Well & Good
OPINION: When she was born it was one of the proudest days of my life. From the moment I held her I was hopelessly in love.
When her wee sister arrived three years later I couldn't believe our luck - two sublimely perfect little girls who changed everything.
They unleashed in me a protective instinct so savage it scared me. With it, a capacity for love that surpassed anything I'd ever felt before.
These girls are my greatest joy. Yet, they're not my daughters. They're my nieces.
I don't have children. I'm single, happy and grateful for the rich and varied life I lead and the wonderful people in it.
But while I don't have a deep yearning to become a mum, I always imagined kids would be in my future.
Now, as I enter the second half of my 30s, the possibility of not being a mother is becoming more real.
For the first time, I'm starting to contemplate what a life with no kids of my own might look like.
If I listen to the doomsayers, it will be lonely and unfulfilled, with a piece of my self always agonisingly absent.
But is producing offspring really the key to a meaningful life? Or will these special bonds with the children who are not mine but mean so much to me - my nieces, my god-daughter, my friends' kids - be enough?
These are the questions many women are asking themselves as more of us enter our 30s and 40s without reaching the milestones of marriage and motherhood previous generations passed at a younger age.
But rather than mourn the plight of these ''childless'' women why don't we celebrate the unique relationships that blossom in the absence of motherhood?
If it takes a community to raise a child then here's to all the aunties, uncles, godparents and friends who pitch in.
Surely it's better to savour the joy of nurturing, protecting and loving the children who matter most to me than to waste time worrying about whether I'm missing out?
And when they love me back, in that exquisitely unrestrained way kids do, should I cheapen that by telling them it's not enough?
My nieces - my brother's children - are seven and four, and as I watch them grow up I don't compare my feelings for them to a love I may never know.
Instead, I revel in the confident, hilarious, marvellously quirky characters they've become. And I love them. Fiercely, unconditionally and completely.
They may not be mine but I see myself in them. They're creative and fiery and they really, really love to talk.
The youngest has inherited my love of singing; her older sister my passion for storytelling.
I've changed their nappies, bathed them, snuggled up to them with bedtime stories and taken them on countless adventures.
It will be a privilege to witness them transform into young women.
When parents say nothing compares to a cuddle or an ''I love you'' from your own child, I don't doubt that for a second.
But it's not an experience everyone gets to have - whether through choice or circumstance.
If I don't have kids of my own I'd like to think those nurturing instincts - which are not exclusive to motherhood - can still be put to good use in relationships with the other children in my life.
After all, what child ever suffered from receiving a bit more love or being told they're special?
I'm not suggesting I make these kids surrogates for my own, nor do I seek to supplant the role of their parents, but the older I get the more significance these relationships take on.
They bring me greater joy and the time we spend together is cherished more.
I wonder if these bonds will grow ever stronger if I don't become a mother myself.
There's something quite magical about being the fun aunty who's never too tired to play dress-up and has turned silliness into an art form, or the godmother who can keep a secret and offer tips on the best way to deal with an idiot boyfriend.
One of my most treasured possessions is a letter from my goddaughter, who recently turned 18, thanking me for advice on how to conquer school bullies. She followed my advice and triumphed. What a gift to be the person who helped her stand tall.
It's not about substituting one child for the lack of another, or trying to fill a gap. It's about appreciating what's right there in front of you.
When I asked my seven-year-old niece what I should write about the fun things we do together she reminded me of jumping on the bed in a five star hotel, of our secret chocolate-stealing mission on a mansion house holiday, of taking photos of ourselves making silly faces, and dancing to ABBA in our pyjamas before breakfast.
Whatever the future holds, I don't think I'll ever be ''childless'' with these wonderful little people in my life. That's enough for me.
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