The National Catholic Review

Are you somebody’s mother? the little girl asked. I paused from cutting pizza slices in the school cafeteria, where I was volunteering for the afternoon. Not really, I said, and the child looked a little crestfallen and wandered away. There wasn’t time to explain that I had fervently pondered the question of motherhood for years. Marrying late, I had five years to decide before I turned 40, and then it seemed the question had answered itself.

When I examined the job description for mom and noticed that it required endless patience, selflessness and the ability to go for months without sleeping through the night, I had to conclude that I lacked the credentials.

Although I admired other, more valiant, women who became mothers in their 40’s, I knew there was little chance that I could muster up the energy to walk the floors with a fussy baby at 2 a.m. and clean oatmeal off the walls at dawn.

An atheist at the time, I never considered praying about the issue. Instead, I looked at the possibility of motherhood as a decision to be made with the use of logic alone, like starting a garden or taking a vacation.

Some days, I would spy a particularly winsome baby in the supermarket, and my heart would turn over with longing for a child of my own. But then, almost immediately, my mind would start churning out visions of a toddler pitching a fit or a teenager staging a rebellion, and the pendulum would swing in the other direction.

My older sister had her children while I was in my 20’s, and although I adored being Auntie Raine, I had plenty of time to discover up close and personal how tedious, demanding and unrewarding motherhood could be.

How patient my sister was with her smallest girl, who delighted in announcing, I have to go potty about 10 times during restaurant meals, prompting my poor sister to abandon her meal and ferry the child back and forth to the restroom.

And how oblivious my sister seemed to the acres of cracker crumbs on her floors, the rivulets of spilled milk on the carpet and the mountains of laundry looming in the bedrooms.

When the kids whined and the washer overflowed and the hamster escaped, my sister just brewed herself another cup of coffee, while I gritted my teeth and concluded that motherhood was meant for braver souls than me.

Still, I cherished the unconditional love that flowed from her children. I never fathomed why my knock at the door brought a stampede from all corners of the house and a joyful chorus of Auntie Raine, Auntie Raine! as the children climbed all over me, but I loved it.

It seemed to take so little to please my nieces and nephew. Sometimes, I'd plop down on the floor and help them color pictures of smiling cats and dogs, while they huddled beside me, giggling in delight. In the mornings, while they sat at the breakfast table and related their dreams of flying horses and dancing fish, I stood at the stove browning slices of French toast, which they devoured hungrily, always begging for seconds and thirds.

When my sisters’ kids hit the teen years, I became convinced, more than ever, that moms are the world’s unsung saints.

As hormones raged, doors slammed and tempers flared, the cry of You don’t understand me ricocheted off the walls.

During particularly stormy times, when the kids were sure their parents hailed from another planet and could never understand a teenager’s heart, they often telephoned their aunt and poured out their woes.

I learned to button my lip and just listen, giving advice only if the situation seemed headed for disaster. Promise me you won’t get into a car with a driver who has been drinking, I said more than once.

Over the years, my brood of nieces and nephews has burgeoned. Two of my sister’s kids now have families of their own, and a few years ago, my best friend asked me to become godmotherand honorary auntfor her baby girl, Sarah.

Some afternoons, the screen door bangs and in stampede Sarah and her 7-year-old brother, Stephen, both eager to peer into the aquarium that houses my pet gerbil, Scruffy, hoping the little rodent will make an appearance. Aunt Lorraine, tell me a story, Sarah demands, while Stephen calls out, Aunt Lorraine, guess what? and then launches into a tale about school.

Last spring, two of my sister’s grandchildren visited me and I once again found myself standing in the kitchen, browning slices of French toast and ferrying them on a platter to the table, where the two little boys, still in their pajamas and with their hair poking out like horns, watched me intently.

As sticky hands reached eagerly for the toast, one of the boys chirped, Thanks, Aunt Lorraine in a way that was infinitely familiar, and my heart melted.

I wish the little girl in the cafeteria would ask me her question again. This time I would tell her that although I am not somebody’s mother, I am content to be the next best thing. I am delighted to be somebody’s aunt.

Lorraine V. Murray works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. She is the author of Grace Notes: Embracing the Joy of Christ in a Broken World (Resurrection Press, 2002).

Recently in Columns