Had you asked me six years ago if I ever wanted to have or raise children, I would have laughed. I would have likely looked at you with a tilted head while making a face and said something along the lines of “have we ever spoken?” I was a 32-year-old single and child-free woman living life as fiercely independent as one could with a salary of less than $45,000 a year and a mound of student loan debt.
I worked full-time and remotely for a tech company as a content and social media manager. Doing so allowed me time and flexibility to continue to write on a freelance basis and also run an online publication that I founded. My most creative times were from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.. I cared for myself and my two small dogs only. Life was great, ideal even.
Today, however, you will rarely catch me anywhere but bed between the hours of 11 and 4 unless one of the kids can’t sleep or house chores haven’t been done. I have been raising two of my nephews for the last six years, co-parenting alongside my mother.
My parents were awarded custody of each of my nephews when the boys were only a couple months old. Neither of their biological parents were capable of caring for the children. My youngest brother, the boys' biological father, moved out of state before the kids turned 3. He was hardly around when he lived in the same town as my parents. The kids' mother was involved with the man who is currently incarcerated for physically abusing my youngest nephew, and she has not been allowed to have unsupervised visits with the children since.
Needless to say, the kids have relied on my parents as their parents since the beginning of their lives. My father, or Pawpaw (long East Texas drawl included) to the boys, was the only father figure they knew, just as my mother is the only mother figure they know. They call my mother “Mom.”
Early in 2017, the kids were 6 and 7 years old and my dad's cancer had returned. My mother, a saint, is the glue that holds things together, whether it be work, home life, her children, her family. She was taking my father to his cancer treatments in Houston, a cool two hours from their home in East Texas, raising my nephews and working full-time at an elementary school. The woman was a machine.
In June of that year, my father was given six months to live. I was working and living in North Texas at the time I got “the call” and decided shortly thereafter to move back to East Texas to help my mom with the kids and my dad. Dad died almost six months exactly from the prognosis. He was 63 years old, my mother 61.
Soon after my dad died, I became the children’s conservator. I had to hire an attorney, stand in front of a judge and promise to have the children’s best interest in mind at all times. People always say having children changes your entire life and they are not wrong.
Though parenting two of my brother's children is the best choice I’ve made in my entire life, it's not devoid of complexities. The role change has been most difficult for me. Learning how to go from just being their aunt to someone who is in a parental role 24/7 has been challenging. There’s a lot less at stake just being an aunt. I have two more younger nephews whom I do not engage with as much and it worries me that I am no longer good at just being an aunt.
I spend a good amount of time reading books about parenting, homeschooling and teaching children about their emotions and feelings. I grew up in a household where my parents fought all the time but chose to stay together “for the kids.” No one talked about their feelings or even acknowledged that feelings existed. A major reason I never wanted children of my own was because I was unsure about the kind of parent I would be and I knew I did not want to raise children in a situation like the one I grew up in.
Through the years we have been together, the kids and I work to talk to each other when we have issues or disagreements or want to communicate a need or an idea. In fact, we talk to each other all the time. It is not always easy, especially for my mom who is not used to this type of openness in the home. The children and I have long talks about our feelings and emotions and what we do when our emotions reach certain stages like say, anger. We find ways to work through our emotions as opposed to yelling at each other or escalating into violence.
My least favorite quote about children is that they are resilient. Children are only resilient because they have to be and as someone who was a very resilient child, I try to work to be the person I needed when I was their age as opposed to just a parent or another adult.
In 2019, the children were attending a public charter school in East Texas. The oldest, in the third grade, was faced with taking the state-mandated STAAR test for the first time. He came home with an incredible amount of anxiety and ended up in tears multiple times. It seems like all they were teaching in school was how to pass the STAAR test and my little dude is as smart as a whip ,but not a great test-taker, just like his aunt (no shame!). His anxiety transferred to health issues and when we found the root cause was stress about the STAAR test, I knew I had one choice to make.
Early that May I wrote an email to the school director informing them that my oldest would not be participating in the STAAR test or any of its make-up tests in the weeks following. He stayed home for an entire week while testing went on at his school. We did homeschool work, colored and played. It was a really fun week. Some of his health issues began to resolve themselves the longer he was away from school. He was sleeping every night, whereas he would regularly stay up very late because he was so stressed out and nervous about going back to school and dealing with the test.
After he returned to school the following week, his health issues returned. We had a family meeting and agreed that homeschooling would be a good choice for our family. I emailed the school to let them know that we would be unenrolling the kids from the school at the end of the school year, which was just a couple weeks away anyway.
Choosing to unenroll my nephews from public school was hands down one of the hardest decisions I have ever made in my entire life. Holding the fate of a child's education in your hands is something not to be taken lightly. At any rate, we are in year five of homeschooling and doing just fine.
Little things have been hard for me too, like when the kids call my mother “Mom.” I know that must sound petty, but it did bother me for some time. I sometimes think to myself, "she is my mom, not yours!" The longer I would be around the kids, they would slip up and call me "Mom." “Mom? I mean … Aunt Sara?” I get called "Mom" a lot nowadays and it no longer bothers me when they call my mother “Mom.” I’ve learned that “mom” is a comfort word to children. I am happy to be their mom or aunt or anyone they need, any and every day for the rest of our lives.
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