Edwina Ings-Chambers: ‘I’m not a mother, but I do have children’

As a proud Pank (Professional Aunt, No Kids) Edwina Ings-Chambers explains that while her deep feelings for her nieces and nephews may be different to a parent’s love, they matter every bit as much.

I am a woman who hasn’t had children. I didn’t expect my life would pan out this way. I always, probably rather blithely, thought it would just happen one day. For me, there is no angst behind this life position; it isn’t what I expected but it is also simply what it is. There is no secret sadness behind it all (though certainly some broken hearts from romantic adventures that I’d thought might lead to the traditional marriage-and-kids scenario).

I haven’t tried fertility treatment. I haven’t wanted to go it alone on the parenting route. Nor was I a hardcore career woman who simply forgot to reproduce as I scaled the ladders of success. I am a woman living her life. So I felt no great panic as the numbers marking my age went upwards and my fertility spiralled downwards and, as I’ve got older, I went from assuming that I’d be a mother to accepting that I might not and taking a sanguine que sera sera view on the situation.

Still, not having children – at least not having given birth to them – seems to be something other people love to judge. I believe many see me as what Clare Boothe Luce (who wrote the play The Women) would describe as ‘what nature abhors… a frozen asset’.

Edwina with her nephew Charlie and niece Thea when they were younger, plus cats Mr Ginge and Mit

Not having had children is a situation that some feel they can wield to make you appear and feel lesser than; I hate to bring up her past errors, but Andrea Leadsom’s 2016 comments that she’d make a better leader than Theresa May because she has children and therefore ‘a very real stake’ in the future was so utterly lacking in emotional intelligence that it beggars belief.

Other women will often write about how you can’t know what love is until you’ve given birth. Really? Seriously? If my love hasn’t been hot-housed by birth hormones then it can’t be nearly as pure and all-encompassing as yours? I beg to differ. Who is anyone to prejudge the depth and breadth and height that my heart can reach? I know love as surely, as truly and consumingly as anyone else – and I feel it for all of my nieces and nephews.
I grant you that it may be different, but it isn’t lesser. And, unless you’ve lived life from my side, how can anyone possibly measure my love? Why does it even need to be a competition? Love is love and surely that’s what matters.

So, yes, I am a woman who hasn’t had children but I am a woman with children, for I am an aunt six times over – or as a modern acronym would have me, I’m a Pank (Professional Aunt, No Kids). I first wrote about this phenomenon almost a decade ago – about the joy I get from being an aunt to my nieces and nephews, in order of age: Tom, Charlie, Ollie, Thea, Georgie and Bali. At the time, I still thought that kids of my own might come along but I was also increasingly aware that it may never happen – and according to figures from the Office of National Statistics, 20 per cent of women in the UK won’t have children. I am now officially one of that fifth of British women.

As the realisation increasingly dawned on me that this was the direction in which I was heading, I made a conscious decision to up my efforts in auntyhood. I wanted to be fully part of the warp and weft of their lives, a crucial part of their security blanket in the world, a soft place where they knew they could always land no matter what.

When I first documented being a Pank, one of my sisters-in-law, Lucy, said how great I was at turning up and playing with her kids while much of her time was taken up with processing – getting the kids from A to B for school, sports, seeing friends – and organising all the paraphernalia that came with it. However, when I found myself between jobs and working as a freelancer, I realised that it was just this kind of processing that I wanted to be part of. I wanted the nitty-gritty of it all, the school-gate stuff, the areas where you need to be dependable rather than just fun. And my days were now free to shape as I wanted.

The possibility of a dream job in Paris came up but I chose to step back and let it pass me by. What I wanted most was to be more involved in the lives of my nieces and nephews. And to do it while they were still young enough for me to be properly embedded in their lives, so that they knew in their very core that I was really there for them. I’d missed so many of their big events over the years as I was always away at fashion weeks and my work life was a whirling dervish of appointments. But, when everything was said and done, they were all that mattered. I wanted to know them better and vice versa. So I made myself available – though it took some convincing; my sisters-in-law never wanted to impose and I had to keep telling them that I really meant it and that being a part of the school run was a huge joy to me. I wanted that commitment. Besides, the nitty-gritty is where real life is and I love every moment of the practical side of aunt-dom.

When her niece Bali moved to Australia last year, it was ‘like losing a limb’, says Edwina

I got things wrong, of course. I still feel guilty about the time I managed to get one niece from school to her ballet lesson on time, despite the odds, only to realise I’d forgotten her twirling ribbon and she had to do the class without it. But I was able to be there
for her ballet recital when she played a cat. I was first in line in the parents’ queue for a seat (and got to witness the very competitive pushing and elbowing by them all to bag the best view inside). I’ve dropped off and picked up from boarding school. I’ve gone in to talk to teachers when one niece was worrying herself sick about a lesson she hadn’t finished. My inexperience is something I try hard to counter: picking up a niece one Sunday she told me she had to do a science project and create a 3D model of a blood cell. Blimey! I had zero practice at doing this kind of homework and none of the tools required at home that most parents would have accrued. I drove us straight to the nearest art shop and begged the staff for the best advice and products they could offer; all was well in the end.

When I moved flats a few years ago I opted to rent a two-bedroom so that there was always somewhere they could come to stay in London. Since most of them have now left or are close to leaving school, they come to stay often. These days are some of the most joyous in my life, whether they end up spending a lot of time with me or simply use the place as a doss-house and a bag dump. That they know the door is always open to them is so important to me. And just as I’ve got to know them all better, so they have come to know me, too, all my faults and idiosyncrasies, and love (and like) me nonetheless.

There are downsides to having children as an aunt rather than a mother. None of the ultimate decisions are – or should be – mine to make. So when my youngest niece headed to Australia last year (her mother’s homeland) the news that she and her parents were off – even though it was temporary – was heartbreaking. Not having her around was like losing a limb. I’d lived around the corner from her for most of her life, always an eager babysitter, and many a weekend was spent with her, playing or chatting or cooking.

Some friends told me I should be spending less time with my siblings’ children and out there finding a man to have children of my own with before it was too late. But I took a different view: these children were here now and I loved them. The other route seemed haphazard and with zero guarantees. I’d let fate decide but I wasn’t going to risk losing time and connection with the children that I did have in my life.

So, here I am – an aunt and not a mother. It isn’t how I thought my life would look but I have no regrets. How could I be anything but grateful to have these wonderful young people in my life and to be lucky enough to be in theirs, to be close to them? So let’s skip the judgment on women whose wombs may not have lived out their time in the way society expects. Let’s stop making women lesser, reducing them to walking birth canals. Being an aunt is a great role and, as it turns out, it’s the one I was born to play.

Are you a PANK? We’d love to hear from you at you.features@mailonsunday.co.uk.