The Virtual Aunt

The Virtual Aunt


I’m putting my daughter to bed, but her twin brother is still in the next room, waiting. I hear him chattering away, as he dances a toy elephant across the floor. He’s not talking to himself, though, my sister is with him. Well, technically, she’s some four thousand miles away in Vancouver, Canada, while we are in Glasgow, Scotland, but, virtually, she’s right there. My phone is propped against the bookshelf, the perfect angle for surveying the scene. My son is interacting with her as if she is sitting, flesh and bones, in the very same room.

We are regular partakers, my sister and I, in the phenomenon of the FaceTime babysitter. For me this kind of video messaging hasn’t just been a luxury, a vehicle for allowing an aunt to bond with her nephews and niece across an otherwise vast ocean. There have been moments, periods of time, where my sister’s virtual presence has been nothing short of a lifeline. Such is the way when you have two babies and only one pair of hands, only one set of eyes.

Back when their afternoon nap was the fulcrum of our day, we used to speak to her several times a week. I would put the twins in their high chairs at around noon; my sister would be getting ready for work, dawn breaking in Washington, D.C. They would choose the jewelry that best suited her outfit, oohing and ahhing over the various bracelets on display, as I cut crusts off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, my laptop offering a comprehensive view of the kitchen. And then I would haul one toddler up to bed, while she would occupy the other, bound safely in his seat, and nap time would proceed smoothly, a staggered affair, instead of the manic free-for-all it became when I was on my own.

My sister has been heavily involved in my children’s lives from the beginning. She is a devoted aunt, to say the least, but she is also a woman with a job that takes her all over the world. The two of us have not lived in the same town, in the same country even, since 1999. Our relationship has been conducted through the channels of whatever technological means have been in the ascendency. Hours-long phone calls via special long-distance plans, Skype, when it was a novelty, and now the holy grail of instant visual access: FaceTime.

For my kids, my sister is both a real-live entity and a digitized floating head, sometimes she is a tinny voice in the ether, talking or singing to them as I drag her around with us from pillar to post. When they were very young, fledglings in the concept of object permanence, we were curious to see the consequences of this arrangement: a face on a screen, familiar and representative as it might be, is not itself a person. But then she would walk through the door of our house, after months of being a two-dimensional image only, and the babies would know exactly who she was in all of her dimensions. The transition was almost seamless.

Our children, of course, are growing up with a blurred line between the real and the virtual. Their relationships are bound to be fluid things, the online and the IRL swirling together to form, ultimately, an unadulterated whole. This is how my own life works right now, after all, a melange of interactions, some of which take place across social media, some of which take place across a dinner table, but each just as “real” as the next. Unlike me, however, my kids will have no period of adjustment, they won’t be asking tortured questions, like our generation does, about what constitutes authenticity in this regard. They will simply accept the ubiquity of the technology they were raised with—and how it has, in turn, changed the essential nature of human connection.

The FaceTime babysitter is an outgrowth of our children’s native comfort level with technology, but so too it is a reflection of the modern reality of the scattered family. In typical fashion, the first has evolved to bridge the potentially devastating gaps of the second. It never ceases to amaze me that my sister, despite the miles between us, is a daily fixture in our house. My kids reference her with a frequency that, in another age, could only signal an intimacy born of geographic proximity. It’s because I talk about her a lot, I make the effort. But I’m convinced it is also because they know that she—her face, her existence—is a mere button away.

Eventually it’s my son’s turn for bed. I carry him upstairs with my sister tucked in my back pocket: he wants Auntie G to do his stories tonight. We are a strange trio lying there—mother, son and aunt beamed in from abroad—but we are a trio just the same. She and I read alternating months of Chicken Soup with Rice, while my son listens intently, as if this scenario is normal as normal can be. Before the lights go out, he takes the phone and says goodnight, smattering the screen with kisses. My sister kisses him back. Their lips are touching, but not really. They are so far and yet so close.

Author’s Note: Since I wrote this piece, I have had the great fortune of becoming an aunt myself. I am travelling a vast distance to see my new nephew soon, but of course we have already FaceTimed several times since his birth.

Perks and Perils of the FaceTime Playdate

Perks and Perils of the FaceTime Playdate



Would the FaceTime friend feel left out because she was only virtually connected? Would the live friend think that she was getting dissed?


I stepped into the basement playroom where nine-year-old Liddy sat hunched on the floor, arranging freshly sharpened pencils alongside crisp white sheets of paper.

“Hey Liddy? Five minutes ’til dinner.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Hi, Liddy’s mom!” said a little voice behind me.

I swung around to see her friend’s smiling face, reduced to a small, smiling rectangle propped on the desk.

“Oh, Bessie! Hi.” I laughed, immediately grateful that I hadn’t walked in wearing a towel or yelling about something I didn’t need Bessie’s family, hidden somewhere in the background of that screenshot, to overhear.

I made a mental note to add another guideline to the list: I needed to know when Liddy had guests, whether virtual or in person.

For the first few months Liddy owned an iPod touch, she’d used it only sporadically, to listen to Meghan Trainor, play “Virtual Family,” and send me goofy texts filled with panda emojis. But when Bessie changed schools unexpectedly, Liddy was heartbroken, and it seemed like a small comfort to have the girls exchange contact information so they could text.

Then Liddy’s iPod trilled out a FaceTime invite one evening and my husband and I locked eyes in that flash of parental cognition that we’d failed to think something through to its logical conclusion. What kind of slippery slope have we stepped out on? Was this a great idea, or a very, very bad one? What’s the emoji for “Oh, crap. Now what have we done?”

Flash forward a few months and now there are five little girls, with freshly minted iPods, engaging in semi-regular virtual playdates. There have been some sticking points along the way — like what it means when Liddy is hanging out with one friend in person and wants include another via FaceTime. Would the FaceTime friend feel left out because she was only virtually connected? Would the live friend think that she was getting dissed?

Fortunately, so far, those fears have been unfounded. I know because I check in and remind Liddy to be aware of the possibility, but also because I can hear them all whooping it up and laughing — in person and through the iPod speaker, with its volume cranked as high as it will go.

And these playdates are much more interactive than I would have imagined. Liddy runs through the house holding her iPod aloft, banging a song out on the piano while a friend joins in from several blocks away. They show off art projects they are each working on, or write silly poems together, or even play virtual family — with humans. And they still get plenty of face-to-face time along with the FaceTime. Electronic get-togethers have not replaced the real-world ones.

I’m reminded again that the questions I mistakenly believe our generation of parents faces for the first time are not so far off from the ones my own parents wrangled with in the era when I’d spend half the afternoon dialing a friend, hearing a busy signal, then hanging up and dialing another friend to try to figure out who was talking on the phone without me.

And I recently realized that I was Liddy’s same age when my fourth grade science book promised a future of moving sidewalks, computers that talked, and phones that had video feeds. Those ideas seemed outlandish to a ten-year-old in 1982. Outlandish, and totally awesome.