When I was 17 my brother had a baby and I became an aunt for the first time. My parents first grandchild. My brother was 24. I also was diagnosed with Lymes Disease and Fibromyalgia that year. I didn’t know what I was going to do after high school which I graduated by the skin of my teeth. While I tried to figure it all out, I started community college. My brother who had gotten married relatively quickly was struggling with his marriage and a new baby. By the time I turned 18, he and his wife and daughter plus his bonus daughter had moved in with my parents aka with me as well since myself and my younger brother were still living at home.

Because I was there an awful lot and they were struggling with having enough childcare, I babysat a ton for my new nieces.

Soon enough my brothers wife moved out with his step daughter, leaving their ten month old baby with my brother and my family as a part of their custody agreement. He was traveling for work a lot while trying to figure out how to be a single dad and I babysat multiple days/nights a week. While my mom was willing whenever she was home, she was still working full time as an on call nurse. So from age 17 to 22, while my life just couldn’t seem to work itself out, I spent a lot of hours with my niece. I loved being an aunt.

She was a little firecracker, hilarious and outgoing but also so in tune with the people around her. She could tell when her dad and I were at odds, which we often were since we were and still are exact opposites and trying to live in the same house was a struggle. If she could tell I was upset she would tell him off.

BE NICE TO LIZZIE, I LOVE HER.

It usually made him realize he loved me too and made us both be nicer because I certainly wasn’t innocent in terms of us arguing.

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But she also asked me deep questions like why I wasn’t her mom. I’d say tell her the same thing each time. Soon she stopped asking, accepting our relationship for what it was. I was her very special cool Aunt.

I’m not your mom because your mom is your mom and no one can ever take that away, but we have a special relationship that will never change either.

Her mom only had her part time so I had fallen into a role that wasn’t something I’d expected at age 18. I’d tuck her into bed, read her stories and sing her baby mine multiple nights a week. She would stay in my room too, sleep overs at Lizzie’s was a favorite of both of ours (even with her teeth grinding and hogging the bed). We would pick a movie and snuggle in and talk about anything that worried her. I’d take her to the movies and the mall. I was the “cool aunt” but I was also something a little bit more. It was unique and unexpected and I loved it.

 

It also really made me aware of the sacrifices you have to make as a parent. My brother worked so hard to be everything to his daughter, both mom and dad when needed. Always available and fun but firm. At the same time he was a young dad trying to have a social life, pursue a career and make enough to move out of my parents house. Eventually he did, but then back in again later because taking care of your daughter when you travel for work as a single dad is so incredibly difficult. I saw that struggle and knew I wanted to wait. I wanted to be able to put my kid first just like he did.

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My brother Dan and his daughter Lucy on Christmas my last year living with them.

Eventually I moved out of my parents house, stopped being the cool live in aunt/main babysitter. I moved even further than just to my own place; I moved across the country. The hardest part was walking away from my niece, I missed her so much. But she had started kindergarten and my brother was in a relationship and living on his own with his girlfriend.

So I felt it was time for me to leave the nest and start my own life.

While I was away she went from a spunky kindergartner to a teenager in what seemed like a day. When you only see a child twice a year they grow a lot faster. I was still so impressed with my brothers parenting. No matter what happened with his personal or professional life his daughter came first. She never wants for anything. Even when her mother died suddenly, he made sure she wasn’t alone or lacking in the care and help she needed to deal with her grief. I saw all this first hand every time I’d visit. I’d make sure we had a night to hang just us girls, a day of shopping and gossiping and then a sleep over with a movie she picked.

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Hanging with Lucy at Folk Fest when she was 12.

By the time I was ready to get pregnant and start my own family she was 12 years old. I had waited until I was 31 to have my own child. As they often say, seeing someone close to you have a baby can be the best birth control. A lot had changed from the time when I didn’t know what I was doing and my free time went to helping out with my niece. I had a house, a husband, dogs and a store that I owned. But I thought I might have a leg up on a lot of first time parents. I had seen the struggle first hand. I knew how exhausting it was but that if you had a good support system how doable it was too.

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My two favorite girls, Juniper my daughter on the left and Lucy my niece on the right.

Oh how wrong I was. I may not be surprised by the tantrums and the mess but I was certainly shocked by how tired I was. I didn’t have my mom, or my brothers to help me. I was the main caregiver, I was the real parent. Not like how I was before where I was the main HELPER. I realized all the sudden the difference. I was really in a nuclear family for the first time in my life. But I knew that if my brother as a single dad could raise his daughter who was turning out to be a funny, smart and empathetic teenager the way he had, then I could handle this. I’m a more patient mother and a less judgmental one because I saw it allĀ  as a young aunt. And I HOPE that I’m not just a regular mom but a cool mom because I was a cool aunt for all those years first. And I thank my stars I got the opportunity I did to see such good parenting and be part of her and my brothers life the way I was then.