Once upon a time, I was a liberal, liberated college student in Berkeley, Calif. Like so many other women who came of age during the sexual revolution in the late 1960s and ’70s, I paid a visit to Planned Parenthood to explore the exciting new world of birth control.
There was the Pill, of course, the diaphragm and some newfangled contraption called the Dalkon Shield. Neither I nor the other 2.8 million women who chose this intrauterine device had a clue about the disastrous consequences that awaited us.
Some Dalkon Shield users experienced immediate, even life-threatening problems. Others discovered years or decades later that they could not bear children. The product was pulled from the market in 1974, and shortly thereafter some 300,000 women (including me) filed a class action lawsuit against the manufacturer, A.H. Robins, that would take 15 years to be settled in their favor.
The plaintiffs experienced pelvic inflammatory disease, sepsis, injury (e.g., the IUD becoming embedded in the uterus), miscarriages and death. I was one of the many who were rendered infertile. Though I had always expected to one day be a mother, the Dalkon Shield denied me that dream.
My grief was tempered, one warm spring day in 1984, when a dear family friend in London, Robin Greer, called and invited me to become a “fairy godmother” to his two daughters, Olivia, then 7, and Carolina, 3. (Since the girls already had formal, religious godparents, my role would be a much more creative one.) And Greer, a rare book dealer specializing in illustrated children’s books, knew a few things about fairy godmothers. So began my new role as an affectionate, auntlike non-relation to a host of my friends’ children.
(MORE: Our Relationship With Other People's Kids)
Inventing Your Own Role in Children’s Lives
Today I have a passel of fairy godkids ranging in age from 30-something all the way down to 6. (I even have two great-fairy-godkids I’ve yet to meet in person.)
As a fairy godmother, besides granting wishes and sprinkling fairy dust, my role is to be an adjunct mentor and to help guide my fairy godchildren through life while bringing extra fun into their world. It is also my duty to acknowledge birthdays, holidays and special occasions with gifts ranging from the boring but needed (back-to-school shoes) to the extravagant (a holiday at an English country estate).
As a single woman, this has turned out to be a lovely way to have children in my life: I get to have fun and they get a little bonus joy — all on my own terms. I joke that my relationship with them is like mine with library books: I check them out at will and return them on their due date (or hour).
Just as we can’t choose our family, you can’t simply become a fairy godparent. A child — and her parents — must agree. Case in point: After meeting a new neighbor, Sarah, and her daughter Lily, 6, who’d recently moved here (California) from London, I told Sarah about my secret identity and said I’d welcome another fairy godchild to the pack. Sarah thought that sounded great and asked her daughter how she felt. Lily was intrigued, but had a few questions.
“Do fairy godmothers know all about me?” she asked. I told her that I knew some things about her, but that I wanted to learn more. I knew that she likes Barbie dolls, jewelry and reading. “Could I fly?” she asked. (Only at night when she was asleep, I told her). When I found out that she wanted to be an author, I gave her a journal, which she soon filled with a story and drawings.
I got the job. Lily’s talent and curiosity, not to mention her affectionate hugs, make my day every time I see her. She also drew my portrait, and like any proud parent, I have it prominently displayed on my refrigerator.
My gymnastically inclined fairy goddaughter Isa, 9, once mentioned that she liked how fairy godmothers could grant wishes, so while working together recently on a school project, I asked if she had any. “To travel more, be able to do a front flip and backhand spring, and have less homework,” she replied.
I suggested she think big: Why not train for the Olympics, which would combine two of her dreams? But I told her there was little I could do on the homework front except continue to help her with it.
(MORE: The Bittersweet Love for a Godchild)
How to Be a Fairy Godparent
While most children know a bit about fairy godmothers, adults often need a refresher course — especially since many of the tools of the trade have been updated. Two of the most important things you’ll need are wings to fly about the globe (or plenty of frequent-flyer miles) and a magic wand, or just a good imagination, the Internet and a little disposable income.
Here are four tips to help you start sprinkling a little fairy dust of your own.
- Get permission. Before you do anything, ask your friends/the parents if they would like you to be a fairy godparent to their child(ren). Explain that this could involve anything from babysitting to gifts on holidays and birthdays to “objective” advice, if and when desired.
- Establish ground rules. Make sure your intended godchild understands what your role will be. Once you explain the perks — stories, homework help, pizza, ice cream, movies, zoo visits, as well as someone to be there to listen to anything they need to talk about — they might even have some ideas of their own.
- Know your limits. When I tried to demonstrate a somersault to a 6-year-old fairy goddaughter, I discovered I was no longer able to turn myself upside-down on the lawn. This rule also applies to homework. If the math problems are beyond your ken, defer to a parent or teacher.
- Respect boundaries. Always follow the parents’ rules. If a child is not allowed to do something, do not sweep in and carry the little darlings off to Never-Neverland. And should you ever notice anything worrisome, be it a sniffly nose or a propensity to “borrow” things without benefit of payment, inform the parent in a thoughtful and caring manner.
In junior high school, I liked a certain quote by D.H. Lawrence so much that I inscribed it on my backpack: “Give up bearing children and bear hope and love and devotion to those already born.” I have long wondered whether that was just a coincidence — or my budding inner fairy godmother making herself known.
Like the idea of having children in your life but aren’t comfortable with the notion of fairy godparenting? There are plenty of other ways to bring children into your life and joy to theirs. Consider Big Brothers/Big Sisters programs, being a foster parent or grandparent or donating your time and skills at schools, faith-based initiatives or nonprofit programs that reach out to children.
Leslie A. Westbrook is a freelance writer, author and fairy godmother to at least nine children around the globe. She plans to adopt fairy godkids as long as there are willing children and parents.