Family is where everyone belongs

I became an aunt for the first time this summer, and the arrival of my niece was marked with excitement and responsibility that I’m all too glad to accept.

Growing up, my (eleven) aunts wore many hats—mentor, role-model, teacher, confidant, best friend. I’ll never forget their simple kind gestures of giving me spending money when I went to the mall with friends and cousins or when they would offer to drive me to and from my extracurricular activities. I hold deep gratitude for the ways they were there for my family and me during difficult times. But perhaps my fondest memories are of sitting in one of their backyards on a warm summer night, watching the sun set behind the trees.

Because of my desire to be that sort of aunt to my niece, I recently caught up with several women to see how they live out their role as aunt and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Building confidence

“I want [my nieces’] confidence to stem from the knowledge that they are loved,” said Katie (22) whose nieces are five and three. “People frequently stop to tell [my nieces] how pretty they are. I don’t want them to believe that this is where confidence comes from. I focus on the things that make them who they are.” Together with their parents, Katie works to, “impress within them the knowledge that they are good, smart, and kind.”

“There are a lot of pressures put on women in our world today and I don’t want those pressures to tear her down. I want to help lift her up,” said Jackie (26) who is already thinking about how to prepare her very young niece for these pressures. In a culture filled with conflicting images, an aunt can inspire her niece to pursue a confidence that is authentic to who she is.

Playing an active role

“I remember when my aunts would show up for my plays or a field hockey tournament, it made me so excited and proud to know they cared,” Caitlin (31) explained. “If one [of my nieces] has a special event at school, I do my best to attend,”Caitlin said, in order to show genuine appreciation and pride for their achievements.

Katie shares that time spent with her nieces has not only benefited them, but her as well. “I love taking them to water parks and running around in the water with them. I think being silly and weird together is as good for them as it is for me! Our relationship isn’t based on me correcting, teaching, or disciplining them. Being silly together gives them the opportunity to act freely [and I’m able] to join them at their level.”

Being a mentor

“There is a special influence you have as an aunt,” says Caitlin. “You are not only a grownup in their life, you’re someone they can talk with about important things going on in their life.” Being more removed from a situation, an aunt can offer an outsider’s opinion, while also leading their nieces to decisions that are best for them and in line with their parents’ approach in their upbringing. “Parents play a crucial role in their children’s lives, but it’s important to have other adults, mentors and role models” to reinforce values from another point of view.

Kerry (47) also confirmed this idea. “When they are little, the relationship is similar to the one you have with your own child, but as they grow, you realize they usually don’t need another parent, just another perspective.”

Cynthia (65), has not only embraced her role as aunt, but as a great-aunt as well. She says she gives all her nieces “space to make decisions.” “[I’m] there for them whether the decisions are good or bad . . . afterwards we discuss what might have been the better or more positive route.”

Making memories

From slumber parties to Christmas traditions, the aunts I talked to love taking advantage of any opportunity to spend time with their nieces. Jackie says to “find something you both like and experience it together.” Which is exactly what many of the other aunts have done and continue to do.

Katie includes her nieces in her love of sport. “I myself am very athletic, so I enjoy encouraging them to play with me outside [or] go on a bike ride.” Some of Dawn’s (54) favorite memories are simply of singing with her nieces in the car.

Caitlin, who is also an independent artist, invited her nieces to record a song with her for an upcoming album. “Having three of my nieces sing with me in the recording studio . . . was one of the most special days for all four of us!”

Delia (37) encourages aunts to look for a way to create a special aunt and niece tradition. “I took my nieces to Longwood Gardens right before Christmas each year. I savored the experience—the crisp winter air, the wonder of Christmas lights all throughout the gardens, the giant model train, drinking hot cocoa, and watching my nieces literally frolic about as if they had not a care in the world.”

Growing with the relationship

Suzy (27), who became an aunt at age three, loves how the relationship with her nieces is becoming “more authentic.” She explains, “It is incredible to watch each bond grow and develop in different ways. My oldest niece is twenty-four and has truly become one of my very best friends.”

Some of the aunts I spoke with have had to transition into new phases of their life that moved them away from their nieces. There’s always Skype, FaceTime and social media, but Caitlin suggests letter writing as a special way of keeping in touch across the miles. Delia adds that aunts must “relish the time [they] have to spend with nieces.” “As much as I wish I could continue our Longwood Garden tradition, living in DC has made it more difficult.”

Anyone can be an “Auntie”

Cynthia is an aunt to her friend’s daughter. She says her memories with this niece include everything she’s done with her biological nieces: beach trips, holiday celebrations, and mentoring.

Caitlin was a nanny to a young girl for almost six years and enjoys taking advantage of any opportunity to reconnect with her. “I remember promising her that even if I wouldn’t always be her nanny, that we would always be friends and have a special place in each other’s lives.”

For some of us our aunts are second mothers, stepping in to care for us during circumstances when no else can. For others, visiting an aunt may mean travelling a great distance to reconnect—the lively conversation picking up just where it left off. No matter what their stories are, or how we came to call them aunt, the greatest thing an aunt can do is be present with a niece and make sure she knows she belongs.