After the birth of her first baby, a friend of mine from the midwest asked if I would be willing to be a “storm parent” for her child. She explained that where she came from, parents designated someone nearby to be there for their children in emergencies if their parents couldn’t get to them. Coming as she did from the tornado corridor, it made sense. Parents can’t always get right home if kids get dismissed from school early due to a pending storm. More frightening is if kids are out in the neighborhood when sirens blare to take shelter. When the storm parents are closer to where they are playing, kids are taught to run there instead of trying to make it home.
We don’t live where tornados are a frequent problem. But emergencies happen no matter where families live. New to the area and far from family, my friend asked if I could be a back up in the event of some kind of “storm” where her kids needed a trusted adult when mom and dad couldn’t get to them immediately or if they needed additional support.
During the time the family lived in our town, there never was an emergency where I was needed. But there was comfort for them knowing that I could be. Most important, it drew me closer to the family. The experience has made me think about the function of “storm parents”, both formal and informal.
Consider this: According to an Upshot analysis of data from a comprehensive survey of older Americans, 20% of young families live more than a couple hours’ drive from their parents. In college towns like mine, the percentage is much higher, with young couples living here while they go to graduate school or while they are in entry level academic jobs. Acquiring education and experience requires moving away and then moving on. Grandparents and other close relatives can be many states or even a continent away.
In other places, grandparents and other relatives may be geographically close but not close enough to provide regular or emergency support. A two-hour drive away might as well be Mars. Home for the holidays and vacations may happen easily but what does a young family do when there’s an unexpected “storm”? The advent of face to face video calls has certainly helped but, however supportive virtual contact may be, there are times when time on the phone or email isn’t the same as a shoulder to cry on or a hug.
Sadly, there are other extended families where biological relatives simply aren’t a support for a young family. Life-style choices that are at odds with the values of children’s parents, overwhelming problems of their own, mental illness, or addiction can make them unable or unwilling to be a harbor in a storm.
This is why honorary members of a family who live close by (or who have the time and resources to visit regularly) can be so important. It does “take a village’ to raise a child. I suggest it also “takes a village” to give parents the support they need to do it well.
Honorary family members do have a variety of names – storm parent, godparent, honorary aunt or uncle, or a cute name devised by a child. Regardless of title, such people serve as “outriggers” for a young family. Just as outriggers on a boat stabilize it in choppy waters, these people provide a stabilizing support to the family as the children grow and grow up.
Godparents are storm parents plus. They are chosen by parents to guide their child’s spiritual journey, although few confine their relationship to religious instruction. To be given that responsibility is an honor and a trust. These days, non-religious parents have also adopted the title of “godparents” to honor special friends; asking them to become an additional guiding and loving adult in their children’s life. In other families, such close friends are named honorary aunties or uncles. Although not biologically related, the title says they have a special and close relationship with both the parents and the children.
How to be an outrigger
Take it seriously: Whether you are asked to be a godparent, honorary aunt or uncle, or some other chosen title, it is serious business to be taken seriously. It’s an honor but it’s also an obligation. Ideally, you are making a very long-term commitment of involvement with another family. Think carefully whether it is a role that is right for you before you take it on. If you have the time and emotional room to say yes, it will enrich your life. Although it is difficult to say “no”, it prevents disappointment and distress if you take it on but then can’t respond as the parents expect.
Form independent relationships with the children: It’s really not enough to see the kids as extensions of their parents or to get together with them only on special occasions. An honorary family member is expected to take the time to really get to know each child as an individual. That means spending time with them, learning their interests, and genuinely connecting with them.
Understand your importance as a role model: When there are lots of adults who love them, kids have more role models to look up to and to take after. This is especially important when a child’s temperament and interests don’t match up with their parents’. The artist among athletes, the mechanically minded kid among academics, etc. can feel lonely and odd indeed within their family. But if there is a relative or an honorary adult family member who shares their interests and who provides support, their difference gets positively defined as being “just like Auntie”.
Be a trusted advisor: Raising kids isn’t easy. Being the kid being raised sometimes isn’t so easy either. An outrigger adult provides a listening ear, loving support, and alternative perspectives when things are challenging. As the kids become teens, then young adults, they often turn to outrigger adults for advice or comfort or a “second opinion” when they disagree with their parents. You can offer alternative solutions to problems and provide another interested listener for kids who are convinced their parents just don’t understand them. The parents may need the support and advice of someone who isn’t quite as emotionally invested when they find themselves in conflict with their kid. Sometimes it’s a challenging line for the honorary family member to walk: How to support the child’s confusion, pain, upset while not betraying the values and love of the kids’ parents.
Have fun: Being an outrigger honorary family member isn’t all obligation and work. It also provides a way to enjoy children without having primary responsibility for them. Just as grandparents are often allowed to “spoil” the grandkids, (at least a little) you can be a source of silliness, fun, and experiences that their parents can’t be. When they get too tired or cranky, you get to give the kids back to their parents – who, by the way, had the break you provided by taking the kids off their hands for an hour or two. You get to be a hero. The kids get to have some fun their parents may not have time or skills to provide. The parents get to have a genuine break because they trust you with their children. Best of all, there is more love to go around for all. It’s a win for everyone.