Auntie hanky Panky

 

I'VE BUNKED OFF work to pick up my niece and fairy godchild Hannah from school and am sitting watching her go 10 rounds with a plate of spaghetti bolognese, writes Róisín Ingle

It's a fairly typical exchange: "Can I come for a sleep-over in your house and have pizza for dinner and stay up late watching DVDs and then have leftover cold pizza for breakfast and then when you bring me home can we not tell Mammy?" she says, in one big breath.

"Not tell her about which part?" I say.

"About the leftover cold pizza for breakfast part and the staying up late part," she says, in a voice that suggests I have strawberry jam for brains.

"Why?" I probe.

"Because Mammy wouldn't let me have pizza for breakfast and she doesn't let me stay up late. Please? I'll do your feet if you say yes." Hmmm. She does a very good foot rub, it has to be said. Excellent command of the pumice stone for a seven-year-old. "Deal," I say. "But don't tell your mother."

"Deal," she says, and goes back to deciding which imported animated Japanese DVD she is going to buy later with my money.

I'd like to think I do more for my nieces and nephews than offer guilt-free pizza breakfasts, but the above kind of sums up the privileged position of auntie, uncle, godmother and godfather. Normal rules just don't apply. I took a clutch of them to the park once. (We now have 13 between us, with another on the way, and so spend half our weekends in the Early Learning Centre.) Anyway, before you could say "dislocated shoulder" the three-year-old escaped to run up a hillock which she then began throwing herself down, like a very cute toddler with a death wish.

I stood there kind of like Willy Wonka when he's making a half-hearted attempts to prevent Violet Beauregarde chewing the three-course meal gum. I called out in a lacklustre voice. "Stop." "Don't." "Oh, no." "Danger." Somehow, when they are not your actual children it seems far less likely that a trip to A&E will result from such boisterous behaviour. It's not that I didn't care whether she broke her leg while hurtling down a steep incline and screaming "Geronimoooooo". It's just that with the detachment of aunthood you are more able to go into rationalising mode. As in: "We did far more potentially dangerous things when we were young, sure this is nothing and in a cotton-wool world of playdates and organised fun, it's good for them, really. In fact it looks like fun. Wait for me. Geronimoooooo!"

As an aunt, I spend a good deal of my time thinking about these small people, planning events, buying presents, creating treasure hunts, organising birthday parties and generally being devoted. But sometimes it feels compared to Parentlove, AuntandUncleLove comes way down the pecking order. Sometimes us aunts and uncles can find ourselves relegated to second division when the truth is that the love we feel for our brood is just as fierce and deep. ("Ah, but it's different when it's your own," is the parent-mantra that tends to bring us aunts and uncles out in a rash.)

Well, no more Ms Nice Aunt. I discovered this week that I have my own acronym and I am not afraid to use it. Apparently, I am a "Pank". A total Pank. I am a Professional Aunt with No Kids. In the US, the percentage of "non-moms" to "moms" is now almost the same - which means that over there us Panks are almost as coveted by advertisers as gay people. Forget the pink pound, the Pank pound is what they are all talking about these days.

"With or without kids of their own, many women love children, and love indulging them," says Melanie Notkin, founder and chief executive of SavvyAuntie.com, the first online resource and community for Panks, a term she coined. Hooray for Melanie, who says: "What makes this growing segment appealing to marketers is that Panks are in the workforce, affluent, and control or influence 85 per cent of their household purchasing decisions." Hmmm. So that's why the owner of my local Gorgeous But Bloody Expensive Children's Clothing Emporium gives me her undivided attention when I rock up every so often with my small brood and my propensity for ignoring price tags.

My only problem with Melanie and her growing army of Savvy Aunties is that she leaves out the men. I live with somebody who treats unclehood as a kind of second career. Which, I suppose, makes him a Punk.

He takes the role very seriously. We both do. They come for sleep-overs in a tent in our spare room which is packed with three layers of cushions and decorated with paper flowers. We teach them a song called Tree Hugger - "The flower said I wish I was a tree/ the tree said I wish I could be/ a different kind of tree/ the cat wished that it was a bee" - and accompany them on guitar.

We buy their favourite foods, rent their favourite movies and get teary when they call and sing Never Smile At A Crocodile down the phone.

We bring them to funfairs and turn a blind eye when they waste too many of their 50 cent coins on the grab-a-gift games that never work.

And when it's the four-year-old's first day at school and she packs her schoolbag with her dad's old electronic organiser and an autobiography of Eric Clapton, we couldn't be more proud if we had given birth to her ourselves.

Panks and Punks of the world unite. We have nothing to lose but our cash.

PS

GILBERT AGAIN, NATURALLY

Just thought it worth mentioning, for those of you who appreciate a massive sing-a-long, that Waterford's finest, Gilbert O'Sullivan (left), is playing six (six!) nights at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin from October 13th. His latest offering, Never Say Di (see what he did there?), available to download on iTunes, marks a sparkling return to pop form.

TURNING JAPANESE

Apart from being able to hand your charges back at the end of an exhausting day, there are many advantages to being a Pank. I would know nothing about Japanese animation if it wasn't for my niece Hannah. She started me off gently with Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning film Spirited Away, and by the time she came around with Isao Takahat's Pom Poko, I was hooked. Slightly over -long and dark in places, Pom Poko (far left) is still one of the funniest films about a colony of shapeshifting racoons under threat from Tokyo developers I've ever seen.