When my sister announced she was pregnant with her first baby, I was crushed. We were enjoying another family dinner at our parents' house in the suburbs and it was 10 days after I had closed on my condo - my first baby, in a way. I had waited four years for it to be built and after numerous construction delays, I was so excited to finally be living on my own in the city.
After celebrating my sister's big events over the past four years - her new boyfriend, her engagement, her bridal shower, her stagette, her picture-perfect "big fat Italian wedding," her honeymoon, her new house - I was happy the spotlight was on me for an exciting time in my life. So, while everyone else cheered and cried tears of joy, it was a bittersweet moment for me.
It wasn't long before my parents started turning my freshly vacated bedroom into a nursery for their first grandchild. The eldest of three, I had the largest bedroom and, with an ensuite bathroom, it was the logical choice for the baby's room for sleepovers at Grandma and Nonno's house. But I wondered why my parents didn't use my sister's old room for the nursery. It was her baby, after all.
My partner, who has eight nieces and nephews, kept telling me that I would love being an aunt and I would soon "understand." My friends who had become aunts before me kept telling me how precious an experience it is. I shrugged it off. How special could it really be, I wondered.
I'm not a mom. I wasn't cut from that cloth. I've never daydreamed about being a mother, or a bride, for that matter. I'm a workaholic. I inherited the work-trumps-all genes from my parents, who have run their own fresh pasta and prepared foods business for more than 20 years. They often put in the equivalent of an eight-day work week, so working like almost nothing else matters in life is something I learned growing up.
But I now call myself a recovering workaholic, because something happened to trigger a change in me: My nephew and, more recently, my niece were born. Stella and Robert, who turned one and three years old this month, are my therapy.
We're a close-knit family of five (now nine) and we all spent the night in the hospital waiting for my sister's first baby to be born. When Robert finally arrived the following morning, we stood in the hallway listening to his first cries while we waited to meet him. I remember instantly feeling love for this new family member before I'd even set eyes on him. I was surprised at myself, but it felt good from the start.
A little more than a year later, I went to one of my sister's ultrasounds when she was pregnant with her second child and my brother-in-law was out of town on business. It's one of those days of my life that will be locked in my memory forever. I was holding my nephew while all three of us watched the images on the monitor as the technician checked for a beating heart and a healthy brain and spine.
Being an aunt has changed me. I put away my BlackBerry when I'm with my niece and nephew. I've even left the office early to spend time with them. I have become that person who surrounds herself with ever-changing pictures of the kids. And my parents have become those kinds of proud grandparents, too.
My partner and friends were right. There is a special sense of fulfilment that comes from being an aunt. But I think trying to understand the joys is like pretending to understand true love before you've ever really fallen. I needed to experience it to know it. Having a niece and nephew has softened me, shifted my priorities and even my perspective.
Before, I was that person who would scowl at moms and dads of cranky, sleep-deprived kids in public places, thinking those were parents with no control over their children. Now that I've been out with my niece and nephew, I have more empathy and understanding.
I used to frown at parents who would bring their loud, messy toddlers to a quiet restaurant. Now, I frown at the restaurateurs who put signs on their doors that say "no strollers allowed."
I get excited at all their milestones. I get emotional whenever they do something cute or funny. And I keep their board books and pop-up books on my TV stand as a reminder to enjoy the small pleasures daily life has to offer. It melts my heart whenever Robert says in his little voice, "Hi San, come play San," or Stella reaches out to give me a tight hug with her baby strength.
Better still is watching my parents slow down to enjoy being wonderful, patient grandparents. Even my brother has taken time away from detailing his beloved SUVs to become a loving, playful uncle. I didn't know having babies in the family would change our whole dynamic. The centre of everyone's focus has shifted to the kids. I understand now that's what makes life go round.
I love being an aunt more than I could have imagined. I'm good at it, too. I never would have imagined that either. We have many Super Auntie weekends when we babysit for hours on end. We're even brave enough for sleepovers and day trips.
But even now, at 35, I don't hear my biological clock ticking. I don't have any curiosity to see what kind of mother I could be. I'm a terrific aunt and I wouldn't trade in that role for anything in the world.
Sandra Chiovitti lives in Toronto.