Traveling for two weeks was nice, but it meant missing out on things at home. Primarily that meant my brother's family, including Smiley Boy and his brand-new baby sister, who in my head is nicknamed Tiny. We checked in with them a couple of times by video, but it's not the same. You can't really snuggle a video.
The first time I saw Smiley Boy after we came home, he immediately launched into a discussion of the characters in Angry Birds Star Wars II, which is his current main obsession. I confess I might have wished for a hug and an "I'm glad you're back" before he launched into the geekery of his favorite stuff, but he's a kid. Whaddya gonna do. Anyway, I understand that kind of obsession very well myself.
It was more clear that Smiley Boy missed us when he stayed overnight with us last week, to help out his mom and dad with schedule wrangling. For all it's easier to work when the house is quiet, it was also nice to have the kiddo around again. He's been home with his family while his mom is on maternity leave with Tiny. So even before traveling, we weren't seeing as much of him. It was nice to have more time to play with him again.
I still didn't realize quite how much I was missed until yesterday. My dad mentioned a conversation he had at church with a lady who babysat Smiley Boy while we were away. Apparently he talked about us a lot. Specifically me. I'm sort of flabbergasted by that.
It's the flipside to my experience on the road. We spent a week at Disney World with my other brother's family, including my niece Pigtail Girl. From the very start, she had specific things she wanted to do with me, rides and events and "saving the world" at Epcot (that probably needs its own post in explanation). I wish I could have spent more time with her, because I missed out on some things by having to do work. But it was still nice (kind of exhausting occasionally, but still really nice) to have my growing-up niece really excited to spend a lot of time with her aunt Crissy.
I forget this. It's almost ridiculous, but I can actually forget how important these kids are to me, and how much in turn they want to spend time with their silly aunt. I get hyperfocused on my grown-up worries and forget that I am a favorite person for at least two individuals on the planet. If I didn't spend time with them, it would matter. They would miss it. They would miss ME. I hardly ever think that anyone could miss me much, but they really would.
Grownups who don't have kids, you have a unique opportunity. Being an uncle or aunt is a wholly different relationship than that between parents and kids. There's less weight of responsibility and something which feels more like friendship is possible, even between an adult and a young kid, inside this kind of relationship. It's good for kids to know that more adults love them than just their moms and dads. Good for them to have extra people to visit and be excited about and play with, whether they are family or close friends who may as well be family. Being an honorary "aunt" or "uncle" is pretty much as good as being an actual one, in all the ways that matter.
In my experience, being one of a kid's favorite people isn't very complicated. It takes listening a lot, and the fewer grown-up judgments of things the better. It takes a willingness to play kid games and have actual fun doing them (not such a hard thing, and it's healthy for grownups not to take themselves so seriously all the time either). A good solid repertoire of hugs and affectionate teases help -- not the mean kind of teases, the kind that both you and the little ones laugh at, that are directed both ways and become like family shorthand for shared fun and goofiness.
Kids are awesome, and being an aunt is pretty awesome too. Some kiddos are among my very favorite people, and for a couple of them, I get to be one of their favorite people too.