When Conner was born 11 years ago, Andi Rosenthal was 30 and in the process of converting to Judaism. “I had no idea that there was room in my life or in my heart” for Conner and his younger brother, Ryan. “I never anticipated the space that they would create for themselves and how much love would emerge for them. I never knew that they would be just everything to me,” says the Westchester resident.
She expected those emotions from the boys’ parents, she says, but she was just their aunt. Well, not “just.”
“We’re expected to be removed, or to not love them as much,” she tells The Jewish Week, explaining that the birth of a niece or nephew is a “very overlooked moment” for aunts. “You hear so much about how parents adjust to parenting, but no one talks about how aunts adjust to the presence of a new child in their lives,” she says.
Melanie Notkin, founder of the popular web community SavvyAuntie.com, wants to change that. The Jewish 42-year-old lives on the Upper West Side and is devoted to her five nieces and one nephew. She recently published “Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide For Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers, and All Women Who Love Kids” (William Morrow: 2011), a book she hopes will help women view aunt-hood as a badge of honor rather than a consolation prize.
“These PANKS (Professional Aunts No Kids) aren’t childless — they’re childful!” Notkin says. “And their love is a gift.” The time Savvy Aunties spend baking, doing homework, bathing and playing with the children in their lives is a tremendous contribution, and should be viewed as such, she says. “Every book we read, every booboo we kiss, is a gift; there is no obligation.”
The idea for Savvy Auntie grew out of Notkin’s own experiences as a single professional living in Manhattan who couldn’t find any resources for the cosmopolitan aunt — someone more akin to Carrie Bradshaw as an aunt to Charlotte and Miranda’s kids, than a gray-haired lady with 12 cats. “Swaddling a baby may be harder than the Rubik’s cube,” she says, yet there weren’t any books on the market geared toward new aunts. Notkin envisions her book being bundled with Heidi Murkoff’s pregnancy bible, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” “You’ll get my book to find out what to expect when she’s expecting,” Notkin says.
The enterprise also grew out her efforts to combat her own negative feelings and embrace her role as the Savvy Auntie. “I was not a wife, not a mom, yet to think of myself as childless felt so vacant,” she says. “I wanted to have a positive view.”
Notkin is not alone. Nearly half of American adult women under the age of 45 do not have children, according to the 2008 U.S. Census Fertility Data. That percentage is higher in the Jewish community, she says. “Women with higher education tend to get married and have children later, and Jewish women tend to be higher educated,” she says. “Jewish women are more often Savvy Aunties than mommies, or they are a Savvy Auntie for a longer portion of adulthood than a gentile woman.”
Notkin wants to re-imagine how we look at families today. And that necessitates valuing all that the Savvy Auntie does for children who are not her own. “[As a society], we’ve excluded women without children,” she says. “We’ve pointed a finger and called them career women. But many women are choosing to wait for love. We’ve created this mechitza [partition] of sorts between those who have children and those who don’t.”
The situation is more pronounced in the Jewish community, many women whom The Jewish Week interviewed attest.
“There is tremendous pressure to marry and become a mother, or even not marry [and have kids],” says Rosenthal, author of “The Bookseller’s Sonnets” (O Books, 2010) and an educator for the Union of Reform Judaism. “I just turned 41 and people keep telling me, ‘You don’t have to wait to get married, you can just go ahead and have kids on your own.’”
While encouraging aunts to appreciate themselves, Notkin also firmly believes that the Jewish community would do well to approach singles with more sensitivity.
“In the Jewish community, there is a feeling that when a couple has a fertility challenge, there should be sensitivity around them,” she says. “For single women, there’s less of that. ‘Poo poo poo, oh just go on JDate, you’re too picky, you better hurry up,’ they say.” The modern Jewish woman in her 30s is going through two layers of grief — she hasn’t met her love and hasn’t had children, Notkin says, describing the situation as “circumstantial infertility.”
The Savvy Auntie movement emphasizes that aunthood is a gift for the parents, a gift for the child and a gift for the aunt herself.
The relationship an auntie has with her nieces and nephews (whether biological or “adopted”) can be a deep and enduring one. Just ask Jill Singer, who lives in Forest Hills, Queens, and is an auntie to Morgan, 13, Kendall, 9, Hillary, 4, and Melanie, 2. “Being an aunt is really one of the greatest joys in life,” she says. “I feel very blessed to have these four little girls in my life.”
This past week, Hillary invited GG (her nickname for Singer) to “Special Persons Day” at her Jewish day school on the Upper East Side. On Mother’s Day, the kids send her “greatest aunt” cards and celebrate holidays with handmade crafts. The bigger girls have a standing birthday ritual in which they get to sleep over at Singer’s house, get their hair or nails done and go out to eat together. To celebrate Morgan’s upcoming bat mitzvah, the two are going to Paris. “She’s so much more than a niece; she’s a buddy,” Singer says.
Like any other relationship, the aunt-niece/nephew bond takes years to cultivate. Brittany Shapiro, a Murray Hill resident who owns a children’s business selling organic play dough, talks to her niece and nephew on the phone almost every night. “People say, ‘Oh you probably see your niece and nephew every once in a while,’ she says. “But we have a stronger bond than people realize.”
Shapiro’s sister often tells her 7-year-old son that if anything embarrassing happens at school, he can always tell his Aunt Brittany. “I hope that when he’s a teen, because we’ve established that bond from a young age, I hope it’ll be there when he’s older, too.”
Notkin says that the Savvy Auntie movement is catching on, with more people celebrating Auntie’s Day on July 24. The social media entrepreneur has amassed more than 35,000 Facebook fans and 15,000 Twitter followers. She treasures e-mails she receives such as one from an avid fan who had undergone surgery and was no longer able to have children. “If it weren’t for you, my grief would have been unending,” she wrote to Notkin. “Now I know my value as an aunt, and that’s what saved me.”
Above all Notkin hopes the Savvy Auntie phenomenon will turn the stereotypical image of an aunt on its head.
As Rosenthal put it, “We’re not the spinster aunt of old anymore.”
“I hope that the perception of the aunt who has no life and no love and no man and no kids … hopefully we Savvy Aunties are blowing that image to bits,” she says.