Aunt Joy: In Praise of Godmothers

One of the most prized photos in my office is of my son and his godmother sitting in an apple tree. My son—six years old at the time—holds a half-eaten apple beside his grinning face. His godmother—a friend I’ll call Joy—has her elbows propped on a branch in front of him.

My husband took the picture in 2008, on a glorious New England fall day when we went apple picking. Joy’s brunette curls, streaked with a bit of silver, ripple back from a widow’s peak. She looks like Katharine Hepburn.

I’m calling her “Joy” not because I think there’s a need for anonymity (her actual middle name is Joy) but because of what she gives my son.

For us, non-church-goers with a splash of Buddhism and Quakerism thrown in, godmother is a kinship term. My son is an only child; our nuclear unit of mom-dad-boy is small, and most of our blood relations live in other states. So my son calls her Aunt Joy when he’s with friends, quite un-self-consciously, even if he sometimes needs to explain she’s not his “real” aunt.

What constitutes a “real” relationship? In that question lies all my hope and some worry about what it means to be an adoptive parent. I know we’ve forged a real family. I know my son has forged a lasting bond with Joy and other close adult friends of ours. For an adoptee especially, learning that love can cross many boundaries seems essential to me. It’s what my son will bring to his own friendships and, quite possibly, a search for his birth family in Vietnam.

If we didn’t have our non-biological connections, this world would be a very cold place indeed. My husband and I sometimes still feel it is without the support of a large biological family.

Being a godparent isn’t a simple role, of course. It may be more fluidly defined than it used to be, but expectations for godparents differ depending on religion and family. There’s the traditional sense of helping with a child’s spiritual education. My maternal aunt and uncle are my godparents; they did their part in my christening and took me to a few Episcopal services during my college years. This deepened my relationship with them, no question.

It’s also true I rarely saw them during my childhood. They lived across the country, and their godparent status was more an officially sanctioned fact than a lived connection. My husband and I wanted a godparent who would be in our son’s life on a regular basis. We wanted to add members to our family rather than rely on a skimpy and strained biological network.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons we were drawn to adoption—the strain in our own families. When I was a child, I remember feeling the lack of other close adults except for teachers. I felt different, partly because my mother had “sick” spells in the hospital, partly because everything seemed so fragile.

Yet I don’t think this need to redefine kinship is just dysfunctional-family or adoption fallout. At least anecdotally, I know godparents in non-adoptive families who are serious about their role as surrogate aunts and uncles. They, like Joy, have no children of their own; the “parent” part of the title matters.

In our secular-humanist circles, the biggest issue is that pesky word “god.” Our compromise has been to use godmother without going through a church. For Joy, daughter of a minister and with a Master’s in Divinity, it’s a meaningful term. But it is for us, too, in more ways than I could have predicted.

She now spends every Wednesday after school with our eight-year-old son, rambling through parks and jumping in piles of leaves, searching for buried treasures in the mud. She lets him stuff himself with brownies before dinner. Aunt Joy and the boy have a secret good-bye ritual.

A long time back, when my baby son had only been with us a few months, I often felt a jealous twinge at their instant bond. Even before they met, when I showed her a picture of him at five months old in the orphanage, she hooted and held my hands and jumped up and down. Once they were together, she could always make him laugh.

Inexperienced mom that I was, it took me awhile to realize we were playing different roles. I think adoption heightens the sense of a child suddenly being thrust into your life. Physically bonding is a mysterious thing—no less hard-wired once a child is born but difficult to fathom in the moment—until you find yourself in a new place with a whole new idea of family.

One summer afternoon, Joy and I and my toddler son were on a ferry to Nantucket. Usually on such trips, he loved running around the boat, saying hello to other passengers. Joy would follow him, giving me a few moments to myself. I needed the downtime, even as I felt left out of their fun.

But on that particular ferry trip, my son had a fever. Joy tried to hold the fussy boy on her lap, but he only wanted me. As soon as he settled against my chest, he closed his eyes, thumb in his mouth.

“You’re his safe place,” she said.

“You’re his special aunt.” I stroked his sweaty hair, and my son snuggled in. It was primal, that monkey grip. I remember a stiff wind in my face, Joy’s shoulders sagging against mine, her melancholy.

“He needs us both,” I said.

As do we all—we need parents and godparents, an absolute foundation and other adults who make us feel free. There are days when I still find Joy’s ability to remain so open, to live with both the good and the sad, almost shocking. It reminds me of Amy Bloom’s short story “Love Is Not a Pie.”

In our adoptive family, I’d call it an endless pie. It’s not mingy on the crust or fruit. If it has to be cut into pieces, there are always enough.

I think of all the different apples we chomped through that fall day, the sour and the sweet, the favorites my son and I called “natural candy.” My husband snapped pictures of Aunt Joy and the boy as they climbed one tree after another. We made the most wonderful apple pie that night, bulging with every variety, juice overflowing in sticky brown bubbles.

I think of Joy swinging by her knees from one of those branches, our son beside her, both laughing at the sky. Yes, she is his spirit’s teacher.