By Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri
It takes a village to raise a child. While parents mostly remain primary caregivers, the immediate families on either side tend to aid the parenting process by way of running errands and handling some of the gazillion little chores that contribute to the day in the life of a child.
In such a scenario, having a willing uncle or aunt is certainly a blessing for the young child and his/her parents. On the other hand, unmarried or single siblings of young parents too are eagerly making themselves a part of their niece/nephew’s life, testing the experience of parenting without feeling the weight of the role’s responsibilities. Investing time and effort into raising a child that isn’t their own, a lot of uncles and aunts are balancing being the “cool” relative with being a father/mother figure—all this while also enjoying their unmarried, daily lives.
Splitting the roles
Neharika Basu feels like a “cool parent” to her five-year-old nephew. She gets to indulge him more than his parents would while simultaneously participating in his school-related activities. “The fact that we’re a joint family makes being a part of Krish’s life almost effortless. My parents are ageing and my sister-in-law and my brother (Krish’s parents) have careers they’re very passionate about. It was natural for me to assist them wherever I could.”
So Neharika, a graphic designer who works out of an office space not too far away from their home in Central Mumbai, started to actively participate in her nephew’s life. With a nanny also hired to handle the bathing/feeding/cleaning activities, Neharika’s role became a mix of participatory and supervisory. The nature of her work also contributed a big way in making this easier to take on.
She explains, “My hours are flexible, so I can easily watch over Krish while his nanny gets to do the otherwise exhaustive work. We get to play, go to the park, attend kids’ birthday parties (and there are a lot, mind you!) together. I get to contribute to the school plays and concerts by designing invites and backdrops. That way my brother and sister-in-law need not have to be affected by the various expectations and get to truly focus on the more emotional heavy-lifting that parenting in about – teaching life lessons and virtues, helping him navigate through the pressures of being a pre-schooler and other such pivotal issues that actually require the full attention of the parents. Anyone can do the chores, but with us supporting the parents, they get to focus on the biggest responsibility of parenting, that of raising a good human being.”
Sushmita Murthy, a media professional based in Mumbai, finds her relationship with her niece to be highly rewarding. “Single or not, the company of children is extremely rewarding. The idea of going back home after work is so much more exciting now than it ever was. My three-year-old niece is by far the best stress reliever/entertainment package at the end of a day or at any point, for that matter. On some days, I choose her over Netflix!” says Sushmita.
While her niece is a source of much entertainment and fulfilment in Sushmita’s life, she also plays a crucial part of the little girl’s social activities. Staying in the same building meant that she didn’t have to make too much of an effort to chisel her place in the three-year-old’s life. Did she accidentally grow into this role in her niece’s life or did she make a conscious decision to be a part of it? “I was naturally drawn towards her and love the time that I spend with her. I’d almost not know what to do if she weren’t around. Whenever I’m home, I am in charge of chaperoning during the evening play sessions with the building friends. On some days, I drive her to and back from her playschool too,” she says.
Single aunts and uncles are unanimous in their belief that the experience of “almost-parenting” prepares them for the role even before they get married. Rajat Singh has been looking after his sister’s young twin boy and girl since they were born. What started as a “I’ll help you when I’m free” sort of arrangement has now morphed into a serious responsibility he pencils into his schedule.
He laughs, “My girlfriend of five years finds it quite endearing that I can braid my niece’s hair (messily) and bathe the kids. I can handle them for days in the absence of their parents. Sure, we have a lot more masti, but that’s what uncles and aunts are also for, right? I always tell people they’re my kids and I get the feeling that they would be just as important to me if not more, even when I have my own kids. Just as living-in is a great way to understand marriage, almost-parenting (that’s what I call it!) is a great way to test the waters. And through that process, you’re actually making someone else’s life a little bit less hectic while adding value to yet another’s.”
As Sushmita perfectly encapsulates it, “I never really had an opinion (on parenting) except that it’s a lot of work. That has only been reasserted with my experience as an aunt. Only now, I also think that it’s worth it, whether the child is biologically yours or adopted. Having said that, being an aunt doesn’t involve you in the heavy-duty parenting stuff like maintaining vaccination timetables, running around for admissions, etc. It is just the right balance of the fun and intense stuff, like rocking a baby until it pees and then it’s handover time.”