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March 08, 2018

In praise of godparents: Extending the circle of care around our children

Parenting Godparents
AmyWrightGlenn_Godparents Courtesy of Amy Wright Glenn/for PhillyVoice

Author Amy Wright Glenn (left) with the godmother to her son, beloved Johannah.

Growing up as a Mormon girl in Utah, I didn’t know anyone who had godparents. It wasn’t a commonly practiced tradition in our small town community in the 1970s and '80s. Godparents? Outside of the story of Cinderella’s magical fairy godmother, what did having godparents actually mean?

As the eldest of seven, I occasionally engaged in speculation with my siblings as to what would happen to us in the unlikely and tragic event of both of our parents dying while we were young.

“I want to live with Aunt Louise,” one of my younger sisters said.

“I want to live with Aunt Willie,” another sister piped up.

For me, there was no question. I would want to live with my beloved cousin Hans and join his family should I ever need to do so.

Nonetheless, at the time of such musings, none of us associated the passing on of parental guardianship to the role of godparents. The term wasn’t a part of our lexicon.

Even for those who use the word “godparent,” the role need not translate into that of pending legal guardian should a child’s parents perish while the child is a minor. For example, today I’m a godmother, but not a pending legal guardian, to a girl in New York and I’m a godmother and pending legal guardian to two girls in Utah. In all cases, I’ve been asked to play a positive and special role in the lives of these children. The emotional or spiritual support is key.

In the west, the tradition of establishing the role of godparents dates back to the early Christian era wherein godparents witnessed the infant baptisms of their charges and vowed to nurture the developing faith of their godchildren. Not all Christian communities carried on this tradition. For example, it isn’t common in Mormon Utah. Also, the tradition isn’t specifically western. Analogous traditions exist in non-western cultures, too. Some Chinese communities celebrate formal godparent roles, though they are non-religious in nature.

In our hyper-commercialized, fragmented and digital world, parents are wise to extend the circle of compassion, kindness, care and positive influence around their children. Little ones benefit from being surrounded by a range of healthy adults, in real time. And while it’s incumbent upon parents to legally identify in their wills the individuals they would want to care for their children should they be unable to do so – this need not correspond to the naming of such individuals as godparents. The adults in question may be dear friends or beloved aunts/uncles.

"May we adopt this custom not only for the sake of our children, but also for our own well being as parents. For when the circle of care expands around our children, we are surrounded by a deeper love as well."

Whether one uses the specific term “godparent” or not, and whether one links pending legal guardianship to role of a godparent, there are significant benefits to formalizing the role of emotional or spiritual mentorship with regard to one’s children. For example, when dear friends or family members are asked to play a special role in the life of a child, it’s a humbling honor. Certainly parents we can’t shoulder the responsibility of being “everything” to their children as they grow. It’s not healthy to take this on, nor wise. By extending the circle of care around our families, we invite the best of those we most admire into our journey through time. We invite godparents in for the long haul – and whether that means a monthly dinner out with their godchildren or sending holiday and birthday cards each year, children come to know that they can count on their godparents to be there, to show up, and be a loving support and witness to their lives.

When my son’s father and I discussed who we would want to be the godparents and pending legal guardians of our son, we went through a deliberate and focused process. We made a long list of dear friends and family members. We went through each one carefully. It’s easy to feel pressure to pick a best friend, brother or sister. One doesn’t want to offend after all. But a best friend may not be the right choice for a future legal guardian; the same is true for family members. What mattered most was that the best interests of our son took center stage. So, we considered the qualities we would want our son to emulate, the “fit” between the personalities at hand, and whether or not his future godparents were stable, kind, healthy and grounded people.

Today, I am so grateful for the positive influence my son’s godparents choose to play in his life. As wise mentors, dear friends and loving parents, they are celebrated and lifted up. While we live many states apart, we make a point to visit each year and stay in touch via FaceTime and phone. My son knows if anything were to happen to his father and me while he is young, he would live with his godparents. He knows he would be loved dearly, for he is loved dearly now.

As a young girl, I couldn’t have imagined I would ask friends to play the formal role of godparents for my future child. And while godparenting remains an anomaly in the community of my youth, I’m so glad I adopted this custom. Today, I write in praise of godparents and I hope all who grew up as I did, will consider this a worthy tradition to emulate. May we adopt it not only for the sake of our children, but also for our own well-being as parents. For when the circle of care expands around our children, we are surrounded by a deeper love as well.

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