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Babies: not everyone’s cup of tea. (Image by Tina Tiller)
Babies: not everyone’s cup of tea. (Image by Tina Tiller)

SocietyFebruary 15, 2024

Help Me Hera: I’m worried I’ll feel lukewarm about my sister’s kids

Babies: not everyone’s cup of tea. (Image by Tina Tiller)
Babies: not everyone’s cup of tea. (Image by Tina Tiller)

Children are definitely on the way for her, and I’m just not a baby person. Is our relationship doomed?

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I’m worried that when my sister starts having kids it will negatively affect our relationship. She’s always wanted kids, and I never did. She recently got married, and even though I think kids are a few years in the future, they ARE coming. 

This is something I’ve always been worried about, both with my friends and my sister, but I don’t want to ‘warn’ them by asking for advice in advance, as it’s gonna make my lacklustre feelings stand out even more to them when they start having kids of their own.

I once tangentially brought up the idea to my sister that I won’t be nearly as into her kids as she might hope, but in relation to her new dog, who I met in December. The dog was sweet and silly and everything, but we didn’t form any kind of crazy instant bond. My sister was genuinely a little upset by this. If she was upset by my less-than-stellar relationship with her DOG, how is she gonna react when the same thing (most likely) happens with her actual CHILDREN? 

I mean, I WANT to love her kids a ridiculous amount, but realistically I don’t think it’s gonna happen, not when they’re young. We currently live in different countries, and her husband has no intention of moving back to our country, so visits will be few and far between. Plus, when they’re young they won’t be able to talk, so I can’t imagine much of a bond forming. And honestly, babies scare me a little; they seem so delicate. 

So, I guess what I’m looking for is literally ANY advice on how to deal with this situation (both with my sister and all of my friends). Is there a good way to broach the subject? Do you have any tips on bonding with babies? Any advice on coming to terms with the fact that everyone you care about is inevitably gonna pair off and start their own new life+family while you’re relegated to the sidelines?


Reluctant Aunt

a line of dice with blue dots

Dear Reluctant Aunt,

What’s the best way to tell your overly sensitive sister that you’re worried you won’t love her future children and fear it will ruin your relationship? 

If I were you, I’d write all my feelings out in a long letter. Be as honest as possible. Explain how much you love her, and that you want to love her kids, but are worried you won’t have the emotional capacity to do so, along with your full credit card number, and the details of any federal offences you may have committed.

Then, seal the letter in an envelope, catch a plane to Phoenix Sky Harbour Airport, and book a ride to the Grand Canyon. From there, it should be easy enough to slip away from the tour guides, find a canopy of ancient rock, wait until the sun has gone down, and eat that letter, envelope and all, alone and under cover of total darkness. That way, at least you get to see the unforgettable majesty of the Grand Canyon once before you die. 

I feel like your anxiety about this situation has somehow made you feel you need to address the possibility of not loving your sister’s future children, in order to strategically preempt her disappointment. I’m happy to tell you UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES is this necessary. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for honesty as a foundational value of loving relationships. But there’s sometimes even more to be said for the transformational power of a cheerful and kind-hearted lie. In fact, you don’t even need to lie. If ‘speak now’ isn’t on the cards, all you need to do is forever hold your peace. 

I’m not telling you to hide your feelings because your feelings are hideous and unnatural. It’s fine not to be enthusiastic about kids, especially kids that don’t actually exist yet. But bringing this up will do no good, and will only make your sister paranoid. It’s like going on a first date and saying “I want to make a commitment, here and now, I will never forcibly sedate you and extract all your teeth.” Some things just don’t need to be said. 

I feel like your anxiety comes from worrying you’re going to be handed a baby, and you won’t know what to do, and everyone will look at you and think “who is this baby-hating freak, who obviously lacks the capacity to love?” But you’re overestimating the importance of your own reaction. New parents are famously wrapped up in the wonder of their own children, and all you’re required to do is be happy for their happiness and occasionally say things like “this is truly the Rolls Royce of babies,” and “look at these fat and powerful arms, these are the arms of someone who could easily deadlift a tractor.”

It’s normal to be nervous about holding a new human. But babies are not delicate. In fact, they are alarmingly robust. Nothing will give you greater respect for the tenacity of life than a person, roughly the size of a roast chicken, who has NO respect for gravity and a ravenous desire to put every unattended object directly in their mouth. Babies are great teachers. It’s amazing how, even if you’ve never been a ‘baby person’, within one day of having a new niece or nephew, you’ll find yourself saying things like “who’s the future president of Exxonmobil?” in a voice you hardly recognise. Even if you’re initially awkward, children don’t form lasting memories until somewhere between their second and third birthdays, so you have a significant head start. 

In terms of bonding with babies, there are plenty of tried-and-true techniques, such as hiding your face behind your hands, and then opening your hands and saying “boo”. The last time I visited my niece and nephew, I spent 75% of the time pretending to look for them under piles of old towels, and saying “what’s this stinky old ham doing under all these towels?” or “oh wow, it looks like [baby] vanished and was replaced by a monkey. I guess you have a monkey for a baby now.”

If this all sounds unbearable, I get it. Some people are just not baby people. But babies don’t stay babies forever. In fact, it’s amazing just how quickly they stop being amorphous blobs of DNA and start revealing their true personalities. For now, your sister’s children are just a concept. It’s hard to love a concept. When you actually meet them, and see them develop interests and obsessions, they’ll quickly feel real to you. 

Even if you’re not a baby person, have faith you’ll one day love the person the baby grows up to be. To this end, it might help to stop worrying about whether you will love the baby, and start plotting how to make the baby love you. This is a lot more fun, and it’s generally much harder to be ambivalent when there’s a small person who wants nothing more than to take you by the hand and show you the rock they have, for obscure reasons, named “the chicken rock.”

What I’m saying is, act with love, and the feelings will probably follow. It can be harder when you live in different countries, but regular short video calls will help. So will sending exciting presents. Bribery always works on children. And if you really can’t summon up a genuine personal enthusiasm over Zoom, all you need to do is direct that love towards your sister: tell her she’s a great parent, and you’re so happy for her happiness. If that isn’t enough for her, and she’s suspicious of your children-loving bonafides, feel free to cheerfully lie, and say “these are the greatest babies in the history of human evolution and I literally could not love them any more.” And then take that secret to your grave.

I know there’s a bigger anxiety here: how to cope with feelings of being left behind. But I think you have to reframe your concern. Your relationships will change when your friends have kids. But all relationships change. People move countries, drift out of touch, and start peddling weird supplements. This is a natural and inevitable part of ageing, and not just limited to those who choose to procreate. You worry about being “relegated to the sidelines” but I’d encourage you to think of having these kids in your life as a privilege. Being invited to be a part of a child’s life is an enormous compliment. Don’t think of it as a rejection. Think of it as an invitation. If you continue to make an effort to see your friends, you might even find some of those friendships become even richer and deeper than before. 

When it comes to friends, this is true. When it comes to family, it’s even truer. Having children can be lonely, and your sister will need your love and support more than ever.

Honestly, I find her disappointment regarding your reaction to her new dog pretty weird. But it also shows she cares deeply about your opinion, and just wants you to be excited and involved. So get excited! Even if you have to fake it for the first nine months. Her having kids is not going to shut you out or make you less important. In fact, if you play your cards right, it’s going to do the exact opposite.

Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves about who we are can accidentally become self-perpetuating. If you make a big deal of being scared of babies, your sister is only going to feel hurt and pull away, and you won’t get a chance to know her kids. So fake it as best you can, put in a little effort, and hope the love catches up with you. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll know you tried your best for your sister’s sake. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is. 

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