Monday, August 2, 2010

Being Okay With Not Being The Favorite

“Happy Birthday to the Greatest Aunt in The World!”

That’s what my 12-year-old niece wrote on the card she made for my 44th birthday six years ago. I found it the other day while attempting to organize my desk, and I still remember how proud I felt when I first opened it--and how relieved. I'd finally won the race.

It just goes to show what a scary place your mind can become when you're obsessed with winning and fearful of losing a little girl's affection.

My niece was four when her mother, my ex-sister-in-law, remarried. And with her new step-father bringing his family into the fold, she would now have God knows how many grandparents, five aunts (and each of their current or future husbands as uncles), four uncles (and each of their current or future wives as aunts), two brothers, one sister, two fathers, and one mother—or two, if my brother ever remarried.

How, I worried, was she ever going to remember me?

It was no wonder when my niece was 10, and I asked if her friends had any pretty mommies with which to fix up her daddy, the smile on her face disappeared and she said, “No, I don’t want any more relatives.”

It's probably because I have no children of my own—or any other nieces or nephews--but I have felt very attached to my niece since the moment I met her. She was two months old, and I--who always thought animals were cuter than babies--was stunned by my feelings toward her. She looked so much like my brother. My heart hurt it was so full of love for her.

But when her mother remarried, I wondered how I would nurture a relationship with a child who lived so far away and whom I would see once or twice a year. And what if I missed a year?

Which is exactly what happened when my niece turned eight. I usually saw her every Easter, when her family visited Florida for spring break. But they weren't able to come that year.

When I did see her again, two years had passed. I was sure she wouldn’t remember me. We were at an Easter egg hunt, and when I saw her standing off to the side, clutching a wicker basket with her tiny hands, something tightened around my throat.

“I’m your Aunt Janis,” I said, crouching down to meet her at eye level. “Remember me?”

“Oh, Aunt Janis,” she said, her enormous grin melting my insecurity, “Of course I remember you.”

But a few days later, when she seemed so disappointed to learn that I was no longer her “relative with the most pets”, I worried she might have lost her only reason to remember me in the future. The last time she had visited, my husband and I were the rescuers of two cats, one dog, two parakeets and three fish. But we had recently found better homes for the birds and fish, making us an unremarkable three-pet family.

So from that moment on I felt a compulsion to run the race faster, especially since she didn't seem to care about talking on the phone or corresponding by e-mail. I thought I had to always give the best gifts, be the most fun and the nicest. And it was exhausting, my constant fear of tripping, falling and losing--if not this race, then the next.

It was also insane, treating someone I loved as something to be won and others she loved as opponents to be beaten. As if I really had anything to do with how she felt about me anyway. I wasn't that powerful. I couldn’t make my niece love me.

That’s the chance we take when we love someone, that we may not be loved back.

I retired from the Greatest Aunt race the year I got that handmade birthday card. I never liked competition anyway.

Recently I decided to write my niece a real letter—instead of an e-mail or leaving a comment on her Facebook page.
And I'll be okay if she doesn't write back.

Or think I'm the greatest aunt in the world anymore.

QUESTION: Are you able to love your friends and family without competing for their affections and, if not, why?
(Not sure how to leave your name or pseydonym with your post?  See above left.)