Margaret Flatley/Romper

I Never Wanted To Be A Parent But I Love Being “The Lady Down The Street”

I want to be able to say, “Oh, we’ve been friends for his whole life,” and to know that’s something we both chose.

by Erica Cerulo
The Aunties Issue

When my friends started to have kids, I developed a habit of referring to their babies as my friends, too. And while there’s something sort of funny about asking “How is my friend Henry doing?” after an infant, I also mean it: I want to have a friendship — my own relationship — with this person. I don’t want to be put in the bucket of “Mommy or Daddy’s friend,” especially once they have graduated to the Actual Small People stage — the one that runs from, maybe, 3 1/2 to, say, late adolescence.

Getting to forge non-parental bonds with the kids in my life has brought me so much pleasure, and I felt an extraordinary sense of accomplishment when my godson, my best friend/business partner’s kindergartener, explained me to his older cousin as “I have this lady who lives down the street.” What does that role entail? We FaceTime with our matching Miffy lights, and we sing Wizard of Oz songs. He named the main character in his weather journal after me, and, now, it’s on me to learn how a weather journal has characters. He considers an invite to my roof to watch Fourth of July fireworks the hottest ticket in town, and this year he plans to fly over, assuming he’s a vampire who can turn into a bat by then.

Both my husband and I were fortunate enough to have impactful relationships with adults who weren’t our parents when we were kids — people who exposed us to interests, life skills, and guidance we wouldn’t have had otherwise. He had his own lady who lived down the street, a septuagenarian who invited him on walks along the golf course to hunt down lost balls and taught him to garden, and his dad’s friend without kids of his own who took him to the American sporting events that weren’t on his Czech parents’ radar. I had an overnight babysitter who turned me onto musicals, exposed me to the R movies she was certain I was old enough to handle, and parsed the dynamics between my brothers and me in a way that a parent wouldn’t (and probably shouldn’t). I had an aunt — one of my favorite people on this earth, who died almost 10 years ago — who cut my hair, talked to me about boyfriends (mine and hers), shared family history, and helped me make my way when I moved to New York after college, whether that entailed taking me to McSorley’s or Ikea.

I was 18 when I first expressed that I didn’t feel called to motherhood. It was during a conversation with my own mother in a grocery store parking lot. I’ll never forget the shock and hurt on her face that I, her only daughter, was telling her this. Now that I'm 41, people mostly nod, assuming there’s not much use, biologically, in trying to convince me at this point. I might even get a “good for you,” most often from someone with a notably charming and cute 6-year-old who understands exactly what it entails to have and raise a kid, in America circa 2024 especially.

My long game is not to be friends with kids but to be friends with adults who were once kids.

I’ve never wavered or regretted this choice — which says as much about my personality and how I navigate decisions as anything — and I’m profoundly lucky to have a husband who shares this outlook. Over the past 20 years of our relationship, we’ve had countless opportunities to question and reflect on our feelings, first as our nieces and nephews were born, then as our peers had kids, and now as friends navigate fertility struggles. We keep coming back to the same place: that we love getting to spend time with the kids in our lives, and that we love going home by ourselves after.

I’ve started to see how being a non-parent grown-up in kids’ lives can help expose them to the different possibilities of adulthood. I get asked about my interests — what I liked as a child, what I like now — by kids who can sense I have the attention to spare for these kinds of conversations. I watched the wheels turn in my niece’s head when she was 9 and realized that her uncle and I were never going to have kids of our own and the revelation that could be an option for her as well.

These relationships are at least as much for my benefit as theirs. Over the last few years, I’ve become a little obsessed with the idea of intergenerational friendships. I’ve been thinking about what is lost by only surrounding ourselves with people who are in the same phase of life and how easy it is to become myopic about your place in the world when you can only see it from where you stand. From my spectator’s point of view, parenthood is such a magical and fraught and rewarding and challenging and joyful and agonizing and invigorating and exhausting and life-affirming and devastating experience. But I won’t ever really know. The one thing that pains me about my decision is the way it makes me feel like an outsider. But this is also what I love about having friends 10, 20, or 30 years younger or older who have different realities and experiences: they can crack my own perspective wide open.

My hope as a person without kids of her own is that I can start these intergenerational friendships early — get in on the ground floor. Over the holidays this year, my husband and I took my 21-year-old cousin to New Orleans to experience the city in a way that you really have to be of drinking age to appreciate. I felt immense pride at being able to give her the sorts of opportunities that her mom, my aunt, gave me, and that this was a relationship we chose to foster and prioritize, from when she was in diapers and I was signing my first lease to now, when she has her first apartment.

My long game is not to be friends with kids but to be friends with adults who were once kids who I’ve known the whole damn time. I want to have a play date with an 8-year-old pal with whom I share interests already. I want my nieces and nephews to someday get on a plane to visit New York by themselves. When my 5-year-old who lives down the street grows up, I want to be able to say, “Oh, we’ve been friends for his whole life,” and to know that’s something we both chose.

Erica Cerulo is half of the podcast A Thing or Two and its companion newsletter, and she's working on something new and very romantic.