Sunday (June 20) is Fathers Day in the United States, an observance first marked here a century ago as an occasion to honor dads, paternal bonds, and the role of fathers in society. Like the Mothers Day observance it complements, Fathers Day is celebrated at family gatherings with gift-giving and other tokens of appreciation. One dad, a successful author named Bruce Feiler, discovered that the support of other dads can be one of life's truest treasures.
Until that day in 2008 when he was diagnosed with a potentially fatal bone cancer, Bruce Feiler had been living a seemingly charmed life. He was a bestselling author of numerous books. He had a loving marriage and twin three-year-old girls. His doctor’s sudden bad news left him stunned.
"You imagine all the ballet recitals you’re not going to see, the walks you’re not going to take, [and] the boyfriends you are not going to scowl at, and the things they would wonder about me," Feiler recalls. "Would [my girls] wonder who I was [if I died]? Would they wonder what I thought? Would they yearn for my approval, my discipline, my voice?"
Three days later, Feiler awoke before dawn with a big idea: he would assemble a group of trusted men to serve as surrogate fathers after his death. His new book, The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness and the Men Who Could Be Me, recalls that moment:
“I started making a list of six men from all parts of my life, beginning when I was a child and stretching through today. These are the men who know me best, the men who share my values, men who traveled with me, studied with me, have been though pain and happiness with me, men who know my voice…"
Feiler’s wife Linda embraced the idea, and together, they devised some guidelines for whom to ask. For example, they agreed that Council members should be friends, not family, and that they should be men. And each man should embody some key aspect of Feiler himself.
Feiler made his first request to Jeff Shumlin, a Vermont farmer. The two became friends just after high school while on a student exchange program in Europe. Feiler wanted Shumlin on his Council of Dads because then as now, he was an adventurer who always said "yes" to life.
When Shumlin agreed to his friend's request, Feiler asked him what piece of advice he would give to his girls as they got older. "And he [Shumlin] said 'Be a traveler, not a tourist and approach your trip as a young child might approach a mud puddle. You can bend over and look at your reflection, or you can jump in thrash around, see it what it feels like, what it smells like. I want to see you back at the end of this trip covered in mud!'"
Other dads in Feiler’s Council of Dads include Ben, an intellectual skeptic who would invite the girls to be relentless in their pursuit of truth and "live the questions," and another buddy, also named Ben, who believes in the power of friendship.
David Black, the literary agent and close personal friend who helped Feiler get published back when he was an unknown writer, also made the cut.
Black says the role Feiler asked him to assume was a natural fit. "I work to help people's dreams come true," he recalls in his busy Manhattan office. "That's in part what Bruce asked of me, to be a member of the Council."
Black, who is a father himself, adds that the Council of Dads has turned out to be about more than just a community of support for Feiler's daughters. It has also been about creating a community of men who can support each other. "Men are not given in our society enough opportunity to be drawn together in something where their love and support is the foundation. That's not what men [are supposed to] do,” he says.
Black adds that typically, American men play or watch sports together, drink together and compete. "[But] this [council] is not about competition. This allows the nurturing element of these men, of the six of us, to be at the forefront of the relationship. And that's different."
Bruce Feiler points out that when dads support other dads, they can share their experience, their strengths and their wisdom, and that when they do, it's the children who benefit most. "Being a dad is often very lonely," he says, "And one of the things I feel is I am no longer alone, that the Council of Dads is in every room with me and making every decision with me."
The medical crisis that led Feiler to reach out to the other fathers has passed. Today, Feiler is cancer-free. But he says his idea has caught on, and he believes that his book, The Council of Dads, and the website councilofdads.com is inspiring similar groups to form wherever dads seek strength in the fellowship of fathers.