I Once Embraced the 'Cool Aunt' Title but Now I Realize It Was a Lie

The cool aunt trend is gaining popularity. But for many women, the title of "professional aunt, no kids" is not really by choice.

Three female members of a family are taking selfies and having fun
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When I came out to my mom as a lesbian at age 16, she went from shock and worry about my safety to acceptance more quickly than many of my queer friends' parents. I was grateful. It was the late '90s and LGBTQ-affirming was far from a given for family, let alone anyone else. We were sitting in the car outside the grocery store one day a little while later when my mom turned to me and said, "I am fine with you who you are. I am just sad that you won't ever have children."

At the time, it made me sad that I had disappointed my mother. But I didn't think twice about whether or not I might have children. It was still the 20th century. If you were gay, you weren't going to get married and you most likely weren't going to have children. Queer people were still forced to wear the stigma perpetuated by conservative culture, something we see creeping back up in frightening ways. None of the older queer people I knew had kids, unless they were from previous cishet marriages that ended in divorce when they came out and stepped into their true selves.

As my teenage years ticked by and blended into my 20s, I found myself in a serious relationship. I felt the pull of something I couldn't quite put my finger on. I never envied my cishet friends who declined dinner and party invitations with screaming, snotty children in the background. I jet-set with my girlfriend and enjoyed bodily and schedule autonomy. We also relished in our roles as aunts to a nephew and niece. But I increasingly felt something like yearning when I went to pick out birthday presents for them or when I saw them snuggle up to a parent. The cool aunt title had its limits. What's more, as marriage equality became a reality and other queer couples began having kids, it came into full focus that I had been suppressing my own desires to have children as a form of self-protection.

That's why I look warily on "PANK" trend or women embracing the title of "professional aunt, no kids," gaining in popularity. Celebs are cementing the "cool aunt" identity, including Kendall Jenner, while the hashtag #thecoolaunt has more than 3.5 million views on TikTok.

While I don't blame women for embracing aunt life over mom life, I question whether some are deciding they genuinely don't want kids, or they're just shoving their true aspirations down into the depths of their longing, much in the way I did, because society makes them feel like they don't get to have kids.

The birth rate for women in America fell by 4% in 2020, according to the CDC, marking a 50-year low, and it isn't showing signs of picking up. Again, I can't blame women for making the decision to opt out of parenting, in part because there should never be an assumed "in." But for those who do want children, the barriers in this country often feel too big. We live in an economy and social infrastructure that strains women to work extraordinary hours, sometimes multiple gigs, to make ends meet, before even factoring in the tremendous cost burden (not to mention physical, emotional, and social one) of having kids. Then, of course, there is no federal parental leave, no child tax credits (the COVID one expired), no guaranteed income, national health care, child care, or other programs that most developed nations offer. If the inequities weren't apparent enough, the pandemic made them crystal clear, with 3.5 million women forced out of the workforce to be primary caregivers. Many have not returned. The cool aunt trend may be on the rise, but we need to look deeper at what's causing these women to make the choice not to have kids, and if it's really a choice at all.

The Hurdles of the LGBTQIA+ Community

For the LGBTQIA+ community, there are often more hurdles to overcome, including the extra leaps to get donor sperm and go through in vitro fertilization (IVF). There's, of course, also the fact that society has yet to fully embrace the LGBTQIA+ community's right to have children. That was the issue for Julie Stanton, 60, who lives in Rochester, Minnesota, with her wife, Melissa, and their 5-year-old daughter. "I had been the cool aunt all my life to four nephews." The cool aunt was a role Stanton embraced, but what she really wanted was to be a mom. "I really never thought I'd be alive long enough to get married let alone have a child," she says. "I just didn't see a lot of queer couples with children until the past 10 to 15 years or so. I thought I was just destined to be the forever cool aunt."

Of Course, Not Everyone Wants To Be a Parent

It's entirely respectable to willingly and with eyes wide open choose not to bear or raise children—and many people do. The notion of chosen family, particularly for the LGBTQIA+ community, is significant, sometimes lifesaving. Having an affirming aunt, particularly if a queer kid has parents who aren't, can make all the difference in the world. Extended family members and aunties are also considered primary caregivers in many cultures around the country. Identities aside, aunts hold a special place and important role in a kid's life and heart.

Plus, there is something undeniably appealing about getting to swoop into a child's life for the happy moments and slip out before diapers are full, naps overdue, and discipline need be applied. I love my nephew and my niece and spent many years relishing in the role of cool aunt.

It's also critical to acknowledge that decades of fighting for gender equity have helped to open more pathways for women to have a sense of agency over whether the biological clock even exists or how much of it is neat social constructs aimed at perpetuating the human species without regard to how that impacts individual choice and preference. Though some of that has been taken away with Roe v. Wade being overturned. It is, though, entirely possible more women are at long last realizing they don't have to have motherhood on their must-have list for their lifetime, and that other pursuits might bring fulfillment.

"Some people say they'd always wanted to be parents, even from childhood, but that was never me. I don't think I ever made a conscious choice," says Venus Carey, 40, from Fresh Meadows, New York. Carey, who describes herself as "chronically single and not a parent," enjoys her role as aunt and that's enough. "Cool aunt is being there for your nibs when they don't want to or can't go to their parents for something, when they need someone they trust, but who probably won't make as big a deal, good or bad or otherwise of it as their parents."

And Erin Holt, 39, of Rochester, New York, who, with her partner, is equally committed to not having kids. "I love that women have taken on the cool aunt label with pride. It used to mean the woman who was too irresponsible to be able to handle having kids of her own, the woman who couldn't have kids and needed to live vicariously through a woman that is a mother, or the spinster who never had the chance to start a family," she says. "We're finally acknowledging that it's a valid, healthy choice to be childfree and very possible to live a fulfilling life without procreating. There are lots of people out there who love kids and want to be part of their lives, but don't want to be parents."

But Many Still Embrace 'Cool Aunt' Without a Choice

Still, in a late-stage capitalist society in which social safety nets are sorely lacking for mothers—especially those at the lower socioeconomic rungs, but even for middle and upper-middle-class moms—embracing the cool aunt feels at least partially like a rotten consolation prize. It's like the date who chokes down their romantic interest's overcooked Cornish hen and ekes out a forced grin and compliment out of politeness and the hopes for a second date (replete with takeout).

Women may be telling themselves, at least some, that they don't want children in the hopes that they will believe our own lies, because it is simply too expensive, too cumbersome, too difficult financially, logistically, or emotionally, to swing it. I know because there is a whole generation of women, generations plural in fact, who first etched that path. We were lesbians, dykes, queer, and trans women who were long told that we were unfit for parenting. We relegated ourselves to the role of the cool aunt, forced to embrace that important but limited role with little hope that we'd get to appreciate the whole-hearted embrace of full-fledged parenthood.

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