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Being an Aunt Is Pure, Uncomplicated Joy

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On September 27, I became an aunt for the very first time. My sister, two years younger than I am, obligingly popped out an adorable little boy for me to snuggle — and then give back to her.

My feelings about being an aunt are blissfully unambiguous. When I became a mother, three-and-a-half years ago, my deep love of my daughter was complicated by the normal physical and mental stresses of childbirth, breastfeeding and caring for an infant. She and I were so deeply intertwined that I had no perspective. Was she cute? I assumed so. Was she delightful? In all likelihood.

What I remember is constant spit-up, strange thoughts during marathon nursing sessions in the middle of the night, and the joy of long walks with her in the stroller or in a front pack, with my hands and brain finally free to talk to mom friends.

My sisters were first-time aunts then. They each visited, handling enough of the cooking, diaper-changing and sleeping-baby-holding to make me feel supported and loved. They’ve remained exceptional aunts to this day, staying connected over FaceTime and visits for holidays or just because, babysitting, and indulging my daughter just enough while staying within the boundaries I’ve set.

I want to live up to their example. When my nephew was a mere 10 days old, my daughter Penrose, my husband, and I headed to New York for some quality time. We drove down from coastal Maine through the night, and the next morning walked across Manhattan, acquiring bagels along the way (helping with food — an important item checked off the good aunt list).

When we walked into their apartment, there he was, sleeping in my sister’s arms: a freshly made nephew for my husband and me, and a little cousin for Penrose. I had been lucky enough to accompany my sister for an ultrasound when she was 16-weeks pregnant, and fell in love with my nephew as soon as I saw his little silhouette on the monitor. Now, here he was, his own long and slender person, grasping his cheeks in his sleep.

Penrose held him first, assisted by a nursing pillow. She stroked the soft, thin hairs on top of his head and rubbed his upper arm, so smooth it was almost frictionless. My sister got up, used the bathroom, and stretched her arms. She put the baby in a carrier and we took the bagels across the street to a playground. I spent most of the time trying to navigate the social norms of the Manhattan playground with Penrose, but got a good aunt checkmark for helping negotiate the first public nursing session for my sister and her son.

My sister returned the favor by recommending a diner for lunch after Penrose wistfully asked for a milkshake. Penrose napped and I got to hold a full-bellied, sweetly sleeping baby for a while. For dinner, we ate Szechuan takeout and said goodbye for the evening. Penrose cried at the thought of leaving her cousin, even for the night.

We more or less hit repeat for the next day, plus a trip on the ferry to Brooklyn, the new family’s longest outing to date. It’s a little hard to be an aunt and a mother simultaneously, so I might have fallen down on my duties while I made sure Penrose was fed, entertained, and taken to the bathroom. She and her cousin fell asleep simultaneously on the ferry ride back. We got Indian food delivered and Penrose and I took turns holding our new little love before we said goodbye.

I’m still learning the ins and outs of aunthood, but I’m enjoying the purity of it. My nephew is of my family, but not of my body, and I can hold him, love him, and offer help and support in small and uncomplicated ways.

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