How to be an aunt?!
June 10, 2014 8:24 PM   Subscribe

How can I be a good aunt to my future nephew and support to my sister?

My older sister has a baby due this summer. I find it amazing and am a tiny bit anxious and happy about all the changes due soon. It's a brand new role for me, and though small, I'd like to have a good relationship with my new relative!!!!

I am 24 right now. What roles can I take/ how can I possibly be involved in the little one's life? My sister is doing fine. I'd like to help/ make things a little easier for her if I can. Right now I cannot really buy things, and supplies are taken care of for most part.

What are any things I shouldn't say or do? I know the time right after birth will be hectic. What happens in the first few years? If you've even been an aunt/uncle, what did you do in the early years of the kid's life?
posted by ichomp to Human Relations (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I ran a lot of errands for my sister, watched my nephew while she had to study or take a shower, helped her clean the house, read books together about babies, helped her with the stroller and car seats, etc. I moved out of state once he turned 1, but when I would come visit, I would stay with her and do those things as well.

Just don't tell her you think she's raising him incorrectly and nitpick.
posted by KogeLiz at 8:45 PM on June 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

My sister has been an amazing aunt-- my kids adore her and I've been so thankful for her. Especially rad things she's done:
-- BABYSAT, on many occasions. This was especially great with very small kids, because you tend to trust your sister with a tiny baby far more than you would a random community babysitter. When they're young, swinging by the house to chill with baby while Mom showers also counts as babysitting.

-- Related: absolutely respected all our parenting choices (even the ones that probably seemed a little crazy), and made it clear that she was playing 100% by our rules when with the kids. Politely supported and sympathized with us in any battles v. grandparents over childrearing norms. This made us feel particularly safe entrusting the kids to her.

-- At family gatherings, brought a little toy/book for the kids, and let them glom onto her for a bit while parents take an adult conversation break.

-- Took one or the other kid on little occasional bonding outings: feeding ducks, trips to the playground, that sort of thing.

-- As the kids aged, fielded occasional phone calls from them and sometimes sent letters.

-- Was extra thoughtful about working around our schedule/infrastructure constraints-- always had a quiet room (and extra lovey!) for the kids to nap in when we came to visit, plus a booster seat on hand, food the kids could eat, etc. (fyi, spare baby apparatus is available for super cheap on Craigslist/Freecycle). Knew the kids' nap and bedtimes and collaborated with us to schedule outings around them. Did a great job of not seeming put out by any of it, which was especially appreciated because new parents feel guilty enough as it is.

At the core of it all, though, was just paying attention to the kids-- I can't emphasize enough how great that's been, having another source of adult attention in their lives. If you want to be a great aunt, just, you know, show up. Hold the baby or play with the toddler. Be interested, be helpful. That will go such a long way toward making you Aunt of the Year for both parent and child.
posted by Bardolph at 8:51 PM on June 10, 2014 [28 favorites]

Do you have any time (probably nearer fall) that you can go and stay with them for a week, and watch the baby so they can sleep/leave the house? Trusted relatives is like a huge thing.

Staying with them and doing laundry/cooking will also make you much beloved.

Whatever crazy-ass shit they want to try, you are totally on board and will execute their instructions faithfully in their absence and not issue any criticisms whatsoever. If your sister is worried she's being overprotective, your answer is, "It's your first baby, I think it's okay," or, "You're the mom, you know best what he needs, and if it's overkill, SO WHAT?"

When I was 33 and my youngest brother was 21 and my husband broke his shoulder and we had a newborn, my brother came to stay with us for like 10 days and basically all he did was pick the baby up from the crib (because I was recovering and couldn't, and my husband couldn't because of his shoulder) and hand him to us, and this was THE BEST UNCLE-ING EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. It's seriously difficult to express what a difference it made just for him to be there just picking the baby up from his bassinet! He spent most of his days playing video games and studying and reading for pleasure, and a little bit of his days picking up babies and chatting with us at meals. It was lifesaving.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:52 PM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I moved halfway across the country in large part to be around my nephew after he was born, if that gives you an idea of how much of a doting aunt I am! (I have three nephews now.)

In the first few years, it's really all just about being present, I found -- I babysat as much as possible, and just made a point of being a source of unequivocal love. Also, because I always showed up well-rested (not having kids of my own), it meant that I often had the energy/inclination to be extra playful with the kids when sometimes my sister and BIL were just totally wiped out. (That said, it's important to be mindful of not sabotaging their sleeping or eating schedules just to be The Cool Aunt -- no winding them up at bedtime, for example, or feeding them candy instead of dinner!)

As they've gotten older, my role has changed a little with them. I definitely try to cultivate a relationship with them where they know they can safely come to me (or my partner) about things they may not feel comfortable sharing with their folks. I also try to spend one-on-one time with each of them outside the house and away from their brothers, especially around their birthdays and the holidays -- I give them gift certificates for "auntie outings" which are centered around their individual interests, and take them on activities that they might not get to pursue by themselves. This gives them a break from their sibs, and my sister and BIL a break from having all the kids in the house at once. (I also take them on group activities now and then, too, but they're now at an assortment of ages where the three of them don't always agree on wanting to do the same things.)

Finally, I don't always agree with every choice my sister has ever made about parenting them, but I've tried to stay very, very mindful of the fact that my job as their aunt is so much easier, and therefore I have no business second-guessing her, and certainly no right to criticize her.
posted by scody at 8:54 PM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's tempting to spoil the kid, but when you sister has her first kid, her life is taking a turn away from extra luxuries, away from a lot of social activities, a lot of media consumption, etc. It looks from the outside like your sister's interests changed with alarming rapidity like that, but really their interests haven't changed, just their priorities, and the freedom to engage in personal stuff. So help your sister out with keeping up interests-- and keep in mind that her ability to keep up with a lot of mass media is very likely going to fall apart.

My sister, pre-kids, did some dog-training, for example, so I'd send her books and articles about the dog behavior research and dog stuff in general (and the occasional gallery of apparently stoned dogs-- gotta love it). She had a lot of downtime, mostly in short stretches, and while the little person in question requires attention, babies aren't always very engaging. Help your sister engage her brain within the limits of her available opportunities.

Pro-tip: occupy the baby so mom can take bathroom breaks. Even kids who are old enough to be unattended for a few minutes don't like the idea, which means moms have problems trying to take a shower or a nice cr-- well, having necessary alone time in the bathroom.

Second, get ready for the baby to be upset with you-- you have many good qualities, I am sure, but the fact that you are not your nephew's mommy will often be a dealbreaker for the baby. Technically it is personal, but it's not malicious, of course. Still gets uncomfortable, so learn to bear it.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:28 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

You've already been given some good advice about the newborn/baby stage.
Just watch out for when they get about 2.5 to 3.5 years old... kids go through a lot of change which can be a bit of a shock if you're not familiar with that age group. They become more psychologically complex, but don't yet have the ability to control their emotions. They become sensitive to things that previously they would not have even noticed (eg, being gently and affectionately mocked by grown-ups).

Don't make the mistake of taking offense if they are suddenly mean or obnoxious towards you. We all want to be liked, but the rules don't apply with that age group... just remember, if the kid starts acting out around you or saying they hate you, it (probably) just means she/he feels safe enough around you to test boundaries.
posted by 8k at 1:49 AM on June 11, 2014

I love being an aunt - you get to love them to death and then hand them back without the crippling guilt and debt of parenthood ;)

For me, my main thing has been to respect and reinforce her parenting decisions, even the ones I don't necessarily agree with. When my sister had her first and I was babysitting she would leave long lists with very specific points about schedules, food, etc. I followed these to the absolute letter because, you know, it's her kid. Don't think "well it won't hurt too much if I feed them X instead of Y / let them stay up a bit later". Her mother in law did this and it caused a lot of resentment. Now she has two (nearly 5 and 3) it's about backing her to the hilt regarding discipline. I'm the Cool Aunt but I'm not the person to go to if Mummy says no and you want a second opinion. If Mummy says no then I'm saying no too, even if I'd say yes myself. I do a lot of "ask your Mummy" so they know that her say is the final one. Basically never undermine her.

But also relish the fact that you can be fun! Parenting is hard work and tiring, so I'm glad I get to have the energy to roll around on the ground with them, read them a million stories, generally indulge their games because their parents are busy making dinner or doing laundry or whatever. It gives my sister a break and the kids love having undivided attention, and I get to take a break from being a grownup and play dress up instead so it's win-win all round. Any way you can say "I'll take them for a walk / distract them for an hour" so your sister can have a nap or a shower or just finish a cup of coffee before it goes cold will be a big help to her and you get to have one-on-one bonding time.

When my sister had her first it was actually not how I thought it would be. She had a difficult birth and I think she had some post natal depression. She didn't really want me or my Mum around much, which was hard, but it's such a huge life change even without PND so be prepared that it might not all be sunshine and roses. I spent a lot of time Googling resources, mother and toddler groups, support in her area etc and while she didn't use any of them it was about me letting her know that I understood that things were hard and I was there for her. Your sister might need someone that she can be honest with so let her know that she can tell you if things are difficult. A lot of people have guilt that they're not floating on a cloud of bliss and it can be hard to say to all the well-wishers "I'd quite like my life back, actually" so let your sister know in advance that you'll be there for her and not be judgemental.

I wasn't prepared for how much I would love my nieces and I can't imagine not having them around now, so I hope you enjoy your new little niece or nephew just as much. Congratulations!
posted by billiebee at 3:00 AM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Right after the wee one arrives, your sister and BIL will be exhausted! I mean sleeping standing up, walking into walls, zombies.

Offer to go over and hold the baby while they sleep. Do it as much as you possibly can. You'll get to bond with the baby and you will be doing them a mizvah. If you want to fold laundry and dust and do the dishes in the bargain, no one will complain.

As the kiddo gets older, offer to babysit for date night, or just come over and entertain the little one so they can get stuff done around the house.

Be the Auntie that the kiddo can tell anything to. Be loving, play Candy Land, show her how to make a blanket fort.

You'll be fine!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:41 AM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you shop (groceries, Target, etc) for them, if they give you a list? Getting out of the house with a baby is a big deal.

Can you watch the baby while the parents nap, shower, or relax? If you're going to watch the baby, learn to change its diapers- watching the baby but not doing diaper changes is a lot less helpful.

Are there some chores you can do with minimal or no direction by the parents? They may be mentally overwhelmed as well as physically, and answering lots of "where does this go" type questions isn't what they will want.

Be responsible for your own food, transportation, & entertainment when you visit them. Don't expect them to figure out your meals or things for you to do. They'll have enough to deal with without having to entertain a houseguest.

Don't debate or question their parenting choices, unless they are doing something that meets the legal definitions of child abuse or neglect. You can debate if they initiate the debate, but otherwise a closed mouth gathers no feet.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:14 AM on June 11, 2014

I'm only 25 and happened to go through a personal crisis right about the time my niece was born, but apparently just hanging out with her while my sister-in-law has some time to do something else like shower, feed the cats or check her mail is helping not only me, but them as well. (I worked at an elementary/middle school before and as a nanny to children ages seven and ten, but babies were really new to me.)

At first, the baby may not feel very comfortable around you. Especially in the first few months, it's mostly mummy and daddy time, but you can offer to watch the baby or the babyphone to allow your sister a little break. Once my niece was a couple of months old, however, she started recognising me when I came over and seemed really happy. Around then, I started holding her more often, reading stories to her, playing with her etc. I also accompagny my SIL on walks with the baby car so she doesn't always have to push and has someone to talk to or to push the car when my niece wants to be carried. I guess in a couple more months I may take my niece out on little outings alone and give my brother and SIL a break, but she's still a little too small now.

Sometimes, it's just helpful to have someone else there. For example, my niece sometimes refuses her food at feeding time unless it's from someone who isn't always around, so I can get a few more spoons in until she's tired of me as well.

My SIL is already joking that in a couple of years, my niece will run to me to complain about mummy and daddy, and then a few years after that will start raiding my wardrobe. While I'm looking forward to that (and to having my niece babysit my own future children), I am fully planning on having her parents' back and gently pushing my niece back into their direction. I guess part of being an aunt is playing devil's advocate.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 7:05 AM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've got a 6-month-old. I think Bardolph's suggestions are terrific. I just wanted to add that new parents often don't have a lot of energy left over to reach out and appreciate and honor their family members as much as they'd like to. I think one of my family members felt hurt that I didn't haven't taken my baby on trips to visit them, for example, but such a (long) trip is considerably more than we can handle at this time with a baby who sleeps quite poorly. If you dote on your nephew and offer your sister non-judgmental support and a listening ear, you WILL be appreciated, but it might be a little while before you feel properly acknowledged. It will be a huge gift to the new parents if you can take this in stride.
posted by Cygnet at 8:43 AM on June 11, 2014

All the suggestions above are great. Two more that I don't see:

*Be careful about not slagging on or joking about parenting choices, even ones that you think your sister will also find ridiculous. There are things that I thought were crazy before I had a baby that make a lot more sense to me now (for instance, breastfeeding before bed into the toddler phase rather than totally stopping at 12 months), and it's a bit weird when friends will make a joke about "oh my god, if they're old enough to ask for it then they are DEFINITELY too old for the boob." (Or conversely, my MIL being judgmental about women who use a nursing cover in public because it's insufficiently feminist or something.) It's not that those comments offend so much as they make it less likely that your sister will be as open with you about the day-to-day, and I think that inevitably spills over into having a less-close relationship with your niece or nephew.

*Don't take it personally if the baby cries when you hold him or a toddler is going through a shy phase and doesn't want to hang out with you. I was surprised by how irritating I found it when people got their ego all wrapped up in how my baby responded to them and said things like, "but babies usually REALLY LIKE me!" It's a baby. They sometimes fuss or cry. It's not freaking personal, it's just where they are developmentally, and there can be this weird implication that there's something wrong with the baby for not "liking" the person and I should be apologizing for my baby's behavior.

Good luck! Being an aunt is really fun.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:38 AM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

My aunts weren't present in my life when I was growing up, so it's super important to me to be a really good one. I don't want kids, but I've found that being an involved aunt is the perfect balance for me. Now that some of them are getting older, I feel like I can see the teeny tiny fruits of some investment (that's not the goal of course, but it's nice). When I call my sister, she'll ask my 11 (almost 12) year old niece if she wants to talk to Aunt Raztaj - and my niece actually wants to talk! Or my 14 year old nephew made a picture of us on a recent hike, as his iPhone background picture (!!). Or my now 8 year old nephew always runs to give me the biggest, tightest hugs when I'm about to leave from an out of town visit - he recently compared me to Mary Poppins :-)

- When they're a baby, there's not much you can do except be an extra pair of eyes/hands around the house. But it's a good time to remember things about them in baby-hood, to tell them later. It's a good time for building memories - when they're older, your nieces/nephews will want to know what it was like when they were babies.

- Be a balance of nurturing, but fun and supportive. Back up your sister on her parenting (I have no problem telling my nieces/nephews to not talk back to their parents, or to clean up something, or obey the rules), but also be an ear for them to maybe talk it out later

- Pay attention to nieces/nephews like they're their own people - not just an extension of your siblings. For example, to find out what little Johnny's up do, when they're old enough, you don't need to ask their parents - go directly to the kid. Don't suffocate them with interest, but talk to them directly as the little people they are, and not some kind of subject/object.

- If you live locally, go to some of their events - recitals, meets, etc. Not every one, but even just 1-2 a year, every year, so they remember your presence as being there to see them.

- Don't spoil them rotten. Don't buy their love. I think most kids would rather you take an interest in their activities, or talk to them, or do things with them, than buy them stuff. But when birthdays come around, definitely try to make it something that aligns with their interests (you don't need to spend tons of money).

- Support your sister, but don't do too much for her. If you want to help with things like childcare, do so, but have boundaries. When things have calmed down (this may be a while), you should feel ok about asking her help from time to time, too. Help if you wish and are able, but know when to pull back so as to not create a dependance (this can happen). Things like meals, cleaning, having an extra pair of eyes/hands so mom can sleep, will go a long way. It's great to help and be an involved auntie/sister, but make sure to maintain your own identity - it's easy to get wrapped up in someone else's.

Congratulations, aunt ichomp!
posted by raztaj at 11:14 AM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice above (babysitting, seriously!).

And nthing that one of the awesome things about other family/friends playing with a little one is that they aren't tired, so they can do more interesting stuff then the sleep deprived parents are able.

One thing I haven't seen mentioned is to take photos and videos of the parents with the baby/child. You'll want to check this with them of course, but while I have a MILLION pics and videos of my son, I have a very small number of him with me and especially with both I and my husband. Do the normal photo etiquette things, give them copies, avoid unflattering angles, give them full delete powers, don't share with others without their permission, etc. Oh and make it easy for for them to get them (dropbox link, email, whatever works for them). But if they like the idea, do it regularly, once a week, month or whenever you see them and it'll be a great gift to them.
posted by pennypiper at 2:01 PM on June 11, 2014

This won't really apply until the baby's older, but use your talents/knowledge/strengths to fill in the gaps left by the parents. My brother and sister-in-law really appreciate it when I do creative things with my niece, because that kind of thing doesn't come naturally to them. Another thing we've done is always bring her back a little present when we go abroad and tell her a little story about it, because her parents have never been especially interested in travel (and it's harder with kids even if they were!). Find your Thing to do with your nephew - I bet there's something that only you can do!

Finally, it's a little thing and it sounds silly, but try not to go overboard asking "any news??!!" in the days before/after the baby's due. Towards the end of my pregnancy it was all anyone would talk to me about: of course I appreciated their excitement, but I was exhausted, uncomfortable, apprehensive and very, very anxious, and the constant questioning just made me feel under even more pressure to deliver (quite literally!), especially as I went overdue. Try to help her relax in the last few weeks if you can - the end of pregnancy is not an especially fun time!
posted by raspberry-ripple at 1:46 AM on June 12, 2014

Everyone has given you great advice! I just wanted to add a little thing that no one warned me about before having my first baby.

Your sister might experience the 'third day baby blues' which can hit mothers hard, usually in the first week post-partum (hence the name). It can make you weepy, overwrought, and just unable to cope with visitors and family. (I infamously locked myself in a hospital bathroom to avoid my much-loved inlaws).

Be prepared to give your sister a little space if she needs it during this time, and please don't take any snappiness personally. It usually passes off within a couple of days.
posted by Catch at 2:53 AM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Even moms who don't get full-blown postpartum depression can get hormonal wonkiness in the first few days.

Don't put down any parenting practice, even if she has said negative things about that practice in the past. One of the really hard things about being a parent, especially a new parent, is that sometimes you have to do things that you are opposed to, because your child needs it. I had to pump and supplement with formula, even though I Really Didn't Want To, and I cried when I gave my baby that first bottle of formula. But she needed it, so I had to woman up & do it. It would have been a lot harder with someone else there bashing formula. Unless what she's doing is actual abuse or neglect, keep your mouth shut.

Don't expect her to do the traditional host things for you as a guest. In fact, insist that she (and her partner, if applicable) NOT do those things. You are a big girl. You have traveled somewhere where you didn't have a chauffeur, chef, restaurant reviewer, maid, or cruise director, right? Think renting a furnished condo, not staying in a hotel. You should have your own car, or make your own arrangements for public transit. She may not even be able to drive, especially if she has had a C section or is on pain meds.

If she does have a C section, she may not be able to lift anything heavier than the baby for the next six weeks- that's what they told me. That made life inconvenient.

I don't know how old you are, but especially if you're over 30, some parenting practices have changed since we were kids. The big ones are car seats and sleep. Never drive with the baby in the car without a car seat. It's not safe or legal. Never put the baby down to sleep in any position other than on his/her back, and never put any toys, pillows, or blankets in the bed with the baby. Yes, we did all those things, and we were fine- except the ones who weren't, who mostly are not posting on Metafilter...

Going out with a baby is a Big Deal. There's a lot more stuff to tote along, and sometimes you need to do a last- minute diaper change or feeding. Or the baby might fall asleep, so plans need to be changed or canceled. You're a grown up, you can deal.
posted by Anne Neville at 5:37 AM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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