This is it – the end. When I started on this project I wondered if I had the ability to stick to such a long-term project and now… poof…it’s over.
I never wanted kids of my own, I’m not sure why. It just never really hit me. I waited and waited, but I never heard a clock. I’d look at babies and smile and try to understand that deep desire to have one. But after my initial smile, I was uninterested. Maybe I would have had them if I had met the right guy – but the right guy never really hit me either. And so here I am, alone.
I don’t mind being alone, I just don’t want to be insignificant.
Making a Dream a Reality
Maybe that’s why I dreamt up the Niece Project, I wanted to do something significant. I wanted to give my nieces an experience. I wanted to build a relationship with them. I wanted to have them see the world and travel as early on as they could so that they may take worldly view into adulthood. I didn’t want to be a mother, I wanted to be that crazy (yet cool) aunt.
With passports in hand, I went off with each one of them to a different far flung location of their choice when they reached the age of 16.
Where Did The Nieces Go?
One of the biggest surprises in this project is that each tried to outdo the other it seemed. I was thrilled to see the variety of places they chose and how brave they all were to go into new cultures!
I immediately wanted to cling to each of them when we stepped off the plane to make sure they didn’t make a wrong move. But I also knew that I had to just let them go and figure it all out like everyone else. Even though I believe my biological clock to be broken, when I travel with my nieces there is an overwhelming mothering gene that does kick in and I can’t stop it. I normally can talk myself out of making the ‘mother statements’ – but it’s really hard, it’s like my mom came in and took over my body at times.
Did I achieve What I Wanted with the Niece Project?
My niece project goals were pretty simple, I wanted to be a travel mentor to them, give them experiences over stuff, and begin to build an adult relationship with them that could hopefully last into my old age. However, the niece project is not something that gets immediate results, I always knew it would take time to see if actually achieved what I wanted it to. Since I finished my last trip with Erin in August, I thought it was a good time to check in on some of these goals.
Be A Travel Mentor
I not only wanted to simply teach them to travel on their own, I wanted to get them excited to see the world and learn more about it. I hoped that our trip would spark an interest in doing more trips on their own, and possibly even get them interested in study abroad, or even living abroad at some point in their life.
For my brother’s daughters, the first step was to get them a passport and start their frequent flyer account. This was their first jet lag, passport stamp, and immigration. It was also their first introduction into military time, the metric system, and writing the date DD/MM/YY; those moments when you realize that the world doesn’t revolve around the US! For my sister’s daughters it was about going to new continents and experiencing new cultures for the first time.
The older ones have started traveling themselves now. My oldest niece Bethany went back to Europe with a girlfriend this fall – her first big trip on her own. My niece Evie surprised me when she decided to go back to Vietnam for her college spring break and took friends with her! She also studied abroad for a month in Oman and managed to fit in a trip to Thailand in too! And she’s heading to Ireland in March – she obviously caught the travel bug. The other 4 are still in school and it remains to be seen on when they will be able to have time and money to travel on their own. I have heard a few of them talk about study abroad, so I have high hopes!
One of my favorite post niece trip moments was when Allie texted me to call her. Getting a text from her was a rare occurrence and I thought maybe something was wrong. When I got a hold of her she simply had questions for me about changing planes in O’Hare airport! I love that they contact me about travel questions! I know that it would have never happened without the Niece Project.
Experiences Over Stuff
I may not have given Lindsey a graduation, Christmas, or birthday gift, but I did give her the thrill of her life when we bungee jumped together in New Zealand! The 6 trips were full of incredible experiences from cultural – learning how to eat pizza like an Italian, to adventures – like climbing mountains, riding camels, caving, snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, and eating hot vit lon. We also covered some pretty incredible sights – sights that most people wait a lifetime to see. Our trips took us to Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and the Coliseum! Megan even included volunteering in her trip raising money to build houses in Lima Peru for her trip. For me that was more memorable than seeing Machu Picchu!
But I think my favorite experiences were when one of them experienced a ‘first’. Allie seeing the ocean and playing in the waves for the first time in Belize, Bethany ordering her first alcoholic drink in Italy legally, Lindsey’s first Christmas away from her family, Erin seeing (and screaming about) her first gecko, Evie’s first time singing with a band at a bar, and Megan’s first time doing sink laundry.
Build a Relationship Through Family Travel
I had no idea what to expect when I embarked on this project. However, I knew I wanted to get to know each of them better as they entered their adult lives on their own. Each trip had some pretty in-depth conversations about sex, politics, family, school, and the future. I loved those conversations because more than anything, I want to be an adult they can be friends with; one that may have different views and experiences than their parents. They were all at a critical point in their lives where they were ready to head off to college and start to get exposed to new views and people. College is typically when personalities are formed, beliefs are challenged, and I guess I was always hopeful that I could be a piece of that process – regardless of whether they agreed with my way of thinking or not.
I must admit that nothing makes me happier than when one of them texts me about something random, wishes me happy birthday, or contacts me to express their sadness when I broke up with my boyfriend. It’s these moments when I know that the Niece Project works. I’ve even had 3 of them come out and stay with me in Denver already!
Travel With Teenagers: The Lessons
When I started this project, I hadn’t really thought about the lessons I too would be learning – but there were plenty. The experience of taking them on a trip, just the two of us, was challenging and educational for me. I learned an incredible amount about them, responsibility, patience, friendship, and myself.
I realize that these Niece Project trips are as much about my growth as it is about their growth. It’s about how I come to grips with trying to relate to a younger generation, to my own aging, and some of my own life decisions.
Always carry a barf bag.
I’ll never forget the moment that Evie looked at me in her window seat and said, “I think I’m going to be sick” and then proceeded to throw up all over her food that was just delivered in front of her. That was the first time one of them threw up on our trip, but it wasn’t the last! Megan got sick a few times when in Peru thanks to altitude. Allie didn’t get sick, but looked pretty green on our small plane flight to Belize City. By then I had learned to always have a barf bag handy when I traveled with them and a healthy supply of Dramamine!
No matter how many times I did this – I still was stressed out.
In the beginning, leading up to our day of departure I’d be so stressed out that it would manifest itself physically. I remember having heartburn on the whole flight to Vietnam with Evie. I think internally the idea of being totally responsible for them was really frightening to me. There was a weight on my shoulders that I never felt when I traveled alone or with friends. Traveling with family is different. And even though I went through that process of leaving with a niece 6 times, every time my stomach was in butterflies. Hopefully my face showed some confidence though!
Every time I signed the temporary guardianship form it was nerve-wracking. Assuming responsibility for a kid was never an easy process for me internally.
I had a piece of paper packed with me that described the temporary guardianship that I was assuming – it was titled Temporary Care and Control of a Minor Child – and it was signed and notarized. The only thing that was off limits was marrying her off or putting her up for adoption – everything else I had responsibility for. It was a responsibility that I always sort of knew I had – but when put in writing it for some reason took on more meaning to me.
I was older on each trip which changed the dynamics of the relationship.
This project took place over the course of 6 years – I started it when I was 42 years old. My oldest niece Bethany was 19 when we went on our trip and for some reason our age difference of 23 years seemed comfortable; if felt like we were friends rather than me being some authority figure adult in her travels. I had the same feeling with the next niece, Evie. We laughed our way through Vietnam and I felt really close to her as a friend at the end .
However, the next niece trips that age gap grew and by the time I took my last niece Erin, the age gap was 31 years between us. I noticed that the last 4 trips I felt a bit more like an adult figure than a friend at times. Or at least I felt that’s how they saw me; a stand in for their parents.
The sensation at first surprised me, but I was able to get used to it. I’m sure it was all in my head – but it did change the dynamic a bit. There was nothing necessarily bad about it, it was just an overall feeling I had. Plus, as the age gap grew, I found that I had to work harder at being open and ‘young at heart’ to things they wanted to do. They kept me young minded in a way – something I’m very thankful for.
I was capable of being a mom…at least in theory.
My whole adult life I always questioned my ability to be a mother, I just didn’t think I had that ‘caring gene’ that makes you drop everything for a child or that motherly instinct of kindness and patience. However, through these trips that theory was tested over and over. They made me care and have patience in ways that I didn’t think was possible.
Nothing put me in the mom role more than when Megan got altitude sickness in Peru while we were camping for a few days at 12,000 feet. I was beside myself as she stopped eating, couldn’t sleep, would not hold down any food, and I knew I had to get her down asap. As I walked behind her wobbling along the steep trail I had one hand on her backpack handle to try to ensure she wasn’t going to fall down before we could get to the section where it was less steep and we could take a horse to the hospital. I was terrified for her. I was prepared to get her to the hospital and call my sister and brother-in-law. This is one story you should really read – it was by far my scariest moment on a Niece Trip.
Not only did I have to act as a mom at times, but I was also called ‘mom’ many times; sometimes by them (on accident), and most frequently by others. People just assumed I was traveling with my daughter. I was at first very quick to explain to the shopkeeper or hotel manager that I wasn’t their mother, I was their aunt. My response in my head was always, “Do I look like their mom to you?!” However when I was deeply honest with myself, I realized that I did look like their mom. Even though in my head I felt 28 years old, the fact was that I was in my mid 40’s and easily could be their mother! Eventually I started accepting and expecting it. However, I would still correct people; old habits die hard.
Small group travel is the way to go.
For 5 of the 6 Niece Trips I utilized small group travel tours. I did this for many reasons, and one very selfish reason – because it was so much easier for me to plan! Small group travel is just what it sounds like…small. It’s normally a maximum of 12 to 15 people and I find that it normally is made up of solo travelers who don’t feel like traveling alone. I worked with Intrepid Travel for 4 of the trips and Adventure Life for the Belize trip. These are both favorite companies of mine that I have used personally on trips, so I felt very confident taking my nieces on their itineraries.
Traveling exponentially broadens exposure to new things, ideas, and people. I’ve found that one of the best ways to maximize this exposure is to take them on small group tours. This way they aren’t simply traveling with me, but with a group of interesting people from around the world. Strangers do really make an impact. I adore exposing my nieces to people who have no connection to their family, and who are slightly older than them, but independent and working.
The worst experiences were the most memorable.
“Remember when we found the wolf spider in the safe?” Allie asks me. I erupt in laughter, “Oh yes, I will never forget that moment. And then when that roach was on the bed…” More laughter coming from both of us. That’s how I spend my family holidays now – reminiscing about the bad times with my nieces!
I find that the experiences we remember and share the most are the bad, scary, or gross, situations. I think it’s a human trait that the bad times bring us all closer and that was definitely the theme of all of the niece projects. We seldom talk about the moment of awe when we first saw the Taj Mahal, but we do talk about how unbelievably hot, sticky, and uncomfortable we were.
I’ll never forget how hard I hugged Lindsey after our bungee jump as we were bobbing upside down with adrenaline coursing through our bodies. We laughed, we cried, and I hugged her harder than I had hugged anyone before. I didn’t even want to do the bungee jump, but I wanted her to do it – so I went with her. Nothing brings you closer than tackling one of your biggest fears together…literally tied together.
Each trip had one of those moments that are burned in your brain forever:
When I woke up Erin in the middle of the night to move hotel rooms thanks to the giant rat I found at 1AM.
The lice epidemic at the orphanage Megan and I stayed at all week in Lima.
Eating a duck embryo in Vietnam with Evie, and of course I’ll never forget her puking in the plane.
Lindsey and I missing our connection in LA and spending an unwanted day there seeing Hollywood.
Megan realizing she forgot her passport on the way to the airport.
These are the memories I know we’ll remember and laugh about when I’m old and gray and we have nothing else to talk about except my aches and pains. These experiences bond us.
Meet the nieces and hear them talk about the Niece Project
A couple of years ago my whole family was in Breckenridge and I got them all together for a Facebook Live broadcast – watch it now!
Get up and walk on your flight!
Of course I have to include this as a huge lesson even though it didn’t really have anything to do with the nieces directly. After contracting blood clots on my flight to India and ending up with 3 pulmonary emboli in my lungs I try to share this lesson with everyone. Get up and walk every 90 minutes on your flight, and wear compression socks!
I know that I escaped death on the last Niece Project; I think about it a lot. I can only think that I made it through it alive so that I could have a chance to write about this Niece Project and be around to see them all get married and have kids. I am so thankful that I will have a chance to actually continue to build my relationship with my nieces – because it could have easily gone the other way.
And finally – It’s ok to cry when it’s over and they leave…
“I can’t say goodbye to my niece at the airport without crying. She’s my niece…not my child…my niece. But I’ve grown attached to her for the last 11 days. I felt responsible for her. She was a fabulous, mature travel companion who made me laugh and I was oozing pride that she was so bright, funny, and strong.”
Crying is not a weakness, nor does it mean I’m unhappy. At least that’s what I try to tell myself every time I find the tears welling up and streaming down my face as I say goodbye to them. I am horrible at goodbyes. They might not know it, but I’ve shed my share of tears on this project too. Each of these girls/women hold a very special place in my heart and each trip was better than any physical gift I could have given them.
A Very Special Thanks
I can’t write about the Niece Project without a special mention of my sister/her husband and my brother/his wife who trusted me enough to even do this project. Their daughters did not pick easy places, and they each signed over temporary responsibility of their daughter to me – and for that I’m eternally thankful to them. In the beginning, I think they were pretty tentative about the whole idea of the Niece Project, but they gave me a chance to prove my idea and myself. I couldn’t do what I do without their support.
The original project may be over, but I know I will travel with each of them again. It will take time to see if there was an effect or I achieved what my ultimate goals were with the Niece Project. However, I do know the Niece Project changed lives; it changed the lives of others, it changed their life, it changed my life, and hopefully it might have changed yours too.
In a way, I’ve already written a book!
If you want to read the complete Niece Project Series go here and start at the beginning. It will take you through each trip, decision, debacle, tear, and barf bag experience!
Have you started a niece or nephew project?
I have heard from many other aunts and uncles (single or not), around the world that have started their own such ‘projects’. And that was one byproduct that I never expected. I wanted to inspire my nieces; I wasn’t expecting to inspire other aunts and uncles. I’m so happy about this, that I do regularly take guest posts from people who want to share their own niece or nephew project and write their story on my blog. If you’d like to write about a niece or nephew project, just contact me with your idea!