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April 30, 2009

The Bad Godmother

What happens when your best friend decides you're unfit to raise her kid?

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blond woman leaning on a fence in a field drinking a glass of wine

Photo Credit: Andrejs Pidjass/iStock

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I had my kids taken away yesterday. OK, they weren't my kids. And, well, I never technically had them. But still, I'm the godmother. Or I was.

Five years ago, at Grant's birth, I was asked if I'd be willing to be his guardian should anything happen to my best friends, Karen and Geoff. I was overwhelmed. Secretly, I'd always hoped I would make a great parent, and now two objective observers had validated my potential. So without hesitation, I accepted. In fact, I relished it, often planting my faux-parent status into conversations, as if to earn street cred with the Bugaboo crowd.

But things changed. As the years of our friendship doubled, so did the number of Karen and Geoff's kids (welcome, Kai!) — and thus their worries. Meanwhile, my career was gaining momentum. Apparently, I wasn't the only one surprised by this, because it was as a result of said momentum that Karen and Geoff re-evaluated. Their conclusion: Assuming custody of their children would require more attention than I could give at this time in my life. And though I was technically only Grant's godmother, they wanted to keep the boys together. And two boys are time-consuming. "And we'd hate for your career to suffer just because we died," Karen explained. Yes, she was serious.

At first I was confused. Were they dying tomorrow? Because surely this "time in my life" would pass before they did. Besides, I could juggle career and family. But Karen didn't believe it could be done. At least, not by me. And that's when it hit me: Karen was an Indian giver of children, which this East Indian didn't really appreciate.

Let me be clear. It's not like I wanted Karen and Geoff to die. But I had taken comfort in the idea that should I not actively birth my own children, all wouldn't necessarily be lost. Now, thanks to my career and my best friend, I was without a plan B.

I absorbed this in silence. And in the same way you know that the polite reason you're given for not getting a job is not the real reason, I began to wonder what the truth behind my terminated guardianship could be.

There was the Black Barbie incident. They call it an "incident." I call it what it was: just a gift I gave Grant for his 3rd birthday. I wanted him to be progressive, and Black Barbie was my attempt to break any gender or racial biases. I watched him stare at Barbie, smiling, unlike his father, who was less than enthusiastic — especially when Grant began licking her body, hoping she was chocolate. Looking back, I think that was the day they first regretted their godmother choice, because the following year, my invitation to his birthday party had a No gifts, please scrawled on the bottom.

"My sister has a house now," Karen explained next. "And it looks like she and Sean are going to make it after all." I struggled to maintain my smile, hoping to look as impressed as she was when she went on to say, "This is the longest they've gone without breaking up." Apparently, the newly anointed guardians had two things I didn't: a mortgage and, at least temporarily, a partner.

So there it was. The real reason I was losing the kids: I wasn't part of a "they." I still lived in a one-bedroom apartment and attended most weddings minus one rather than plus. And evidently I was paying the price not just in occasional sidelong glances at my barren ring finger and the odd lonely night, but now in godchildren.

I wanted to remind Karen that two heads of household are not necessarily better than one. Married people have been known to make decisions like naming their kids Adolf Hitler and Jermagesty. Instead, I started to pitch Karen on why I'd be a good parent, despite my debilitating singleness. I led with my ability to multitask — I can read on the treadmill, watch 30 Rock, and "research" potential boyfriends on Facebook, all while making a semi-healthy dinner — but she stopped me. "You'd still be called the Godmother," she clarified. "So it's even better. No responsibility." She seemed convinced that this was a good deal, but I felt about as essential as the Queen of England. Only without the crown. And the dignity. And the king.

Still, Karen's mind was made up, which prompted me to count in my head all the people I'd bragged to about my backup plan. The thought of explaining my revised guardianship status sent a wash of embarrassment over me. And I wasn't alone: When I relayed the news to my mom, she whimpered, "I can't believe this is happening to us!" Clearly, Karen's children were her backup plan as well.

The following week, I made a point to visit Karen and Geoff, to reinforce that I was not driven solely by title. After all, it was because I loved them (and the boys) that I was prepared to withstand any setback in our relationship, including their implication that they would probably die in a fiery plane crash before I met someone worthwhile with whom to spend my dotage.

When I stopped by Grant's room, something caught my eye. It was Black Barbie, tossed aside and neglected. Grant watched me pick her up. "That's mine," he said. I nodded, wanting to add, "You're right. But I think she requires more attention than you can give her at this time in your life." Instead, I straightened her minidress, flushed with an overwhelming need to give my fellow single girl the respect she deserved.

Padma L. Atluri is a Los Angeles-based television writer, most recently for Men in Trees. This is her first story for Marie Claire.


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