Do You Have a Council of Friends?

Looking out for his daughters, a dad rediscovers friendship

Posted May 26, 2010

Have you heard of "The Council of Dads"? It is a concept, a set of friends, and the title of a new book by Bruce Feiler. The author, at age 43, was diagnosed with a rare and potentially deadly form of cancer. Wracked with worry that his twin daughters, then 3-years old, might grow up without him, Feiler decided to assemble what he called a council of dads for his girls. The council was actually a group of six of his friends, who would go on to become his daughters' friends as well.

Feiler chose friends from different parts of his life, to represent different aspects of himself to his daughters if he couldn't do so himself. One would convey his playfulness, another his love of nature, another his values, and still another his passion for travel. There was also a thinking friend and a make-your-dreams-come-true friend.

In her essay about the book in Time magazine, Nancy Gibbs noted that the Council is akin to Hillary Clinton's notion that it takes a village to raise a child. Gibbs also recognized that "single and divorced parents do this informally all the time."

Nearly two years later, Feiler is now cancer-free. Each of the men in the council has become increasingly closer to him and to his girls. Asked how the council had changed his life, Feiler said that he used to think (as many people do) that when you are a parent, there's no time for friends. He discovered, though, that The Council of Dads was "less about parenting and more about friendship."

One of the men Feiler asked to join the council was reluctant at first. He resisted the idea that his friend would not make it. He wanted to believe that the twins would never need such a council. Now he believes something else:

"Whether we're healthy or sick, men or women, we all need to be reminded of what's most valuable in our lives...we all need our own Council."

He's right. We don't need to be parents or children to benefit from a council.

In academic psychology, a similar concept goes by the name "social convoy." For decades, Toni Antonucci has been showing us the importance of that group of people that accompanies us over the course of our lifetimes. A convoy includes the people who are closest to us as well as those who are not as intimate but still significant. The composition of the convoy can change, with relatively more friends during certain phases of our lives and more family members at others. But there is a recognizable core that provides a sense of continuity across the many places life takes us.

What I like about concepts such as the council or the social convoy is that they recognize the bigger picture of our interpersonal lives. Research on social convoys shows that sometimes it is not enough to have just one person in your life, even if the one is The One. As Spencer and Pahl found in their research on what they call "personal communities," a married person who practices intensive coupling can be psychologically fragile, and a single person with a diverse network can be quite resilient.