Reinventing the ‘spinster aunt’

Aunty Jean and Aunty Helen were enduring figures in my childhood. The great-aunts were present at all the family birthdays, Christmases, parties and gatherings. Their odd gifts were a source of amusement, and they never forgot to send a birthday card and money.

When Aunty Jean died this month, the family asked me to write her eulogy. I was happy to help, but it took all my PR skills to do it – not to spin a positive story, but to fill in the gaps between the bare facts of her life, since I never really knew her.

However, I was amazed to find out the richness of her life. This unassuming suburban churchgoer was, for example, a missionary nurse, who spent six years in gruelling conditions in 1950s Papua New Guinea. I didn’t know she was a nurse, let alone such a fearless one.

I created some colour and built a narrative around Aunty Jean’s life for the speech. But it was actually an illuminating experience. It made me realise how little we ever know of those around us.

I knew the ‘aunties’ for their vivid gardens, funny gifts and general staunchness. But thousands of patients knew Jean as a nurse and caregiver – not least her own sister, Kath, whom she nursed on her deathbed. (Kath died of cancer in 1961, and Jean came home from Western Australia to look after her).

I heard many stories at the funeral of Jean’s selflessness, charity and tireless church work. The Minister sermonised about legacies, and what we want our own to be. Atheist that I am, it still resonated with me.

The new spinsters

I’ve spent this week with my cousin Lara. We were born four months apart, and have been “cousends” forever (cousins + friends, obviously). She now lives in Western Australia with her partner, and has no intention of having kids.

I also find myself at an age where I haven’t had kids, for various complicated reasons, and may never do so.

I have been married, but am now alone. Lara has a partner but no plans to get hitched.

And so we are the new spinster aunties.

Our lives are so different to our own mothers at this age (they had teenagers), and in some ways, we are more like our aunts (fashion choices aside). We can do as we wish with our time and money. We have fewer responsibilities. We dote on our nieces and nephews but don’t wish for our own kids.

Well, I don’t know if our spinster aunts wished for another life – one with their own brood. They were dedicated to the children in their lives, but is that because they wanted their own? Or was it because they had time and space and inclination to be a damn good Aunty, unencumbered as they were?

Lara and I have agreed that we will reinvent the Spinster Aunt category on our own terms. I’ve already promised my nieces to pick them up from parties when they are drunk teenagers too scared to call their parents. I’ll give them the most useful, but slightly inappropriate, advice about boys. And I’ll always be on their side.

They’ll know me as the one who is always up for a dancing competition, makeover, cubby house or hallway catwalk show.

There’s also a lot they won’t know of me, because I’m not their mum. And I’m totes cool with that.

Because I’m the new-style spinster aunt, with no sensible shoes or floral dresses. Just a solid knowledge of Taylor Swift and a full make-up bag. What else could a niece want?

By Belinda White


  1. You give better presents too.

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