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Ex-etiquette: Godmother’s task does not end with divorce

Q: I am a godmother to my ex-husband’s niece and have had little contact with my godchild in the 12 years I have been divorced. In his family the godparents buy gifts for the godchildren on special days. Yesterday, my ex called and told me his mother has asked if I would remember my godchild on her birthday this year. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A: I am sure you did not expect to be divorced when you accepted the honor of being a godparent, but divorce does not excuse you from your godparent responsibilities. The obligations and expectations of being a godparent should stay intact no matter what happens. That’s why a parent asks someone to be a godparent.

For those unfamiliar with the responsibilities associated with being a godparent, duties can vary culturally and from family to family. In some families being a godparent is merely an honorary position. In others the godparent is like a second parent and a fundamental part of the child’s spiritual education. In essence, a godparent’s role is to serve as a mentor and stay involved with the child should his or her own parents be unable to guide them. It is the godparent’s responsibility that the child remain solid in their faith if the biological parents pass on.

Traditionally, buying presents for your godchild is expected, but this is based on the close relationship formed over the years, similar to that of a close aunt or uncle. Those presents need not be expensive or offered at every occasion. Usually birthdays and religious holidays like Christmas and Easter are times when something would be appropriate – a card, and if you can afford it, a gift. Taking active interest in their life is best. In other words, presence is better than presents.

Of special interest in your question is the fact that your ex called to tell you his mother (grandmother to the child) has asked you to remember your godchild. It’s not uncommon that extended family get involved, but it does make things far more complicated. If grandma is serving as a peacemaker, welcome her help. She’s suggesting you put the child first. (Ex-etiquette for parents rule No. 1.) If she’s being a trouble maker, use the 10 Rules of Good Ex-etiquette for Parents as your guide, Ex-etiquette for parents rule No. 3, “Don’t badmouth.” No. 5, “Don’t hold grudges.” No. 6, “Don’t be spiteful.”

The fact that this has been brought to your attention means it is time to rectify the situation. Although difficult, at this point I suggest you call or write to your godchild directly. (If she is still a minor, you may want to first talk to her parents.) Apologize for not being there, offer a short explanation if you like, complete with a small present for her birthday. In other words, now that you know you should have been there the whole time, don’t waste any more time wondering what to do. It’s not too late. Kids can’t have too many positive influences in their lives. That’s good ex-etiquette.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com.