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Being an Aunt: The Unsung Hero

by Hayley Doyle

My little nephew can climb onto a table faster than I can sneeze and bounces around with a toy guitar singing, ‘Ah-1-2-3!’ He has an overall vibe of sunshine and brings a smile to everybody he meets. Last week, I looked after him while my sister moved house. It was the school holidays, so my two young children were also home. Needless to say, the day was hectic. At one point, I was attempting to make some sort of nutritious and tasty meal to satisfy two toddlers and a five year old, preferably that created minimal mess and zero choking hazards, taking one step forward and two steps back.

“Mummy, I need some water!” Shouted one kid, like they were lost in the desert.

“Mummy, wipe my bum!” Yelled the other, as always, with impeccable timing.

I had to confiscate iPads. And the toilet brush, which had somehow been mistaken as the coolest toy of all. I just wanted to return to the kitchen, to complete the task I’d begun. I didn’t want to burn the fish fingers. Nobody - and especially a toddler - likes a burnt fish finger. When a YouTube video of kids at Yas Waterworld grabbed the attention of all three kids, I made my escape. But as I was chopping up carrots and slicing a rather unripe, unsatisfying avocado, my nephew toddled in. On high ninja alert, I tossed the knife into the sink and prepared to pull him off a stool or stop him jamming his fingers in a drawer. But he just plonked himself down, shuffling his bulky nappy-bottom into the corner below the sink, and looked up at me with his huge, magical eyes.

“What do you want, Sweetie?” I asked.

He continued to stare, head tilted, waiting. Waiting for what, though?

“It’s no fun in here,” I reminded him. “Why don’t you build a tower with the Duplo?”

Nothing. Just a further widening of his eyes. Then a smile.

“I’m just making some dinner,” I said.

And as he edged a little closer to me, still sitting, I felt my heart swell. Oh my. He just wanted to hang out. With me. I’m his aunt. He’s my sister’s kid. Even though I’m not his mum, we’re incredibly close and share a massive amount of immediate, natural love. Plus, he doesn’t see me every day, doesn’t rely on me for every single thing, so he just sees me, and likes me. And the way he was looking at me, well, I felt like a rockstar.

Because it’s true.

Aunts are rockstars.

They will sing for you, scream for you, and show the world how much they have your back. And yet, the role of an aunt is somewhat often overlooked. You can be the perfect blend of mother and friend, something that can be difficult for actual mothers to achieve. Research refers to the aunt-niece/nephew relationship as “quasi-parenthood,” in that an aunt isn't the mother, but she does play a vital role in raising and shaping their life. You’re there every step of the way, part of the child’s roots, but indirectly, allowing your niece or nephew to develop and discover their lives in comfort, without judgement. Whilst being a mum can be overwhelming at times, being an aunt gives you the power to swoop into the situation as comic relief or a trusted confidante, taking the weight from your sibling’s shoulders.

When I reminisce about my childhood with my sister, something is very apparent; the good times we’ve shared with our aunts. They were the life and soul of family parties. They made costumes out of tea-towels and played the roles of the prince, the frog, the witch and all seven dwarves to our princesses. They tickled us and gave us rocket-ship piggy backs, let us stay up late at sleepovers and watch stuff on TV that we didn’t watch at home. They had a dedicated box of sweets and a whole cupboard of crisps that we were welcome to devour during a visit. Their spaghetti bolognese tasted different from the one our mum made; not better, not worse, just different. We’d go shopping and it would involve stuff like getting our ears pierced. We’d talk about boys and it wasn’t embarrassing, so we’d feel okay to elaborate, tell them a bit more, and a bit more. They just loved us. Like really loved us. But without smothering us. They were always, ALWAYS, on our side. In fact, they still are.

Now, my children light up at the sight of my sister. An afternoon visit becomes a party-play-date. They get excited to show her their toys and compete for one-on-one time with her. If we’re having a family get together, they ask if she’s coming, then air punch if I say, yes. To them, she really is a rockstar and as they get older, I have every confidence that this beautiful relationship will continue to flourish.

If you’re lucky enough to be an aunt, you might not be aware of your superpowers. The spotlight shines on the mother - and so often unwillingly for her, since she has enough on her plate already - and it’s important for aunts to understand how key their involvement is in the upbringing and ongoing journey of a child. And, an aunt doesn’t need to be immediate family or related by marriage. If you’re a strong role model to your friend’s children, you will be providing invaluable emotional support and a welcomed fresh perspective. So don’t underestimate your power and wisdom, ever. Let’s celebrate your qualities and embrace what you can give back.

1. A Safety Net - As your niece or nephew inevitably make mistakes on that learning road of life, you’ll always catch them when they fall. You can acknowledge their fears and shed some light on how to overcome them, without sounding preachy, and without them presuming that you’re disappointed. If a worry or situation makes it difficult or awkward to share with the parent, you can step in and take the burden.

2. Wisdom - Unlike the instant pressure that parents feel when their children fall at a hurdle, you can offer a lighter viewpoint and share a personal anecdote, perhaps one you might not have felt comfortable sharing with your own parents, once upon a time. Somehow, within this relationship, honesty is raw, but easy.

3. A Listening Ear - Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll aren’t the best topics to bring up with your mum., right? But a good aunt can be the perfect soundboard, and might even enjoy taking a trip down memory lane to tell you her own crazy tales. But if your niece or nephew needs to vent, especially about their parents, because of your own close ties to the family, you’re likely to be the best person to help them navigate through these issues.

4. A Good Laugh - You can truly play the friend card when you’re an aunt, relax and be yourself. You know what makes your niece or nephew tick. You’re right there on the sidelines, ready to be silly, added with a pinch of nostalgia. Plus, you get to spoil these kids rotten… guilt-free!

5. Cheerleading Skills - First words? First steps? Graduating with a degree in aeronautical engineering? You’re proud as punch of every single achievement, cheering your niece or nephew on loud and clear. You listen to their dreams and give them hope, edging them forwards with a gentle nod and absolute belief in them. And when you boast about them, it doesn’t have the cringe factor that poor old mama gets labelled with!


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