On a cold night, at the back table in Starbucks, they tell you.
You shriek. Your little sister is—yes—glowing, and her husband is smiling beside her. You’re trying to catch your breath: there will be a baby. A baby. It’s dizzying. You know your sister is old enough, but is she really old enough? And are you?
Through sympathetic phone calls, you learn about pregnancy. Especially morning sickness. You learn to really hate morning sickness. Then comes the birth: the birth is a little crazy. Your sister wears pigtails to the hospital and looks seven years old, which freaks you out. You wait in a horrible gray waiting room. Pacing. (It’s cliché, but you’re doing it anyway.) Watching the doorway of her room like it’s going to wave back at you.
Finally you go in. You see this tiny swaddled body, a red face, and bright eyes under a pink hat.
Your heart implodes.
Your Niece slow-blinks at you. Have you ever held a true newborn? You’re afraid to breathe on her, terrified you’ll drop her. You can’t stop staring.
The baby comes home, and all conversations are about poop. The doctor sends a chart for recording poop size, texture, color. It’s normal dinner conversation: pass the bread, and hey, when we were gone, did she poop? Can you describe it?
But there are moments when she locks eyes with you. When it’s just Baby and you, those big chocolate eyes staring into yours. What is she thinking? You hope she approves of you. You touch her nose, her thin eyebrows, her fuzzy black hair. You trace her perfect ears. And you find yourself telling her things, the ridiculous and the confidential. And she smiles at you, just a little.
When you spend days with her, you find a succession of Things drying on you: spit-up in your hair, poop on your sleeve, oat cereal caked on your arm. There’s the day when you hear her laugh and you’re delighted: it’s a barmaid’s laugh, earthy and hoarse.
You get up at four a.m. to rock her back to sleep, and you are so tired that your arms don’t feel connected to your body. But there’s something unutterably precious about the small sweaty weight on your shoulder. The warm head against your jawbone, the fist holding your hair as you sway in the dark, a slow dance to her CD of silly songs.
The Niece grows into a fast-moving toddler, and now she’s joined by a Nephew. Meanwhile (because aunts are sisters first), you’ve been watching your little sister. And she has grown into a genius mama, wiser and more courageous than before. You’re both proud and protective of her, so when someone criticizes her mothering technique, you daydream a little plan that may or may not involve 1) the dead of night, 2) masks, and 3) baseball bats.
As you hold the Nephew, the Niece chatters away to you, full of questions, observations. She even tells you jokes. If you’re cooking, she pushes a chair over and hops up beside you: “I want to help!” The Nephew adores anything to do with wheels—cars, record players, even circular air vents. With his fierce little chin and haunting eyes, he reminds you of a golden fox.
You’re getting better at this aunthood gig. These two kids are reasonably safe, well-fed, and happy on your watch. You’ve developed a whole routine of silly voices, goofy faces, and wild high-kicking dances that distract them so they eat their peas.
They’re better company than most adults: They’ve ruined you for the over-complicated conversations at parties, all that chatting about nothing. Your eyes glaze over, and you take refuge with the kids. Your Nephew pushes a toy car along your arm, and your Niece snuggles in as you read yet another story.
Then comes this day: You’re on a plane bound for your sister’s house. Her husband has a business trip, so you’re coming for a week of high intensity aunt-work. The Niece and Nephew have been joined by a baby girl, so it’s three little ones. Three! You’ve packed extra vitamins.
The plane takes off. After the usual where-are-you-headed chat, the woman in 7A says, “That’s the great thing about being an aunt: You get to give them back.”
Give them back?
You remember life before Niece #1. Sure, it was remarkably free of poop talks and certain forms of discomfort. But somehow, through knowing these kids—getting them to laugh, recover from falls, go back to sleep, stay on the potty chair, get over tantrums, have a dance party, go back to sleep—somehow, through all of it, there’s more you to you.
Up there at 34,000 feet, you’re profoundly grateful for everything they’ve given you. For the times when they saw you were sad and cheered you up. When your Niece prays for you over the phone because you’re sick. When your Nephew gives you the most profoundly loving look, and then seals it with a massive head-butt. Or when the littlest one lights up because you looked at her. They teach you more about joy than anything else in your life.
Give them back? You’d be so much the lesser.
So it’s good that there is no back, not for you. No day when you’re not thinking of them. No way to pry those thirty small fingers off of your heart; no shrugging and saying “back to normal!” No losing all the ways they have taught, changed, and expanded you.
They deserve a better one, but they got you for an aunt.
And you’re crazy-grateful that they don’t seem to want to give you back.
Jenn Langefeld graduated from Calvin in 2006 and charged into a life of full-time novel writing. She is currently working on an exuberant, adventurous trilogy for middle grade readers. She writes under her great-grandmother’s name, Lucy Flint, and blogs about making a lionhearted writing life at lucyflint.com.