How many men does it take to raise a child?
Why wait until you are handed a rare diagnosis with a traditionally abysmal mortality rate to engage the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child?” Why not create a Council of Dads for your children right now, with the full expectation you will live a long healthy life and be in your children’s lives well into adulthood, attending their most significant life events? What is stopping you from extending your family circle a little wider, and bringing more positive influences into your son’s or daughter’s lives? Can there be too much love, guidance, or too many adults cheering on your child?
After coming home from the Doctors office in 2008 where he was handed an incredibly rare diagnosis, Bruce Feiler crumbled watching his twin daughters twirling around in glee. He was thinking about everything he might miss, which days later triggered an epiphany. Bruce found a way to answer the questions that haunted him about his daughters, like how could he provide them his voice if they were missing it? He would create a Council of Dads: six men to take on a fatherly role to his three year olds. These men would participate in the rites of passage during his daughters lives that he might not be there for; six men who had known him well to represent him to his own daughters after his death.
His wife loved the idea, but quickly started rejecting the nominees Bruce brought forth: “I love him, but I would never ask him for advice.” So they developed a set of rules: no family members, only friends, men only, and a Dad to represent each side of Bruce.
Bruce wrote a letter to each man, but then read it to him in person; his wife joked it was like conducting friend-marriage proposals over and over. By the end of the first reading both men were crying. When his friend said yes, Bruce was taken aback momentarily as it had not occurred to him that someone might decline the responsibility. He then asked each man only one question, which was, what is the one piece of advice you would give my girls?
The answers those six men provided became the spinal cord of the book Bruce wrote about his idea The Council of Dads, which includes a letter to his daughters. What Bruce and his wife did for their daughters, ultimately helped and changed them as they wove a shawl of love together with this community of six male friends to shelter the family. One beautiful idea that has become an ode to his daughters is: “Take a walk with a turtle; Behold the world, in pause.”
When Bruce and his wife had their twins they thought it would be all hands on deck, but instead, everyone ran the other way. To his surprise, when he was struggling with cancer, feeling less human than ever and expecting everyone to run, they instead came to him, wanting to talk, and it became all hands on deck. Bruce’s experience was that “cancer is a passport to intimacy.” Cancer is an invitation or mandate to enter the “vital arenas of human life” we don’t want to go into it.
He found the experience of telling his male friends how he felt about them, and asking for their help in raising his daughters, to be profound. He believes men are becoming more and more communicative, and that the definition of “modern manhood” is a man who hugs, bakes, cries, and leaves work early to coach little league.
When I read or hear the stories of family being extended outwards, I cannot help but wonder how differently I might have developed from childhood if I had been surrounded by a safe and loving Council of Dads. I can only guess that I would have had very different relationships with men, and very different ideas of what a relationship is. Unfortunately, as we see with older generations particularly, my Dad had no friends he could have asked to fill a role on the Council of Dads. He was, and is, a lonely man, which he passed on to me.
My capital D dysfunctional family unit was isolated from the remainder of my Dad’s family as my parents chose to live several provinces away from the rest of the family. My Mom had no living extended family at all. I have only met one set of cousins and their parents once in my life; I have never met the other Aunt, Uncle and cousins. I grew up with the idea that family was four people, and from a young age I was overwhelmed easily by friends family get-togethers that were teeming with people.
I repeated what I knew with my son when I was a single parent for his first ten years, and during the next 12 years I eschewed my husbands extended family. I now realize I wasn’t doing either my son or myself any favours.
It seems to be a primarily North American tradition to live independently of ones extended family. In many other cultures family often means generations living under the same roof, or crowning close friends with the title of family.
Community and connection are proving to be at the heart of healthy living, from inoculating against or combatting addiction, to successful weight loss, to protecting your physical neighbourhood, to minimizing shame, or to building intimacy and allowing vulnerability. I think the greater the safety net of loving influences you can provide your children, the more resilient and well adjusted adults they will grow into. I don’t believe you need to wait until you are told you might die, to realize we are all going to die, and your children will only benefit from any additional love and support you can muster for them during their lives journey.
An article I wrote about male loneliness.
An article I wrote about the importance of mentors for men.
An article I wrote about managing your own death.
Photo:Flickr/Kevin Kenny (resized)