The Bittersweet Love for a Godchild
Being a 'second-string mother' brings tremendous joy but also heartache
I never particularly wanted to have kids, never had that desperate desire to be a mother or felt my biological clock ticking. I don't think of myself as someone with particularly strong maternal instincts, and never had a partner with whom I considered raising children.
If I ever considered having a child, it was a fleeting thought. Now that I’m in my 50s, I’m too tired to even contemplate the idea.
I grew up in a family that proved Tolstoy’s theorem that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Ours was rife with alcohol, nervous breakdowns and money issues, and the only certainty was that the other shoe would surely drop.
Even as an adolescent, I knew I was gay, and I used to fantasize about my future life and the freedom that would come from not being "attached" in any traditional way. On some level I sensed that I would end up choosing my grown-up family, and they’d be worlds apart from the one I was born into.
When it comes to children, I like most of them in the abstract (and in the concrete sense, only in small doses). I love my nieces and nephews and really enjoy seeing them — a few times a year. I tend to be good with kids in the short term. I like to do what they like to do: goof off, get rambunctious, eat chocolate. But I don’t like the messiness they bring, physically or emotionally.
That’s why I never could have anticipated what happened with goddaughter, Scarlett.
Four years ago, Scarlett (names have been changed) was born, and now I find myself besieged with all the emotions that come with loving a child, which is all the more complex because that child isn’t mine. For the record, I'm a nominal godmother — not the kind that comes with obligations toward Scarlett's religious upbringing.
I’ve known Scarlett’s mom, Julie, for 20 years. We have a complicated history. First we were colleagues, then close friends; then we became romantically involved. We broke up for the simple reason that she loved me, but she wasn’t gay. Then we reverted to a warm friendship and started our own company. In that time, we had several fallings out and episodes of not speaking to each other, but we always managed to get things back on track.
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An Unconventional Family Dynamic
We’d been broken up for a couple of years when Julie met a stable guy, Michael, fell in love and got married. In some ways, he’s the male version of me, except I’m much more organized and he’s better with money. I give him credit for being OK about Julie’s and my prior relationship, and his cool quotient was seriously upped when he told his male buddies about his wife’s lesbian past, which he did with his wife's blessings.
Julie didn’t have to break the news of her pregnancy to me: I knew it the second she turned down a glass of wine at dinner. (Julie never passes up a glass of wine.) Over the coming months, because she didn’t have any family nearby, it fell to me to help out. I was with her every day and vicariously experienced all the stages of her pregnancy.
So on the morning of Feb. 25, 2008, I was alongside Julie and Michael in the hospital from the moment they arrived, and was the third person to hold Scarlett. A few days after they went home, I took the train from my apartment in Manhattan to New Jersey to visit — “two hours max,” I told myself — and wound up staying three days. Every time my family anxiety got the best of me and I wanted to bolt, Julie would burst into postpartum tears. That was completely out of character for her, as she’s a fairly unemotional person, so I stayed.
A funny thing happened in those 72 hours. Scarlett stole my heart. I could have been imagining it, but it really seemed like she needed me to rock her, calm her, change her and feed her.
For those first few weeks, I practically moved in and handled things I’m ill-equipped for, like cooking and anticipating a baby’s needs. Many days I worked from their apartment, and often in the evening, though exhausted, I offered to baby-sit. I said I wanted to give Julie and Michael a night out, but we all knew it was because I had fallen in love with their baby.
The Special Role of a Godparent
What I’ve enjoyed most about this relationship has been, and continues to be, seeing the world through Scarlett’s eyes. It’s reawakened my own curiosity about things I’ve long taken for granted. Being with her lets me experience some of the fun things I must have done as a child but have forgotten. Did I put everything, from dirt to crayons to necklaces, in my mouth? Did I used to dance with abandon? Did people gather around me and marvel at my every move?
My relationship with Scarlett is almost as complex as my relationship with her mother. I’m not her parent. I’m not her grandparent — or aunt or cousin — which might afford me certain claims to her. But being related to someone doesn’t guarantee love. Take my cousin Kevin: He’s a religious fanatic who never misses an opportunity to inform me that I’m going to burn in hell.
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Inventing a New Kind of Relationship
When Scarlett was a year old, she landed in the hospital with a virulent stomach virus. I rushed to the hospital, where the nurse asked if I was family. “Yes,” I answered without thinking. But even though Scarlett calls me Aunt Melissa, I know I have no legal rights that relatives do. Emotionally, of course, it’s an entirely different story. I’m the non-related relative.
And although that does afford me the luxury of being able to break some rules, like giving her shoes that light up or letting her run through the bushes and get filthy, technically speaking, I am still an "outsider."
When my mother died in 2004, I took my dad to Ireland. He had always wanted to see “the old sod” before he died, and I wanted to spend time with him and take our minds off our grief. One night at dinner, I asked him if Mom had liked having children. He paused for a very long time. “She liked being a grandmother,” he said. In the moment, that made me feel unwanted, unloved. Today, as a godparent, I completely understand what she meant. It’s a lot easier spoiling a child than it is raising one.
But the heartbreak sets in when I realize I’m missing so many “firsts”: pre-school, play date, plane ride. I was painfully jealous when Michael taught her how to fish because one of my favorite childhood memories is my grandfather teaching me to bait a hook, and I was looking forward to teaching Scarlett.
When I bring up my powerful feelings about Scarlett in therapy, my therapist says, “Feelings aren’t facts.” She’s right. But here are some facts, irrational or otherwise. I panic when I find out that Scarlett’s in a car with her grandmother, who’s a terrible driver. I’m jealous of all the other people who get to take care of her, and I fear that as she grows up, I may lose my special place in her life.
I suppose from her 4-year-old perspective, there's nothing unique about our relationship. I’m just one of the many adults who love and support her. But I hope that one day she will say things like, “My aunt Melissa who isn’t really my aunt but is my godmother and friend told me where to find the best markets in the Marrakesh medina” or “My godmother brought me to a soup kitchen when I was 7 and that’s what inspired me to work for Doctor’s Without Borders.” And I’m hoping to teach her that, as Paulo Coelho once wrote, “A life without a cause is a life without effect.”
My wise friend Annie told me that as long as I feel the way I do, I will always be special to Scarlett. She reminded me that we learn who we are and what our values are by seeing ourselves mirrored in other people’s eyes. As mine are always focused on Scarlett and filled with love, I hope she’ll always know that she is worthy of love. I also hope I can teach her that affection comes in many forms and that in loving people who aren’t related, she gets to choose her “family.”
Maybe someday, I’ll be able to tell Scarlett what she’s given me. With my issues around commitment and intimacy, she challenges my knee-jerk response to flee when things don’t go my way or I don’t feel like I’m special.
Perhaps Scarlett has allowed me to experience a first after all. She is the first person to teach me what unconditional love feels like, in all its messy, painful wonderfulness.
Melissa Hoffman wrote and performed the one-woman show The Bossy Girl Monologues in Lincoln Center Theater’s American Living Room series in 2000. In 2010 she published Free Fall, a collection of short stories.
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