Monday, 21 February 2011

The Joy of Auntie

One thing I still have in common with most never-married Catholic women is that I don't have any children of my own yet. However, this is not to say that I don't have children in my life right now. To date I have two nephews, whom I call Pirate and Peanut, and one niece, whom I will call Popcorn.

When my oldest sister gave birth to Pirate, I was 34 or so, and I picked up the little purple creature and thought something like, "This then, at last, is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone," not because I was delusional, but because I love my family and it was so great to know that it had continued into another generation. It also removed the self-imposed pressure on me to have children one day, for it was clear that others in the family could have the children. As for being Auntie, I turned into Auntie the split-second I knew that my oldest sister was pregnant. One moment I was Daughter/Sister/Student/Teacher, and the next moment I was Auntie, too.

Eventually my oldest brother got married, and about a year later my sister-in-law gave birth to Peanut. I took a trip to see him mere days after he was born, and he was a small, purple version of my oldest brother. My Auntiedom seemed assured, and when I married B.A., B.A. discovered that he wasn't just gaining a wife but a big extended Canadian family, complete with two nephews. And then, of course, Popcorn turned up, and since I was in the house when her existence was discovered, I knew about her ridiculously early on, and then she was born, the first girl to be born in the family for over twenty-something years. I rewrote my will.

Living in Scotland as I usually do, I don't see my nephews and niece as often as I'd like. It is a great treat to see them over Skype, and an even greater one to visit them in person. Sometimes I bring presents; my late uncle (who lived abroad) brought or sent me presents. When they are older, I will write them letters. My oldest brother and I treasure our uncle's letters. Uncles and aunts count for a lot.

As I have no doubt said too often, I would like to have a baby, but meanwhile I have three concrete, real, growing, little children in my life. I got to visit two of them this weekend, and although they still wake up in the middle of the night and yell, it was a delight to see them. At 2 and a half Peanut can express himself in English, French and sign language, and at 9 months Popcorn gets about by rolling. I'm serious. Not being able to crawl yet, she rolls towards her object. She is short and round, rather like a ball.

As bilingual or multilingual babies in French Canada usually do, Peanut knows instinctively whom to speak to in English and whom to speak to in French. The funny thing is that he often accompanies his words with sign language, which as far as I know only my brother, who is a sign-language-for-babies fanatic, employs.

"Wahah" said Peanut on Saturday morning.

"I'm sorry, Peanut," I said. "What was that?"

"Crackah" said Peanut, signing "cracker" by tapping on his elbow. "Crackah."

Later he spied a tractor.

"Tractor," he cried, and made the sign for "cracker" again.

Apparently his sign language gets confused by sound-alikes. Well, he's only two.

My father, the grandfather, was very pleased by Peanut's linguistic abilities, linguistics being his field, and was sure Peanut's fluency in English grew between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. If true, this is not surprising because Peanut spent hours on end chatting with a grandpa, grandma, auntie and uncle who never dumb down conversation with small children. But, rather amusingly, Peanut's store of English revealed an amusing, rather matriarchal, lack.

"He knows how to say Auntie," revealed his father. "But he doesn't know how to say Uncle yet."

"What does he call [our youngest brother] then?" I asked.

"Um," said Peanuts' father. "'Man Auntie'."

Update: Since I'm writing about Auntiedom again, I'd like to repeat something I read in Natalie Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography. Some scientists believe that human women live so long after menopause because we are/were essential for the survival for human babies and children, quite apart from our reproductive capacities.

Young women often died in childbed or of birth-related ailments; it thus fell upon the tougher women who had survived, or never undergone, childbirth to care for the babies and children. The evolutionary purpose of Woman then, is not just to reproduce, but to care for infants until they can survive on their own, to be emergency backup in case of maternal death. Therefore, if you miss out on biological motherhood, you are still on track with the plans of evolution every time you tend a baby or child, his/her mother doing something else (e.g. tending another baby).

Of course, as Christians and other people of good will, we know our role and destiny are much wider than our biological/evolutionary "purpose", but it always gives me a lift to ponder that Biology needs Aunties.


Christine said...

@Seraphic - Thank you for your post about Auntiedom - it is inspiring to hear about how your family is growing and how happy you are to have new little nieces/nephews.

Any advice for those of us Single women who don't have any children in our lives? I am an only child, so I have no nieces/nephews, and although some of my cousins and friends have babies, we're not close friends, so I don't spend time with the kids really. What advice is there for young women who want to get acclimatized to children/babies, but don't get to be aunties (or unrelated "aunties")?

Seraphic said...

I am a big believer in looking around where you are right now and saying, "Where am I getting my current emotional nourishment or feeling of satisfaction/ where can I find some?" So in your situation, I would suggest thinking about whether you have anything to offer (or really do want to offer) to your current friends and family with babies, e.g. your babysitting services. If not, you might want to talk to someone about volunteering with children, e.g. through the Big Sister program.

I'm confused by the expression "wanting to get acclimatized to children/babies" because I have never read "acclimatized" used that way. thing. It is as if children/babies were someone other than individual, specific, concrete people named Rachel, Jacob, etc., and something more like frosty weather, that you should get used to before learning to ski, or whatever.

The real joy of being an Auntie is that you are an Auntie to specific, concrete people. Sure, I love the idea "FAMILY" and "FAMILY continuing late into 21st century", but ultimately it comes right down to the specific relationship betwee two real people.

Nicole said...

Dear Christine,

I am a single and avid fan of the little people. I really enjoy actually, spending time with my friends, who have babies. It puts the babies in context! I babysit them often too and they like me without their parents. But yes, the first step is to get to know your friends/cousins better.


Christine said...

@Seraphic - I guess my concern was two-fold. (a) I wish I could be an auntie. (b) I'm concerned that I don't know how to deal with babies (never changed a diaper, etc.) and I feel like I am a poor babysitting candidate as a result.

Nulli Secundus said...

@Christine - the lovely thing about babies is they sit there and play and really don't need you to breathe for them. They'll call when they need something, which is essentially diaper, food, sleep and a loving adult around. Sometimes they won't call over a diaper so olfactory checks will be needed.

The parents set up the menu, give orders and advice, the kid takes care of its own sleep and diapers can be learned by apprenticeship in two changes. The tools of entertainment (let's dance!) are inspired on the spot and toys will be around.

#1 and I found out over the last two years that all the nanny should need is a good mind (references from a trusted source preferred), flexibility, and a good soul (references from a trusted source preferred).

Government certificates for babysitting/nannying and CVs about professional care aren't worth the paper they are printed on.

Parents don't get much training other than O.J.T. and some basic training from the nurses at the maternity ward, why should babysitters be expected to know more?

-NS (Peanut and Popcorn's poppa)

Seraphic said...

Hmm...I think I was lucky that I didn't think about wanting to be an Auntie until I WAS an Auntie. And I was a big sister before I was a year and a half old, so I never wanted to be a Big Sister before I was one. Big Sister and Auntie are the familial roles I concentrate on since (so far) I am not a Mummy.

So you have before you the option of actively seeking courtesy Aunthood, through making friends or better friends with people with children or through volunteering with children in your community, OR embracing whatever else you are right now.

Maybe you are already a Neighbor Lady or Church Lady or Patron of the Arts Lady; if so, embrace that role. Each of these roles has a nurturing, service aspect and holds great rewards.

Christine said...

@Seraphic - thanks. Yes, I can try to revel in my role as "Library Auntie" (I'm working on my Librarian Masters degree). I guess your words made me think of things in a way I haven't before. After years of being encouraged to enjoy auntiehood if I'm not a [biological] mother [yet?], it's hard to realize that auntiehood isn't a given. God bless and congrats on getting back home safely to Scotland.