I’m not a mom.

Well, I haven’t grown or birthed any babies. I haven’t adopted or fostered any children. I don’t plan to have biological children. I’ve thought about fostering but I’m not in a place to do so right now. To be honest, I’m not sure that being a mom is for me.

A lot of people have said, “It’s the best thing ever.” “You won’t know how much you love it until you try it.” “You’ll be such a good mom!”

None of those are reasons that compel me to have my own kids.

It IS the best thing ever. I DO love it. And I AM a good mom. To other people’s children.

I do a lot of parenting right now. I’m mom lite to my nieces, ages 4 years and 18 months. I have several nieces and a few nephews of-the-heart in town. I nanny for a pair of sisters, 5- and 10- years-old, three days a week.

I am aunty, friend, and big sister to a lot of kids, mostly girls, who are right now between the ages of 18 months and 15 years old. I’m a kinda, sorta, sometimes momma.

I love these kids. Each and every one of them. I’m a fool for them all. The way they think and care for each other, the way they play and laugh; even the hard moments, I love them so much that those horribly taxing times are worth it.

Their parents are good, generous, wonderful people who don’t mind sharing their kids with me. I’m grateful for every one of them. I’m grateful for their trust, and I don’t take it for granted.

Because of them, I have weathered sleepless nights. I have held kids while they cried over skinned knees and broken hearts. I can make a bottle with one hand while rocking a fussy baby, coax a 6-year-old into shoes, help a 10-year-old with homework, and have the safe sex talk with a teenager.

My momma marks are scored deep into my skin and my heart—the first time Emma told me she loved me, the week Riley spent in and out of the hospital, the moments when I was enough, and the moments when I was not what they needed.

I made the choice when Riley was born four years ago that I would be here for her and her family; now she has a little sister too. No, they aren’t mine, and no, I’m not tethered to this place like their parents are. I know there are a lot of aunts out there who are content with visits and treats and just being the fun, cool one who shows up periodically. There’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not me. I want my nieces to know that they are part of my life in a way that is not “special” or a big surprise or a treat, but everyday. I don’t need to make time for them. I don’t need to take vacation days for them. They have me, every day. I want them to look back and know that the reason they had their own carseats in my car is because I expected to use them weekly. I want them to know that I did their laundry and took them to friends’ birthday parties and knew their favorite foods.

They are not people who I need to fit into my life. I have done my best to mold my world around theirs.

The hurts of a momma lite are not the same as what a mom experiences. I know this.

Still, for all of my kids, I worry. I hold onto their hurts and fears and frustrations, more dearly and with more thought than I hold my own. They scare me. Will they come through the struggles of middle school intact? Will they find someone to talk to about their first big secret? And if that person is me, will I say the right thing? What happens if someone treats them badly? Am I screwing them up by making them brush their teeth even when they are screaming that they don’t want to? What would their mom do in this situation? What would their dad do? Will their parents be mad if I say the wrong thing? As a mom lite, these are questions I grapple with daily.

I am terrified that I am an intruder in the families I am so connected to, that I unintentionally inflict hurt on these amazing parents. Does it bother them when their children reach for me instead of them? Is he upset when he comes home from work and we are so engrossed in a story, snuggled up together, that his kids don’t go running to him? Does she wish that her teenager would talk to her instead of me?

These fears are worn and familiar; I have had them for a decade. I trust the parents I work for implicitly. I know they’ll tell me if they need something to change. I also know how delicate my place in the constellation of these families can be, not because of anything anyone does or has done, but simply because that is the nature of being a kinda, sorta, sometimes momma.

Compounding this is the knowledge that I am not—nor will I ever be—these kids’ number 1. That’s how it should be. I know that in my head—even though my heart sometimes wishes it weren’t the case. They should love their parents exponentially more than me, more than anyone. They should look to them for all the things that parents provide. I’m extra. I believe firmly that kids need more adults than just their parents who are committed to them, to their well being and happiness and upbringing.

I’ve chosen that role, I’m lucky enough to have families who include me in that role, and I relish it. It IS special. I’m their extra. I’m their bonus momma, the big sister who doesn’t have to be, the friend who’s there just because. I have those people for myself and they mean the world to me.

And, real talk, I get more than I give. No matter how much I give, their little hands wrapped around my shoulders and the look on their faces when we finish a challenge gives me more. Like everyone, I want to love and be loved. I want to be needed and necessary. These kids and their families fill that need for me. I get paid and fed, get to do my laundry for free, am part of a family. Actually, I’m part of several families. None of this is selfless. I worry that I’m not doing enough. On dark nights, I wonder who I’m really doing this for: me, or them?

I have found that for me, there is little that is both harder, and easier, in this life than loving someone else’s kid with my whole entire being, as though they were my own. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It hurts. It sings. My relationships with these kids, all of them, are something rare and magical. And they smart, just a little, every time the door closes behind me and the sun sets again.

At the end of the day, I’m never the one who gets to stay.

But I always get to come back.

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