First of all, I want to say that from my observations as a childless woman, being an aunt is nothing like being a mother. Yes, if you’re lucky you get to interact with the kids a lot, and you adore them beyond all reason, and sometimes they drive you crazy. But you just don’t have the same level of responsibility for them. Crucially, you have the luxury of being able to return them to their parents and flee to a child-free wilderness if it gets to be too much. From what I’ve seen, motherhood is a bone-deep thing and you are never really off duty. (Even when you’re sleeping. In fact, certainly not when you’re sleeping if your children come and get into bed with you.)
I start with that because I don’t buy that in being an aunt, I’m “learning to be a mother” or expressing my intrinsic motherhood (along the lines of “all women are mothers”). Nah. Not really. But, that said, being an aunt is one of the most fun things in my life, and I’d like to think that aunts (and uncles, too), while they don’t replicate actual parenthood and are rather a thing of their own, can contribute some good things to everyone: the kids, their parents, and the aunt herself.
One of the tricky balancing acts of aunt-ing is that it involves dual and sometimes competing loyalties: to the kids who want a fun aunt who will let them get away with mischief, and to their parents who trust you not to lead their children completely astray. In my own experience of aunt-ing, which mostly involves my sister Eve’s kids these days (though I’m lucky to live within driving distance of my brother Ziff and his family as well, so I try to visit when I can), I give the kids too much sugar and play terrible pop music for them and take them to play video games and let them look up Star Wars Legos on my computer and sometimes let them make the house into a disaster area (and Eve is very tolerant of all of this), but when it comes to issues like R and PG-13 movies or whether it’s acceptable to throw rocks on the playground or ideas about alcohol or pushing them to go to bed at a not completely crazy hour, I do my best to back up my sister’s standards. I probably feel the competing loyalties most acutely when the kids complain to me about their parents—on the one hand, I want to validate their feelings, and I think it’s important for kids to be able to vent somewhere and feel heard—but at the same time, I want to be supportive of their parents’ decisions and not badmouth them to their kids. So I usually try to focus on the feelings; when my 8yo niece laments the cruelty of her mother not letting her have a sleepover (when, according to her, every other second-grader is doing it), I try to say stuff like, yeah, that’s hard to feel frustrated about your parents’ rules, without passing judgment on the rules themselves. It’s not an easy line to walk, though, and sometimes I’m more successful than others.
A more successful day was April Fool’s Day this year, when this same niece was dying to play a prank on her mom. I hate pranks, honestly, and I kind of hate April Fool’s Day for that reason. I don’t like being tricked, and seeing other people being tricked makes me feel awkward on their behalf, rather than giving me any pleasure. So I tried to put her off, but I spent much of the day with the kids and she kept bringing it up, and I was racking my brain to think about what we could do. And then I saw an empty box of chocolates on the table and had a stroke of inspiration: what if we put something else fun in that and pretended it was chocolates? So I floated that idea, and she liked it, and we looked around the house and found the perfect thing: Peeps! How funny would it be to have someone open a box of chocolates and discover Peeps instead? She got really into it, and we even put chocolate eggs underneath the Peeps (because of course a Peep would lay a chocolate egg, right?) We dramatically presented the gift to her mother, who opened it and expressed the appropriate astonishment, and think it worked out okay for all involved.
But other times are harder, and I don’t always feel like I’ve successfully navigated a particular minefield. And sometimes the kids get mad at me and accuse me of being “just like their mom,” which is to say, ruining all their fun, when I tell them that they have to put their toys away and brush their teeth. (During a recent babysitting experience, my 8yo niece and 6yo nephew actually attempted to hypnotize me, using a watch, to get out of brushing their teeth.) Sometimes the expectation that the fact that you’re at their house means you’re up for playing with them can be exhausting. (One of the funniest conversations I’ve had was with my 6yo niece, Ziff’s youngest. I had escaped to Ziff’s house because I was miserably depressed and didn’t want to be hospitalized, and he and his wife were kindly letting me crash there. And my niece said to me one morning, “okay, so the main reason you came here was to play with me, right?” This was part of a build-up to an argument on her part that since I was obviously there to play with her, I really should be up for more games of Dungeon than we were doing, which I’d limited to two a day.) And sometimes with Eve’s kids I do give in and let them stay up too late and then my sister has to deal with the fallout the next morning. So it’s something I’m still learning, for sure. Also, as some of the kids have become teenagers, our relationship has changed, and that’s been new thing to figure out; I have two teenaged nephews right now, both belonging to Ziff, and mostly I’m just glad that they’re super good kids and are still willing to talk to me when I visit.
But on the whole, I’m quite happy that I get to be an aunt. It really is a sweet deal. I didn’t know my own aunts and uncles very well growing up, and I’m so glad that I’ve gotten to be involved in the lives of my nieces and nephews. It just adds something indescribable to your life when you drive down the street to your sister’s house and your 6yo nephew jumps up and down in the driveway when he sees you coming, or your 6yo niece calls you up to tell you that she’s so excited for your upcoming visit that she’s made a welcome sign for you. And while I know that everyone thinks their nieces and nephews are the best, let me just tell you that mine really are.