The Uncertainty Of Motherhood When You’re The 37-Year-Old Fun Single Aunt

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aunt and niece on beach

Every five years or so, when I am home in Houston for the holidays, I declare the need for a nostalgia deep-dive — excavating several large, plastic time capsules that reside in the back of my dad’s sprawling art studio; tangible reminders, poignant reminders of early life.

This year, I FaceTimed my mom so she could join dad and me on this dusty trip down only-child memory lane, and we ooh-ed and aww-ed through the sentimental souvenirs, absorbing the extensive archive of my burgeoning creativity: every non-digitized word, every graphite line I pushed across paper, every article or story I wrote from 1984–2006 — fruitful side effects of having encouraging and inspiring artists as parents.

We agreed as we had many times before, based on the prolific amount of content that spanned countless journals and notebooks, I really had no choice but to become a writer.

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But when I closed the literary collection and dusted off the baby box full of heirlooms-in-training, I thought about the choices I had left to make. It’s clear why my parents and I have memory-hoarded the mounds of beginner art and formative writer projects, but why these tiny relics? The Cabbage Patch dolls, the custom-made dollhouse furniture, the jewelry box, the softest, smallest, sweetest blankets? Where will they go? Who are they for?

My mom was diligent about making sure we didn’t keep literally everything I ever touched, and over the years, handed down clothes and toys and practical pieces to friends with young ones. And so, as I held up the exquisite dollhouse living-room set, she asked, earnestly, “Why don’t you pass those on to your friends’ kids? Or your cousins’ kids?”

I looked beyond the tiny furniture at the dolls and hand-painted Noah’s Ark animals, who stared up at me like they wanted to know why, too; feeling like this inanimate infantry was moments away from coming to life and interrogating me about my choices — my own twisted, thirtysomething Toy Story.

“Not yet,” I replied, putting everything back one by one, feeling the hesitation and heaviness and hope that hung in those two words, not knowing if I’d take them out in this lifetime to pass them along to a child of my own.

I was never the type to say something like, “I want to be married by 28, kids by 30”— I have lived much of my life always leaving the door open for universal “milestones” to waltz in as they please, prioritizing personally meaningful creative and career successes while having as much fun and freedom as humanly possible.

I have created an epic life that is so fulfilling and unburdened and wonderfully wild that when I bring up the idea of having children, so often people say, “I just assumed you didn’t want any.”

Despite the beauty of relentless independence, despite my age, despite finding joy and worth in endeavors that can’t love me back… I am still trying to navigate my feelings about creating a life that isn’t my own.

I am surrounded by procreators — many tired, drained, defeated parents — who never fail to use their last bouts of energy to light up and say: “I promise you it’s worth it.” I believe them. I do. But I struggle with what constitutes “worth.” I love being the fun, carefree aunt that gets to blow through the door at playtime and barrel out of there when the tantrums start, with nowhere to be except wherever the hell I want.

I love that I get to sleep and write uninterrupted or jet off on a whim or place all of my value in being a good friend and a good daughter and a good writer because I promise you, that’s worth it, too.

My mom was 37 when she gave birth to me — the age I am now. She is a stronger woman than I’ll ever be, and I wonder sometimes if I’d have the strength and selflessness, and patience to raise a child the way she did. But there are many days where I think, I want to know I am capable of loving someone in such a way.

And so I convince myself this is still a viable path, pressing snooze once again on the alarm of my biological clock, holding out for a partner who just happens to have his book open to the same page.

And that’s okay— to live in this state of “What if?” and “I hope” and “I honestly don’t know,” even in your late thirties. I am allowed to wake up and say, “I love this perfect life, and I want it forever.” And go to sleep filled with thoughts like, Should I be trying harder to make motherhood a priority? 

Stories of wanting and waiting and wavering are never clear-cut; they are confusing and convoluted and so often accompanied by heartache. And I never want anyone to feel sorry for me — to think, “Oh, she wanted a child, it just never happened.”

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I’m willing to admit I protect myself from that preconceived noise by letting uncertainty and neutrality about such heavy matters serve as a defense. But I also drown it out by drowning myself in rom-com fantasies and grand romantic notions of meeting an inevitable long-term love. (My heart upstages my uterus once again!) I am more consumed by that particular chapter than I am of procreating — even knowing, even hoping, they might go hand in hand.

I realize pregnancy and parenthood are painfully subjective experiences, and that there are so many non-traditional paths to both.

I know it is a privilege to even have these ongoing debates with myself because for many, heartbreakingly so, there is no debate. I know that I could’ve put my eggs on ice years ago, or even now. I know that modern medical miracles abound and that adoption is a lovely option and that one day, I might even make a great step-mom.

But in this very moment, I simply oscillate between waiting for the universe to show me what I need, and watching the same clip play quietly in the back of my head, one where a small human (a spitting image of yours truly) is laughing and swinging my formerly imprisoned Cabbage Patch doll by the pigtails; the love of my life by my side saying, “Can you believe we made that?”

Then I watch that sublime scene fade — no, jolt — to black when I think about the contorted face I make every time I hear a baby’s deafening scream-cry.

Or how some of my friends with kids haven’t been on a vacation or had a good night’s sleep in years. Or how the fate of our entire planet is positively dubious and no longer designed to withstand even the current population.

I think about how I’ve been on an ungodly amount of dates in the last year alone, volleying between men who have children already and men who never want them, not once sitting across from someone thinking, I can see myself changing diapers with this motherfucker.

My therapist, who is helping me try to date more intentionally, recently asked if I think I’ll feel “left out” at 60 or 70 when all my friends are surrounded by doting children and grandchildren.

And without hesitation, I said “absolutely not!” thinking — knowing — the last thing I want to be at that age is plagued by FOMO. But it’s natural to look back or look around and ruminate on all the curious ways life could’ve unfolded differently, without dousing it in regret, without setting where you ended up aflame.

There is still time for me to figure it out, and also no time at all.

So, despite my soupy longings and rollercoaster yearnings, I stay rooted in reality. My buoyant lifestyle and lofty dating standards might delay the possibility of experiencing the family dynamic I’ve deprioritized for so long, and I’ll have to be content with that.

I’m training myself now for any outcome, to not be disappointed if I am unable to replicate and redefine the kind of incredible parent-child love I experienced firsthand — hoping, at the very least, my mom and dad get to see me love someone in a way that still defies all odds.

While most people my age know exactly what the next few years might hold for them — marriage, more children, offspring milestones, commitment after commitment — I can’t possibly know what’s ahead for my heart (or really any of my parts). It’s intimidating and invigorating all at once.

So for now, I exist in two universes. One where “late” motherhood still seems hopeful, feasible, around the corner. And one where I might be Aunt Sara forever.

And if they collide, that’s going to be wild in a wonderful way. And if they don’t, well, the detained dolls might revolt. And what a great story that will be.

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Sara K. Runnels is a writer living in Seattle, WA. Her writing regularly appears in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and dating app messages. Follow her @omgskr.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.