DEAR CAROLYN: Am I aunting badly? I'm in my early 60s, never married and child-free by choice. I am, however, blessed with a cluster of nieces, nephews and godchildren I adore — 13 in all. Over the decades I've stepped up when there were practical considerations — money for a special school, a place for a teenager to bunk for a couple of weeks while she sorted out that her parents weren't really monsters, that sort of thing — and I've always made it a priority to attend graduations, special dance recitals, sporting events and the like. Taking the kids on fun getaways has long been my thing. It gives me one-on-one time with the particular kid, and both of us have a great adventure. Think trips to Spain and Greece, San Francisco and Jackson Hole, swimming with dolphins, a safari. I get to holidays in the general time frame and take the family out for dinner to mark the occasion. These are joyous times for me. For a niece's 16th birthday recently [pre-COVID], I flew her to meet me in New York City for Broadway shows, restaurants and shopping. Afterward, my sister-in-law was noticeably cool toward me. When I asked what the matter was, she snapped that it would be nice if, once in a while, I could be bothered to get her kids a present. I am angry and shattered. I've always thought being present for them was the present! Since this happened, the kids still seem to want to spend time with me, but I can't shake the feeling that I've been a pest all these years, forcing myself on the kids when they'd rather have another … I don't even know. Hockey stick? Designer hoodie? And I'm furious with my sister-in-law for being so shallow that she thinks something wrapped with a bow could ever compete with time and laughter and a wonderful experience. The kids call me "Mame," and I have always taken it as a compliment, but now I wonder if it's a joke I'm not in on.
DEFLATED: Oh this breaks my heart.
I know there's probably a much longer, more thorough, more uplifting answer to be written, but I hope I can get the most accomplished with this:
Your sister-in-law is a butt.
Her being one is not a reason to rethink your entire self.
You take these kids to Europe! I want to be your niece.
In fairness, maybe your sister-in-law was having the worst day ever and her filter slipped for just that one moment, just as she was overtaken by an overwhelming but fleeting impulse to be a butt.
Pardon me: to act like one.
In fact, I suggest you assume that's why it happened, and keep being yourself unimpeded, as best you can, by the self-doubt her outburst stirred up.
RE: DEFLATED: Speaking from unfortunate experience as the bad actor, perhaps your sister-in-law felt a momentary twang of jealousy that you're the cool, adventurous auntie. She may feel like the reliable but boring cook/therapist/maid/wage-earner who barely has the energy to think up the next meal, much less a grand adventure.
ANONYMOUS: Great and compassionate point. The I-did-this-bad-thing-myself perspective is, in my opinion, the rarest and most useful of all. And brave. Thanks.