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Other People’s Kids

An afternoon in the park with my husband’s extended family: all of the adults except me are at a picnic table drinking thermos coffee or warm beer. I am on my back on the damp grass, a 10-year-old lying by my side talking seriously about discipline problems in her after-school music class.

My eyes follow the ball going back and forth over my face, from an eight-year-old to his seven-year-old cousin. At my head a six-year-old twists my hair up into knots that she calls “plaits”. Earlier she tore a hole in the front of my ankle-length cardigan, a one-off I bought in Belfast, and now the three-year-old on my chest is unravelling the wool and feeding it out to the five-year old who is using it to tie up my feet.

A family of strangers walks by and, with only the briefest of hesitations, the eldest of their three children – a girl of six or so – squats by my side and asks why I’m letting my kids tie me up.

“She’s not our mum!” the hair-knotter shouts, outraged. “She’s our cousin.”

“She’s our aunty,” her older sister says.

“But a kid aunty,” the five-year-old adds confidently.

“Noooo. A grown-up aunty like normal but just not a mum.”

The newcomer frowns at me, figuring it out. “My Uncle Jarod lives in a car,” she says at last.

“Aunty Emily lives in a house,” the five-year-old says. “A little one but we still fit in it. Anyway, she’s having a baby soon.”

Small hands prod my belly. “Is that a baby?”

“No, that’s all me. No baby, sorry.”

“But he said …”

“Well, that’s what my dad told me.”

“Probably,” his older sister says. “He said she’ll probably have a baby soon.”

I married at 20 and by the time this particular scene took place, six or seven years ago, I had been dealing with the expectation of that “soon” for a decade. It wasn’t only the early marriage that caused people to assume babies would be forthcoming; it was the way kids flocked to me. She’s a natural, everyone said. Born to it.

It’s hard for some people who’ve seen me around kids to accept that I don’t want – have never wanted – to be a mother. I’m often asked why but that’s not a question I can answer. Why did I fall in love with this man instead of that one? Why do I feel called to write instead of paint? Why do certain pieces of music make me cry and others leave me cold? I know that certain things about me are true, but I don’t know why.

In the 20 years I’ve spent happily avoiding pregnancy, almost everyone I care about – almost everyone I’ve ever met, it seems sometimes – has been just as happily reproducing. I’m now an aunty to 14 by blood or marriage and to a bunch more through friends. During the school year, I spend afternoons teaching between 30 and 60 kids a week. I’m not a mother, but my world is not childless and that is the greatest, most unexpected joy of my life.

When I was young I imagined my adult life in great detail, and much of what I imagined has come to pass. I’m a writer. I’ve travelled the world. I love and am loved by a delightful jumble of huge-hearted, creative, brilliant, weird people. But the kids I had never imagined, and now I can’t bear the thought of living without them.

“How do you do that?” a friend asked after digging me out of kiddie corner at a wedding. “The children are in thrall like you’re the bloody Pied Piper.”

They weren’t, and I could do without the comparison to a musical mass murderer, but it’s true that whether I’m in the mood to hang with them or not, whether I’ve made an effort to engage or not, small and sometimes not-so-small children flock to my side, climb on my lap, call for my attention. It feels so natural to me that I would never have examined it if not for the repeated insistence from others that it’s weird.

My suspicion is that what “child whisperers” (as the mum of one of my students calls my type) have in common is a powerful memory of how it felt to be a child. Me, I recall the years between four and 14 more clearly than I do any that followed. I had a loving childhood with no major trauma but I was often sad, lonely and scared. I remember the shame of knowing that my questions annoyed or amused adults but not knowing why, the frustration of being constantly shut out of conversations I found interesting, and the terror of nights spent turning over fears that no one would acknowledge or take seriously.

Several times, friends or relatives have told me about something terrible that’s happened – a marriage breakup, job loss, illness, abuse – and then finish by saying, “At least we’ve been able to keep it from the kids.” And every time I’m amazed. Of course they haven’t! Oh, maybe they haven’t grasped the specifics, but kids know when the people they love are in distress. They know, they worry and very often they keep quiet about it in order to protect their parents. I remember that, too. Pretending I didn’t know about something, didn’t fear it, didn’t care, because I loved my parents and didn’t want to make them feel worse.

And then there’s the way adults so often dismiss the simplest, most primal fears. I know so many kids who’ve been told it’s silly to be scared of the dark. No! Being scared of the dark is sensible! You can’t see what’s there! Sure, there probably isn’t a fanged clown grinning maniacally a centimetre from your face, but there could be and you can’t know for sure if you can’t see, can you? Not knowing is the absolute worst, and just turning the light on and off doesn’t fix it. You think clowns don’t know how to hide? Seriously, ask anyone under 10 how to cope with bedtime if you’re scared of the dark. I bet they’ll have great advice because they know it’s a real problem that needs dealing with, whether adults will admit it or not.

I hope more than anything that some of the kids will have kids of their own and that they will invite me to meet them and that their kids will do the same and on and on as long as I last so that, whatever else happens, I’ll always have allies in the never-ending battle against the definitely scary, unavoidable dark.

Edited extract from Mothers & Others, a collection of fiction and non-fiction stories, published by Macmillan Australia.