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What Being A Childless Aunt Taught Me About Kids

When is Awesome Aunts Day again?

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A graphic of an oversized aunt, as her nieces and nephews play around her.
Michelle Kondrich
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The one thing I refused to do was change diapers. Ew, gross. Get that thing away from me! But since becoming an aunt for the first time 11 years ago, nothing else has been off-limits. I’ve hosted sleepovers and scrambled eggs, helped pick out clothes for the morning, held hands while crossing the street, read bedtime stories, and played a thousand games of hide and seek. I’ve also enforced bedtimes, and taken away electronics as a form of punishment. And, OMG, they’re not even teenagers yet.

The irony is that I never considered myself a “kid person.” You know that maternal, sympathetic feeling women get when they see infants all snuggled on an airplane? My first thought is, “That child better not be sitting next to me.” Way back in high school, I volunteered to babysit strictly as a money-grab. And yet I feel confident in saying — no, insisting! — that being a devoted aunt to my nephew, Ryan, and niece, Leah, has given me special insight into the minds of kids. Before you roll your eyes, parents, let me just add that I get it. I’m not around them 24-7. I’m just the fun, fly-by, childless (child-free?) relative who opts in whenever I feel like it. And that’s exactly my point. My kiddie-spidey senses are heightened.

Living 500 miles from the kids automatically puts me at a disadvantage. So when I do travel home, I ensure that quality trumps quantity. I put down my phone in their presence and tinker with writing assignments during off-peak hours. I don’t allow myself to press the snooze button, either, which is part of my regular morning regimen. Somehow the kids always wake up alert and ready to go, and providing my undivided attention entices them to engage with me beyond monosyllabic words. They know they can tell me silly jokes or dramatic anecdotes, and I will listen and ask follow-up questions. I also offer the same irreverent quips I give to my friends because, well, I don’t know any other way.

Frankly, I just can’t afford the time for drawn-out lectures about why they need to finish their vegetables. And I try not to snap at them — unless they really have it coming, because what’s the point in hurt feelings when the clock is ticking? Somehow, I’ve become impervious to temper tantrums and sibling fights in the back seat of the car. I recently visited one of my mom-friends, and she was amazed by my long-fused attitude when her sons started fighting about iPad usage. “They’ve been terrors lately,” she said apologetically. I replied with a shoulder shrug. I was used to it. Kids fight.

That said, on many occasions I’ve called Ryan and Leah to say hi, and they trudge on the phone as if it were a chore that needed to be checked off. I used to take it deeply personally — what do you mean Leah doesn’t want to FaceTime? And where’s my letter from overnight camp? Doesn’t Ryan realize how much I’ve done for him and love him?!! But I’ve accepted that even though they love me, sometimes they’re just not in the mood. I would never want to force anyone to talk to me, unless I’m getting paid at the back end. As the adult, I realize I must do the heavy lifting in terms of communication.

But as they get older, the relationships have flourished. My own mom and dad were apprehensive about telling me certain personal details about their preparental lives; only a few years ago, I learned of my mom’s ex-boyfriend back in the late 1960s! I wish they would have been slightly more open. I don’t mind revealing my vulnerabilities. I told Ryan about the day I got fired from my first job, and he was shocked. I recently shared to my friend’s struggling 12-year-old daughter about my own awkward adolescence. Age-appropriate disclosure unlocks new dimensions.

General kid aversion aside, I’ve embraced my clearly defined role as Auntie Mara. No matter what, I’ll be there to support them and encourage them and, duh, spoil them rotten. And though I’m not a mom, it thrills me to know in my heart that I’m doing my small-but-significant part to shape the kids’ lives — and not just the lives of my nephew and niece. When is Awesome Aunts Day again?