Meet the Panks -- professional aunts with no kids who just want to have fun

Energetic aunties now have a huge role in the lives of their nieces and nephews, writes Anna Carey

Anna Carey

There's a new breed of auntie in town. Forget fussy old single ladies who don't really understand children -- think Kylie tweeting her excitement over her sister Dannii's pregnancy, or Beyoncé strutting down the street arm in arm with her young nephew Julez.

Sure, the word "aunt" doesn't exactly scream glamour and excitement -- it sounds, formal, old-fashioned, and, well, just plain old.

But now a new generation of child-free aunties are reclaiming the title. They're the women with the energy, time and, sometimes, disposable income to have a lot of fun with their nieces and nephews. These women love spending time with their siblings' kids, and they're very proud of them. They're the Panks -- Professional Aunt No Kids. And they're coming to a playground, toyshop or sitting room near you.

Panks have an excellent advocate in New Yorker Melanie Notkin, who founded the website to provide fellow "cosmopolitan" aunts with support and guidance. "I worked at a global beauty company," she says. "I was a savvy executive, flying back and forth to Paris, but when it came to the most important people in my life, my niece and nephew, I didn't feel savvy at all." And so, described by its founder as "a parenting guide for non parents", was born.

So, what's so great about being an aunt? "For me, the best bit is the excitement I'm met with when I call over to see them," says Louise Butler, aunt to three-year-old Conn and one-year-old Meabh.

"Conn always shouts 'Awees!' (his way of saying Louise) and runs into my arms and gives me a big hug, which is such an amazing feeling."

Emma Henderson, who has two nieces, says that "you can let down your hair and be a big eejit around them -- they bring out that playful side."

Aunts can also enjoy the fun aspects of looking after children, safe in the knowledge that when the kids get cranky, sick or overtired, they can be handed back to their parents.

"I do perform practical duties -- I've changed nappies and done lots of babysitting -- but primarily my relationship with my nieces is all about fun and creativity," says Joanne Lonergan, the proud aunt of six-year-old Nina and three-year-old Lisa.

So, does she spoil them? She laughs. "I can't resist a plea for anything, really," she says. "When we're walking through a shop, if one of them sees something small that they like it's very difficult to resist, even though I know they'll lose interest five minutes later. And I enjoy shopping for clothes for them much more than for myself. I've made a second home out of the upstairs kids designer area in Debenhams where they always have stuff on sale. I spend a lot of time browsing, creating their new looks!"

Even as a child, I always knew that a woman didn't have to have children of her own to mean a lot to the next generation -- I had one wonderful child-free aunt and two beloved single great-aunts. But now I'm an aunt myself -- my sister-in-law had an adorable baby boy, Cillian, last April, and in January my older sister also produced a son, the delightful Arlo. And even though I already knew that the auntie bond is a big deal, I was blown away by how strongly I felt when I met my nephew for the first time.

Emma Henderson had a similar experience when her eldest niece was born.

"It hit me out of the blue," she says. "I wasn't expecting to feel so strongly, but the strength of my emotions knocked me for six. It seemed like such an enormous event, such a gift, and so significant."

Many aunts say they feel an instant bond with the baby.

"I was totally surprised when I first met him after he was born," says Louise Butler of her nephew Conn. "He just seemed so familiar. It was very different to seeing other babies for the first time. I remember being so shocked by the sense of somehow recognising this little person."

Yet many aunts feel that their special relationship with their nieces and nephews isn't really acknowledged. "It's very hard for other people to really fully get what this means to us," says Melanie Notkin. "It's more than a new relative. When a woman becomes a mother she becomes the new older generation -- when a woman becomes an aunt it's the same for her."

The media often likes to pit child-free women against mothers, but all the aunts I encountered have not only respect but great admiration for the work that goes into parenting.

"I love spending time with them, and I do as much as I can," says Joanne Lonergan of her nieces. "I'd love to do even more. But I have to say I'm rarely not relieved at the end of the day that I'm finished! They wear you out completely. I take my hat off to parents."

In fact, becoming an aunt can improve your relationship with your sibling. Emma Henderson's younger sister became pregnant with her first daughter when she was just 17. Emma was immediately impressed by her sister's ability to cope.

"I didn't realise she could be that responsible. I'd never seen her display such tenderness and strength. Seeing what a good mother she is made me look at her in a different way."

Many aunts say that becoming an aunt themselves makes them much aware of their own extended families, and the importance of family ties.

And being an aunt isn't all about fun. For some, becoming an aunt is bittersweet -- women who haven't been able to have much-wanted children of their own, for example. And while aunts might joke about enjoying the fun aspects of parenthood without the responsibility, some women make real sacrifices for their nieces and nephews, making an important contribution to what Notkin calls "the family village".

Notkin receives many e-mails from aunts whose relationships with their siblings' children involve hard work and heartbreak.

"I got an e-mail from a woman who leaves work early, putting her job in jeopardy, to get to her brother and sister-in-law's place so she can take care of their children when their mom is in the other room getting high."

Even when aunts are just hanging out and having fun, they're still contributing to the family village. "Moms and dads are pulled in so many different directions, and they're working so hard they don't have as much leisure time as they'd like," says Notkin. "But time with auntie is designed as playtime and wow, play is such a gift for child."

Perhaps in the future, the contribution aunts make to kids' lives will be acknowledged more widely.

"Here's the thing," says Melanie Notkin. "Only good can come out of the acceptance and support of women who contribute to the welfare of the children in the family village. Why not celebrate it?"

Why not, indeed? In the meantime, nieces and nephews themselves are doing just that. "Conn knows what buttons to press to endear himself to me even more," laughs Louise Butler. "He once asked me if I had children in my house, knowing right well that I didn't. And when I told him that, he said, 'But you have me and Meabh!'"