Once upon a time, I was an aunt. But that feels like it was a really long time ago.
My first niece was born when I was a teenager, and before I had kids of my own or a car to drive, she was my world. Whenever my boyfriends would come to the house with me one of the first things we’d always do is find my girl Ry-Ry and play with her on the floor. She lived on my hip until she was too big to carry around that way, and even then I’d lift her up off the ground to hug her about a trillion times a minute, not caring what it did to my back. Before I had kids, she was the reason I loved shopping at Christmas. She was the only thing that made me want to hang out at home before I moved out. And after I did, she was the reason I looked forward to visiting.
Then I had kids of my own, and around the same time I swear my brothers started a competition over who could have the most daughters in an attempt to make just one son.
You’d think that by now I’d have the credentials of a professional at being an aunt. Between the combining of our two families through marriage, my husband and I have eleven little people who call us Aunt ‘Licia and Uncle Joe/Spencer when they see us. Eleven little tykes to attend birthday parties for. Eleven little quirts to hug when it’s time to say goodbye on a special occasion. Eleven little people, who, in all unfortunate honesty have become little more to us over the years than playmates for our own, more important kids.
For a lot of reasons that make enough sense for other people to understand, the part of me that used to take pride in being an aunt kind of fell off the grid the day I was handed a baby of my own and taught how to put my breast in it’s mouth to keep him alive. A lot of things changed that day, and I guess, looking back, it’s easy to see why my being a nurturing influence to someone else’s responsibility fell back into the realm of things my new priority blurred. (New baby’s have a knack for breaking into a person’s life by screwing up all of their bygone priorities and forcing them to make new ones that revolve around them.) By the time I probably could have scrounged together enough cash or time or patience to accommodate a weekend tagalong for my own crew there were nieces and nephews cropping up by the litter, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it for all of them.
But if I’m honest with myself, I know that it didn’t really change with having a new baby. It changed with being a step mom.
Growing up I had this aunt - who actually wasn’t really my aunt, but just one of those people you grow up calling “aunt” and never really bother to ask how it is that you’re actually related - and once a year she’d take my brothers and I for a whole week while my parents vacationed in Florida. We’d look forward to it so much that it never even occurred to us that we weren’t really “vacationing” too. She’d take us mini-golfing and out to the movies; She’d spoil us with fast food in the afternoons and then have a freezer packed full of our favorite ice creams waiting for us back at the house. We’d pull back into the neighborhood after dark and she’d be all like, “Okay guys, here’s your option: you can either take a bath before bed, or just hop in the pool for a while. Up to you!” I have a pretty lucid memory of sitting at her kitchen table, all warm from getting back into my clothes after a swim and doing a paint by number with her dog, Sammy at my feet. I remember thinking that doing something like that at my own house would have been boring - the kind of thing you save for a rainy day, but her house was always so sunlit and welcoming that it made everything you did feel better than it normally would.
Back when I was a teenager, that’s how I pictured being an aunt, paving my way to my niece’s heart in trips to the park and cups of Rita’s Water Ice. I wasn’t even old enough to take Little Ryan anywhere but the places we could walk to from my parents’ house, and she already loved me like the sun shined directly out of my ass. I couldn’t imagine how much better things would get when I was old enough to drive and had a place of my own to call on for slumber parties.
Right before the end of my second year in college, Spencer started picking me up from school with his daughter in arm, and before any of us really knew what was happening, I had moved in. The early stages of being a step mom were a lot like being an aunt; dependant on looking cool and being fun because that’s pretty much all you have to offer. All that I knew about how to nurture and love a child (which wasn’t much yet) came from the little experience I had at being an aunt. All of my earthly capacity to do those things shifted rightly onto Mary.
She became the one I ripped ticket stubs with and shared French fries next to and stopped the ice cream man for. Once, when Mary still fit into her 101 Dalmations nightgown, we had Ryan spend the night. The two of them had a blast together even though Ryan was two years younger, but she held onto me so tightly the whole time and exclaimed so incessantly over how much she adored me that a few hours into the sleepover Mary started crying because she thought I loved Ryan more than her. Mary didn’t want to hug me that much, but she didn’t want me hugging that much on someone else either, and I understood. It wasn’t a conscious decision or anything, but after that my relationship with Ryan came a little undone, because to some extent I think it had to.
This past weekend I finally committed to having Ryan for a sleepover again, and I wanted it to be perfect. Right before we left for the skating rink on Friday night my brother called me to thank me for taking her and he said I didn’t know how much he appreciated me doing this for her. “Yeah, no problem. I’m really happy to have her,” I said, but he stopped me. No, he said, you don’t understand. He told me about how she’s going through kind of a difficult time recently and that to her, spending time with me again just really means the world.
The next day after pancakes, two of Ryan’s little sisters came with her parents to pick her up. Matthew freaked! I couldn’t get his jacket and shoes on fast enough - in fact he ran out the door with them still in his hand, promising me he’d put them on himself on the front step. The three of them ran around the yard, pretending to be dinosaurs and spy kids and fairies, chasing bubbles, tripping over each other, yielding fallen branches and digging with them at the base of the tree. I asked them to pose for a picture real quick, and without any hesitation in the world, the two of them stopped and clung to each other like kittens to the branch of a tree. They were grinning hurriedly but uninhibited, impatient to get on with their adventure.
Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad for the relationship I had with the them, different as it may be. They don’t have me the same way Ryan used to before I had kids. Truth is, they probably never completely will. But Ryan also never had the relationship her little sisters get to have with their cousins. At least not yet.
My hope is that we can find a better fit for everyone. That Ryan and Mary can grow up relating to each other more comfortably as the two years between them get smaller with the perspective of age. And that I can find a place for all of my dozen nieces and nephews to fit without feeling cramped or obligated to be just because I married their dad’s brother or because I’m Matthew’s mom. I want to be the fun aunt who gets to take them to do things that their parents aren’t allowed to because it plainly says so right in the Good Mom’s Handbook. I want to be the one that they can call when they’re older to be like, DUDE, my mom is being such a BITCH! so that I can talk some sense into them under the guise of being totally on their side. If nothing else, I want to be the kind of aunt that the teenager in me looked forward to being the day that Little Ryan came into the world, stealing away the very first piece of my untapped heart.
…Maybe I should get a pool.
All the cool aunts have a pool.
Are you a cool aunt or a crappy one, like me? Has motherhood changed your relationship with other kids in the family you used to be close with? Has it made you closer? What kind of relationship do (or do you hope) your kids have with their cousins?