Why shouldn't a godfather bring up the child?

Part of the wonder at Mrs Chilcott's plans is that a single man is willing to take on someone else's boy
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The Independent Online

Susan Chilcott, the celebrated opera soprano, died last week, of breast cancer, at the age of 40. She was survived by her husband, her four-year-old-son and her own parents, both in their seventies. The death of someone so young is always tragic. When the decreased is not only the parent of a young child, but also beautiful, talented, successful and feted, the loss seems all the greater.

The initial obituaries spoke of Ms Chilcott's modest background, her triumphant career, and the grief those close to her succumbed to after her fight against her terrible illness. They were respectful and celebratory, concentrating on the professional achievements of a remarkable woman.

Which is just as it should be. People who knew little of opera, and nothing of Ms Chilcott, were moved by her death nonetheless. We all understand that the death of any mother of young children is especially touching and sad.

But the human interest aspects of the story of Susan Chilcott's death have not ended there. Indeed, media interest in Susan Chilcott is now perhaps greater than when the singer was alive.

Now, though, the emphasis is on her private life, with prurient speculation dressed up as human interest. Susan Chilcott's private arrangements have become public property, touted as in the public interest, as some kind of comment on the times in which we live.

The focus is on Ms Chilcott's arrangements for the upbringing of her son, Hughie. It hardly bears noting that the greatest agony Ms Chilcott faced as she died was the parting from her child, never seeing him grow into a man, missing out on sharing and guiding his life.

But even beyond this horror, an added complication faced Ms Chilcott. Her husband, David Sigall, was not the father of her son, and their brief marriage had not been a success, although they had not divorced. Mr Sigall, therefore, though legally Hughie's stepfather, was a parent only via a technicality. No father is named on Hughie's birth certificate, and his biological father has never figured in the boy's life. As has already been mentioned, Ms Chilcott's own parents are elderly, and by their own admission, too frail to commit themselves to being able to take over care of Hughie throughout his childhood.

Luckily though, while neither Hughie's grandparents nor his stepfather were entirely suitable to become his legal guardian, another person was. This person was the pianist and radio presenter Iain Burnside, Ms Chilcott's closest friend, a man not a woman, and, say the gossips, a gay man at that.

It is this latter fact that has, gently, insidiously, been pointed out as the eyebrow-raising, newsworthy, aspect of Ms Chilcott's unconventional deathbed arrangement. Actually though, far from being unconventional, Ms Chilcott's plan for the parenting of her child is perfectly straightforward. Mr Burnside is Hughie's godfather. My own understanding is that one of the most solemn duties of a godparent is to taking over the upbringing of a godchild who has been orphaned.

Therefore it is perfectly correct that Mr Burnside is now Hughie's legal guardian, and is expected to start adoption proceedings soon. In fact, not only is this correct behaviour, it is also admirable. In selecting Mr Burnside as a godfather for her son, Ms Chilcott clearly made a wise and prescient choice. Many godparents do not take their role very seriously nowadays, sometimes drifting out of children's lives even before Pingu has been replaced by Thomas the Tank Engine.

My own son has two godfathers, both gay, and while they are charming peripheral figures in my son's life, they would probably die themselves if their duties were stretched any further than responsibility-free social enjoyment. Hughie may be an unlucky child in that he does not know his biological father and has been so cruelly robbed of his mother. But he is lucky that one of the previously less central adult carers in his life seems happy to move centre-stage.

For while Ms Chilcott's plans for her son are presented as odd or bohemian, the odd thing is that they are instead quite Victorian. When mortality rates were generally higher, and deaths in childbirth hugely more common, children were orphaned at an early age much more often, with childless friends or relatives, often godparents, often stepping into the breach. The reasons for this childlessness remained unspoken, as Mr Burnside probably wishes they had remained in his case. It is quite an extra challenge, at the start of his challenging new role, to have his sexuality speculated about so openly, as if it were in any way relevant to his ability to bring up a child.

Which brings us to the reason why Ms Chilcott's highly traditional arrangement for her son should be marked out as so rakishly modern. In the past, Ms Chilcott might have felt compelled to cover up her single parenthood, perhaps by passing Mr Sigall off as her son's biological father. This used to happen all the time. In the past, Mr Burnside would have been under pressure to marry himself, just to satisfy the demands of convention.

Whether such subterfuges would have been better for a child in Hughie's situation is a moot point. Hughie, even at his early age, has been appraised of his parental legacy. Children brought up in the secretive households created by the demands of convention say that they always knew something was wrong, even though they had little or no idea what it was. We understand now that children can thrive in all kinds of family configurations.

Oddly, while we are wiser nowadays about what makes an adopted child happy - simply love and truthfulness - we are more sentimental about biological parenthood than ever. Today, with the overblown promises of IVF or surrogacy, people find it harder and harder to accept that they may not be able to have children "of their own". Part of the wonder at Ms Chilcott's plans for her child is that a single man is willing to take on someone else's boy.

It is a small comfort to realise that Ms Chilcott herself would not have laboured under worries about the magic parenting abilities of the biological progenitor, knowing that she would no longer be around to fulfill that role. It is no secret that Ms Chilcott herself was adopted. In fact, much is made of the fact that while her adoptive parents were not middle class or musical, they recognised and nurtured their daughter's talent at an early age. Ms Chilcott won her first prize for singing at the precocious age of three, and despite their lack of knowledge of the world Ms Chilcott would enter into so spectacularly, they guided her childhood and education with unerring good judgement.

The fact that she had herself such a positive experience of an adoptive upbringing must surely have soothed Ms Chilcott as she made her agonising decision. And Mr Burnside's ready acceptance of his new role must also have been a comfort, as she realised her choice of godfather for her son had been such a good one.

There is nothing outrageous, or even new, about the way in which young Hughie is going to be brought up. The only modern twist to the tale is that convention no longer demands that the backgrounds of the adults involved no longer needs to be cloaked in shame and secrecy. Ms Chilcott has done exactly the right thing for her son. Her message, that there is no prescription, of gender, sexuality, biology or family convention, for what sort of person makes a parent to be trusted, is one we should all be celebrating.