This week I get godmotherly.
Hands up if you’re a godparent. Leave your hand up if you’re a good (as in, functioning) godparent. You know, you impart upon your respective godchildren sage spiritual wisdoms from time to time, send a card on their birthday…heck, you even know their birthday!
Hmmm, thought so.
I’m godmother to Jamie. Jamie is a great kid. Actually he’s a fully-fledged adult now. I know what he’s up to because he friended me on Facebook and I read his updates. This is mostly how I know he’s an adult now. In one of his wall photos he’s drinking beer. And has a moustache. I’d feel worse about my godmotherly failings except James’ dad is my godfather. And let’s just say, well, we know each other is still alive.
Godparents are like meringue wedding dresses: a largely uncomfortable nod to a bygone Christian tradition. Well, at least they have been for the past five or six decades. But it would appear their role is being resurrected. While in New York this week I met with Bruce Feiler, author of The Council of Dads, a book currently doing the talkshow circuit over here. His tale: In 2008 he was diagnosed with a very rare malignant tumor. His twin daughters were three and it hit him that if he were to die they’d have no representation of him to guide them through life (as he’d like them guided). So he approached his six closest male friends and asked them to form a council of Dads. Like a posse of godfathers. Only more engaged.
I like Feiler’s council because it brings us all closer. Anything that brings us closer and gets us more engaged is good in my book. Hillary Clinton wasn’t the first person to say it takes a village to raise a child. But in the past century or so, as women withdrew from the communal village workforce, childrearing has occurred privately, one mother at a time, behind picket fences. Which goes some way in explaining why we’re bad godparents today – childrearing’s a private affair that’s awkward to penetrate. Feiler agrees: “When we had our girls, we thought friends would chip in. Quite the opposite – they disappeared.”
I also agree. I don’t have kids, but many of my friends do; a number of them raise them alone. And – oh dear, I’m cringing as I type this – I admit I have a horribly arms-length relationship with most of their kids. I think in part it’s because I don’t have children, so I don’t get invited to kid events. I’m kept out of the park, so to speak. But it’s also because I lead a starkly contrasted selfish childless person’s life and fail to create the space or the time to shift gears into kid mode.
I’m not alone. A vast chasm exists among my generation between the reproductive haves and have nots, in turn breeding resentment and misunderstanding. Which I’ve always found really very sad. Especially given, more than ever – with single-parent and too-stretched, dual-income families being the norm – we need a village approach to raising our kids.
A century ago, childless men and women had a clear role in kids’ lives. They were the eccentric, well-read aunt who shared bluestocking rants, the avuncular bachelor you visited during school holidays. Godparenting played a vital role. In medieveal times “God Siblings”, or “godsibs”, described the intimate relationship between parents and godparents. In fact, here’s an interesting factoid: the word “gossip” stems from this particularly close engagement. There you go.
So what am I going to do about our modern conundrum? I can’t form a Council of Mums. I don’t really have the mandate. But I can engage more. And offer my services to friends. In the meantime, I can also share some council-forming tips. Feiler suggests giving each “parent” a defined role, according to their strengths.
One might be Travel Dad, another the Emotional Issues Dad. “This means sitting down with your friend and telling them what they mean to you, why their strengths matter to you, and your child.” When do we ever get to do such a beautiful thing? Perhaps on our deathbeds? But Feiler argues you don’t have to face death to form a council. “The process of forming a council of mums or dads is about engaging in friendship,” he says.
I can see that. It creates a forum for vulnerability, which in turn opens everyone up to a new kind of dialogue. Which really is beautiful.