When I was growing up, I had five aunts living near me, one who I saw about once or twice a year, and another aunt who lived on another planet. (Actually, she lived for a long time in the Solomon Islands, which in the 1960s was like living on another planet, then she lived in the North Island of New Zealand, which was a long way from us). I saw the four who lived near me reasonably regularly, at family gatherings, and sometimes local or school events. But they were always relatively distant characters, organising the family gatherings, or taking a rare moment to relax and chat with their sisters and sisters-in-law, whilst my sisters and I played with their children. The same happened with my other aunts, on a less frequent basis. But as they were my mother’s sisters, they would stay with us, or we would stay with them, and we spent more quality time together. Still though, we were mostly the children who were better seen and not heard, playing or talking or reading or walking with the cousins, out of sight and earshot, as they had adult time together.
Now I'm an aunt. Actually, if I'm honest, I'm also a great-aunt. My first niece was born when I was 17 (my sister being quite a few years older than me), and many years later she was actually pregnant at the same time as me. (My great-nephew is always a reminder of how old our child might have been.) I've enjoyed being an aunt to her and her sisters. For much of their formative years though, I was the aunt living on another planet. But I always kept in touch, always sent them birthday and Christmas presents (even if they were never quite sure when these might arrive), and enjoyed spending time with them. I remember returning from Thailand, telling my littlest niece that I had met a princess on my travels. “Was she flash?” she asked, wide-eyed. That niece is now discovering the joys of travel herself. I like to think I might have had a little to do with that. One of the joys of FB to me is that I have been able to reconnect with my adult nieces, developing a closer relationship with them than I ever could without it.
I've had much more to do with another niece, who I sometimes mention. She grew up near me till age eight, and I loved having her close by, but then her parents took off overseas. I was lucky though, and my many business trips saw me able to stop by to visit her in Singapore several times a year, lavishing attention on her, snuggling with her in bed in the early morning before anyone else was awake, talking about school and books and friends. On her visits to New Zealand, her mother would send me shopping for clothes with her – it was something we both enjoyed doing, an annual ritual that only really ended when she lived in London at university, and no longer needed to shop in New Zealand. Since then we've maintained a close relationship, though these days at 23 she is a poorer correspondent with her old aunt than I would like! I have been a confidante to her in ways my aunts never were to me, and none of her other aunts have been, and I am pretty sure she feels comfortable telling me almost anything. (“Almost,” I said. I'm not blind or stupid!) I'm a non-judgemental ear, and I treasure being that for her - even if she did once describe me as her “eccentric aunt.” Despite that comment, or perhaps because of it, I love her dearly.
Other nieces and nephews are living overseas too, and I have much less to do with them. I’m sad about that – I talk about it often. But there’s little I can do. Their parents don’t/won’t skype, and we see each other rarely.
Then there’s my littlest niece. She is my younger sister’s daughter, and at six is a delight. I write about her visits on A Separate Life, in a series called “What Charlie Taught Me.” Again, this is a relationship that I treasure. Unfortunately she doesn't see me enough to know me well yet, but I (and her mother!) look forward to the days when she can be popped on a plane and sent down to stay with Auntie Mali for the school holidays, when we can develop (I hope) a relationship that is ours and ours alone.
Women who are mothers may I think miss out on these close relationships with their nieces and nephews. In my observations, they are busy and focused on their own children – parenthood is in so many ways (these days at least) a nuclear-family-focused activity. There is little time for other children, when time is already so stretched for their own. I've heard so many mothers say confidently that their child would never do X or Y, or declare with certainty that their daughters tell them everything, when I know for a fact that it simply isn't true. No kid tells their mother everything, certainly not as they get older. So they need aunts. After all, children know that their mothers will judge, will have expectations, might be disappointed, and they don’t want to be on the receiving end of those emotions. It’s natural, after all – that guilt-both-ways relationship between mothers and their children is pervasive throughout cultures, I think.
Whereas we, the unencumbered aunts, can spread our wings and be an alternative confidante, without obligation or fear, to another child, or teenager, or young adult. We don’t hear their stories with fear that our own children might do X or Y, we don’t react as a mother might, sometimes worried, sometimes defensive, sometimes judgemental. I've certainly seen aunts-who-are-also-mothers react this way towards their own nieces and nephews. I think that being a mother pervades many of their relationships, and influences how they think and interact. They mother the children who come into their houses, because that’s what they know how to do, and probably because that’s all they have time or energy for. But we are free of this.
We don’t have to be the “cool aunt” but we can be if we want to. We can also give gifts such as noisy musical instruments, or pretty clothes that are impossible to launder, and – my favourite - we can put ideas in their heads that make them see the world differently.
In the end, as aunts, we can nurture a relationship with our nieces and nephews that is very separate from that of their parents, yet one that is loving and growing and yet constant too. For that gift, I am very grateful.