More than just “cool” relatives, aunts and uncles play a big role in childrearing

We all have them. The “cool” aunt or uncle who comes over on the weekend to play, buys the gifts the parents would never buy and lives the exciting single life in the city. It’s the person who picks out the frilliest outfit for your daughter’s first birthday party and lets your son drive a go-kart before you ever would. Increasingly, though, aunts and uncles are not just playing the role of the “fun” relative but are actively taking on strong parental roles in their nieces’ and nephews’ lives.

Melanie Notkin knows this role well.

Founder of the Web site, SavvyAuntie.com, Notkin takes her role as the “cool” aunt seriously. Running her Web site, which is now her full-time job, means she not only scopes out what’s hip for aunts to buy their nieces and nephews, but also provides advice and support for those like her.

“When my nephew was born in 2001, he immediately became the center of my life, but there was nothing out there to help support this newfound stature of being an aunt,” Notkin says.

“The closest I could find was cheesy onesies about the ‘cute aunt.’ I didn’t want my relationship to be like that.” In 2007, she says she decided to develop a media company for people like her. “There was a business opportunity here to reach this group of women who have the discretionary income to spend on their children and give them the honor they deserve. It was the perfect opportunity.”

Her site has about 60,000 unique visitors each month and counts on more than 11,000 Twitter followers and 2,300 fans on Facebook to get her message out. In addition, she’s coined some new auntie lingo to help relate to marketers and people like her.

For instance, Notkin calls herself a PANK-Professional Aunt No Kids. Her site also caters to ABCs (Aunts By Choice), those women who are aunts to their friend’s kids, but not by blood relation, and ABRs (Aunts By Relation.)

“It’s not just about buying the coolest toys,” Notkin says. “Hearing the stories of aunts who are unsung heroes coming in to help their siblings in need is the biggest point of pride for me.”

Scott Wendorf of Chicago knows what it’s like to be needed. He plays the role of transitional babysitter for his niece and nephew from 2-6 p.m. an average of three times a week.

“I’m one of the more athletic relatives in the family, so I’ve sort of taken on that role. We play lots of sports together,” he says.

Being an aunt or uncle is not always about fun and games. The number of children in foster care who are being cared for by members of their extended family-grandparents, aunts, uncles-continues to increase.

“One of the toughest things to hear on my site are the stories about aunts who come in and have to take over because their sister has been incarcerated or is a drug addict,” Notkin says. “It’s not the norm, but there are many situations out there where aunthood becomes motherhood.”

Even if the aunt or uncle is not a child’s primary caregiver, the motherly or fatherly bond between aunts and uncles and their nieces or nephews can still be very strong.

“My sister and nephew live in Denver, but I’ve seen them at least every other month since his birth,” Laurie Goldberg of Chicago says. “I’m madly in love with him, and I love him unconditionally. I always want to do more and more for him.”

As if traveling to Colorado a half dozen times a year wasn’t enough, Goldberg says she Skypes with or chats on the phone with her nephew almost every day.

“I have this conscious energy for him as my nephew and for loving him for who he is.”

There are some folks who think the aunt and uncle relationship warrants its own holiday, much like Mother’s or Father’s day. On its message boards, the Web site able2know.org suggests the date of July 26 as “Aunt and Uncle Day.” And while the date has not made it onto common calendars, Web sites abound with e-cards and special messages for aunts and uncles.

“According to the latest census, nearly 50 percent of women are not having children of their own,” Notkin says. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be included in the conversation.”

Often, the conversation turns to whether or not the favorite aunt or uncle will have their own children.

“I can’t wait to be a mom; it’s such a different job than the one I have now,” Goldberg says. “But until then, I intend to be the coolest aunt there is.”

Sometimes being childless is by choice.

“I used to say all the time before my niece and nephew were born that I wanted to have kids,” Wendorf says. “But now I see some of the downside to having kids. I may still want them; I guess we’ll see.”

For Notkin, however, being childless wasn’t totally her decision.

“I made a choice to wait for love rather than just get married to be a mom,” Notkin says. “I’m proud to be an aunt and I’m grateful to be happy in the life I’m in.”

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