The Unexpected Joys of Aunting

By Mary Kate Skehan
Mary Kate Skehan
Mary Kate Skehan
Mary Kate Skehan works in book publishing and is a columnist for The Spectator.
November 3, 2021 Updated: November 3, 2021

On almost every Friday night of the past year, I’ve reported to my brother and sister-in-law’s house at 5 p.m. with a bottle of wine. They, in turn, have three kids, two pizzas, and a salad. We call this ritual—simply, magnificently—Pizza Friday.

I won’t go so far as to say Pizza Friday saved me during the pandemic, but it made my life a lot better. In the extreme lull of life under COVID, without extracurricular activities or a social life, my brothers’ families were my main hangs, whether the order of the day was pizza, whiffle ball, or “Frozen II” dress-up. Pre-pandemic, I always had photos of my eight nieces and nephews in my apartment and office, but during the pandemic, I got the full, 3D experience of aunting: sticky hands, baby sharks, and all.

If you were to judge from many popular portrayals, from Roald Dahl to The Simpsons, aunts are vicious, neglectful, and embittered. Non-relations are the heroes of many fairy tales, choosing a child on whom to bestow nurturing and guidance, regardless of blood ties: think fairy godmothers, Hagrid, or the troupe of anthropomorphic insects who navigate James’s Giant Peach across the ocean. In Jane Austen, aunts are fiercely respectable, even imperious. In Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping,” aunts are ineffectual old biddies.

I have seven siblings, and my father has six, so the kids in our family are awash in near relations. In my family, uncles are teasers and practical jokers, pitchers of whiffle balls and sneakers of treats, while aunts are board-game-players, story-readers, and purveyors of nutritious lunches. But we are all keepers of family lore, capitalizing on every child’s fascination with the childhoods of their parents. Your dad learned to ride a bike in this alley; We made these cookies with Nana every Christmas; Did I tell you about the time Uncle Frank tried to run away from home? This is what separates us from the fairy godmothers and BFGs of storytime: shared history; bonds older than we are.

It’s probably important to note that I’m unmarried and childless. While I have plenty to offer my nieces and nephews—stories, candy, Go Fish—they fill important needs for me, too: silliness, joy, a child’s easy affection. They challenge me to be patient because of their demands to dress and eat and wash “by myself,” with superhuman inefficiency. They require me to set a good example because their ears are hyper-alert for swears. They confront my embarrassment in the face of dependence because everyone wears diapers at some point. By their very existence, they prompt me to be forward-looking and self-forgetting. They get the first plate, take the first turn, and are the most beautiful people in any room.

The personal enrichment I receive from my nieces and nephews feels to me so significant, in fact, that when I see downward-trending line graphs and worrying scatter charts on fertility on this blog and in other outlets, it occurs to me to wonder not just about would-be parents, but would-be aunts and uncles, too. A birthrate of 1.6 children in this generation means that in the next, aunts and uncles will be as rare and precious as siblings are now. Aunts like mine, and like me, could become an endangered species.

Is this the most urgent issue facing families in our society? Of course not. In the absence of near family, parents will conscript friends and neighbors—“chosen family”—to be babysitters and chaperones, extra sets of eyes, and pairs of hands at birthdays and Communions. Though I can’t personally imagine a childhood without a dozen aunts and uncles crowding Thanksgiving, I don’t think their presence is strictly necessary to a happy childhood.

But what about the would-be aunts themselves? We know statistically that more women will remain unmarried and childless—happily or unhappily—than at any time before, and that women who do have children are more likely to have only one. Aunts and uncles will go extinct before parents will, the canary in the coalmine of loneliness and isolation. Women will be less likely to have children or siblings with children—meaning they’re less likely to have children in their family at all.

In a way, this is just another social bond disintegrating in 21st-century America, along with Rotary Clubs and churches and bowling leagues. My generation is widely reported to have fewer close ties and dimmer expectations of the future, and there are many well-covered causes and symptoms of this loneliness. But surely non-nuclear family ties rate a mention, though they appear not to have been specifically studied by researchers measuring marriage rates, birth rates, and social isolation. Aunts, uncles, and cousins are the original social network, and I wonder if their loss is simply incalculable.

Sharing in joy means sharing in sorrow, too. My brother and sister-in-law recently lost a child before birth, their fourth, a daughter named Gianna Therese. I brought over a casserole—a gesture as hopeful and inadequate as a child’s clumsily crafted potholders, bracelets, and birthday cards. My niece poked at the container. “Pizza?” she asked expectantly. Not today. But Pizza Friday will be back someday soon, in all of its precious, routine, and casual glory.

This article was originally published on the Institute for Family Studies blog.

Mary Kate Skehan works in book publishing and is a columnist for The Spectator.