On her sixth birthday, I took my niece Rose to one of those family fun centers where you can play miniature golf, breathe in petrol fumes on a go-cart, and spend $20 on arcade games that spit out little tickets. The reward for an hour of air hockey and Space Invaders is the honor of standing at the counter for 30 minutes while the child picks out a $2 prize with her 5,000 tickets. We went on the bumper boats three times and squirted each other with nasty water that might have been pure chlorine. We had root beer floats in the ice-cream parlor where we enjoyed seven rounds of “Happy Birthday to You” accompanied by a bass drum and clown horn. After several hours of riotous fun, Rose and I were in a spirited skee-ball competition when she paused and said, “Being an aunty is the best thing ever.”
We discussed what great stuff she was going to get to do when her brothers, Rider and Stanley, make her an aunt. I pointed out (with as much control over my sarcasm as I am capable of) that she too will get to spend a large amount of money on whac-a-mole, mini golf and corn dogs in 100 degree heat in the San Fernando Valley. A posting by the American Psychological Association (APA) titled “Squirrels recognize degree of kinship by scent, psychologist finds” reported on squirrels and their habit of smelling each other. I don’t read a lot of articles about squirrels but this caught my attention. People actually make a living by watching them sniff out their relatives. The article explains, “Squirrels have keen noses. So keen, in fact, they can recognize their relatives with a whiff, according to research published by psychologist Jill M. Mateo, PhD, in the British journal Proceedings: Biological Sciences (Vol. 269, No. 1492). In her research on two species of ground squirrels, the Cornell University psychologist found that squirrels can recognize whether another squirrel is related to them—and to what degree—just by smelling the odors given off by their glands.”
That’s actually not the part that interested me, although I did spend a few minutes contemplating that my experience in smelling the odors produced by my nephews is not that dissimilar. The article went on, “Since female Belding’s ground squirrels give preferential treatment to close female family members—mothers, sisters and daughters—but not more distant kin, such as nieces and nephews, the ability to decipher who’s closely related is important, Mateo explains. For example, a female ground squirrel would probably endanger itself by crying to warn of a predator for its sister, but not for its cousins or unrelated kin. Saving the sister’s life is similar to saving its own genotype, while saving an unrelated squirrel doesn’t make evolutionary sense, she says. “
Squirrels will only expend the energy that it takes to shout, “Hey look out!” when it protects their direct bloodline. Can you imagine if we were like that? What if we only took care of our own? The Web site Savvy Auntie is dedicated to the art of being an aunt. It offers advice and creative ideas for all kinds of women who are taking on a role in the life of someone else’s child. The site refers to aunts as ABRs (Aunts by Relation) and ABCs (Aunts by Choice). As I was paging through the site, which could have been created just for me, I started to think about all the children for whom I am an aunt by choice. I have all kinds of kids in my life who are confused by the fact that they call me Aunty Jo but are actually my first cousins once removed, my girlfriend’s kids, or little friends/neighbors of my actual relatives.
The truth is that I am an aunt by choice for all the kids in my life. No one says I have to be an aunt. There is no rule that says just because my brother chose to procreate, I have to play skee-ball and ride bumper boats. I don’t have to pack an overnight bag every Friday night and schlep out to the Valley in rush hour traffic so that I can be woken up at 5am on a weekend by three wriggly children fighting over a spot in the bed. I do it because I choose to. I do it because investing in them makes me happy and gives me purpose. I have a responsibility to engage other people’s children in a productive way as a member of the “village” but if I’m being honest, it’s more about what it does for me.
Rider’s birthday is not that far away and when he brought up the go-carts, I tried to suggest something that might be more fun for me. But I know very well that I will do whatever makes him happy which means more go-cart fumes and funnel cakes. It won’t be long before a day out with Aunty Jo fails to produce leaps and wiggles of joy and excitement, and I will be driving teenagers with iPods around. I remind myself when I don’t feel like playing Lego, jumping on the trampoline, or building a pillow fort (and I’ve never once felt like doing any of those things) that I will not be able to get this time with the kids back so I have to give all my energy now. Rider is completely underwhelmed with my Lego walls, Rose prefers Daddy’s forts because they don’t fall down, and Stanley wants Mommy to sing the doggie in the window song at bed time because as Rider puts it, “Mommy’s voice is a little better suited for that song.” But one day they will be doing this for each other’s kids and they will remember how hard I tried.