Feeling less than a good aunt

I just finished reading Jennifer Pharr DavisBecoming Odyssa, a book she wrote to describe her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I’ll talk more about the book on Wednesday, but I was searching for more about her online just now and came across her blog on tumblr. The most recent post included a list of who and what she would miss most on her hiking trip through Spain this summer. Number one on the list:

“My 20-month old niece. She is perfect. I am not biased.” (Source)

How many of you aunts – and uncles – have ever felt this way about your own nieces and nephews?

When my older nephew was still the solo kid in the family, I told him constantly that he was my favorite little boy in the whole world. I thought he was perfect, and I was not at all biased, ahem.

And then my second nephew was born, and suddenly I had two favorite boys in the whole world (yes, it’s possible to have two favorites), both of whom were perfect. And I loved them more than I imagined I could ever love two people. And I was not biased.

Both of my nephews love me (even as teenagers they still tell me this, and not just when I send money or presents), but I have never been a perfect aunt. Lots of times, I feel less than perfect. Like that time I yelled at my older nephew for breaking the cup holder in my car. Or the time I yelled at both of them for fighting in the backseat after a trip to Chuck E. Cheese (which, by the way, was the first time I truly understood how miraculous it was that my father never really followed through on his threat to pull the car over).

There’s a lot of distance between where I live and where they live, and so I didn’t get to see them regularly as they grew up, or get to see them in most of their favorite activities. And I quite possibly never ever sent anything on Halloween. (I understand some very good aunts never miss sending goodies on this oh-so-important holiday in the life of a child.)

But I’ve done the best I could to foster relationships with them and make sure they always know that even though I’m not perfect, I still pretty much think they are.

Searching for how to be a good aunt
Recently I was looking through the statistics page on my blog, more specifically, the search terms that bring readers to my blog. I was surprised and saddened to see this search: “I don’t know how to be a good aunt.” That line stopped me cold. Some woman out there was looking for online help, wanting to learn what it meant to be a good aunt.

So she typed, “I don’t know how to be a good aunt” to see what answers might come up. There was something in her search that resonated with me, and I wondered what that woman was going through to make her turn to Google.

That could have been me all those years ago, searching for an answer about how to be a good aunt. Let’s be honest. There are still days I could benefit from a magic Google search that has all those answers.

My older nephew was born when I was a sophomore in college, making me the first of my friends to become an aunt. I had no clue what being a good aunt entailed. I was busy trying to figure out what being a good college student and a good friend and a good adult and a good human being meant. And now this baby was on the way, and I knew with an unshakeable certainty that I wanted to be a good aunt. Even though I had no idea how to go about becoming a good aunt.

Several of the woman I interviewed spoke of a similar feeling of inadequacy, this “less than” feeling that made them doubt I should even group them with other good aunts for the series. In some cases, there are strained family relationships that take nieces and nephews out of reach of aunts who would love to be more involved with them. Sometimes the separation happens because of the demands of an aunt’s career. Sometimes there’s no tangible reason to pinpoint why the aunt/niece/nephew relationship never really takes off. This is true not only with biological relationships but also with the children of a good aunt’s closest friends.

If I’ve learned nothing else from the good aunt series, it’s this: being a good aunt is about intention (actively cultivating the relationship in whatever way works) and attention (spending time letting the children know they’re important to you). Beyond that, there’s no magic recipe. There’s no Google search that can guarantee you’ll be a good aunt.

There are as many different ways to be a good aunt as there are different aunts and different nieces and nephews. And it may take a lot of trial and error to figure out what works best with the children in your life. You may even discover that what works perfectly with one child doesn’t work at all with another. If you’re really struggling, I encourage you to enlist the help of the children’s parents, grandparents and other aunts and uncles to help you figure this out, too.

I think Jennifer Pharr Davis is onto something that may help you, though: start with the belief that your niece/nephew is perfect, and therefore deserving of your love and attention, and together, you’ll figure out a way to forge a strong bond.

Have any advice to share about what makes a good aunt? I’d love to hear it. And apparently, there are others out there who’d love to hear it, too.