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Why I Still Don’t Have a Guardian for My Child

Photograph by Twenty20

I have very few memories of the weeks after my father’s death. It was July in New York City, but I don’t remember the baking heat or the sweaty feeling of waiting on a subway platform. I don’t remember what I talked about with the friends who gathered around me or what the sympathy cards looked like that poured into my mailbox. The details of the investigation into my father’s car accident are gone. But I do remember my stepmother’s voice on the phone telling me that my father had never written a will.

“There’s no will,” I repeated to my mother, shaking my head at her stunned expression.

Numb from shock and grief, I remember feeling irritated by this news, but not surprised. My father had a habit of avoiding some things he would rather not confront. How else to explain the fact that a middle-aged man with two children from two marriages, who owned property and a small sailboat, who collected books, records, and guitars, who had published stories and poetry and taught students to love literature, would have neglected to make any legal provisions in the event of his death?

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"Thanks for that, Dad," I thought bitterly, swearing that when I became a parent someday, I would never be so irresponsible.

And then, eleven years later, I became a parent. Have I written a will? Nope.

Don’t laugh. It’s not even at the top of the list of all the things I swore I would never do. Sometimes adding things to this list feels like the definition of parenthood. But I am aware that I have a will writing problem. And I think I’m getting clearer about my mental block. It’s not dealing with money or stuff, or even thinking about my own mortality. It’s the guardian thing that stops me cold. How to choose a guardian who would raise my two-year-old daughter if, God forbid, my husband and I both passed away.

I mean, how on earth do you do this?

So, I took a small and very unscientific survey of moms, and I found that I was not alone in avoiding this issue.

Mom of two, Caroline was completely stumped, since she couldn’t imagine naming any of her “dysfunctional” or “lame” relatives as guardians.

Annabel had settled on a sibling and a best friend to care for her teenager and toddler, the people who she felt best “modeled” her own life. But she hadn’t told any family members about this decision, predicting a total freak out from her sisters-in-law, who think “they invented mothering.”

Kristy’s priority was to find guardians who shared her faith, and she was struggling because this excluded her parents. She had tentatively broached the subject with some friends who seemed to be up for it, but they hadn’t made anything official.

And then there was Laura whose brother had passed away as a young adult. “I feel some extra responsibility to look out for my parents emotionally,” Laura said, “I figured if my husband and I both died, my parents would not be in a good place at all to take care of my kids after losing both of their children and son-in-law.” Acting out of concern and compassion, Laura had still worried about hurting her parents’ feelings when she had chosen close friends as guardians.

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It was Lila who summed up my personal hang up. “We need to trust someone would do their best,” she said, explaining that she and her husband had chosen his parents to care for their three kids.

But how exactly does one do that?

Of course, no one could be a replacement for me or my husband. But how do you trust that someone could manage the chaos and grief of a major tragedy, provide enough stability and care, model something that resembles your morality, and love your child with even a fraction of what you have in your heart?

I know I can’t be will-less for much longer and maybe Alison had the answer when she suggested a reward system. “The process depressed the hell out of me,” she said. “Everyone who schedules that appointment with the lawyer deserves a cocktail right after.”

I couldn't agree more.

Disclaimer: Names have been changed because, hey, this is personal

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