Adventures in Aunthood

An intrepid handbook for learning to care for someone else’s kid.

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

There was a time when I never would have chosen to climb onto a piece of playground equipment teeming with screaming children—and when the very thought of doing so would have filled me with horror. Yet, one chilly day last spring, that’s exactly what I found myself doing.

I was in pursuit of a toddler who was not my own. He was determined to scale the big kids’ tower and was wholly indifferent to my efforts to keep him from falling off it. As the cacophony rose around me, and children seemed to be boomeranging off the tower walls in defiance of gravity, he abruptly changed plans and decided to step out of the structure. I watched, terror-struck, as his foot quested aimlessly and inaccurately for the bridge that was too far below for him to reach.

My burgeoning aunt powers activated, I lunged forward, offering him a guiding hand to hold on the way down—slamming my stupid, giant head right into the top of the doorway, which was expressly not designed for five-and-a-half-foot-tall egress. My nephew continued blithely on to his next target as I followed behind, wincing and feeling as convinced as ever that all of the actual parents at the playground cheerfully chitchatting about daycare providers could tell I didn’t belong.

The thing is, I had never planned to even try to belong somewhere like this. I never baby­sat as a teen and have always known that I didn’t want kids. That emotion some people experience that makes them think parenthood is something they want? I’ve never felt that. It’s sort of like when someone sees a steak on the menu, and they’re like, “Ooh, I can’t wait to sink my teeth into that,” and you’ve never wanted to eat steak in your life, but you think, “I am happy for you, enjoy your meal!” It wasn’t just that I didn’t want kids of my own; I never thought I wanted to spend much time around other people’s kids, either.


Then my sister had a kid. And while there is a vast spectrum of sibling closeness in this world, she and I fall into the “codependent weirdos that you never want to play Taboo with because they speak in an impenetrable shorthand of allusions and inside jokes” category. (In other words, we’re both incredibly close and absolutely terrible company when we’re together.) She told me she was having a baby by quoting Ron Burgundy’s terrible “You got knocked up” prank call from Anchorman, and I got annoyed she hadn’t told me via our agreed-upon method: by sending me our favorite YouTube video of different misspellings of the word “pregnant” that actual human adults had entered into Yahoo Answers to gain a basic understanding of the human reproductive process. (Stop reading this right now and Google “pregananant video.” You’ll thank me later.)

In essence, what I am trying to say is that the terms of our relationship were as follows: If she decided to raise a child, then I, a person who would not even agree to watch children for money as a broke youth, someone who had started saying she didn’t want kids even as a kid—yeah, that woman—would learn how to be a good aunt.

I don’t remember having a magical moment when I first met my nephew. I do remember that we took a nice photo together at the hospital, and I look really good in it, which I think we can all agree is probably just as meaningful. But his early days at the hospital were, in some ways, indicative of what was to come in my first months as an aunt. Childcare usually involves showing up and being reliable, and so I fetched sandwiches for the adults, played referee with arriving grandparents, and tracked down nurses when they were needed. When it came time for my nephew to go home, an awful lot of stuff had somehow made its way into that hospital room, so I loaded up my car with everything that wouldn’t fit in my sister’s car now that it had a baby seat in the back, and I followed them home. I knew nothing about caring for a child, but it didn’t matter one bit.

In the weeks to come, though, I received a crash course in baby care. Did you know infants enjoy white noise? Because before the fall of 2019, I was convinced no one possibly could. I learned about parenting trends for the first time, such as baby-led weaning, where the child goes from breast milk or formula straight to feeding themselves solid foods. Has baby food been a scam this whole time? Please do not angrily email me with your opinions on this because the sole baby whose care I am involved in seems A-Okay without it, and I require no further details.

I thought I’d be the type of person who’d hand over the baby as soon as he started crying, but it turns out that when you spend a lot of time with the baby, you learn some of the things that make him stop crying. I also remember when he first started smiling because it seemed miraculous—a person learning to express joy for the first time, right there in front of you.

With a baby, you can be the funniest person in the world, and you do not have to come up with any new material. One time, I made a satisfied “ahh” noise after drinking water in front of him, and he giggled. I’ve been dining out on it ever since. If you are wondering what is funny about that, so am I, but much like a hoary sitcom character, I will repeat my catchphrase as long as it gets a happy reaction.

I was learning, but I also didn’t really have a model for what kind of aunt I wanted to be, partly because I hadn’t known many adults like me when I was growing up. What kind of aunt are you supposed to be if you’ve never enjoyed being around kids and you don’t have—or plan to have—them? Some sitcoms have wacky aunts who crack jokes, and some movies feature a misanthrope who unexpectedly becomes a cute kid’s guardian when a parent dies. But there’s rarely a version where a kid has a close bond with their trusted aunt. Sometimes it feels as though if you don’t have your own kids, you’re not supposed to have a relationship with anyone else’s.

I know this isn’t true for everyone—the nuclear family is hardly the only model for a family. Yet somehow, I wasn’t really prepared for what my nephew and I would mean to each other or how our relationship would develop outside the context of him being my sister’s kid. I could mean something important to him besides being the person who went out and got sandwiches while his parents were busy.

In retrospect, our connection probably would have happened anyway, but a pandemic hitting when he was six months old meant that I suddenly had a lot more time to spend with him. I don’t know that I had a concrete plan to see him every weekend back in early 2020, but when I formed a pod with my sister, it turned out to be the case. It also meant that his parents were always present when I was there because—for a very long time—there was nowhere else to go. So when my sister brought up the possibility of me looking after him while she and my brother-in-law attended a wedding, I was terrified and surprised. I felt prepared to be an aunt, but learning how to be a good babysitter? That was another matter.

When my sister first asked me to look after her son, she assumed I wouldn’t do it because of some distaste over diaper changing or perhaps a desire to head out of town on some last-minute vacation over the same weekend she wanted to take off. But that wasn’t it: I just didn’t think, even after two and a half years, that I was remotely capable of taking care of him on my own. What I envisioned—and described in detail to her—seemed obvious. First, she and her husband would leave, and within moments my nephew would somehow be pantless and diaperless, and I wouldn’t be able to get either back on. Next, he’d trip or run into something and hurt himself and start screaming, and then an unexplainable peanut vapor would mysteriously enter the home and, holding an EpiPen, I would have to chase a naked, screaming, stubborn, bleeding toddler. I firmly believed this was what happened whenever a child’s parents walked away for even an instant—their talismanic presence within the walls of the building was all that protected their offspring from certain death.

Still, I was willing to entertain the notion that this was not 100 percent fated to happen on my watch, although I couldn’t totally dismiss the thought. My sister patiently explained that she was also afraid to be alone with the baby at first. I found this cold comfort, though, as she learned to be alone with him in the years before he was mobile. However, stronger than my own fear was the fact that I didn’t want my sister to think I wouldn’t rise to the occasion of whatever she needed me to be as an aunt. So we started bedtime training sessions and naptime wakeup training sessions, and then I started spending time alone with him.

At first, all I could think about was how empty the apartment seemed with just the two of us. And he did plaintively ask where Mommy and Daddy were the minute I woke him up from his nap, and then at roughly 20-minute intervals afterward—except during the half-hour when we watched five different videos of “The Wheels on the Bus,” or “Round and Round” as he calls it, with an accompanying gesture.

To the other childless adults out there, you may think the whole raison d’être for YouTube is to be a place for either accidental QAnon indoctrination or to look up 20-year-old Rilo Kiley concert videos. Well, I am here to report that its true purpose is to serve as an infinite repository of adults evincing an absolutely wild enthusiasm for singing nursery rhymes, to which I firmly believe they have added extra choruses and verses. Do you think you’ve smiled big in your life? You have never smiled this big. In conclusion: YouTube is great for the small child who is worrying his parents aren’t home, as well as the large adult who is worrying that his parents aren’t home.

Despite it all, we got through our first evenings alone together. And while we have indeed had disagreements vis-à-vis someone needing to put on a diaper if he wants to run around, it turns out it’s actually not the end of the world if a small person races throughout the house without any pants for a little while.

To be clear: I did not magically transform into a confident, adept babysitter overnight. Odds are, my sister still might be better off calling her neighborhood’s most in-demand 13-year-old instead of me. Yet I found that it was actually fine to spend time alone with my nephew and that he was much more interested in my company when his parents were not right there in front of him. In fact, as we watched grown-ass adults on YouTube bellowing that wipers on the bus go swish, swish, swish, he held my hand and even periodically gave it a kiss like a courtly Victorian gentleman.

The first time I put him to bed, I forgot a couple of steps. He is a child of tremendous routine, and someone (my sister) forgot to tell me that he likes to sort a series of The Very Hungry Caterpillar toys into a bag as you read the book to him. Have you ever tried to interpret “caterpillar toys” uttered by an exhausted, semi-verbal child who is trying to direct you by pointing vaguely? It’s not as easy as it sounds.

The thing is, he wanted me to get there. He knew it was time for bed, and he was content to let his aunt be the one to put him down for the night. There was some trial and error, and I may not have remembered all of the words to the Barney song. But I’ll tell you, when I was singing to him, and he was lying in his crib wearing a sleep sack that only reinforced the notion that he was a courtly Victorian gentleman in a nightdress, and he was smiling up at me, I felt like I was discovering some kind of secret—an entire other universe of love and connection that I hadn’t known existed.

Since then, we’ve shared plenty of other moments together, but one that stands out in my mind was when my sister, a friend, and I watched my nephew and some friends play on a playground. My sister and friend were wearing normal clothes, but I was wearing a T-shirt with the musician Angel Olsen’s face blown up in neon outline, a bright blue and yellow bomber jacket, and a pair of simply enormous sunglasses. In short, I looked like an ass. When I first saw that picture of us, my only thought was that I looked like the type of aunt who was likely to buy her nephew a carton of cigarettes to celebrate his 18th birthday.

Still, there was something else in that picture: I was having a nice time playing with a kid at a playground, and I was grinning. I may be right that I wasn’t meant to be a parent, but there are so many other roles I can play in a child’s life—whether I’m an aunt, a friend, or something else altogether. I can be the person who encourages my nephew to pursue something he’s good at for the first time or be the person he feels comfortable confiding in about a crush. Maybe I can help him prepare for that first scary job interview or comfort him when his hopes are dashed. And maybe I can be the person he smiles up at in the dark—safe, secure, and just happy I’m there.