In Iggie’s House, a book by Judy Blume, Winnie’s Aunt Myrna shows up to take her swimming, driving her convertible with the top down, wearing red-framed sunglasses. The book, about race, coming of age, and being a tomboy misfit, made no small impression on me, but it was Aunt Myrna who was the revelation. She takes Winnie to the pool, hands her a dollar to buy what she wants and says, offhandedly, she’d like no drownings on her watch. For someone who grew up an expat, without extended family, with five younger siblings and a harrowed mother and father, Aunt Myrna was the unicorn I refused to stop believing in.
Once, the 24-year-old daughter of my mum’s close friend drove over with her best friend, to take us to the park. It was exactly as I imagined. They bought us sugar in multiple media and ran up the slides with us, only stopping now and then for a cigarette. We were driven home delirious with good times, panting and dehydrated. Later, with both in serious relationships, an encore of That Day Of Fun was never to be. But it was enough. I knew when I grew up, I was going to be a Fabulous Aunty.
That didn’t work out. First in my circle to have a baby, I didn’t realise it then, but not many of my friends would choose to have kids at all. But as I resentfully sterilised breast pumps and watched friends’ constant evolution in their careers, their relationships, even their holiday destinations, I began to realise my daughter would receive the largesse of all their experience and love.
Somewhere in the middle
My two-year-old would come home, fingernails full of bike grease from hanging out with my brother, the motorcycle man, or full of pastel dust from a lesson with my sister, the illustrator. As my brood increased and grew up, they received from their aunties and uncles instruction and experience beyond my abilities (and frankly, enthusiasm): baking lessons, pet burials, Photoshop, walkie-talkie repair, fish tank maintenance, that music concert, or bicycle lessons for too-large kids.
Lucky parents know: You watch in grateful amazement as the village begins to gather. A fashionista lets your style-crazy daughter at her shoe collection. The bibliophile distracts your tech-obsessed teen with series that turn into obsessions. The food writer turns up at the door with asthma-friendly, homemade delights – two litres of handwrung cashew milk, a dulce de leche cake, a jar of goose fat (great for congestion-busting soups).
My friend T, a fabulous aunty to a gaggle of lucky children, says the best bit is “when parents have confidence in you and let you lead their kids astray.” I’ve watched her splash her then-five-year-old godson as he whimpered at the edge of the pool; last year, at 16, he earned a diving certification with her, an ace swimmer. (She also talked mine out of her fear of swimming in the deep.) With the rebel-yell of the aunty, she continues cheekily, “Another friend knows I bring some influences but welcomes that. For example, I introduced her daughter to eggs despite her being from a Jain family. She will thank me for it forever. I have no ethical quandaries about this!”
“Aunties and uncles fall somewhere between sibling and parent,” my 14-year-old says. “They’re fun and also responsible for you, but…”
“But they’re not so boring?” I venture.
“Yes!” my 10-year-old pipes in, a little too quickly.
“And you can tell them secrets?” I say, leadingly. The girls share a conspiratorial glance. “No” one says; the other shrugs, “Naaah.”
Aunties and uncles, whether related by blood or tenure of friendship, provide vital bits that parenting doesn’t or can’t manage. But you do wonder what they get from all this niecing and nephewing. When I hear my children speak of someone with that mix of awe and affection, I’ll sometimes snark, “Legit story, bro, but you’ll have to take care of Uncle XYZ when he gets old, you know,” or “Yes, Aunty PQR knows all about unicorns and boyfriends – she’s had a MILLION of each.”
It can’t be just pure competitiveness – “Look at me, so much cooler than your mommy with my pop culture references and laissez-faire schedule for us to do whatever YOU want. Here, try the soldering iron” – but it can feel like that when you’re in the parenting trenches. Even when the result is actually helpful. For R, her exemplary skills at research were deployed when her sister was pregnant. “I shared tips that I’ve discovered third-hand, not having any offspring of my own and it was strangely VERY satisfying when she found them useful.”
The relationship adults in your circle have with your children has roots in their relationship with you. Beyond blood ties, they may be drawn to a familiar chemistry, echoes of peculiar perspectives or a sense of humour, but it grows new facets. They trade new slang and in-jokes, revisit classic books and Ye Olde Ways of evaluating the future of your crush. You don’t always have to approve (like when one aunty told the kids the Bloody Mary story. I spent three days talking a very scared nine-year-old down from an emotional tree). But it is always interesting, for all parties concerned.
So, Aunties and Uncles, you overwhelm us with the luxury of kindnesses and craziness our children receive. I just hope you know that every time they cannonball into the deep end, whizz past on their bikes, chuckle into a book or preach some gospel according to one of you, my cynical, festering heart explodes. I’d never have been as good at this as you. You win. We love you.
This article first appeared on The Swaddle.