Spending Time With My Nephew Is The Ultimate Serotonin Release

Becoming an aunt gave me the mental clarity I'd been looking for.

Courtesy of Becca Strassberg

I was an anxious mess the day Leo was born. My sister, five years my senior, was in labor for hours before they decided on an emergency C-section. She and I are normally inseparable, but giving birth to her first child was something she had to do alone with her husband — leaving me in the drafty waiting room, burying my jitters in tabloids and social media.

After an agonizing 20 hours (mostly for her), the wait was over. I let out the kind of dramatic wail you only see on medical dramas as I struggled through blurry eyes to see the first photo of Leo. Soon, I made my way upstairs to meet him and I cried harder than I ever have in my life. I couldn’t pull it together. My sister was laughing at me so hard that she kicked me out of the room for fear she’d bust her stitches.

That was the first time my nephew calmed my every worry and triggered a serotonin release in my brain so extreme that I thought I would explode from sheer happiness. Little did I know, it would be far from the last.

That same fall when my nephew was born, I'd started going to therapy and taking antidepressants in an effort to manage my mental response to getting older and wiser about the world. (Not to downplay the importance of mental health, but brevity, you know?) Both of these mechanisms were working really well for me, but I’d soon learn that things like my nephew’s first smile and attempt at saying my name would work wonders for my mental state in a way that I hadn't experienced before.

When I got back to work after Leo’s birth, I found a small present and a Hallmark card perched on my desk. That fuzzy feeling immediately came rushing back. “To a special aunt…” the front of the card read. Inside were scribbled messages and well wishes from my team. “YOU’RE AN AUNT!” one read. Yeah, I am! “Aunt Becca!” another began. I could get used to that, I thought.

Even though I'd left my nephew back at the hospital with my sister and her husband, suddenly this dedicated aunt card — something I’d only gifted and never received — was a physical reminder of this new phase in my life. I was a euphoric blubbering mess all over again.

Leo’s turning 3 years old soon, and I can’t help but reflect on the past few years. Much like a best friend who knows you inside and out, my nephew can cheer me up within minutes. (I mean, not to get all meta, but even sitting here and writing about him is bringing me joy.)

Here’s an example: Last year I quit a job that was bringing me down. I became a not-so-nice person to those around me all because I was frustrated and unhappy at work. After I put in my two weeks, I left the office and broke down on the subway. I wasn’t sure if I’d just made the smartest decision or the biggest mistake of my life so I changed trains and, instead of going home, went to see my nephew. “Bebba!” he screamed as I walked in the door. (He’s never been able to say Becca and now my entire family calls me Aunt Bebs.) While playing with Leo, I talked out my job decision with my family, who assured me I’d be OK.

Had Leo not existed, I might’ve just gone home and wallowed in my apartment, taken a nap, and refused to talk to anyone. He doesn’t just cheer me up, but wanting to see him encourages me to share and be open with my family. He’s strengthened my relationships with all of them — but especially my sister.

I said that we’re normally inseparable, but the truth is … I can’t remember some of the years before she got pregnant. Leo changed everything for me. My sister called me at 7:00 in the morning to tell me the news and I dropped my freshly buttered bagel on the floor, butter-side down. It took me months to realize I was going to be an aunt because this person I loved and cherished my entire life was about to become a mother. We immediately began reading baby books and blogs, slowly shopped for cute clothes, and increased our daily communication. I wanted to know how she was feeling all the time and what I could bring her. It gave me a happiness high to see her belly growing and to count down to the fall.

I refused to wait that long, though, and bought her a preemptive Hallmark Mother’s Day card that May. As I scoured the aisle for the perfect message, my heart swelled so big. To this day, I love being reminded of the new titles Leo gave us — Mom, Aunt, Grandma, Dad — and picking out these cards for my family. I’ve written “thanks for making me an aunt” (and will continue to do so) in more cards than I can count. Sure, I can tell my sister how grateful I am a million times over text message and video call — and I do. But now, with this happiness that was never there before, I jot down my sappy feelings in a card. Thank you for making me an aunt, for my Leo, for bringing us closer than I could’ve ever imagined. Love, Aunt Bebs.

This post is sponsored by Hallmark.