The Happy PANK – Professional Aunt, No Kids (February 6, 2014)

While motherhood, especially the birthing part of the equation, was a life choice I ruled out long ago, that doesn’t mean I hate children. On the contrary, I love them. Little people, especially those 14 and under, tend to get me, as I do them. I can’t decide if my success in bonding with kids, which often occurs far more seamlessly than trying to connect with adults, is the result of my own arrested development, or a relatable black and white world view of “fairness” that appeals to the uncorrupted. I know that life doesn’t often work as it should and am in the process of adapting accordingly, but accepting reality isn’t quite the same as altering basic beliefs of how human transactions ought to work in a vacuum. I think children sense a kindred spirit in me in that regard.

I also think relationships with the lambs in my circle are necessarily affected by my own youth being prematurely snatched by adult chaos, and the expectation that I would and should carry the family through it. I had an epiphany with my therapist this week. In the work we’ve been doing together for the last half-decade, I am not chasing my 13 year-old self, or 16, 18, 21, etc. Nope I am after recovering Kindergarten Becky, the adorable one with the self-confidence to believe that every room she walked into was affected for the better by her presence. The one who assuredly refused to do that which didn’t make logical sense or was detrimental to her evolving personhood, consequences be damned. That sunny, brave child had most of her best qualities frozen or driven out of her by a need to navigate a decades-long succession of crisis situations. Self-doubt, guilt, fear and a need to prepare for worst case scenarios stunted adult attachments, trust and certainty. Every move had to be assessed from all angles with the survival of two people in mind (myself and my younger sister), until the time came when I could no longer move at all.

Every interaction I have with the children I love is motivated by the desire to help them remain as young and uninhibited for as long as possible. I am not perfect, but as much as can be controlled, I will not let my background and the lingering dark cloud that sometimes follows me as a result, affect my dealings with the delicate, evolving humans I adore. Or to put it more gauchely and succinctly, I won’t put any shit on them with which they shouldn’t have to deal. The memories of frantic wishes for escape, an exit route, when my father used to pull the car to the side of some quiet road, for the purposes of rendering me his confidant, are as keen as ever. He needed a therapist, a treatment plan and some personal responsibility – in that order, not an overwhelmed 10 year-old who suffered from migraines to act as his life coach.

So in my estimation, childhood is a stage to be jealously protected by the adults entrusted and honored with the privilege of helping little students of life learn and grow. They need to figure things out for themselves with a mix of love, support and guidance. Whatever the age of the child, the adult’s job is to try to think like them, to listen and understand, rather than project our own embittered, world-weary disillusionment on their wishes, dreams and ideas. I have stumbled in trying to attain this ideal, most notably and shamefully in the process of a Christmas 2011, post-divorce breakdown. But I take pride in the fact that for the most part my nieces, former step-daughter and step-granddaughter know that I am safe refuge where they can come for advice, help or good old-fashioned silliness.

I am not the one who knocks. I am the one who jumps on trampolines, hides in clothing hampers during spirited games of hide-and-seek, the one who explains menstruation to a confused and disgusted middle schooler, the lap provider, the beach playmate, the old lady who thinks nothing of setting an example by throwing herself headlong down the backyard Slip ‘N Slide. I tutor, I give word search hints, I furnish life advice nuggets such as “That’s the way to go through the world [youngest niece], you are onto something. You come up with the ideas and get other people to do the work.” I smile at my sister’s half-serious disapproval. I show up to the tournaments, games and recitals. I laugh at the fart jokes and hand out the candy. I consult and leverage my years of writing and editing experience to help produce compelling grad school applications.

PANK, Grandma Becka – I may not have figured out adult relationships yet, but these are the roles I was born to play. In being good to the people who trust me, in supporting the adorable faces and fancies of those I love, this is when I feel most useful and alive.

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