Being an aunt is seriously one of the best parts of my life. Moving from NYC was motivated in large part by the desire to be closer to my family — my parents, mostly, but also my growing brood of nieces and nephews. These days, I see them at least once a week and love feeling like a regular presence in their lives. Being an aunt is all the fun and cuteness of children, without the tantrums, late nights and mess…and if they misbehave or act up, you can just hand ’em back to the parents and plead helplessness!
Joking aside, in all earnestness, I take my role as an aunt pretty sincerely and seriously. No one ever really talks about being a good auntie or uncle, though — there are tons of parenting guides, books and sites of all stripes and philosophies, but relatively few devoted to the idea of aunts and uncles — extended, diffuse child-rearing, if you will.
No way would I ever compare the work of being an aunt or uncle to being a parent, but there’s still a pull and resonance there that I’ve yet to see fully explored. I remember the intense rush of love I felt the first time I held my first nephew, and I was in the delivery room with my sister when my first niece was born — because her labor was so fast, her dad hadn’t arrived in time, and I remember bringing her to the scale to be weighed, and watching her open her eyes at me, startled and shocked, as she squirmed on the little metal platform.
There is a gravity and rush of emotion in being an aunt or uncle, and it’s important to me to direct that feeling in a way that makes some kind of contribution to my little nieces and nephews. Whatever impact I do have in their lives, I’d like it to be a good one.
But like I said, there isn’t much of a blueprint for being an aunt or uncle. Most aunt stereotypes are, you know, Auntie Mame types: dotty, eccentric, sometimes glamorous, most often spinster or bitter. Think Bart Simpson’s aunts Selma and Patty, or Harry Potter’s Aunt Petunia. Even academia’s mostly neglected aunts and uncles, with most studies focusing on primary families. (The first comprehensive study of aunts and uncles was published in 2010, according to the New York Times.)
So what’s a well-meaning aunt to do? For me, I take a page from what I call the “Uncle Jesse from Full House book,” which is adapting the cool uncle persona but putting a feminine spin on it. First I had to break down what makes cool uncles so, well, cool, beyond riding motorcycles, swigging beer and playing in bands — breaking down the place you can play in a kid’s life, really. The nice thing about being an aunt — and having that role so narrowly defined, culturally speaking — is that you’re free to invent it for yourself.
What it boiled itself down to, for me, is this: cool aunts and uncles expand the range of possibilities and influences that children are exposed to as they grow up. As a kid, I was always on the lookout for hints on what I’d grow into as an adult. Myself, I had my parents, my teachers, the occasional unmarried family friend, random neighbors and, um, some Buddhist monks to look at for clues. Whenever someone hinted at the remote possibility that life could be lived differently than how I saw it around me, I pounced on it — it captured my imagination, whether it was noticing my mom’s friend’s hot pink strappy sandals or watching my neighbor’s grown-up daughter suntan in the backyard. (Her name was Novella, if I remember: such a great 70s name!)
I keep that in mind now as my relationship with my nieces and nephews grows. I’m well aware that I’m a single, childless lady, a bohemian-artist type, someone who’s traveled, been independent, gone to film school, lived in New York, run my own business and has a boyfriend that I’m not married to. (It’s definitely funny what they pick up: one of my nieces and nephews have a game called “Going to New York to Visit Auntie Kat” that involved them hailing taxis, taking subways, hunting out dim sum in Chinatown and saying very seriously, “I need to go to Sephora.”) At the very least, I can present an expanded picture of how a woman can live out her life and make the most of her existence.
Beyond that, I can expose them to things and experiences that can expand them creatively, imaginatively, intellectually — letting them watch Hayao Miyazaki movies, for example (they love My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away), playing different bands beyond Dr. Jean and KidzBop (favorite moment: playing R.E.M. in the car and being told by my nephew that Michael Stipe “sings like arthritis”), letting them riffle through my art books and piles of pictures from travels to London and Portugal.
I can tell them about the time I was vegan and what that means, about going to a gay friend’s wedding, about grappling with my sample-sale nemesis for the perfect Foley + Corinna bargain. (After which, my niece made me play “Sample Sale” for weeks when we played Barbies together. It involved dolls arm-wrestling a lot.) I find the sharing aspect of being an aunt so exciting.
But being an auntie really has less to do what I show them and more about giving them the space to be who they are and think what they want. I listen to them mostly, as we swing on swings and tuck into beds during sleepovers — we have amazingly creative, ranging conversations on mortality, religion, God and the universe. (Recently, my 4-year-old nephew told me with complete confidence that after we die, we “come back” as a family again together in different bodies but everyone gets to play a different role “because otherwise it would be boring.”) Sometimes, when I’m at a restaurant or place where I see children and their caretakers interact, I’m struck by how little children are listened to — they’re mostly talked at. So I try to remember to sometimes just listen, ask questions, help them develop trains of thought. And just let them figure out who they are — all anyone ever really wants, even from a young age, is to be given the space to completely and authentically themselves.
What’s been interesting, most of all, about being an aunt — beyond the nutty escapades my nieces and nephews and I get up to sometimes — is that it’s made me realize and reframe all the interesting parts of me and my life. Someone once told me that being a parent will bring out the best version of yourself, as well as your worst self, all at once. Certainly, when there are young children in your life that are important to you, you’re much more aware of your faults as a human being — but also what your gifts and strengths and stories are. Those are the things you’ll be remembered for when you’re old and they’re grown-up, I think — that, and the love you give them, of course.
Pic, of course, is of me and my niece and nephew, being silly, which I count as one of my auntie superpowers.