How do I be a godmother?
January 2, 2008 10:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be a godmother. What does this mean?

My husband and I are in our mid-twenties and have no children. He was raised in a non-religious environment; my mother's a pagan and my dad is an unconventional, lax Christian. We have no history of formal religion. A couple of friends of ours just found out they are pregnant and have asked up to be godparents. She was raised Catholic, and is of Spanish and Mexican heritage. While I understand her to be non-religious, I have a feeling her family is still staunch Catholic and will want things to be relatively formal, Christening and all. He is from a white Protestant family, and I'm pretty sure he's an atheist now. Given their personal religious beliefs, on top of their knowledge of ours, I don't feel that we will be expected to guide the child in religious matters.

Here are my three questions:

If they do have a Catholic Christening, what will our roles be in the ceremony?

Assuming religious roles are put aside, what will our roles be in the child's life? I've heard I might be expected to contribute to the child's college fund, etc. So, socially, what is the ettiquette of my responsibility?

The couple have three other children from previous relationships. If they have godparents, I don't know them. I should probably avoid showing favoritism in front of the other children, even though they are not my godchildren, right?

Anything else you can offer that I haven't covered here is much appreciated. I'm horribly naive on this subject. Thanks!
posted by starbaby to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Assuming religious roles are put aside, what will our roles be in the child's life? I've heard I might be expected to contribute to the child's college fund, etc. So, socially, what is the ettiquette of my responsibility?

Why not ask the parents what they expect from godparents? There's really no way for us to definitively answer this one -- what they expect is best known to them.
posted by runningwithscissors at 10:51 AM on January 2, 2008

Your questions about the religious stuff are probably best answered by the parents-to-be. I'm Catholic, and in my parish agreeing to be a godparent means agreeing to help the child grow up Catholic. In fact, you have to be a confirmed Catholic to do it. If you aren't confirmed and they want you to be a godparent anyway they might have some different views on your role than the traditional view.

My godmother gave me a savings bond at birth for my college education...that's it. Also, my godparents bought holiday gifts for me only...just like my siblings' godparents bought gifts for them only.

Congratulations, by the way. It's quite an honor!
posted by christinetheslp at 10:54 AM on January 2, 2008

I think they might not fully know. They are both about 21. I think they asked us solely so that if something happens to them there would be a basis for the child to come and live with us [possibly to be fully legalized when they get married]. They may not expect anything from us, but I want to fulfill the role as best I can. And since they may not know any more than I do, this will also give me a starting-off point if I do want to discuss it with them.
posted by starbaby at 10:55 AM on January 2, 2008

Though the origional idea behind a god parent included the concept that you would be a fall back religious educational figure, being a god parent means you've been tapped to be an extra parent if all else fails. Thus the idea is that you act like a doting aunt or uncle of that particular child.

There's no set rules for god parents, but my brother and sister's respective god mothers participate by giving them gifts on the major gift giving holidays. College funds are not required, but a nice idea. Talking with the couple, to whom you are assuming god parenthood for, is probably a good idea though... They may have additional ideas particular to their area.
posted by Phalene at 10:57 AM on January 2, 2008

I am about 98% sure that a non-Catholic can't be a godparent for a Catholic baptism, and that even if you were both Christians (which it sounds like you're not?) the most you can do is be a "witness" to a Catholic baptism.

You may want to have a serious conversation about their expectations with them. The Catholics I know tend to take godparentage much more seriously than the various kinds of Protestants I know: the assumption is that they are in part responsible for the child's spiritual upbringing, and that if anything were to happen to the parents, the godparents are explicitly supposed to make sure that the kid is raised Catholic.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:59 AM on January 2, 2008

I would be surprised if it is a traditional Catholic baptism. In my experience, though it was years ago, one is expected to be a practicing Catholic, in "good standing" with the institution. I believe there was even a form that the local pastor had to sign.
posted by R. Mutt at 11:00 AM on January 2, 2008

We are godparents to our niece - our BIL/SIL are traditional Lutherans, we are non practicing anything. However, I think it's partially our responsibility to help out making sure that our niece is a good person. Not in a traditional Christian sense, more so in just a general human being sense. So it's important that you talk to the parents and ask not only what they expect of you, but so that they know what you are willing to provide. We did so, and our ILs are comfortable that we approach it from a non-theistic perspective.

In essence, we've sought out to be a positive influence in her life. To give her a safe place, a place that she knows that she's loved unconditionally. To broaden her experiences beyond what her parents might traditionally show her. And to show her that you don't have to be Christian to be a good person. And by extension, we extend the same to her brother, who is not our godson.

You may also like this book - "In Every Tiny Grain Of Sand" - a "prayer" book that crosses religions and cultures. It was a welcome gift to our niece when she was baptized.
posted by librarianamy at 11:00 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

As for the ceremony, it may depend on the church to some degree, but I didn't have to do that much during the ceremony for my goddaughter. I stood there, with the other godparent-to-be, and the parents, while the various rites were performed, and smiled a lot. I think I had to say "I do" or somesuch once during the whole thing. Your whole part can probably be coached by the Father in 15 seconds before the ceremony begins.

My anecdotal experience about being a godparent is that you're entitled to spoil the child a little more than other people get to. How heavily the "bring 'em up Catholic" angle weighs into it will depend entirely on "how Catholic" the family is.
posted by dammitjim at 11:02 AM on January 2, 2008

Speaking from a somewhat similar cultural background as your friend (I am Hispanic), in my family all of our godparents are mostly ceremonial in nature. They are good friends of the parent of the child, and as godparents they give gifts to their godchild on birthdays, Christmas, major events like graduations, etc. So it's never been anything major.

Even if you think that the parents of your godchild may not know exactly what this will entail in their situation, it's a good idea to ask anyway. Their own families may have certain expectations that your friends may not necessarily know about, but may want to heed once they know about them.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 11:08 AM on January 2, 2008

This is all very helpful. I had no idea she might not be able to have the baby baptised Catholic if she weren't Catholic, and was even more clueless that I had to be a confirmed Catholic to be a godparent. Hopefully this won't disappoint her mother too much.

I'm really enjoying the "this is what I did with my godchildren" stories, even though I know they are kind of chatty. And to know that I don't *have* to provide college money is a relief as well. I guess I just expected there to be a list of rules somewhere that I didn't know because I wasn't brought up in a culture with godparents. I'm feeling better and better about this.
posted by starbaby at 11:15 AM on January 2, 2008

The role of godparent is what you make of it. I haven't seen my godfather since about the third grade, and my godmother refers to me lovingly as her godchild when I see her, but she doesn't know when my birthday is nor sends me any extra cards or presents. Meanwhile, a friend of mine is godmother to a friend's child and she remembers every event in the kid's life (from birthdays to soccer team championships) with at least a card and often a gift. Keep in mind that Prince William and Prince Harry have four godmothers and godfathers each, none of whom had any say in their upbringing or anything else. For the most part, it is a ceremonial title.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:16 AM on January 2, 2008

Look at this article for inspiration for interfaith godparent/godchild relationships.
posted by hermitosis at 11:21 AM on January 2, 2008

A godparent in the Catholic church will be expected to promise to help bring the child up catholic. However, the reality is that this doesn't have to mean very much in practical terms. On boxing day I was out with my SO and her folks, all of whom are practicing catholics, and we managed to bump into my SO's godmother (slightly odd given neither of us live in the town we were in), my SO didn't even recognise her, it's that long since she's seen her. I haven't seen my godfather (also my uncle) in at least 15 years, and he wasn't exactly a positive influence then. My godmother lived 100 miles away for pretty much my entire life.
posted by biffa at 11:29 AM on January 2, 2008

You don't have to be a Catholic to be a Godparent to a Catholic. I, technically Church of England but pretty much agnostic if not full-on atheist, am Godfather to my Catholic niece. There's a bit of promising to be a good sort and renouncing the devil, lighting some candles as I recall, but at no point did the priest ask me for my papers or anything like that.

Duties are minimal, buying birthday and Christmas pressies seems to be about it. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't get landed with them should mum and dad cop it before they're 18.
posted by ComfySofa at 11:39 AM on January 2, 2008

I think that a good way to think of the role of a godparent to treat the child as a niece/nephew -- designating you as a godparent makes you a sort of honorary blood relative.

While it would certainly be not nice to openly flaunt your relationship with your godchild in front of the child's brothers and sisters to excess, it needn't be a secret from them. Special attention on the child's birthday and instituting little special traditions between you and your husband and the child would be sweet.

As for contributing to the college fund, this may have gotten miscommunicated as the tradition of giving savings bonds (intended to be cashed in for college.) I don't know of anyone who would assume the godparents would be responsible for actively participating in the financial planning of the child's college education.
posted by desuetude at 11:45 AM on January 2, 2008

I don't think most godparents have such large responsibilities as you are concerned about. You might give that child gifts for birthdays, cards, etc. You don't have to help pay for college and godparents does not necessarily mean that if something happens to the parents that you will be legally responsible for the child. Only if they take legal steps to make you a guardian upon their deaths would you be legally responsible. It seems like most kids go with grandparents or an aunt or uncle if their parents can't care for them, not necessarily a godparent.

Granted, my godmother had developed severe health problems and had serious mental health problems when I was a kid and died when I was in high school, but I got gifts from her for some birthdays, sometimes cards (she didn't have much money). I saw her every few years. She didn't get gifts for my sister and my sister's godmother didn't get me gifts.
posted by fructose at 11:58 AM on January 2, 2008

Talk to the parents, the whole "have to be a registered Catholic" thing is flexible, it's not like there is a blood test. I've been to religious christenings and purely "cultural" christenings, which were mainly for grandparents sake, involving athiest godparents who weren't uncomfortable with playing along. In (Irish) catholic baptism you will be asked amongst other things whether you "renounce satan and all his works" and so forth.

I see a similarish question was asked that has more info re. the ceremony and what a non-religious person can expect.

Here's actually a decent link (appears commercial mind):

That link reminds me that it is indeed in my experience traditional to buy an item of silver jewelery for the kid, such as a name-bracelet or something they can also have when they are older, ideally engraved with their name etc.
posted by Iteki at 12:11 PM on January 2, 2008

If the point of the christening is to make your friends' parents happy, then it's your friends parents whose expectations you need to know about. Our expectations, or those of "Society" in general, are irrelevant.

Ask your friends — "Do your parents have any godchildren? How do they treat them? How did your godparents treat you? How did your parents' godparents treat them?" Most likely, they're expecting you'll treat your godchildren in the same way.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:33 PM on January 2, 2008

Per your interest in anecdotal godparent stories -- I am not a godparent, but I do have one. I was never actually baptized, but what the hey.

From what I can gather, my relationship with my godmother is atypical per the standard godparent/godchild dynamic, and much closer than most. She is like a second mother to me, and I consider her children to be my quasi-siblings. She did give me gifts on my birthday, holidays, graduation, and also kept an eye out towards watching over me personally and occasionally financially. I spent a lot of my childhood at her house, and we always spent part of Christmas day with her family. She's watched me grow up, and we're still in regular contact today. When my mother was in the hospital recently, I stayed at her house frequently when visiting from out-of-state. She and my mother were close friends since childhood, and I grew up in a very small town mere blocks from her family, which definitely influences the dynamic. But our closeness is also very much due to her willingness and readiness to take on a large role in my life and to participate fully in the "godparent" relationship as a friend and mentor.

I cherish the relationship that we have, and definitely think of her family as my extended family. I feel I could rely on any of them in a time of need, and as an adult I chose to spend time with her and her children on my own. She was and continues to be a calm, warm, caring presence in my life, a "safe place," as mentioned above -- particularly in my childhood when things were a bit erratic. I think it's important for kids to have a trustworthy "non-parent" adult in their lives to function as that external anchor and haven, and being a godparent is a responsibility that is potentially very personally rewarding. One of those things where what you get out of it is directly proportional to what you put into it.
posted by tigerbelly at 1:13 PM on January 2, 2008

It does vary. My son's godmother is a practicing, go-to-church-every-Sunday Catholic, and his godfather's only been in a church once in the last six years (you guessed it, at the baptism).
posted by Lucinda at 1:19 PM on January 2, 2008

Your friends (The parents) are entirely at the mercy of the Diocese in which they live and the priest performing the ceremony if they wish their child baptised in the church. I can't speak specifically to whether they need to be registered confirmed catholics to get the child baptised in the church but I'd be stunned if this was not the case (How can you be expected to raise a Catholic child if you have not been properly educated in the faith yourself?)

Speaking from personal experience, I was required to obtain a written signed statment from my old parish priest that I was an active member in good standing of his parish, etc. I carried this paper with me (or maybe I just mailed it to him) across the country to present to the priest in the parish where the baptism was being performed. Without this formality, I would not have been allowed by the priest to stand as Godfather. I was also required to promise in front of the whole parish to contribute to the child's catholic upbringing etc. I took this to mean I would ensure his moral development should anything happen to my sister and her husband.

If no one involved has been baptised, confirmed, or been connected to a parish, you are probably SOL as far as a Catholic baptism goes. Strictly speaking, you and the parents will all need to go to months of instruction and education so you can get baptised/confirmed (iirc in adults it's the same thing) so you can qualify to get the kid properly churched up. I'd be really surprised if you got a real Catholic priest to perform the ceremony without these prerequisites.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 1:26 PM on January 2, 2008

I think this hinges largely on how many other (living, close) relatives they have. If the grandparents are going to be around/supportive/involved, then your significance dwindles. Otoh, if they're basically alone in the world (especially in terms of support) you might want to start thinking about the savings bonds.
posted by anaelith at 1:40 PM on January 2, 2008

Whether or not you need to be a confirmed Catholic etc. is going to depend on her relationship with the priest who is doing the ceremony. I am godmother to one of my brother's kids, and though I was raised Catholic I am no longer religious. I did not have to talk to the priest about my beliefs before the ceremony, and during the ceremony I just had to suck it up and say that I believed in God and renounced satan (actually renouncing satan was not all that hard) etc.

I would disagree that you're not supposed to necessarily openly show favoritism to your godchild. Growing up, my godmother, who was my aunt, always bought me presents on my birthday or on Christmas, or gave me a chocolate bunny on Easter, although she did not do this for my brothers. When she had cookouts for the family she always made sure she had hot dogs, which were my favorite thing. That was really nice. Once you are a godparent, I think to some degree you are supposed to be partisan. I mean, that's kind of your job. You don't have to go around saying how much more you love them than the other kids, etc., but a little bit of special treatment is basically what the job's all about.

If you are not related by blood to the child, then a somewhat generous monetary gift up front of a savings bond or something that can collect interest while the child grows up should suffice for the whole "contribute to the college fund" question. IMHO.

Congrats and good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 1:43 PM on January 2, 2008

First you'll need to kill the heads of the Five Families... no wait that's Godfather... Godmother's duties will vary by family tradition. Some tend more towards religious upbringing, and others tend toward a back up parent in case the worst happens and she loses her parents...some combine both.

In my case I am the Godfather to two generations. The first generation was more of what I described above, the 2nd generation is more an honorary position.
posted by Gungho at 1:53 PM on January 2, 2008

For the record, you don't have to be Catholic to be a godparent of a Catholic child, even if it's a full on Catholic batipsm ceremony (I am the godmother of my niece and her godfather is Jewish), but rules may vary by parish. You may want to have the parents of the child discuss this with the priest beforehand so you don't end up in an awkward situation if asked to promise to help raise the child in the Catolic faith during the ceremony.
As for expectations, ask the parents. In my family, godparents usually gave an extra special present for birthdays and Christmas, but that was about it. Traditionally, it was thought that the should the parents die, the godparents would raise the children, but nowadays in that situation, the children would likely go to grandparents or other blood relatives.

When I lived in Central America, I noticed that parents-to-be often asked respected members of the community to be godparents of their children. For example, a well-liked mayor might be godfather to 20+ kids.

I wouldn't get too worried about the Catholic thing, provided that the godparents know your feelings on religion and aren't expecting you to participate in that aspect of their child's education. You probably should make sure the officant at the ceremony is aware that you're not Catholic, though, because then they won't offer you communion or expect you to say the creed, just have you there for the anointing, candle-lighting and prayers.

If you don't feel comfortable with the idea of being a godparent, you can politely decline. Nowadays, the role of a godparent is more cultural than religions- i.e., after the most likely traditional and maybe slightly weird to you bapitsm, you'd be like an honorary aunt, which could be a lot of fun.
posted by emd3737 at 3:20 PM on January 2, 2008

I think they asked us solely so that if something happens to them there would be a basis for the child to come and live with us [possibly to be fully legalized when they get married].

Make sure you clarify with them fully whether you are to be "grown up friend and role model and gift-giver to the child" type godparents, or "potential legal guardians and adoptive parents in case biological parents die in tragic accident before child reaches age 18" type godparents, or both. It sounds like they want the second and possibly the third. If your friends want you to take possible responsibility for raising their child if something should happen to them, you need to have a serious conversation with them not just about what role you will play in the child's life now, but about whether and how you are prepared to become adoptive parents to their child if needed, and what that would entail.

Do you know how your friends want their child to be raised? Do you know whether your friends have enough life insurance to care for their child financially after they are gone, to assist you financially in raising them? Do the parents have wills? Living wills or trust documents? What do those documents say? What do their other family members think of the fact that the child could be raised by non-family, and might they take you to court to contest the will and fight you for custody of the child? If they have additional children later, will you be godparents and potential guardians to those children too, or would the children be split up? All of these are questions you should be sure to get answered before you agree to take responsibility for raising these children in the event of their parents' death or incapacity.
posted by decathecting at 3:58 PM on January 2, 2008

In fact, you have to be a confirmed Catholic to do it. If you aren't confirmed and they want you to be a godparent anyway they might have some different views on your role than the traditional view.

The rule was explained to me thus in a Catholic setting: both godparents need to be Christian, and at least one needs to be Catholic. I was raised Catholic but have been a practicing Presbyterian for about 20 years now. I was asked to be godfather for my niece. When I pointed out that, umm, well I'm not Catholic anymore, my sister-in-law asked the priest who cited the guideline above.
posted by Doohickie at 4:47 PM on January 2, 2008

I'm not the same cultural background as your friends, but I was raised Catholic and I do have godparents- an older male cousin, and my mom's best friend from high school. As a child, I sort of vaguely believed that if my parents died, these people would get married and take over for them, although in hindsight I'm pretty sure that's not actually what would have happened, especially since they were about 25 years apart in age. I know that they did always get me Xmas presents and Bday presents, or at least a card, even when I got older and they had stopped doing so for my brother. They showed me slight favouritism over my brother, although probably just because I was cuter. The favouritism you show could probably just take the form of a little handwritten message in a birthday card that acknowledges the godparent relationship. I'd say your role would turn out to be like an honourary auntie.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:42 PM on January 2, 2008

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