The Unique Ups & Downs Of Becoming A Child Auntie

Photographed by Emli Bendixen.
At the age of five I became an auntie for the first time. I didn’t really know what that meant or how it would impact my family, only that there was a brand-new baby and I was her auntie. My understanding of what it was to be someone's auntie was especially limited due to both of my parents being only children, meaning my life lacked the aunties, uncles and cousins that most families fight to squish around the Christmas dinner table. These missing familial figures made the idea of auntiehood that bit more confusing: there was no one around to show me what the role traditionally entailed.
Given that I have a sibling who is nearly 15 years older than me, I probably should have anticipated that I would have a niece or nephew sooner than most people my age. But as the youngest child at the centre of a small family, I was too self-absorbed to give this any real thought. So when my family welcomed this new bundle of joy, back in the early 2000s, I was tasked with learning on the job. You might assume that the situation would be similar to that of becoming an older sister but the position of auntie comes with certain criteria that didn’t exactly fit my age bracket. 
On television, the aunties I might have looked to for inspiration lived in entirely different circumstances. There were the powerhouse aunties like The Fresh Prince’s Aunt Viv or, later, Hannah Montana’s Aunt Dolly, both of whom were impossibly glamorous. In movies there was the ghastly Aunt Petunia from Harry Potter or leechy Aunt Leslie in Home Alone. Regardless of the characters' individual failures and triumphs, one thing that they all had in common was the fact that they were older than me. And not just by a little bit. Each of these aunties was a real grown-up, with a husband and a house and children of their own — and there I was, still learning to read. 
This alienation from the traditional auntie role is something that 24-year-old Paris says she felt when she became an auntie at the age of 12. "I didn’t really understand what you were meant to do as all my aunties were 'old ladies' who I only saw occasionally," she says.

This fish-out-of-water feeling resonates with 26-year-old Bethany, too. She became an auntie for the first time at only 2 years old. "In primary school I remember lying on a few occasions, saying my niece was my cousin because it felt easier to explain. I guess I didn’t want my friends to question it or think that it was weird," she says.

As time went on, the feeling of not fitting into a 'normal' auntie-and-niece relationship dynamic remained. Bethany says that the assertiveness traditionally associated with the title was nonexistent. "I understood what it meant to be an auntie — and I would sometimes try and use this to my advantage against my niece if we got into a fight — but our relationship was definitely more cousin- or sister-like, I didn’t have an authoritative role at all," she says, laughing. Paris says her experience was largely the same. "We were always together, we even shared a room at one point. So I thought of her and still do as a little sister and she treats me the same way."
According to experts, this feeling is fairly common across the board for young aunties. "If a much older sibling gets married and has children when their sister or brother is, for example, under 10, often the family will make different connections and the young nieces and nephews take on a sibling-type relationship," says family therapist and Counselling Directory member Clare Francis. In theory this sounds like a positive thing but Clare notes that while the relationship with the niece or nephew may feel like a sibling relationship, the relationship with their actual sibling has the potential to become strained.
"If the older sibling has spent a lot of time caring for the younger one, then it is often quite difficult for the younger child to understand how they are not number one anymore," she says. Bethany says this definitely rings true for her. "I remember feeling heartbroken when I found out my sister was pregnant. At the time I thought once the baby arrived she wouldn’t have any time for me and the dynamic of our relationship would change drastically," she says. Happily, that wasn’t the case in actuality. "Once my niece was born I immediately couldn’t imagine life without her. It was so lovely having a new baby in the family, which in hindsight probably brought us even closer together," says Bethany.
Similarly, Paris says the situation only strengthened her bond with her older sister, particularly as she grew up. "I never thought she would trust me with a baby but when I got a little older she let me take her out by myself. Being such a young auntie and having her entrust me with her children changed my perception of how responsible I could be," she says. Both women agree that getting older has its plus points for the auntie-niece dynamic. "I just see her as one of my best friends now," says Bethany. "Once she turned 18 we started going on nights out together and we just generally enjoy being in each other's company."
Still, while Paris also speaks to the thriving relationship she has with her niece now, things have started to shift slightly. "As we’ve both gotten older and the age gap starts to feel smaller, I’ve had to change the dynamic of our relationship a little. I’ve had to force myself to be the 'mature', authoritative figure I guess, but still the fun one, and an older figure she can confide in like a big sister." Sadly, Paris' maturity cost her some cool points. "My niece used to love making funny videos with me, now she won’t even add me on TikTok," she laughs.
The experience of being a young auntie might not be universal but it speaks to our world of shifting family dynamics. Today, things happen in all sorts of orders and timeframes and that doesn't make them any less wonderfully weird. Recently I became an auntie for the second time and I couldn’t be happier to have a wealth of experience to bring to the role. Things will be different this time around (we won’t share the same obsession with Justin Bieber or attend the same university within years of one another) but I will be able to provide her with a fun London flat to visit and a wardrobe of 'vintage' clothing. Call me crazy but I wouldn’t change that for the world. 
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