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04.27.10

Who Will Raise My Daughters?

When Bruce Feiler was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, he formed a Council of Dads, six men who could be a father to his twin daughters if he were no longer around. Plus: Read an excerpt from his new book.

In July 2008, I learned that I had a seven-inch cancerous tumor in my left femur. I instantly worried about my three-year-old twin daughters and what their lives might be like without me. “Would they wonder who I was? Would they wonder what I thought?”

Three days later, I awoke with an idea of how I might give them my voice. I would reach out to six men from across my life and ask them to be present through the passages in my daughters’ lives.

“I believe my daughters will have plenty of opportunities in their lives,” I wrote these men. “They’ll have loving families. They’ll have each other. But they may not have their dad. Will you help be their dad?”

“I believe my daughters will have plenty of opportunities in their lives,” I wrote these men. “They’ll have loving families. They’ll have each other. But they may not have their dad. Will you help be their dad?”

And I called this group of men “The Council of Dads.”

My instinct was not to tell my wife, Linda, about this idea. We should focus on the positive, I reasoned. But within 24 hours, I had lost my resolve, and as soon as I told her, she started vetoing my nominees. “I love him,” she would say, “but I would never ask him for advice!” Starting a Council proved to be a very efficient way of finding out what my wife really thought of my friends.

book-cover---the-council-of-dads
The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me. By Bruce Feiler. 256 pages. William Morrow. $22.99. ()

We needed a set of guidelines.

First, no family members. We figured our family would already have relationships with the girls. Plus, Linda said, your friends know you differently from your family.

Second, men only. Probably half my closest friends are women, but we sought to fill the dad space in the girls’ lives.

Third, intimacy over longevity. We thought some of my more recent friendships might better capture the dad I want to be.

Finally, a dad for every side. We didn’t set out with a preconceived number and instead looked for men who might capture different aspects of my personality.

Eventually I settled on six men—from my oldest buddy to my camp counselor to a tortured romantic poet. I sat down with each one, read him my letter, and told him what he meant to me. My wife joked it was like planning six proposals. I asked each one to convey a different lesson to my girls—how to live, how to travel, how to think, how to dream.

I then asked each for a single piece of advice to convey to my daughters. Their answers ranged from how to take a trip (“Be a traveler, not a tourist”) to how to make your dreams come true (“Don’t see the wall”). One talked about the proper way to jump in a mud puddle; another why they should always pack their flip-flops. One counseled that even in hard times they should still “Harvest the miracles” around them.

After the first of these conversations, I told Linda that the advice would not just change our girls’ lives, but hers, too.

And therein has proven the magic of The Council of Dads. We did it for our girls. But it has transformed us. It built a bridge between our friends and our kids. It created an entirely new community in our lives. It formed our inner circle. As Linda put it, “Everyone knows you marry into a family, but friends stay separate—his and hers. Now these men are my support, too.”

Recently, the Council of Dads convened for the first time. They complained about politics, sports, and of course me. In short, they were men. (Linda observed that she had waited for two years to see what they discussed. The answer: sports cars!)

My wife joked it was like planning six proposals. I asked each one to convey a different lesson to my girls—how to live, how to travel, how to think, how to dream.

But our girls didn’t care. They were delighted as they moved from dad to dad, reveling in the private bond they share with each one. Our girls don’t know the shadow that hangs over the idea. All they know is that these men are not just Daddy’s friends.

They are their friends.

That night, each man spoke of how the experience had changed him. One felt the Council helped replace the voice of his own father. Another has taken the advice he gave our girls and changed how he parents his own children. The last person to speak called himself the Contrarian.

“When I first heard the idea of the Council, I rejected it,” he said. “You would triumph over your illness. We wouldn’t need to exist. Today I realized I was wrong. Whether we’re healthy or sick, we all need to be surrounded by the people we love. And seeing the looks on the girls’ faces today, I now know we all need our own Council.”

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Bruce Feiler is the bestselling author of Walking the Bible, Abraham, and America’s Prophet, and the host of Walking the Bible on PBS. His new book, The Council of Dads, describes how he responded to a cancer diagnosis by asking six friends to help father his daughters.