- The “cool aunt” has emerged as an aspirational identity for young women.
- As more women push off motherhood, aunthood promises both independence and family ties.
- It allows women to be creative with their identities and shows kids new possibilities for their own.
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Elaine Welteroth’s Instagram is, by design, goals.
A quick scroll shows the author, “Project Runway” judge, and former Teen Vogue editor in chief living an aspirational life: colorful outfits, impeccable makeup, a beautiful home, vacations with her husband, red-carpet appearances, and, on occasion, cuddles with a niece or nephew.
“AuntieE now available for babysitting duties! Send me your kids,” reads the caption of one reel showing Welteroth smiling ear-to-ear in a bright blue jumpsuit, holding the hands of a baby and dancing to Eve’s “Who’s That Girl?”
This is the life of #AuntieE, as Welteroth has dubbed herself for years – a woman who is stylish, well-traveled, career-oriented, and has money to spend on children who aren’t her own.
Welteroth is pregnant now, but her #AuntieE persona symbolizes the life that more young women are aspiring to in today’s economy: the cool aunt.
“I’ll probably never be a mom. You know what I will be tho …,” reads the text in a video by TikTok user @peytondstyles. “The cool, single, rich aunt who doesn’t look a day over 20 and has a second house in Italy.”
Another user, @ kelseywilliams60, posted a video of herself holding a baby as text scrawls across the screen: “When everyone asks if you’re having kids, but you’re the cool aunt.” It’s clearly a sentiment shared by other TikTok users – #coolaunt has 142.9 million views on the platform.
The appeal of the “PANK” life is stronger than ever. Short for “professional aunt, no kids,” the term was first coined by Melanie Notkin in 2008 to describe affluent, childless women. Now, the aunt persona is an increasingly popular identity for many women in their 20s and 30s, as the stigma of a childless life has turned into a popular movement to be child-free.
Economics play a role in why many women are choosing a child-free life: Some want to build wealth first; some think they’ll never be able to afford kids; and others are seizing opportunities that didn’t exist for women 50 years ago. Plus, there are the devastating effects of the climate crisis to worry about. Whatever the reason, many women would rather shower their nieces and nephews with love and attention – before giving them back to their parents at the end of the day.
Aunthood over motherhood means more sleep and a clean home
“Auntie,” the term that Welteroth uses, is used colloquially in Black and Indian communities and generally refers to a woman older than the speaker. It’s a much-debated identifier – some view it as a term of endearment or respect; others find it ageist and sexist. Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, and Ava DuVernay have all reportedly rejected the term, unless it’s coming from an actual niece or nephew.
But women of all races have appropriated the term. They’re calling themselves “auntie” on social media, blurring its meaning and origin as part of a movement to claim a child-free identity. On TikTok, videos tagged #auntielife have 62 million views; #auntie videos have 988 million views. Most of these women – Gen Z and millennials who aspire to a clean home, disposable income, ample travel, and a carefree status in the lives of their nieces and nephews – could go by simply “aunt.” After all, that tag is no less popular, with 856 million views.
It hasn’t always been so aspirational. Patty Sotirin, a professor of communications at Michigan Tech explores aunt life as an alternate path of womanhood in contemporary society in her book, “Where the Aunts Are: Family, Feminism, and Kinship in Popular Culture.”
Since the book’s debut in 2013, the appeal of “aunting” has become even stronger as more women delay having children or decide not to have them at all, Sotirin told Insider. “These people have a sense that the only way to have a family is to be an aunt,” she said. “They value the auntie role and the auntie possibility.”
Sotirin said that as aunting grows more appealing, the role has become commercialized, making it even more popular. It explains the growing depiction of the affluent, cool aunt as someone who can shower their nieces and nephews in gifts, with aunt-labeled merchandise, such as “Auntie” tote bags or “Cool Aunt” sweatshirts, popping up to accommodate the trend.
It’s a business move borne from a demographic shift. The birth rate in the US has been falling since 2008 as women have postponed having kids until later in life, falling in line with worldwide trends. From 2019 to 2020, the US birth rate fell by 4%, the sharpest single-year decline in nearly 50 years and the lowest number of births since 1979.
While many of the 18.4 million PANKs in the 20-to-50 age range in the US want to be mothers but can’t have children or haven’t found themselves in the right situation, other child-free women have taken steps to stay that way. After all, childcare costs run $ 10,000 (R146,000) a year on average, a pandemic continues to persist, and women of childbearing age still struggle to gain a financial footing,
There’s also the cohort who simply aren’t interested in having children, regardless of economic circumstances. More than half of respondents in a recent Pew survey said it’s “not too likely” or “not at all likely” that they’ll have children, citing the reason as they “just don’t want to have children.” Several women who fall into this camp recently told Insider they love their life the way it is and want the freedom to pursue their passions and have time for themselves.
Being an aunt gives those who can’t afford kids a sense of kinship, and those who aren’t interested in raising kids the best of both worlds: independence and family.
“Kids are expensive and sticky, and I would rather be the fun aunt that does crafts with them and has a beautiful home that doesn’t have to be child-proofed,” Taylor Schenker, 25, told Insider of her choice to not have children.
As TikTok user @ wreckitwren98, whose bio reads “my favorite people call me Aunt Ren,” points out in a video, “Being an auntie has all the benefits of being a mom… and then I get to give them back and sleep for eight hours. “
A new kind of role model
Part of the allure of aunthood is the sense that it offers a chance to be creative with your identity, Sotirin said.
“The aunt becomes who she develops herself as, who she performs as,” she said. “You can be the loving aunt who shows up with presents all the time, or you can be an aunt who feels just like a mother.”
The more fluid connection between aunt and child is exactly what appeals to 35-year-old Haylie Swenson.
“There’s freedom in that looseness, and I don’t just mean the freedom to sleep as long as I want (which I also enjoy),” she told Insider in an email. “Even the best parent-kid relationships have baggage, and I don’t have that with my nieces and nephews. I don’t have to do anything to teach them how to be people in a constantly changing, terrifying world. I get to just love them, be myself, and let them be themselves in turn. “
Being an aunt also doesn’t have to be defined by blood. Sotirin said there are a lot of “chosen families” these days, a concept made popular by queer people who may have rocky relationships with their biological families. Seeing examples of this allows children to envision other life opportunities.
“It may be the single, cool aunt who has a career instead of children,” Sotirin said. “Or it could be the chosen aunt who takes you out for dinner and talks to you like an adult. There are lots of ways that aunts give us other kinds of possibilities about what women can do and who women can be that’s not their mother. “
Aunts can serve as both role models and resources for the family, she added.
That’s how Jennifer Lake, 35, views her aunt role. She told Insider that being child-free by choice gives her and her husband more time to spend with her niece.
“I hope to be an added support system that steps in to help, run errands, do laundry, babysit, and just show up for family and our niece in the good and tough times,” she said. “I look forward to being a go-to resource for our niece when she grows older and wants advice or just to chat through things she’s going through in life.”