The package was ripped apart the instant I told S it was for him.
“What’s dat?” he asked, cocking his head to one side as he clenched in his chubby fist the silver cross he’d found inside.
“That’s a cross for you and your brother from Aunt G!” I smiled, delighted at the surprise. A treasure from her trip to Rome, the cross draws the Trinity together in a lovely and unusual pose.
But before I could wax eloquent on the nature of the Triune God, he raced across the kitchen dragging the cross along the cabinets, leaving a jagged silver line I then spent twenty minutes scrubbing off.
Later that night, S proudly slammed the cross against the wall at his height when I asked him where he’d like to hang it. “Right ‘dere,” he proclaimed.
A week later he and I were sharing an afternoon snack when F brought the mail inside. “Look who sent you a letter!” he exclaimed. When I saw the return address was the convent, I tore it open with a toddler’s enthusiasm.
“S, it’s a letter from your godmother! A real, live letter!” (From the postulant who only gets to send one letter a month, this was no small surprise.) I soaked in her words with February sunlight streaming over my shoulder. Such a gift, especially her words of love for her godson and his baby brother.
My boys are blessed with family near and far who adore them. But every so often, I’m reminded of how blessed they are to be loved by friends who aren’t even related. By their other-mothers.
Many of us had one growing up. Maybe a parent’s college roommate or a family friend without kids of her own. Women who embraced a role of nurturing that went beyond biology or blood ties. We called them “aunt,” and over the years they became a part of the family. They took us seriously, and we basked in their affection. We couldn’t imagine growing up without them.
This article - which in a God-incidence arrived on our doorstep the very same week as mail from the other-mothers – calls them PANKs: professional aunt, no kids. No matter the moniker, their role in children’s lives is real and important. They widen the family circle, stretch the boundaries of love, and broaden the tent of the village that raises the child.
Thanks to my babies’ many other-mothers – best friends from college, dear friends from grad school – they will know a world that is bigger than our family’s ways. And for their growing in faith, this is of utmost importance.
The two dear friends who blessed us with surprises in the mail this week could not be more different, or more dear to my heart. One reminds my boys to pray the rosary; the other reminds them to seek Christ in the margins. One other-mother Marches for Life; one marches on the School of the Americas. Through these two women who wrestle with their callings in vastly different ways, my boys will be loved into a faith that is more active and contemplative, more liberal and conservative, more vibrant and colorful than anything their two parents could show them alone.
As more women choose paths other than motherhood, perhaps the ranks of PANKS will swell. While I know many in their number mourn the loss of their own parenting experience, I also honor what their presence can mean for children who crave role models. The power of positive adult influences in a young person’s life cannot be underestimated.
Tonight I see a cross on the wall and a letter on the table. I think of a quilt in the nursery and a picture of Jesus on the shelf. Gifts to my children from their aunts-by-love, signs of the real presence of other-mothers in our home.
Their devotion to our boys is their true gift. They who do not deal with tantrums or teething or toilet training can cherish the heart of a child with a pure love, unfettered by the daily drain of parenting, much like the adoration of grandparents or the fierce loyalty of uncles.
It’s a good reminder that we’re all called to care for children who are not – by blood or bond – “our own.” Because they are still our own.
As any cherished aunt will tell you.
Women without children are also the best of mothers, often, with the patience, interest, and saving grace that the constant relationship with children cannot often sustain. I come to crave our talk and our daughters gain precious aunts.
Women who are not mothering their own children have the clarity and focus to see deeply into the character of children webbed by family. A child is fortunate who feels witnessed as a person, outside relationships with parents, by another adult.
- Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year