When my sister called to tell me she was pregnant, my future with the kid instantly flashed before my eyes. Soon, I thought, we’d be wearing matching earth-toned jumpsuits in my Brooklyn studio apartment, baking cookies and butt-bumping to the latest LCD Soundsystem album.
Sure, we lived nearly 3,000 miles apart. But I was about to be an aunt for the first time, and I was definitely going to be present in that baby’s life.
Cut to about four years later, and my nephew hasn’t even come close to setting his plump little foot across the threshold of my fourth-floor walk-up. And the bulk of our communication is relegated to birthdays and holidays, with a sporadic “hello” on the phone every month or two.
So the question lingers: Am I a bad aunt?
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine, said that the idealized expectations and ensuing guilt that many aunts and uncles have when close relationships with their nieces and nephews don’t materialize are common and normal.
“Everybody is really busy, in their own jobs and their own lives,” Dr. Lakshmin said. “It’s one thing to sort of have this fantasy of what your experience of being an aunt is going to look like, but, in reality, it’s actually really hard to connect with a newborn or even a toddler from a long distance.”
Amy Kugler, 39, a writer and content strategist in Seattle, said she understands this struggle from both sides. She’s not only a mom who wishes her stepbrothers were closer with her 4-year-old son, she’s also an aunt who regrets not having a better long-distance relationship with one stepbrother’s 18-year-old son.
“I feel the most guilt over my relationship with my nephew because I haven’t been as present for him,” she said. In June, those feelings intensified as she watched him graduate from high school in Alabama via YouTube from her TV. “I was crying because I’m not there and I should be.”
Women, especially, may feel disproportionate pressure to perform in their roles as aunts, Dr. Lakshmin said, or may think that they should already know how to do it well. “The fact that it isn’t coming naturally might make you feel worried, when it really shouldn’t, because it’s something that everybody has to learn,” she said.
The experts I spoke with agreed, that whether you’re an aunt or an uncle, it’s never too late to form a better bond with your sibling and their kids — no matter if you live across the country or around the corner. Here’s how.
Start with a frank conversation.
If you’re an aunt or uncle who doesn’t have kids of your own, Dr. Lakshmin said, it’s almost like you have to learn a different language. “You’re not versed in the world of being a parent. The TV shows, the toys, all of the struggles,” she said. “It’s really hard to even know what questions to ask.”
It can be helpful to start by asking your sibling about what their hopes and expectations are for you, said Joseph S. Tan, a clinical psychologist in the department of family medicine at UVA Health in Virginia.
“Different people are going to have different needs and different wants,” Dr. Tan said, “and some things they would prefer to handle themselves, and other things they would want a little help with.” He recommended being honest about what you’re hoping for with this budding relationship, too, and why you need your sibling’s help.
You can also support your sibling by putting forth a little more effort in the beginning, just after your niece or nephew is born, Dr. Lakshmin said. Maybe that means offering to babysit or help do laundry every Wednesday. Or if you live far away, Dr. Lakshmin suggested, you might send your sibling dinner one night per week for a few weeks.
“Things like that, that aren’t even necessarily having to do with your connection with your niece or nephew,” she said, “but just supporting your sibling through a hard time, so that your sibling sort of knows like, ‘Hey, I’m here, I want to be involved.’”
Create a regular ritual.
Planning one night a week that you’ll read a story together in person or over Zoom, or a yearly vacation for the whole family, can lighten your sibling’s load and strengthen family connections, the experts said.
“The key is having something regular,” Dr. Lakshmin said, so parents can know, “‘Thursday night we don’t have to worry about dinner because it’s going to be takeout that my sister is going to send. Or Saturday night I get to have 20 minutes of free time to drink a glass of wine in peace because Joey is going to get a Zoom book.’”
Once your niece or nephew gets older, you can expand your activities, Dr. Lakshmin said. Send letters back and forth in the mail, watch a favorite TV show together, or even sign yourselves up for a virtual cooking class.
Just be mindful about gifting toys or projects that might create even more stress for a parent, Dr. Lakshmin noted. Loud toys and glitter are common offenders. If you live nearby, she said, offer to store any particularly cacophonous playthings at your house.
Don’t let the past get in the way of showing up.
If you have a fraught relationship with your sibling, it can be easy to let criticism or feelings of guilt or blame interfere with being there for a niece or nephew, Dr. Lakshmin said. Don’t let them. “Eventually, these little humans are going to be teenagers and adults, and you will have a completely separate relationship with them than the one that you have with your sibling,” she said.
Thinking about an aunt or uncle who played an important, if imperfect, role in your life can help lessen the pressure, she said.
My own uncle, for instance, taught me how to drive a car when I was 11. Sure, he almost got both of us arrested, but I’ll always look back on that time fondly.
Keep your interest genuine.
Kids can tell when you’re forcing interest or performatively asking questions, Dr. Tan said, so only ask questions you’re honestly interested in knowing the answers to.
“I think as the children get a little bit older, there’s a lot of power in showing genuine interest in them,” he said, “That’s important for the relationship and it’s also something you can’t fake.”
A couple of weeks ago my sister texted me a photo of my nephew, whose hair had grown long and luxurious during the pandemic and had been expertly French braided by a helper at his preschool. I thought back to our childhood, when my sister used to braid my own curly hair at least once a week before school.
The next time my nephew and I talk, I’m going to tell him all about it.
Julia Calderone is a health and science editor for Well and an aspiring cool auntie.
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