I begin to suspect my nieces, 12 and 9, don’t quite see me as a grown-up when I get a text from one while she is playing at the park that reads: “Can you ask one of the grown-ups to come and help me?”
Apparently one of my younger nephews, whom she is playing with, is running away.
“Do you need me to come?” I write.
“I need a grown-up!” she says.
So I go to the park and tell my nephew to come back, and he comes back, because I’m 35.
And yet, even after handling the shit out of that situation, they still look at me sideways as I turn on the stove to make them dinner while babysitting one night.
“We’re not allowed to use the stove without Mom and Dad,” they say.
“Yes,” I say. “YOU’RE not allowed to use the stove without Mom and Dad. I can use the stove whenever I want.” I turn up one of the burners for effect.
They exchange cautious glances.
“How old do you guys think I am?!”
They’re not sure.
“Okay, listen up,” I say. “I am a grown-up. That means I can use the stove whenever I want. I can go to bed whenever I want, have ice-cream whenever I want, watch TV whenever I want. I can wear whatever I want. I have a bank account and everything so I can buy whatever I want. Grown-up. Me.”
They take it all in.
“Being a grown-up sounds amazing,” the younger one breathes and when I hear her say it, it occurs to me that grown-ups likely call themselves adults, don’t they?
Being a grown-up/adult IS amazing. It’s totally amazing. Even when there is a massive storm that causes the electricity to go out and it’s pitch black all throughout the house and you can’t see your hand in front of your face and your nieces are a little freaked out and you have to go searching in the dark for flashlights and candles and hold their hands and tell them “it’s going to be okay, it’s just a little darkness” but you can’t find any flashlights or candles and you wonder how long till the lights come back on. And one of your niece’s has a tummy ache and you mime your way back upstairs to find the hot water bottle she likes to use when she has a tummy ache, all the while calling out to them so they aren’t scared in the dark alone. But then you remember there’s a blackout so you can’t heat the water bottle that she really, really wants, so instead you rub her tummy and try to distract her with funny stories.
And yet, even after I handle the blackout and the tummy ache LIKE A BOSS, they still laugh at me when I tell them it’s bed time. I tell them again, and they laugh again, and so we have a pajama dance party to Nicki Minaj (#inappropriate) and then I say “no, really, it’s time for bed,” and we all sit at the kitchen table and have bowls of cereal together. We finish and I say “seriously guys, it’s bedtime,” and then we all get into their parent’s big bed and watch The Next Step, which I only moderately enjoy because I’m a grown-up and it’s not meant for me.
It’s getting late.
“Okay guys, it’s bed time for realz,” I say, because I’m authoritative AND cool and they agree to pretend to be asleep when their parents get home but then they both actually fall asleep and I stay sandwiched between them. I lie there, listening to their breathing, and sometimes I turn my head ever so slightly and inhale the shampoo in their recently washed hair and I think to myself that I can’t remember such a wonderful Friday night.
I love my nieces so much and getting to be an aunt is one of the very best things to ever happen to me. But lying there between them, I begin to wonder if I’m not so much an aunt as I am a friend? And does it matter?
Since they were born, I have made a concerted effort to connect with my nieces on their level. I have followed fashion trends and music trends to an embarrassing degree, wanting to know their world. I have gotten down on the floor to play whatever imaginary games when they were little and as they got older I agreed that Dave Franco was “so hot!” even though I don’t really think he’s hot at all. We share a Best Friends Forever heart necklace, cut in three. I always thought this connection between us was sweet and tender, if a little funny. But as my nieces get older, it’s important to me that they feel safe with me more than it’s important that they know I know all the words to “Anaconda.”
These fears come to a head for me when I get a letter from my niece this summer while she’s at overnight camp. My niece knows I am going through infertility treatments and she writes to ask how I am feeling, how things are going. It’s the first thing she asks when I come to see her after she gets back. I feel her genuine concern.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” I reassure her. “I only get to worry about you.”
“But I love you, Auntie Wendy,” she says. And I believe her. I hug her and tell her I love her too and it feels pure and good and true and perfect.
I don’t need to judge myself and my relationships so intensely. I don’t need to see myself through my nieces’ eyes. I just need to see myself through my own, as someone who can still throw an epic PJ dance party.