December 8, 2019

A Manual for the Auntie-to-Be

It seemed that lots of people — including total strangers —
had plenty of advice to offer my sister and my brother-in-law before the birth
of their first child, an event the entire extended family anticipated for late
summer 2003. And it wasn’t just a matter of kindly (if ultimately incorrect)
projections about the baby’s gender or rueful warnings about all those
sleepless nights to come.

“I heard that you’re not supposed to eat tuna fish when
you’re pregnant,” one woman in a New York City deli remarked, loudly, when my
sister sank her teeth into her once-a-week tuna treat during her seventh month.

The willingness of so many people to “share” scarcely
surprised me. Like the suggestions that streamed in for the bridal couple
between the engagement and the wedding, child-related counsel appeared to come
with the territory of a pregnancy. And if the pointers weren’t enough for my
sister and brother-in-law, they could count on the insights and instructions
buried within the books that quickly crowded out the suddenly antiquated
wedding prep manuals on their bookshelves. Not to mention the countless classes
they soon registered for, on everything from how to bathe a newborn to
negotiating the relationship changes “when two become three.”

I confess that before my sister’s wedding, I didn’t sense
too much that was personally life changing for me. And since I’d previously
served as a bridesmaid, it wasn’t very difficult to perform that job again.
Bridesmaiding seems a contract position of sorts, which ends as the band packs
up and the bridal couple drives away in their limousine.

But I quickly found preparing for the birth of a first niece
or nephew to be different, especially as a still-single and childless future
aunt. For one thing, while there is plenty of advice, these days, even for
bridesmaids — and perhaps ironically enough, my sister has co-founded a popular
Web site on that topic ( — there is little written to
provide counsel for the more significant lifelong position of aunt-to-be. Nevertheless
I was surprised by the events and changes — some subtle, some less so — that I
experienced in the months between sister’s announcement of her pregnancy and
the baby’s birth. Others might be just as surprised by analogous “symptoms,”
such as:

Feeling the Baby Kick — Sure, I have lots of friends who are
moms, and I’ve watched the growth of their families very attentively, but no
matter how long I’ve known them or how many secrets we’ve shared, it’s never
quite seemed appropriate to ask, “Can I touch your stomach?” It wasn’t until my
own sister’s pregnancy that I could press my palm against a mother-to-be’s bare
skin — and wait to feel a baby kicking her from within.

Consulting on the Baby’s Name — As a writer I have the
opportunity to name characters all the time, and I’d owned a book titled,
“6,000 Names For Your Baby,” expressly for that purpose long before my sister
started thinking about beginning a family. But one of the biggest surprises —
and privileges — of my sister’s pregnancy was my role as “consultant” and
confidant in the name selection process (and there was an extra bonus — being
allowed to remain in the room for one final confidential discussion after the
baby arrived but before her name was announced).

Expanding My Consumer Savvy and Lexicon — Babies “R” Us.
buybuy BABY. I didn’t know about any of this before. Frankly, I didn’t care.
And I certainly never saved those Pottery Barn Kids catalogs that for some
reason arrived regularly in my mailbox. Now they are stacked with pages marked
and items circled. Like the first-time grandparents on both sides, I get to
spoil this baby.

Learning Infant and Child CPR — OK. Some details of
obstetrical procedures I probably didn’t really need to hear about. There are
reasons I chose not to go to medical school. Twenty years ago, as part of the
middle school “health” curriculum, I had received certification in first aid
and CPR. But thanks to my sister’s insistence that anyone who planned to be
entrusted with solo time with her child needed to acquire some training in
emergency response, I contacted the American Heart Association. I enrolled in a
Heartsaver CPR for Infants and Children Course. I studied the manual and
prepared for my class — two weeks before the parents-to-be.

I learned a lot in that class that surprised me. I hadn’t
realized, for example, that, this year, one in every five children would be
injured significantly enough to require emergency treatment. I hadn’t realized
how many preventive measures could be taken to avoid crises situations. And I
certainly didn’t know about other aspects in the “chain of survival.” I’d
already understood the best way to place an infant in her crib (“back to
sleep”) and known something about car seat safety, but I appreciated my
instructors’ additional tips on how to handle 911 calls and other strategies
(that of course I hoped I’d never have to use). I was proud to report that I’d
only missed one question on my written test — a record my sister matched; my
brother-in-law, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and tops in his law school class,
scored a perfect 100. (You can imagine the pressure on the grandparents.)

But the biggest surprise was how much closer my sister and I
— who certainly had our share of sibling struggles over the years — became
throughout her pregnancy. From speaking on the phone only occasionally, we
found ourselves speaking multiple times each week. We planned a trip to buybuy
BABY (with grandma-to-be) that would include Auntie Erika, visiting
specifically for the occasion, as well. Everyone in the family referred to the
baby, whose gender remained a mystery until delivery, by the nickname I gave
it: “Kicky.” Via e-mail I viewed every single sonogram and smiled over
photographs of the baby’s newly assembled bassinet. And when my sister was
admitted to the hospital (for the real thing, after having stalled preterm
labor for several weeks) I only hoped I’d reach New York in time.

That, I’m not sure anyone expected. Â

Erika Dreifus is a Massachusetts-based writer and teacher. Her fiction and essays have appeared in such publications as the Boston Globe and Lilith. Â