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my auntie, my friend

April 18, 2019
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I wasn’t in love with This Is Us this past season. In fact, it reminded me why I’m constantly going back and forth with network television. I continued to have problems with Kate’s characterization. Kevin was irking my soul more than usual. I felt that much of the Randall/Beth strife was highly manufactured. And I was very not okay with the choice to delve into Jack’s Vietnam past after he had been adamant about not wanting to elaborate on it. It was disorienting at best and invasive at worst.

And I know what you’re thinking. Well damn Clarkisha, what did you like? Well, despite my annoyance with Beth and Randall this season, I loved learning more about Beth and her background (as it was long overdue) AND I especially loved seeing her cousin Zoe (played by Melanie Liburd) in an expanded role as a series regular this season for a variety of reasons, but particularly one: Zoe is important representation for the child-free aunties in our world that help the world continue spinning, but never fully get the respect they deserve.

As progressive as we believe our TV shows and movies to be, renderings of proudly (and not regrettably) child-free aunties like Zoe are still rare in media. Like, I’m literally wracking my brain right now and I can’t think of, well, anyone.

Which is so funny to me, because I have lived a life where I knew at least one and was very cognizant of the effect that she/they had on the immediate environment around them. But in light of that impact, I was also cognizant of the side-eye she garnered from larger society from her choice to abstain from children. Like Zoe. Which begs the question: where does said side-eye come from?

There are a variety of reasons for this. Like the familiar and so-called “selfishness” of not wanting anyone to turn you into a human incubator against your will because of some outdated Protestant/theist value of women being “the neck” of the home. Or the acknowledgment that there are things in life that you value more than child-rearing (for me, that’s my career. For Zoe, it is her career AND her ability to travel freely whenever she wants). Or the extremely self-aware recognition that maybe you in particular wouldn’t make the best parent for whatever reason (including, but not limited to, trauma).

Thankfully, while Zoe’s arc had the potential to follow that latter line of reasoning (particularly because of her heart-wrenching background when it comes to CSA), it avoids that and instead focuses on the former two, by mainly dealing with expectations and what a woman like her is expected to be doing at this point of her life.

Expectations were a huge part of this very season. Huge. And I found myself honing in on that theme toward the end of the season particularly with Zoe and her partner Kevin. Throughout the season, they have fairly serious talks about marriage, family, legacy, career, kids, and dreams.

Kevin in particular served as an interesting foil to Zoe in this realm because in his adult life (as annoying as he is), he does struggle with doing what is expected of him and doing what he wants….often with him confusing one for the other. So in his mind, while he hasn’t given the idea of kids as much thought, he still thinks that’s what he should be doing. That marriage and kids are something he should get to as an adult. Eventually. Mostly because that’s just the thing to do if you wish to be a successful and well-rounded adult, right?

Sure. Maybe if your definition of a successful adult is narrow.

And of course, Zoe challenges this. In comparison to Kevin who didn’t give as much thought to the idea of kids until very recently, Zoe was very clear right away about not wanting children. And she was firm in this decision, stressing that it was something she had given quite a lot of thought. For me, it was very interesting seeing someone like her on television because even after all of Kevin’s poking about possibly changing her mind (like his own mother, Rebecca), she remains steadfast and she is not portrayed as feeling “inadequate” or somehow “less of a woman” for making the decision to go child-free.

Nope. Instead, we get to hear how much she loves her career as a producer and creator of documentaries. Thrives doing it even. We hear about her wonderful and irreplaceable relationship with her nieces Tess, Annie, and Deja — and got to see how good she is with them firsthand last season when she sat Deja down and talked with her about a type of anger and aversion to healthy interpersonal relationships that she is all-too-familiar with.

She also talks about her immense love for traveling and how it amplifies her sense of adventure. How it excites her and stokes her sense of wonder. And this all even before she explained to Kevin how much she liked their relationship as is.

So you see, Zoe (and many of us) have legitimate and very well thought out reasons as to why kids are not in the cards for us, but it’s always interesting to watch people react to our truths regarding that and their expectations of us. Because when those things don’t match, we are basically written off as children ourselves. We are looked at as individuals in arrested development. Adults engaging in some odd version of Peter Pan syndrome, desperately trying to stave off any and all impending adult responsibilities—including kids.

Which is humorous at best, because that would only be the case if you think in a similar manner to Kevin, and think being a parent is something you’re supposed to be doing. Or that somehow passing on kids or marriage or any feature of “traditional” life somehow makes you incomplete.

Because the truth of the matter is that child-free women are the opposite of incomplete. Matter of fact, we bring balance, levity, and wouldn’t you know, completion to the families that have the privilege of having us and provide different experiences and viewpoints to things you may not even dream of. We are also there for the children who are adjacently in our lives, be them nieces, nephews, and etc, and are there in a lot of ways that their immediate parents may not be able to. We’re also usually on deck for emergency childcare or as [reluctant] rainy day funds and truly are the pillars of our various communities. No matter how many try to deny that by writing us off as selfish and/or inadequate spinsters or cat ladies.

I still have so many problems with This Is Us, but I’m going to be forever grateful for it introducing super aunt Zoe into our cultural lexicon. Long live Madam Auntie Zoe and long live all of our favorite child-free aunties.

CLARKISHA CLAPS BACK is a weekly column that humorously and honestly claps back at the world around writer Clarkisha Kent, from culture, politics, sexuality, gender and her personal life.

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