We were sitting around the breakfast bar having lunch when my niece told her brother that some of the kids in his class hated him. Her announcement was followed by the kind of silence that tells you something is about to change. Even Riley, the little one, froze … nacho in mid-air, to watch how this was going to play out.
Jasper sat there stunned – “What do you mean, Hannah?”
Turns out that a friend of Hannah’s, T, goes to the same art group as these kids. And they had told her they didn’t like Jasper and were going to leave his class because of him.
As Jasper questioned his sister I realised this would be a defining moment for my nephew. And my niece. (Who, I doubted, actually realised the double hurt that T had been intent on inflicting.)
As Jasper questioned his sister, I saw it dawn on her that she had opened a can of worms. Even as she staunchly defended her source, telling us all that T didn’t lie – she understood that this piece of information had hurt her brother deeply. And she had been the cause of it.
He soldiered on: asking question after question – trying to determine who it could have been, who would said such a thing about him? After all he had only been at the school for 6 weeks and he had been trying his best to fit in – why would kids be talking about him in this way?
Then his voice wobbled, and my heart clenched and floundered. And I wanted to go to war.
There is no guide on how to be an aunt. It’s a really weird role: part friend, part caregiver, part confidante, part enforcer. In the animal kingdom – aunts are used to care for the younger lions, elephants, meerkats and dolphins when the mother needs a break or is off hunting or has died.
Human tribes that work along matrilineal lines also use the aunt to provide back-up for the group as a whole. As baby-sitter, hunter, defender, nurturer. The kids, both human and animal, always know who mom is. Aunts don’t try and usurp the role, rather they function as a sort of stop-gap parent when needed. Receding into the background when no longer necessary. Lionesses in particular are interesting – any perceived overstepping of their mark – and the aunts are chased off . Happens to me too.
If I had a buck for every time I’ve been told I wouldn’t understand because I wasn’t a mom – I would be a rich aunt. Friends of mine who are also PANKs (Professional Aunts with No Children) report the same frustration: the very same person who got pregnant after a night of drunken revelry and a quick knee-trembler in the car park with the club bouncer, is now considered an expert in child rearing. All of the experience or training you may have had in your life, is rendered meaningless by an arbitrary spurt and meet between egg and sperm.
But not always. I’ve had to mediate in this kind of situation in my professional life – so I knew I had to back off and not try and solve the situation. I knew they needed to talk it out with no advice or edicts from me. I just had to clarify for them what they had heard from each other.
As they talked, Jasper narrowed down the possible suspects to two boys from his class. One, W he considered a friend, the other E – had been giving him a hard time since he joined the class. Calling him stupid, telling him to go back to where he came from. Riley got involved at this point – supporting her brother – telling him he “wasn’t stupid, that’s not true”. Hannah – who may have started off wanting to wound, now realised what she had done and tried to trail off. But truth and devotion to her friend still triumphed over family ties, and she just kept repeating: T wouldn’t lie.
So what to do?
Jasper sat for a while thinking. Then he said: “Suzie – I am going to ask them at school tomorrow.” He had realised he had two routes – to ignore and carry on as before yet harbour the knowledge. Or to confront and discover the truth: however painful that may prove to be. He chose the latter. And I was so proud.
Turns out he was right. W had said nothing – and was his friend still. The other boy, E: class alpha-pup: hadn’t liked the new loud, opinionated, late-comer in his territory. He felt challenged/position-threatened and reacted by rubbishing his competitor. A reaction that plays out every day in real life. And Hannah was right – T hadn’t lied. But she had been unkind.
We all gave him high fives. And that night while we were doing our “bests and worsts” of the day during dinner, both my brother and I affirmed him for being so brave and determined. He nodded sagely.
Lying in bed later I realised that this was what being an Aunt was about. Being a catch-net and a sounding board. And doing fun stuff. And holding them when they walked slap bang into reality.
The other – making them do things they didn’t want to (wash, clean teeth, make beds) and yelling to get their attention was just part of a process they understood – part of being kids. And I didn’t need to be perfect at it. I just needed to be there in the morning when they ran through, jumped into bed and asked me “what’s for breakfast?”