There’s an art to being an auntie

FAMILY MATTERS: Ellen's daughter with her auntie, Ellen's sister

FAMILY MATTERS: Ellen's daughter with her auntie, Ellen's sister - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

MY sister is a PANK.

It’s the latest acronym to join the YUP (Young Upcoming Professional), the DINK (Dual Income, No Kids), the SITCOM (Single Income, Two Children, Oppressive Mortgage) and the WOOF (Well Off Older Folk).

PANK stands for Professional Auntie, No Kids, although perhaps my sister could be considered more of a PANKY and we could stick a “Yet” on the end. I certainly think that when she gets round to it, she will make an excellent mother.

But that’s a tricky thing to say to any woman who hasn’t had kids, isn’t it?

We all cringe in the opening scene of Bridget Jones’s Diary when lecherous Uncle Geoffrey sidles up to Bridget at her mother’s turkey curry buffet and asks when she is going to get “sprogged up”.

“You career girls,” he continues. “You can’t put it off forever. Tick-tock, tick-tock.”

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Why, when a woman has reached her 30s, is she expected to start thinking about having children?

And worse, why is it deemed acceptable to ask her to justify any delay?

A website has sprung up in defence of women who have found themselves in this hideous predicament.

Savvy Auntie is an online community for aunts, godmothers and women who don’t have kids but want to indulge their maternal streak anyway without the pressure.

Knowing how close my sister is to my two children, I can see why the forum has become so successful. It has even championed an Aunts’ and Uncles’ Day to be held in July.

In the realm of family relationships, I’ve always thought these are the relatives who deserve a bit more attention.

Parents represent security, safety and discipline to a child; grandparents provide the extra love and cuddles; but it is aunts and uncles that offer the most potential for uncomplicated friendship.

These days I think it’s a role often overlooked, but, historically, the position of aunt, in particular, has featured heavily in literature.

Fictional or real, wonderful or villain, heroic or eccentric, the aunt has played a pivotal part.

Remember Auntie Em, the calm, collected and reassuring presence in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz? Or the terrifying Aunt Sponge and prickly Aunt Spiker in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach? The 19th century was chock-a-block with aunts. The Brontë sisters were raised by one and Jane Austen adored hers, once writing to her own niece: “I have always maintained the importance of aunts.”

I have enjoyed a good relationship with all my own aunts. Indeed, as a child I remember being rather dumbstruck by the glamour and youth of my fun and frivolous Auntie Mandy.

I also recall being able to confide certain worries or fears to my Aunt Libby, absolutely certain she could offer better solutions than my mum. If the writings of psychologist Steve Biddulph are to be believed, this is hardly surprising.

The best-selling author, who has recently published Raising Girls, a follow-up to his phenomenally successful Raising Boys, claims the relationship between an aunt and her niece is of paramount importance.

He points out that, try as she might, no mother can meet all the needs of her daughter and that it falls to aunts (or pseudo aunts such as close female family friends) to create a safe space for girly chat.

An aunt, whether trendy, maiden or embarrassing, will also provide the fun a mother can’t, because she is not restricted by parental discipline, routine and timekeeping.

My sister certainly fits these criteria.

When we lived in London, she lived in a flat beneath us with her boyfriend, and the pair of them would pop in regularly, usually at the most inconvenient times possible, bringing sweets and playing wild games, keeping the kids up way past bedtime.

Then they would blow kisses and breeze out, leaving behind the devastation of the crash after a sugar rush.

“Try not to hype them up,” I would plead uselessly as my children whooped and hollered, dive-bombing off the sofa.

They still act like the appearance of their aunt means all rules go temporarily out of the window. Which, I suppose, they do.

But the thing is, I can hardly complain when I can see how beneficial the relationship is.

My daughter enjoys the undivided attention of my sister, who will sit and marvel at her intricate drawings, discuss her playground troubles with friends without once dismissing them as “silly”, and masterfully weave her hair into a French braid without once pulling it.

My son, on the other hand, has found in both his uncles – my sister’s partner and my brother – men who will patiently kick a ball round the garden for several hours, happily dance to Gangnam Style on repeat and laugh uproariously at his jokes about bottoms.

It should annoy me that while I do all the hard work to raise my kids, it is relationships like these which are likely to leave the indelible traces of pleasure in their childhood memories. But it doesn’t.

I’ve always agreed with the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. And that means aunts and uncles are a vital part of the tribe.

The only thing that irks me is the acronym I have ended up with as a result.

I asked my daughter this week what made her aunt so special.

“Is she so very different to me?” I pressed.

“Yes,” she said. “She is clever, kind and really pretty. She never gets cross and she is not as bossy as you.”

So if I am the opposite of her, does that make me Foolish, Rude, Ugly, Mundane and Pushy? Oh dear. I’m a FRUMP.

Please email me on or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup