my brother and our parents that I saw mingled with those of William’s mother and her family. But it jolted me to the core. It was unexpected and it took my breath away.
I’d read about the biological magic of infant-mother bonding in the moments just after birth. To tell the truth, I had read a lot of books about childbirth and child rearing. It was somewhat of an obsession in those days. When my nephews were born, I was in my late 30’s and firmly believed that one way or another, I, too, would eventually become a parent. I have wondered since if what I felt at that moment looking into William’s blue eyes was similar to the bonding that happens between mother and child. If so, I think I have idea how powerful and utterly true it must be.
In the end, I was to be no one’s parent. Heartbreak, divorce, inattention and disconnection delivered me, inconceivably, into my early 40’s single and without children of my own. I had operated for a long while under the misapprehension that I had all kinds of time. After all, the media was full of stories of glowing women in their late 40’s and even 50’s giving birth to healthy children. I wrestled with the decision of whether or not to do it on my own. Volumes have been written about the joys and difficulties of single parenthood. I examined my inventory of life skills, my finances, the practicality of doing a good job as a parent while also holding down a full time job, the fantasy of motherhood balanced against the inevitable realities of managing alone. I consulted my family and closest friends, some of whom were supportive of the idea and some of whom were decidedly not.
Despite the fact that I was partner- and penniless, the drive to know my own offspring, to meet them and love them, was an irrefutable imperative. I decided to go for it, though I will admit, with plenty of apprehension. I began the process by talking with a few close male friends about being sperm donors. A few said they would consider it. Two said yes and then decided against it. Most said they wanted nothing to do with such a plan. In the end it seemed less complicated to find an anonymous donor. I read through profiles of candidates with a sort of dreadful fascination, looking for perfection and hoping that I would be able to spot the Ted Bundys before I settled on anyone. And I started having fertility tests, just to make sure all systems were go.
I thought I was mishearing the doctor on the afternoon she told me my eggs had expired — that I had a less than 1% chance of conceiving. She suggested I consider becoming a scout leader or soccer coach instead.
International adoption agencies, too, told me I was not qualified — too old, too single, too broke. I thought they had a point.
I think, all things considered, it worked out for the best. For my potential kids, anyway. It would have been too much. I would have fucked it up. I couldn’t really afford a child. I would have been exhausted and short-tempered and it would have meant compromising any reasonable standards for what acceptable parenting should look like. I have battled depression my whole life and who wants to pass that along to another generation? I am lucky enough to have a bevy of godchildren, a step daughter who came into my life when she was six (that’s another story) and more recently a grown step son, the children of my dearest friends, and those amazing nephews of mine — the closest things I will ever have to genetic offspring.
The parents of all these young people have been generous enough to allow me to be a full participant in their children’s lives. I’ve been there for all the milestones. I’ve changed diapers and danced colicky babies across the floor in my arms for hours. I’ve read thousands of picture books and chapter books aloud. I’ve organized birthday parties and shared crayons and washed sticky hands and pried sharp objects from tiny grips. I have heard the earnest practicing of saxophones and pianos. I have rejoiced over good report cards and commiserated over less than stellar ones. I have worked on table manners, played trucks and dress-up, decorated Christmas cookies, and gotten lumpy-throated at christenings and graduations. And I never lost a good night’s sleep over a vomiting child or worrying that any of them might suddenly stop breathing or crash a car. Really, I’ve gotten the better end of the deal.
There is a special privilege in being a close, non-parent adult in a child’s life. You get to be there without the stunning pressure of knowing that it is your job to keep them alive. It does not require the constant vigilance that I imagine parenting does. You get to go home when you’ve had enough. You have the space to listen without having to manage your own feelings about being their parent. You don’t have to watch your own failings being replicated, or risk the crushing disappointment if they turn out to be thugs or deadbeats or tell you they hate you, that you did a shitty job raising them.
When you are just the auntie or the godparent, they tell you stuff they might not feel free enough to share with their actual parents. You and they can talk about anything and everything. I have tried to be a good listener. What is your favorite color? What do you want to be when you grow up? How did your game go? What is your favorite subject? Do you have a girl/boyfriend? Are you being safe? How is your job going? Do you feel truly ready for marriage? All of it.
Still. I miss my own children. I rehearse their names. I imagine their faces. I still ache to know them, to see what they might do, who they might become. My nephews, now on the home stretch of high school, carry the tiniest bits of biological me on into the future. Or the bits, anyway, that I share with my brother, their dad. They are by any measure people to be proud of. They are straight-A students, National Merit Scholars, co-captains of their ice hockey and baseball teams, and they have been accepted at good colleges. They have great friends, are loved by many and give their parents scarcely a moment of grief.
Most delightful of all, they are honest, sincere young men with good brains (which I hope they will continue to use) and hearts full of kindness and sensitivity that will serve them well. Eighteen years have flown by. I am still in that delivery room, astonished that you can take a thimbleful of this and a little bit of that, mix them together and come out nine months later with a full-fledged human being — or two human beings, as the case may be. I could not be more proud of them.