Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Pseudo uncles and aunts: newer responsibilities

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-01-07

"It’s time to enlarge our closed family circles" (Brigid Delaney in the opinion section of The Age 2009-01-05) struck a chord with me, so I’ll make some comments about the role with respect to children, how this role has changed in recent decades, and ask you all a question about what a "god-less godparent" and "god-less godchild" should be called.

Brigid Delaney wrote about the demise of the "family friend", both in the frequency the term is used in discussions about family, and the new negative associations with the role.

But other than that, the family friend has somehow slipped away from public discussions about family life.

The notion of family has contracted — suspicion lurks in the public swimming pools and in the parks.

In England, The Guardian reported recently that a grandmother was questioned by police for playing in semi-secluded woodland with her grandchildren. Several joggers had reported seeing something "suspicious" – that is, someone playing with children who did not look like the mother.

She hits the nail on the head here and in other parts of the piece, recounting how she now appreciates the family friends she had that were unrelated, but who she probably called "Uncle" and "Auntie".

My friends who were honorary uncles and aunts to my daughter were essential: as a single dad, I relied on female friends to be there for my daughter’s questions at menarche.  I relied on them for emergency babysitting in the middle of the night, such as when another friend was suicidal and needed to be calmed down.  I relied on them for their kids that could play with mine.

But in recent decades, with divorce rates climbing and parental disagreements, the family friend has added and stickier responsibilities: taking the side of children as both their advocate and counsellor, when your friends, the parents, are going through marital problems, or have already separated.

No longer can you simply be the person who spoils them occasionally and/or babysits.

It can get ugly, especially when on one issue or another, you must disagree with the parent who has been your friend the longest, and side with their partner.  The risk is that this can cause less responsible parents to move away from you, leaving the child with no "uncle" or "aunt" they have great trust in, making the child’s plight even harder.

This demands tact with the parents.  It’s hard informing the parents of things the child tells you: you must soften all the words, while still being forceful about the issue.  It’s hard explaining to a child, under the self-imposed demand of complete honesty, how some action or attitude of the parent that you disagree with very much, and the kid hates, can be reconciled with their continued love for their child.

It’s hard to get utter trust from the child, that the things they say will not be told to the parents, while they also want the nature of their concerns raised with the parents.

It’s not a fence you are sitting on, it is a knife edge.  And you can be stuck there for years.

Delaney is also absolutely right about the increased suspicion.

You might be walking down the street with your tween "niece", arm around her shoulder (physically close because of how many times she’s snuggled up watching TV when I’ve babysat), with strangers catching snippets of questions about what treats the kid wants, of doing something special later, of not telling her parents about what we do (typically it’s getting a treat the parents don’t like her eating, or the subject of our conversations).  You get weird looks.

After a while, you recognize those looks, you learn to double-think, trying to ask the same questions in a more circuitous way – difficult because those ways can often involve a vocabulary the child may not understand.

Sometimes, weirdly, it can be a blessing if the parent hates your guts.

The best example of this is my "godson", my daughter’s half-brother, born years after her mother and I separated, but had started sharing a house and living at opposite ends.  (She’d split up with the father soon after she’d become pregnant, and needed a place to live).  I probably changed almost as many of his nappies (particularly the first of the morning) as his mother did.

As a result, his mother wanted me to be a godfather.  I couldn’t, so demanded and got an equivalent ceremony by a civil celebrant, signing papers that had the same legal impact as one registered in a church.  If anything had happened to his mother, I’d have adopted him in an instant.

What is the best term for that relationship?  "Godfather" is almost offensive to me as an atheist, "Uncle" (while perfectly reasonable from the kid) is inadequate.  "Godfather-by-civil-celebrant-who-happened-to-be-buddhist" is plain yuk, while "godless godfather" sounds like I’ve broken a vow, that while not before a god, is no less solemn and binding.  "Stepfather" or "Reverse-Stepfather" are also inaccurate or ugly.

Same thing goes for my "godson".  Again, "nephew" is plain wrong.

Does anybody have any better ideas for describing both him and me?

After that living arrangement inevitably collapsed with the arrival of my ex’s next husband, the boy would sometimes have "access visits", travelling to Melbourne to visit my daughter and I.  My heart would break regularly whenever people would say what a lovely son I had, after introducing the kids as "this is my daughter X, and her brother Y", although not as much as when he’d call me "Dad" as a toddler.

Gradually (and I’ve no idea why), the mother tried to keep us apart, even trying (unsuccessfully) to get him to return Xmas and birthday presents.  She’d reluctantly (probably for convenience) only let me take him to a movie during school holidays.  Perhaps she or the fourth father of her four children felt their positions threatened.  Perhaps she (wrongly) thought I’d be telling him exactly what I thought of his mother.  Perhaps something was going on that she didn’t want me to discover.  Whatever it was, this was extremely unfair to my "godson".

When my "nephew" and his mother "broke up", the friction probably exacerbated by him resenting her disrespect of the relationship between him and me, things have become better, and I am able to teach him things that a late-teen needs, especially if he has run off the rails somewhat, and he is able to admit his actions were stupid.

So it was nice, no, wonderful, to be able to spend a few days over Xmas with my daughter and grandson, my "godless godson" and his fiance.  While his mother had labelled her a "bleeping slut", and I viewed her facial piercings as barbaric (she understood I wasn’t disrespecting her by this), it was easy to recognize that she was good for my "nephew", and had helped him move at least partway to the straight-and-narrow.

This raises another question on terminology.  As the boys first and only real lasting father-figure, if his engagement turns into a marriage, I’ll be acting as a pseudo "father-in-law" and "father-of-the-groom".  But what the hell should we call those relationships?

Brigit Delaney was absolutely right in her article, but she won’t know the half of it for a few years yet.  Nevertheless, from her opinion piece, I’m sure she’ll make a good job of it when the time comes.


  • Yes I know this is a very long piece, but given "thankyous" for my post on being a single dad of a daughter, the issues I raise here might be similarly useful.  I hope that it raises questions for parents experiencing marital difficulties, and their family friends, so they have a better chance of helping children through very trying times.  It’s hard to do justice to these issues with a short piece, and a simple "it’s difficult" cannot possibly be helpful.  If this post helps even a single kid, it will be worthwhile.

7 Responses to “Pseudo uncles and aunts: newer responsibilities”

  1. Raf said

    Interesting post Dave.

    I seem to remember having a lot of aunties and uncles who were actually family friends. I also remember on my Indian side that the term “uncle” was used to refer to any male family friend or even any male of a certain age.

    It’s almost a ranking term which is what I think you’re looking for. A term of acknowledgment and respect.

    Whatever the title I think it’s incredibly important for teenagers especially to have non-family mentors to talk to openly and model from. It’s hard sometimes for your parents to see you as a growing adult so you need that external affirmation.

    Best wishes for 2009.

    Kind regards


  2. My friend and I were discussing this the other day – we regard one another as quasi-godparents to each other’s children, although she is Jewish and I’m agnostic. There has to be a better word than godparent.

    The story of your quasi-godson shows why such relationships are important.

  3. Dave Bath said

    Had you thought about a civil celebrant? I wanted one so I could make a vow of some kind to formalize my obligations that in a church I couldn’t without being hypocritical… and thus breaking it before I said it.

    Especially as my ex was then single (she was seeing the father of her third kid at the time), I saw the formality of the occasion as giving at least some strength to my case to foster/adopt if something awful had happened with his mum.

    Note that the situation with the boy is VERY different from that with the girl I’d babysit… while when little the girl used to call me Uncle, there was no obligation on me. With the boy, I even had written authority from his mum when he visited Melbourne to authorize medical treatment.

  4. Lyn said

    We have similar fractured connections in our family. We’ve also had teenage kids we haven’t seen for years turning up on the doorstep like homing pigeons to escape whatever happened in their immediate families in the interim.

    I’d suggest it’s also important for the kids to form close relationships with one another, so they can support one another if all the adults in their lives stuff up.

    Maybe there’s a useful Aboriginal word for these relationships?

  5. Dave Bath said

    Lyn said: “Maybe there’s a useful Aboriginal word for these relationships?”

    Unsurprising insight as usual from you.

    Attempting to refine the approach:
    Picking something from one particular indigenous language (or even from one of the indigenous language families) is something I’d rather avoid – although anglicization of the word root would minimize “favoritism”, as well as creating a term more likely to be picked up in international englishes.

    Let’s face it – the problem is not particular to Oz, and an easy term indicating the extra obligations (as opposed to a friendship without formal obligations) has value around the world wherever there is a rise in family breakdowns, and civil registries would be useful in family law administration. For example, whereas courts can appoint advocates for children, a recognized godless godparent who has accepted obligations could have a very useful role in consultation with the advocate of the child, or when family courts order conflict resolution between parents (or pre-emptively, by state-run social service agencies).

    I hope LegalEagle chimes in further on the possible administrative aspects and opportunities of having more adults state-recognized as having a special interest in a child because of the burdens the adult has acknowledged.

  6. blue milk said

    A lovely post, thank you for letting me know about it. I think those family friends, those ‘guide parents’ (we’re atheist also and refer to them as guide rather than god), that community you build around yourself and your children are just so special and lovely. I was just reflecting the other day with my partner on how wonderful ours was for our child. Though your ex-partner may not always embrace your role in her son’s life, on some level it must be a comfort to her all the same to know there are others in this world looking out for him in such a way.

  7. Dave Bath said

    Thanks bluemilk. “Guide parents” – nice term!

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