A Child-Free LifeWays Home: Notes from an “Auntie” By Frances Whalen

When I enrolled in the LifeWays training, I had no real connection to the lives of children and families. Like many Millenials, the last time I had interacted with children was in my own childhood, back in the 90s. Having just accepted a position at a LifeWays program as the cook/assistant, I knew a thing or two about nutrition, gardening, and alternative health, but I knew almost nothing about child development or parenting.
My experience in LifeWays opened me up to those realities. I met all types of mothers (and one father)! Some stayed home with their children full-time, and approached the training somewhat like a job training. Others juggled a full-time career on top of being a parent. Others ran programs or playgroups. The vast preponderance had biological children of their own.

Parents spoke about the realities of raising a child in our times. They spoke about the considerable dearth of support along their parenting pathways. Gone were the truckloads of aunties and grandmas and friends and neighbors I remembered from my childhood. In their place was a vast behemoth of books, blogs, consultants, paid childcare professionals, doctors, and researchers to help them do their job. LifeWays, with its focus on family-style, relationship-based care, provided a welcome respite from all the noise.

Despite a surfeit of modern resources on child rearing, most parents still end up with more questions than answers. Some of the advice is downright confounding! Positive discipline is good, but when does positive become permissive? Free play is good, but what if my child won’t play without me? Breastfeeding is good, but what about the needs and wishes of the owner of said breasts? As parents look into their own childhoods, many see excessive shame and punishment. They know that they want to do it differently with their child. But how? Many people do not interact with children in any capacity until they have a child of their own.

I had no idea raising a child could be so difficult! As a young twenty something on the verge of starting her own family, I was astounded at how quickly things could change in a generation. It looked very different than the relatively unsupervised, “free-range” childhood I had experienced (thanks, mom!). I, too, had more questions than answers. A glance through an old write-up by my LifeWays mentor indicates my ineptitude:

“When our mentor relationship began, she was very unsure of herself and her interactions with the children. She would often ask questions like, ‘What do you do if you ask a child to do something, and she says no?’”
I opened my own home LifeWays program in 2014, which coincided with an untimely miscarriage that would have blessed us with a Christmas baby and gained us admittance into the Parent Club. This is the typical LifeWays dream, no? Staying home to raise your own children while caring for others? For a while, I struggled with not fitting in among either group. Most of my childfree friends remained that way in order to work tirelessly at their careers without the added financial and emotional burden of a family. Most of my parent friends simply wanted to hang out with other parents (so their kids could play) and I couldn’t blame them. Exactly none of the home daycare providers I connected to in my area were childfree. My family wondered why I didn’t just get a “real job” like everyone else. I worried that parents would think me strange, and I shied away from offering advice to those in the parenting trenches, since I had never served in the ranks myself.

But as my relationship to the children and their families deepened and evolved, I learned to let go of the labels and restrictions that were holding me back, and began a process of coming into my own as a caregiver. I learned that advice is not the same thing as support, and that parents today desperately need more of the latter. I learned that even though I am not their mom, I do play a large and important part in the development of the souls entrusted to me. In a way, I’m bringing back “the village” – which is perforce made up of all kinds of people, young and old, parents and non-parents alike. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned something about what it means to be human. If we truly want to change the world, the deep work of raising children belongs to all of us, not just parents.

If anything, the experience of caring for children without having children of my own has allowed me to have a foot in both worlds. A friend once remarked to me: “You’re like a really involved grandma, but with youth!” I get to spend my days doing what I love – singing, gardening, tending my household with children – and I still get a full night’s sleep. I look forward to seeing the children every morning, and I also relish quiet evenings and weekends with my husband–who, by the way, is dipping his toes into both worlds himself. Every day when he comes home from work, the four boys in my program huddle around him, asking to see his multi-tool or his flashlight, or asking about the cool things he did at work.

It may not be the life we envisioned for ourselves, or the path that most people take, but it’s a beautiful one nonetheless. I do not know if we’ll be childfree forever, or what parenthood might look like for us, but for the moment I’m comfortable in the uncertainty of having more questions than answers.