My wonderful "niece" Emily features heavily in my blog posts and around Montessori Child. Recently a couple of observant individuals have noticed that I've mentioned the fact that we are not biologically related. I thought now might be an appropriate time to share the following words, which I actually wrote several years ago and have just updated for this forum.
An Untitled Love
The most convenient explanation is “she is my niece”, but that’s not exactly true. The most factually correct explanation is “she is the daughter of my brother’s ex-girlfriend”, but that falls far too short. The most honest answer is “she is my soul mate”, but that doesn’t make sense to most people.
In this current climate of mixed families, unusual living arrangements and children in need of support from sources outside of their home I am sure that I cannot be alone in my struggle to define a relationship that exists outside of the ‘norm’.
As I tell people, “it’s a long story” to explain how my brother’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter became the most important person in my life. It started when I was 15 and she was an infant. I met her first, before my brother did, purely by accident. At the local shops I spotted a friend of my brother holding a baby – a surprise to me – so I approached her in amazement. She quickly explained she was holding this gorgeous little bub for a friend of hers who was in another shop. I was in a rush so I didn’t stop to meet the ‘friend’, I simply smiled at the little cutie who was all wrapped up and then off I went. It was weeks after this that my brother brought home his new girlfriend…and her daughter. Thankfully we were raised by parents who were welcoming, open-minded and – perhaps most importantly – loved children. As a result, this ‘plus one’ situation was no cause for alarm for any of us.
As soon as I ‘officially’ met her I felt something inside me start to change. She was so tiny, so perfect. I was struck but also a little nervous - I cuddled and cooed but lacked confidence. It didn’t take long, however, until she was responding enough for me to know that I could take care of her and make her happy. As this happened my brother’s girlfriend moved into our home –a crowded house of my mum and dad, my brother and his girlfriend, me and the little one. So I carried her through the garden to touch the leaves and smell the flowers, I read stories to her, I sang her to sleep. As she grew I received her very first ‘I love you’, I helped her learn to write her name, I taught her to sing the songs with me and we took turns reading the stories to each other. As she got older we took trips together, cooked dinners together and, as recently as last weekend, walked the dog high up into the hills at night so we could look over the twinkling lights of the city...while dancing like maniacs to One Direction songs (but I still tickled her back as she fell asleep when we got home!). Side by side, year by year, we have grown together – her body, my heart.
It may sound strange but I fell in love with her when she was that cute little baby and she's been the love of my life ever since. We share no biology, but I am closer to her than to any other person in my life. I have never been a particularly religious person (and my belief in magic sadly faded years ago when my age reached double digits) but the connection I found with Emily certainly feels like 'fate'. When our connection developed I lived in a household with her mother, her father figure and two pseudo grandparents and yet it was blatantly clear to all that she and I shared something extra special.
My mum called us ‘kindred spirits’. Her mum found a quote to describe what happened when the two of us were together: ‘we are all angels with only one wing, we can only fly when we embrace each other’.
My brother and her mother were together for several years before they broke up. The separation occurred in an ugly, unfortunate way that is far too personal to share here. It was decided that my brother was never to see either of them again. Fear stabbed me. In real terms I had no ground to stand on – no biological link, no legal rights, no tangible connection. Yet in my heart it was simply unthinkable that I should lose touch with my soul mate. So, in the midst of hurt feelings and angry words, her mother and I spoke. I uttered the most honest words I have ever spoken to anyone;
“This is not about you, me, or my family…this is about her. She loves me, she needs me and she deserves for this connection to remain so I am going to keep seeing her no matter how hard it is for the rest of us”.
When I reflect back I sometimes wonder where I got the courage to say it…and then I remember that she gave me the courage to do and to be all sorts of things that I never could have without her. I will be eternally grateful to her mum for listening to what I had to say and, most importantly, for agreeing.
Em, her mum and me - growing together!
It has been 7 years since my brother and her mother broke up. 7 years since she has seen my brother or he has seen her (except for once, accidentally, as they passed each other in a supermarket). When we discuss him she still sometimes calls him daddy, despite the fact that she understands that this is not biologically true. The relationship that she and I shared was important to both of us before the ‘adults’ broke up. It has been more important than ever since then.
She spends every second weekend with me. She spends half of each school holidays with me. I help her with schoolwork, help her consider solutions when she is having problems with her friends, I guide her when she forgets about using her manners and I tickle her back and sing softly as she falls asleep. I spend time on the phone with her mum when parenting decisions need to be made.
I am not her full-time parent, I would not wish to take away from what her mum does, but often I feel like her part-time parent. Like her ‘divorced dad’ with my ‘scheduled visitation’ and my civil chats with her mum where we try to reach a compromise between our two different ideas of how to raise her.
I’m not her divorced dad though. I’m not technically her aunty either. I’m not her parent, not her foster carer, not her relative, not her babysitter, not her friend. I'm all of these things, but none of these things! I’m indefinable. Our relationship lacks an easy explanation. As a result, it lacks understanding. I find it hard to explain, so I can sympathise with the listeners who find it even harder to comprehend. Some people find it a bit weird. Maybe I would see it that way too if I was not involved; it is certainly unconventional to be so close, affectionate and loving towards a child with whom you share no blood relation. Some people assume I’m overstating it somewhat, that it’s sweet that I think she’s so cute but that I am just like any ‘babysitter’.
So sometimes I feel alone. I feel that I lack recognition and respect for the role that I play in her life and the love, stability and guidance that I offer her. Then I remember the words I spoke all those years ago; “it is about her”. It makes me realise once again that it doesn’t matter if nobody in the world understand us. All that matters is that we absolutely, unconditionally and irrepressibly love each other and we are both better off in this world because of the bond we share.
My situation might be quite uncommon, but it cannot be entirely unique. So to all those people out there who offer love and care to children without an official ‘title’ or ‘definition’ – thank you!
For what it’s worth, she does not have the same trouble I do in trying to explain our relationship. Years ago, when she was learning to talk, a mispronunciation lead to a nickname – I was “Jekky” instead of “Jessica”. So when I asked her what she considers me to be in relation to her and how she describes me to her friends. She answered (with the affectingly honest deep simplicity that only a child can offer):
“You’re my Jek”.