You can pick your relations

As more women choose to remain childless, a new breed of maiden aunt is emerging - the sibling who is keen to play an increasingly active role in parenting from the outside.

Cayte Williams
Saturday 21 November 1998 01:02

Some women are born to bear children, some learn to want children while others have children thrust upon them. There are some women, though, who enjoy children from a safe distance.

There was a time when the maiden aunt had either lost the love of her life in the war or kept the love of her life in the closet. But as more women in their thirties choose not to have children, the number of childless aunts is increasing.

They do not necessarily view their nephews and nieces as lost opportunities of their own, but rather as a whole new source of fun. You can watch them grow up, give them advice, take them to the park or to the pictures, but deliver them home again when you have had enough. Kid having a tantrum? Just leave it to mum and go out for a drink.

When my sister had the first of her four boys I was 18 and barely gave the little gem a second glance. Now I have four nephews to contend with - three in their teens and the fourth fast-approaching. I do not think I have ever loved teenage boys this much, even when I was a teenager. Not only are they a great source of comfort (the experience of having a sensitive adolescent boy searching for the right words when you are in floods of tears is a joy to behold), they are damn good value.

Recently I was walking along the canal with a female friend, and a group of teenage boys made some smart-alec comment in our direction. She snarled at them. I laughed. Having nephews means you understand where teenagers are coming from, their insecurities, their incredible sense of protectiveness - and you understand just how much bad press they get.

Only last week Edward (6ft tall, rugby-player build, skinhead haircut) said hello in passing to an elderly neighbour only for her to virtually make the sign of the cross and cower. The poor boy is 18 and looks like Vinnie Jones on steroids, but he is a kitten.

Ben, 16 and another six-footer, trades on being cool but I remember him sobbing over Lassie when he was three.

Richard, now 13, has just gone through an obnoxious adolescent stage when all he wanted to do was drink beer, be rude about women and spend more time in front of dubious computer games than is considered healthy. It is a stage we all suffered with him, but he got over it.

Andrew, the youngest at eight, is a whirlwind with a yo-yo and no doubt will treat the tiresome teens with as much gusto as his brothers.

None of this has made me broody. In fact it has made me thankful that I have children very close to me who are not my total responsibility.

It is an opinion shared by Caroline Larssen, a 32-year-old solicitor from London. She is the proud owner of a nephew, William, who is four, and a niece, Zoe, who is two. "You can be there for the treats, like taking them to the zoo," she explains, "but if they are exhausting you can just go home." Does it make her feel she wants to have children herself? "It has had the opposite effect - I think friends who have children try and paint this rosy image of parenthood, but having a nephew and niece I really understand what it's like to have children. You lose this idealised view of the bouncing baby when you stay over and hear them waking up three times a night having a tantrum."

Still, she sees her role of being an aunt as a special one. "I really do love them, even when they leave my child-incompatible flat and I spend the entire evening retrieving squashed biscuits from behind my lovely cushions. I'd like to think I'll be there for them forever, but being a Bridget Jones type, I hope they're going to be there for me, too. I'm very close to my two aunts and spent a lot of time with them when I was a child, and I hope my nephew and niece will do the same."

But being an aunt is not just about having a new form of usefulness - it also makes conversations about babies that much more bearable. Karen Barr became an auntie 15 months ago when her nephew, Jack, was born. She says: "My sister is a single mother and I was with her at Jack's birth. I came into work the next day and said `I'm a father!' because I had seen the miraculous thing of someone being born.

"Now many people around me ask about Jack as if he were mine because of the way I talk about him. I feel much more involved in parenting and can have conversations with colleagues that I probably couldn't have had before about children. They used to bore me."

Karen feels that her relationship with Jack is that much more engaging because her sister is a single mother. "In some ways it's an advantage because you don't have to worry about respecting the space of the other parent ,who is not your blood relative. You don't have to be so polite in your relationship with the child, and you don't feel that hesitation about offering help or taking part in his upbringing." Although Karen would like to have children one day, she realises like Caroline that having children is not easy. "Parenting is extremely exhausting, but I can walk away," she says. "But also I get involved in baby-sitting and baby-bathing and it's wonderful to watch him develop.

"I'm looking forward to when he starts talking and I can hear what he thinks about the world. You imagine yourself as the aunt to whom you could talk to about anything and that you would be OK. It's funny, you have this image in your head of what you would like to be in their life."

So even though we singletons do not have parental responsibilities, we are under just as much pressure to be the ideal aunt as our siblings are to be perfect parents. We just hope they will not be disappointed.

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