Some of my friends had children early, a development that was generally greeted by the rest of us with bemused pity. My fellow childless friends and I would visit homes inundated by kiddie knick-knacks, and then, as we headed home, wonder how on earth they coped with the avalanche of Duplo and dirty nappies, grateful to be retreating back into self-absorbed normality.
When you’re still somewhat young yourself, the prospect of having to sacrifice sleep and socialising to provide for a creature that at first can’t even talk and then has a vocabulary largely limited to discussing Peppa Pig seems roughly equivalent to being under house arrest, only with less free time for watching grown-up TV.
But then at a certain point, you realise that having children around might not be the most hideous thing imaginable, and then your friends start having them, and you start thinking that it might in fact be manageable, seeing as you’re much more competent than your friends and your own children would be considerably more delightful than theirs.
Finally – and this is the stage in which I’ve found myself lately – it becomes a case of peer pressure, and it’s like being the last person to get a Game Boy, except now it’s an actual boy, and while they’re not nearly as good at playing Tetris, they still seem kind of fun.
But for some of us – the lucky ones, in my view – there is a halfway house between carefree irresponsibility, and the full-time burden of parenthood. And that is being an uncle or an aunt.
I remember the day my nephew was born, a little over three years ago, with great fondness. But the day that really sticks with me is the first day I was left alone with him, a few months after that. His mum had to run off to do some urgent task or other, and I had no clue what I was supposed to do, and was absolutely terrified that I’d drop him, or somehow cause lasting psychological damage. Then, when he immediately began crying, I somehow figured out that the task was simply to occupy him, so I just wandered around the room, showing him things to distract him until he cried, at which point I moved on to show him something else. It worked, more or less – even though I kept showing him the same three or four pictures, fortunately he seemed not to remember that he’d seen them before. I felt like a childcare virtuoso.
As an uncle, I’ve experienced a lot of the fun of playing games, and reading stories, and sneakily feeding while distracting, and coaxing to sleep, and hanging out with young kids. And I’ve had to cop very little of the sleep deprivation and hideous clean-ups involved in parenthood. What’s more, I’ve rarely had to do it for more than a few hours at a time, which has tended to suit me just fine. These experiences have given me confidence that I could cope with the full-time gig if I had to, but made me appreciate my freedom as well.
I was lucky to have an abundance of uncles and aunts growing up – seven, to be precise, plus their partners on top of that, and they were lovely to my brother and me. Being babysat by one of them was always a special treat, especially since they never quite understood our parents’ strict television-watching rules. I’m hoping to carry on that tradition of not applying parental discipline for many years to come.
In fact, one thing I particularly like about unclehood is that it’s almost expected that you’ll be annoying in various ways, like when I got my nephew a drum kit for his birthday this year. He loved it, and his parents seemed to think it was funny – that might wear off as I keep giving him an upgraded, louder version every few years.
Recently I introduced him to Angry Birds, which is his major obsession at the moment. I’ve argued that it’s a superior pastime to passively watching movies for a child, and it’s teaching him geometry. Really, though, I just like being able to play Angry Birds in the middle of family occasions, and looking like I’m being a nice uncle who’s spending time with his nephew.
I have a niece now as well. She’s only a few months old, and I’ve been reminded that just having her hold my index finger in her hand while she lies on her back and smiles is a wonderful source of satisfaction, insofar as it means she isn’t crying. I’m looking forward to introducing her to video games and noisy toys a few years hence as well.
Unclehood and aunthood aren’t statuses we choose, of course. If your sibling is in a stable relationship where children are possible, anything you do to encourage them to reproduce will inevitably seem weird and/or creepy – besides, dropping unsubtle hints about storks is the kind of thing parents do in excessively familiar wedding speeches. Just sit back and hope it happens, and then you’ll be in for a treat. You’ll finally get to win the argument about which kid has the more rock’n’roll lifestyle, while simultaneously getting to experience what’s essentially an edited highlights reel of parenting.
Whether or not you ever get to have children of your own, the uncle/aunt relationship offers maximum emotional upside with very little downside. And if occasionally you wonder what it’d be like to have someone calling you mummy or daddy and clinging to you as though their very life depended on it, I’ve found that any such pangs can rapidly and effectively be salved when you leave your sibling to it and take off for a night out.
Unclehood might be the closest I ever come to parenthood – it’s impossible to know. But I am sure of one thing, which is that I can’t imagine life without it. It’s a wonderful feeling every single time my nephew runs up to give me a big hug hello, and I’m willing to admit that it can also be wonderful sometimes when, after my arms are exhausted from throwing him up in the air and catching him, I can simply hand him back to his parents.