Christina Myers wears a silver treble clef on a matching chain around her neck every day. It was a Christmas gift from her 14-year-old niece.

"I haven't taken it off since she gave it to me," said Christina, of St. Paul."It's so precious, not just because I love her so much, but because I know that she loves me."

The musical symbol represents a powerful link between the two.

"We're both sopranos, we both love music and singing. For the past two years we sang a duet at church at Christmas; it was really cool," said Julia Myers, an Inver Grove Heights freshman who picked out the necklace.

"She calls me her mini-me and that reminds me of how awesome it is to be myself," said Julia.

While the bonds of extended kinship have always been strong in some families, the role of the modern aunt has become essential.

"I have so much love for them, my heart is just bursting all the time," said Christina, 40, of her relationship with Julia and her three nephews. "I'm not going to have kids, so these relationships are so important. It's a gift to be close to them."

About half of all American women are not mothers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But many of them, like Christina, are deeply invested in their relationships with nieces and nephews. There's even a name for them: PANKs: Professional Aunt, No Kids.

"These women provide quite a valuable role, especially now, when parents are so stretched," said Melanie Notkin, who coined the term. "They add another layer of nurturing."

A PANK herself, Notkin said that 23 million childless American women (about 20 percent of all women 18 and older) report having a special bond with at least one child in their life.

"For women who don't have children — whether by choice or chance or challenge — being an aunt is a way to use that maternal muscle," she said.

In 2001, when Notkin's nieces and nephews were very young, she founded the Savvy Auntie website to help other aunts explore and expand their relationships with their younger kin. There's also a Facebook page, with almost 100,000 followers, where aunts, great-aunts, godmothers and honorary aunts can share their ideas about how to enhance their positive presence in a child's life.

"When it comes to child-rearing, parents have a plethora of magazines, websites and other parents to bounce ideas off. Aunts need that, too," Notkin said.

Long-term investments

Aunts invest mightily in the children they cherish, even though some say their contributions can be overlooked, misunderstood or underappreciated.

The most recent in a series of market research studies, commissioned by Notkin, concluded that these often affluent professionals outspend even grandparents, starting when children are born and continuing through their young adult years.

The 2018 study showed that, as a cohort, aunts invest $61 billion annually on gifts, outings and big ticket items, with 63 percent contributing to a niece or nephew's education.

But the assistance they offer goes well beyond financial. In two-career families, aunts can be a trusted adult who can be on duty in a pinch when a child is sick or can Skype from afar with homework help.

"It can be invaluable for parents to have that person they can rely on, who has the best interest of the child at heart," said Lindsey Weiler, an assistant professor in the Family Social Science Department at the University of Minnesota who researches children's relationships.

While many adults who are not related can — and do — offer help, sharing a family bond can make the connection stronger.

"There's a different weight attached to a relationship when there's an expectation that this will be a lifelong bond," Weiler said. "We refer to adults who make the time to build a committed relationship to that child as super mentors."

'Pure love'

When it comes to aunts helping parents, there aren't a lot of rules, said Notkin. Aside from one:

"I say, 'Parents rule.' They are in charge and we are secondary caregivers. We're there to play, to listen, to give children someone else in that family village to turn to. "

Christina Myers' brother Jess was 9 when she was born. He remembers helping to care for his sister when they were growing up in Warroad, Minn., where their parents owned the local Hardware Hank store.

"She tagged along and I like to think that I looked out for her in the big brother role," said Jess, a sportswriter and father of three. "Now it's come full circle with how she interacts with my kids.

"Today there's so many precautions we take to make sure kids are safe, but there's a different dynamic entirely when you're dealing with a family member."

His son Noah recalls Aunt Christy cheering him from the stands at his hockey games, watching him blow out candles at his birthday parties, and, as a fellow trombone player, practicing with him when he took up the instrument in middle school.

Now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Noah is still close with his aunt, often asking her for advice. Christina works in digital sales and marketing, a line of work that Noah plans to pursue.

"I can always be myself when she's around. She's like my old wise friend. She's not my mom, she doesn't have that direct authority, but she gives me motherly suggestions," he said. "I can talk to her about stuff going on personally in my life and my career goals."

Christina Myers is well aware that her auntie status allows her to steer clear of the adolescent conflicts and power struggles that can cause tension in the parental-child relationship.

"I get to feel that pure love for them," she said. "I'm so lucky that way."

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis based freelance broadcaster and writer.