Auntie Glynnis

My Job As An Auntie Is To Tell Parents They’re Doing Great

The oldest kid in my life is 15; the youngest is in diapers. Here’s what I’ve learned: Your child will probably be fine.

by Glynnis MacNicol
The Aunties Issue

Forget about auntie. I’m in my old wives era. Not because I’m all that old, or a wife for that matter. Nor do I have any children of my own. What I do have is extensive experience with other people’s children. The eldest kid in my life turns 15 this year, and the youngest just turned 1, and between them are approximately a dozen more who at one time have referred to me as Auntie Glynnis. (Among other things, this means I have been attending toddler birthday parties for what feels like an eternity.) When you consider the average research grant is approximately five years, one might say this makes me, if not exactly an expert, a person who has observed up close a lot of child and parent behavior. And now, as I watch the first wave of babies whose diapers I changed approach the age where they will be driving cars, it means I’ve seen a lot of outcomes.

Which takes us back to those “old wives.”

It turns out, the wives in question may have been old (“old”) but were not necessarily married. It turns out the word wife stems from the Old English wif, which means woman. Old wives’ tales are actually old women’s tales and are, by Merriam-Webster’s definition, “an often traditional belief that is not based on fact.” The Cambridge Dictionary: “a superstitious or misleading story.” Essentially, Goop for the medieval era. My own understanding of old wives tales is simply learned wisdom passed down by women about women or things we consider the purview of women (aka not valued by men), like women’s bodies and health and mental states.

We turn to old wives and their tales less for information than for comfort. (There is, after all, a reason that Goop is so popular and that millions of people appear to be getting their therapy from Instagram accounts. Where else will we go for assurance?) From my slightly removed vantage point, I can see that most child care advice — most of the advice aimed at women, to be fair — is geared toward making mothers feel like they’re failing. There’s always a better way to do something, and here’s how much it will cost. Imagine for a moment how much of the economy would grind to a halt if women suddenly collectively decided we were all just fine, thank you, no purchase necessary.

Very few parents are failing. The planet is failing, yes. Laws protecting children from the digital demagogues are failing. You are not failing. You’re all doing fine.

After all these years in the children mines, or at least closely adjacent to them, I have also gained some “old wives” knowledge that I am happy to pass on. It boils down to this: Your child will probably be fine.

This is, admittedly, similar to the wisdom anyone with four or more children will also tell you: The sixth child simply cannot get the level of attention the first did, and lo, you learn rather quickly that kids are resilient. I recall a babysitting job I had when I was 12 (hello, 1980s!) for a family with six girls, all under the age of 10. I was, at the time, No. 1 on the local babysitting refrigerator call sheet, and this was the easiest babysitting gig I ever did because everyone but the 6-month-old had, by necessity, developed a level of self-sufficiency. They could be trusted not to burn the house down. They are all fine, by the way. Or I think at least five of them are, which, percentage-wise, is an impressive outcome.

I find myself, for instance, pointing to the many children in my life who are formula fed and in great emotional and physical health, and saying to the new-ish mother: Formula is fine. Or gently suggesting to an exhausted friend that your sleep schedule is more important than their sleep schedule because children benefit from happy parents. Or you’re not a bad person for wanting to return to work; or for not loving the small children phase; or for wanting to never return to work; or for knowing it was going to be hard, and then complaining about how hard it is. There is truth to all of this, but sometimes I also say these things because I’m never sure if anyone else is saying it.

Which is all just to say: You are not failing.

Very few parents are failing. The planet is failing, yes. Laws protecting children from the digital demagogues are failing. You are not failing. You’re all doing fine.

Lately I find I’m even keeping my old wives’ tales to myself. I’ve nearly stopped giving advice to anyone at all, but particularly to people with children younger than 6. I only weigh in when asked very directly. Way more helpful than advice is holding a child while someone is showering. Or folding laundry. Or offering to do bedtime. (Children always go to bed for people who are not their parents, and if they don’t, it doesn’t actually matter all that much because at the end of the night, however long it may be, I get to go home to my quiet apartment and excellent bathtub.)

A muscle memory for fun might be the only valuable thing we can be teaching anyone. Ourselves included.

Meanwhile, with the older kids, I am simply a means for them to get where they want to go, along with every other child who can be crammed into the car on the way. If I can compel them off their phones (or, more likely, if their monthly minute allotment runs out) I learn the lyrics to whatever song they’re listening to. Sometimes I can squeeze out some crush gossip, and then get thanked when I foot the bill for the gas-station snacks. Or spend a few hours standing outside the dressing room doing my best not to sound like my mother when I suggest other options for school dance dresses. My greatest moment of pre-teen triumph was being allowed to find out who was at the boys sleepover on the other end of a girls group texting session because “it’s OK, she’s cool.” (Aka, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for auntying.)

Perhaps the only advice I give these days (and it’s less advice than a word of encouragement shouted from my ’80s childhood to all the children stuck on this side of the Internet divide): Teaching your kids to have fun and enjoy life is maybe the most important skill you can give them. It’s more important than big vocabularies and reading levels. More important than test scores. I’ve only just entered the teen-years research phase, so consider this an early result, but contemplating the world that awaits them, a muscle memory for fun might be the only valuable thing we can be teaching anyone. Ourselves included. Goodness knows, I’ve only been made better, and stronger, and more resilient by every summer afternoon at the lake. Every bike ride for ice cream. Every hour I’ve spent explaining Star Wars and why Princess Leia is superior. These days, I try my best to pass it on.

Meanwhile, you’re doing great. I promise.

Glynnis MacNicol is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. She is the author of a memoir, No One Tells You This, and the forthcoming book, I'm Mostly Here to Enjoy Myself. She has written and produced several podcasts, as well as contributing to The New York Times, The Guardian, The Cut, Town & Country, and ELLE, among others. You can follow her on Instagram.