Back in April, I became an aunt for the fifth time. This was a happy event for my family and me. We celebrated, we circumcised, we gifted, we cuddled, we cooed. But I’d be lying if I said that little Harrison’s arrival wasn’t bundled with a smidgeon of dread.
It’s not that I don’t love my nieces and nephews. It’s just that every visit with the little cherubs provides more evidence that I am a sucky aunt.
Take, for example, a recent trip to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on Broadway with my 8-year-old niece, Haley.
For those unfamiliar with the production, it features a chilling character called “The Child Catcher,” who rounds up children and stores them in a cage underground. To ensure maximum creepiness, he has a falsetto voice and reappears throughout the show, calling out: “Child-rennnnn …. Oh, child-rennnnn … !”
Haley had an age-appropriate response to this character: terror. Not paralyzing or hysterical, just the kind that causes an 8-year-old to ask her aunt on the way to the ladies’ room: “Are there really kidnappers in the world?” To which her aunt replied: “Mm-hm!” Real chipper, as if the question had been: “Can we have ice-cream sundaes later?”
In that moment, I was trying to establish myself as a macho, no-nonsense aunt, the kind who takes a drag of her proverbial cigarette and dishes out the cold, hard facts: The world is a tough place, kiddo, I ain’t gonna lie. How pathetic. Why not be the kind of aunt who makes her niece feel better after a scary Broadway show?
At bedtime, I went into my guest room and kneeled down next to her on the air mattress. “Haley, I want to make sure you know that the scary man from the show isn’t real,” I said, looking into her eyes, trying to make my voice sound all cozy and hot-chocolate-y. “You’re safe here, and no kidnappers are going to get you. Do you feel safe?”
“Well, I did until you reminded me,” she said with a sigh. “Will you get my dad?”
Then there was the time my 7-year-old niece Megan asked me, in front of my whole family, if my boyfriend and I “see each other naked.”
There was a moment of squirmy silence.
“That’s a very grown-up question,” I said, practically in a British accent. Megan said she was sorry and shuffled off. And that was that. I could’ve asked her why she wanted to know. We could’ve had an interesting conversation. We both could’ve learned something. But nooo, I had to get Victorian on her ass.
Being such a sucky aunt wouldn’t bum me out so much if I hadn’t expected to be the Best Aunt Who Ever Lived. I had everything going for me:
a) My youth: I was a spry 25 when I first entered the field.
b) My experience: I had done, like, a ton of babysitting in my teens.
c) My station in life: I didn’t have a distracting husband, nor pesky kids of my own.
d) My New York City location. My nieces and nephews would be restless suburbanites thirsting for adventure. I envisioned countless eye-opening visits: rides on the subway, trips to the Central Park Zoo, the American Museum of Natural History and Serendipity.
But the title “Aunt Elisa” wasn’t cutting it. She had no pizzazz, no zing! So I came up with the snappier, kickier “Auntie Lis” (pronounced Leese). I didn’t think of it as marketing at the time, but that’s exactly what it was: a cheap branding technique to convince my siblings’ offspring that I was F-U-N. Auntie Lis had worked at Nickelodeon Magazine! She still ate chicken fingers and cotton candy!
In my fantasy, the character of Auntie Lis would grow and mature in perfect tandem with her nieces and nephews. By the time the kids were teens, they’d trust their favorite aunt so much that they’d turn to her when they had trouble with their friends, or trouble with the opposite sex—or trouble with the same sex, if they turned out to be gay! That’s how understanding and “down” she’d be.
I even imagined a day when one of my nieces or nephews would need to break free from the stifling confines of suburbia; that’s when they’d come live with their Auntie Lis, if only for a little while.
Alas, things haven’t turned out as I expected.
First I blamed the kids for being too young or too sheltered to appreciate what they had in me. I’d look forward to every visit, expecting to be attacked by a throng of hugging, giggling rug rats, only to find that the kids needed to be coaxed by their parents to break away from the TV to say “hello” to Auntie Lis. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
They also weren’t supposed to have busier lives than I do. My 11-year-old nephew, Gabe, is on a high-powered soccer team that travels up and down the East Coast for tournaments. So on the rare occasion that I actually see him, I have a knee-jerk tendency to blurt out lame things like: “Look how big you’ve gotten!” I might as well be pinching his cheeks, reeking of mothballs, and giving him hard candy from the bottom of my purse.
I also blamed New York for not delivering on the “cool” front. After hosting many kvetchy visits here, I decided that the city was just too big and, literally, too pedestrian for kids—especially suburban ones with their tiny, underutilized legs. Showing them a good time here felt almost cruel. Apparently, for the minivan-to-school-to-gymnastics-to-Hebrew-school set, a three-block walk to the subway feels like the Bataan Death March.
But then one day I had an epiphany—or, more specifically, a fight with my 3-year-old nephew, Ethan. It was the day before his fourth birthday, and we were on the phone, fishing around for things to talk about.
I asked if he was excited about his birthday party.
“No, because it’s not today.”
“Yes, but when you wake up tomorrow morning, the party will be about to start, so it’s O.K. to be excited now.”
“But my party isn’t in the morning, it’s in the afternoon.”
Jesus, what did this kid have against excitement? “But it’s still the same day, just a few hours later …. ” “YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!” Ethan suddenly screamed. My sister grabbed the phone away from him and asked me what on earth I’d said to provoke him, and we had a good laugh.
But later I wondered: Why was I so invested in his excitement, anyway? Suddenly, all my years of aunt angst clicked into place. In my attempt to be the World’s Best Aunt, I’d become the World’s Neediest One. Making matters worse, I wasn’t exactly clear on who this Auntie Lis character was, so I’d probably confused the hell out of the kids. With Haley’s fear of kidnapping, I was Rizzo from Grease. With Megan’s question about nudity, I became Mother Superior; with Ethan’s birthday, Tony Robbins.
It all makes me wonder if I should’ve gone with “Aunt Elisa” or, better yet, dispensed with the “Aunt” altogether. Staying just plain “Elisa” might have helped me to do that thing we always tell kids: be yourself.