When I picked up Arthur from school that humid December day, I told his teacher that I was his aunt. In the after-school rush, it seemed easier and more legitimate than explaining I was his mum’s oldest friend, but as soon as we were out of earshot Arthur objected.
“You’re not actually our aunt, you know,” he said. And while I explained that all my friends’ children called me ‘tetka’ or ‘aunt’ back in Sarajevo, where I’d lived for five years, Arthur remained unconvinced. His younger brother Audre, though, who’d been walking quietly by my side, slipped his small hand into mine and declared in a whisper, ‘Tetka Bron’.
I gave him a squeeze and let the brothers’ conversation wash over me. As they discussed the possibilities of what Audre and I would do the next day, all I could think about was that it was the very last time I would be looking after him before he started proper school.
Every month for the past two years, Audre and I had spent a Friday together while his parents worked. Eliza and I had grown up side-by-side, as our mothers were close friends, and when I returned to Sydney, our childhood friendship renewed – a familiar groove in a city where nothing seemed as it had been and yet everything felt overwhelmingly the same. I was touched when she and Alex, the boys’ dad, asked me to be Audre’s godmother – even as a baby, Audre had such a sweet temperament that I was besotted from the first moment I’d looked after him.
It was the very last time I would be looking after him before he started proper school
We had adventured all over Sydney on our regular playdates. The first day we spent together, Audre was just forming words – “Bunny Rabbit” he’d yelled out in an incomprehensively loud voice when he spotted an advertisement for pet food – and I had no idea what I was doing. A whole day with a kid who’d just turned three? I texted my mum, 700 kilometres away, whose advice was clear: make sure he eats, drinks water, and naps on time. That’s it.
We’d go to places the childless barely venture. Sticky play centres, family bathrooms, back to the same section of the museum over and over. Audre and I once spent a whole day on every type of public transport the city had to offer, rushing between buses, ferries, trains and trams for the very fun of it. Experiencing the incremental development of such a tactile, delightful child began to renew my own curiosity for life. By the end of each day, my face would hurt from how much we’d laughed, and I would be tired in a way I’d never experienced.
I began to better understand my friends with children, or at least empathise enough to ask more insightful questions about their experiences. The sheer exhaustion, the startling rage when you’ve said “no” twenty different ways, the unexpected vulnerability of being out in the world with a child all surprised me.
With each year I was also progressing into my mid-30s and the occasional comment became an outright chorus from the world: “But when will you be having children?” Not from my family, but friends, colleagues and even strangers would unexpectedly launch into monologues about how worried they were about me. Enquiries about whether I was dating rapidly shifted to conversations about freezing my eggs. If I put on a bit of weight, people would ask if I’d given up on meeting someone. If I lost weight, people would ask if it was because I was in love, my body becoming an external barometer of my perceived romantic life.
“That’s just patriarchal crap,” Eliza would say when I told her of these awkward encounters, where I would feel pressured to justify why I hadn’t managed to reproduce by the time I was 35. “In the same context, I might feel pigeonholed as a ‘mother’, without interests or a life of my own. We can’t win.”
The thing was, I wasn’t sure if I would be ready to meet someone anytime soon, let alone have children on my own. I could barely admit it to myself, but I knew my heart was worn out from a tumultuous decade of relationships and life experiences that had challenged me right to my core. I craved a quiet stability that came from within, something I’d never experienced in a relationship.
My body became an external barometer of my perceived romantic life
I decided to cut myself some slack and get on with living, slowly adjusting to life in the place where I’d grown up. I launched a business and wrote a novel, as I’d always dreamed of doing, and tuned out the noise that I wasn’t living up to expectations held of women in their 30s.
And besides, once a month, I had my Audre day. Until now. Suddenly, or so it seemed, he had turned five, and these days were almost over as he prepared to start school. For this last outing, after much deliberation with Arthur, he’d requested to go back to the museum and then to the indoor pool across the street. I was relieved – the day was predicted to be 39 degrees and he’d seemed close to settling on a bike ride and a picnic.
I texted my mum on the crowded bus there, as Audre ate the snacks his mother had prepared. I asked her if he would remember all these days we’d spent together when he was older. “No,” came the swift response, although I could see she was writing more. Audre reached up to press the button for our stop, something that would have been incomprehensible a year before. My phone buzzed again.
“He won’t. But he’ll grow up with the feeling of being loved.”
In the museum, we went straight to the dinosaurs, where our usual seat to watch his beloved video display had been removed. I perched on the edge of an exhibit where you could put your hand into the mould of a velociraptor claw, and pulled him up to sit on me. I knew what we were in for – a 10-minute countdown for a 30-second animation that he’d want to watch at least three times.
For the first time that I’d heard, Audre named every dinosaur as they came out of the animated forest.
“How did you get to be so smart?” I asked him.
“I don’t know?” he shrugged and leant back into me, pulling my hair down over his eyes as we waited for the video to begin again.
Across the road, we bypassed the adult area and threw ourselves straight into the cool relief of the kids’ pool. Up and down the small slide Audre went, splashing chlorinated water all over me. Around and around we swam through the concrete maze. A siren went off and I squealed as much as he did – we would get to experience the wave machine that we’d missed out on the other times we’d been.
The dozen or so other people in the kids’ pool gathered in the deep end, anticipation high as the teenage lifeguard yelled at us all to “hold onto our kids”. Audre wrapped himself around me as barriers were removed and a safety rope laid down in front. The machine whirred into gear and produced a mild swell.
Audre let go and spread himself out to float. I held him up with only the palm of my hand on his back. I looked at his blissful face and a rush came over me. This. This is what I want.
I told myself it was my ovaries talking as we ate ice creams that melted down our hands before we could finish them. Had I been wrong all along, I wondered, as we hid under our wet towels at the bus stop. Had all those conversations that felt interfering actually been people who could see something I couldn’t, I thought, as we staggered back through the afternoon humidity to pick up Arthur.
I looked at his blissful face and a rush came over me. This. This is what I want
I spotted him among all the identically dressed kids in the playground, kicking a ball against a brick wall. As we approached, trying to surprise him, he spun around. When he saw us, his face lit up and he ran straight over.
I crouched down to meet Arthur’s hug and held on just a moment longer than he did, realising that here, in these moments, I’d learned to love again.
That night I stayed for dinner with Eliza. After the kids were in bed, we talked about everything, as we always did, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit to hearing my biological clock in the middle of the swimming pool.
“I meant to tell you something,” she said over the whirring of the food processor. Her cousin Laura was visiting from overseas, and Eliza had overheard her talking to Audre at the playground about his monthly Fridays with me.
“Does Bronwyn have children?” Laura had asked as she pushed him on the swing.
“Yep.” Audre had confidently said back.
“Really?” she’d asked. “I must have missed that news.”
“Yeah, ‘course she’s got kids,” he’d replied. “She’s got Arthur, and she’s got me.”