Aunt Denise was 41 when I first interviewed her. She has twin nieces and visits with them weekly or more often. She speaks of her nieces, and her siblings for that matter, with great fondness. When her nieces were young, she often provided additional care, especially when they were infants, simply because their parents were exhausted. The infants had irregular sleeping hours, and as Denise says, "somebody would have to get some sleep in that house. So I would go over for a few hours. It was kind of a changing of the guard."
Denise's nieces are older now, age 7, and their relationship has matured. Denise serves as a confident for her nieces and in many ways buttresses the work of her brother and sister-in-law. On a rare sleepover night, occasioned because the parents were away for the weekend, one of the twins shared that she had "kissed a boy on the bus" earlier in the week.
"I could tell something was kind of on her mind," Denise said. "She was tired and then kind of brought it up to get my reaction. So I didn't react, I just said: 'I think that's against the rules and you know better. Maybe you should talk to mom and dad about it, that's up to you.' " The incident demonstrates how aunts serve important functions for children helping them to negotiate their concerns, to learn respect for the boundaries parents have established, while doing so in a comforting atmosphere. Denise says: "I tell them all the time, 'it doesn't matter what you do, what mistake you make, I'll still love you.' "
Aunts and uncles supplement parents by providing alternate sources of information and acting as confidants, particularly with regard to sensitive topics, issues for which nieces and nephews consider their parents too judgmental. Drugs and sex seem to top the list of sensitive topics, and aunts and uncles are sought out for their counsel. Elspeth considers her aunt a second mom, "like my best friend mom," she says, and one she has turned to when her friends were experimenting with drugs. Greco maintains a strong relationship with his nephew, who recently expressed his interest in experimenting with psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs. Greco shared his own experiences, good and bad, which he felt was more important than being too judgmental, rather he welcomed the confidence and trust his nephew placed in their relationship.
At times nieces and nephews seemed to use their aunts and uncles as sounding boards for issues that they eventually shared with parents, and in some cases, parents gladly accepted the help. A mother, for instance, called and thanked her sister for intervening and having an intimate chat with her daughter on mom's least successful topic, the daughter's sexual activity. Similarly, an uncle relates how his brother encourages the relationship of uncle and nephew. Jessie says of his brother and father to his nephew: "His dad knows that we have a close relationship. There are some times [his dad] will bring up a subject in the hopes that I will bring it up with [my nephew]."
In the ordinary business of families, aunts and uncles complement the work of parents. Their supplemental parenting is a common experience for both aunts and uncles and often serves as the grounding for their future relationships. During the labour-intensive years of infancy and early childhood, they provide parents with direct child-care relief. During adolescence, when issues of identity development are primary, they can ease or mediate conflicts between parents and teens, serve as testing grounds for the identity development of nieces and nephews and, just as important, provide support for parents and act as their confidants. Aunts and uncles often become critical sources of support in times of special need, such as the death of a family member or cases of separation and divorce. Supplemental parenting is core to aunting and uncling, a common and often essential ingredient. We'll consider other essentials to aunting and uncling in the next column.
© Robert Milardo