The ‘cool’ aunty. The aunty who has no kids but is always around to blow raspberries on their niece’s bellies, or bandage up a nephew’s scraped knee. The auntie who is not a blood relation but still sends you a crisp $50 note tucked into a birthday card each year without fail.
Who are these doting women contributing to ‘otherhood?’
While countless research has been conducted on the importance of parents and grandparents in a child’s life, the role an aunty plays has been largely ignored. And yet more than ever women are becoming PANKs (Professional Aunt No Kids) through choice or life circumstances. A 2012 US study called the ‘Power of the PANK’ found that PANKs are an emerging demographic of child-loving women who don’t have children of their own. There are an estimated 23 million PANKs in America who are annually spending $9 billion on toys and gifts for nieces and nephews.
While countless research has been conducted on the importance of parents and grandparents in a child’s life, the role an aunty plays has been largely ignored.
But aunties come bearing more than just expensive gifts according to Dr Robert Milardo, author of The Forgotten Kin: Aunts & Uncles – they also provide additional nurturing care and support for children.
“[Aunties] can support the work of parents in helping to raise children and act as supplemental parents. They can also help advise and support parents in their difficulties in raising children,” he tells SBS.
It takes a village to raise a child
Sarah Flanagan, fundraising specialist and proud aunt to 11 nieces and nephews believes her job is to be a different kind of role-model than what they get from their parents:
“Children need varying adults in their life to test their boundaries and behaviours with, to learn from and to help guide them and teach them,” says Flanagan.
“I also think you’re there as a somewhat mediator between the parents and the kids, someone to see both sides and help navigate the unchartered waters.”
Educator Mel Meindl has “one perfect niece” and sees her role as adaptive based on what the family needs:
“My sister is a single mum, so some days being auntie means being an auntie, other times it means playing dad, and sometimes it just means being a good sibling so my sister has the support she needs to raise her daughter the best she can.”
Unconditional love and loss
According to Dr Milardo many aunts develop very close and long-lasting relationships with their nieces and nephews:
“It is not uncommon for nieces and nephews to refer to their favoured aunt or uncle as like a second mother, or second father.”
This element of love and commitment is the reason behind growing online communities like Savvy Auntie. Here, ‘otherhood’ is praised and aunts can freely discuss the love they have for another’s child.
Flanagan understands this “bizarre protective love” that aunts have for their nieces and nephews:
“They’re these little humans that you watch develop personalities and unique characteristics, and it’s so unbelievably special to have them in your life …”
For Flanagan, this love was felt no stronger than when she lost a nephew of nine months old last year to SIDS.
“I will never be able to forget the trauma of the news when I found out. I can’t explain the complexity of the pain and the grief.”
Flanagan says while an aunt’s grief is nothing compared to a parent’s, it still can’t be ignored.
“… You’ve watched them grow, held them and share their blood, it feels like you too have lost something so unbelievably significant that you’ll never really realise how it impacts you [until] time goes by.”
“I never knew how much my life was built around these children until I lost one.”
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This story is part of a two-part SBS Life series discussing alternative female parenting roles. Read the second piece in the series, 'In praise of stepmums: Why it's time to farewell the wicked stepmother myth'.