This is the question no parent likes to think about, and it’s often the reason why parents haven’t set up wills, trusts, or designated a guardian. And while this is a question worth exploring and doing something about (sooner rather than later), there’s another important question that’s related:
Which adults do you want involved in your child’s life?
I recently finished reading Bruce Feiler’s book The Council of Dads. It’s a memoir about the doctors discovering a seven-inch tumor in his leg. Not only was the medical route scary to him, so was the fact that Feiler had two 3-year-olds.
In his book, Feiler tells his journey of choosing six men who would make up the Council of Dads, men who would be involved in his daughters’ lives and who would help them know who their father was—if anything happened to him. He chose six men because he figured his wife would represent herself well.
Part of the reason I read this book was because I’m coming up on the two-year anniversary of my dear childhood friend who died of cancer. I met Sandy in first grade, and we were inseparable through elementary school. Years later when we were both adults, we bumped into each other and renewed our friendship. Sandy had become a single parent. Then she was diagnosed with cancer. At first, things looked hopeful. Her cancer went into remission. But then a year or two later, it came back. And it got worse and worse.
As she was dying, Sandy and I had a lot of conversations about her hopes for her daughter—and what she planned to do to ensure that her daughter grew up well without her.
Yes, Sandy had extended family, but she lived out of state because of custody issues. The ex-husband was someone who wasn’t involved in their lives, and she wanted to keep her daughter at the same high school and with the same friends. So my friend went through the process of deciding who was in her council.
Sandy ended up picking a family of her daughter’s best friend. This family knew they were taking on a lot, but they already had somewhat gotten used to it. Over the years when Sandy needed chemotherapy or some other type of treatment, they were already giving my friend’s daughter some “regular family time” with their family. This family tried to make Sandy’s daughter’s life as normal as they could—even though everything else about her life was far from normal.
Sandy died when her daughter was a junior in high school. I cried and cried and cried.
As I grieved, I wondered: Why don’t we create councils in general? Why do we only think about these things when we’re in the midst of a crisis? Who could be the significant adults in my kids’ lives?
That question led me to form deeper bonds with some of the key adults in my kids’ lives. A big key was finding opportunities for them to connect in ways that they both truly enjoyed. My youngest loves to cook. So does my sister. The two spend time together concocting delicious creations. My oldest was curious about golf. He had an uncle who loved to golf. What if….? Well, you get the picture.
Although some of the significant adults are family members, there are also ones who are either friends of ours, neighbors, or people we know from work. My youngest also loves art. There was someone at my husband’s work who has a son who is an artist. They’ve gone to art fairs together, and they’ve visited this woman’s son’s art studio. In the process, relationships deepen. And the council widens.
Meanwhile, I’m paying more attention to the role I play in being part of other family’s councils. I make an effort to reach out to these kids and build a stronger relationship with them so that they have another adult they can trust. Usually this is around music since I love playing the flute, piano, and trombone. I really connected with one teenager who is a fabulous pianist, and we talk about Mozart, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, John Williams, and Simon & Garfunkel.
Which adults are important in your child’s life? Do you have a council?
Bruce Feiler, The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me (New York: William Morrow, 2010).