Care and Feeding

Who Do You Make Your Kids’ Guardian if You Die?

I chose a close friend, but my kids want it to be their uncle.

Photo illustration of a married couple of color looking with frustration at a computer screen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

When I was pregnant, we designated my oldest friend as a guardian. She’s stable, she’s nerdy and bookish like us, and I know that if we die, she’d love our kids and work hard to raise them with the progressive values we share. But we moved away shortly after my second child was born, so to the children, she’s a kind woman of whom they are fond but infrequently see.

Now that they are old enough to express a preference, they have asked to live with my brother, whom they absolutely adore and see more often (even though he too lives at a distance from us). He would be thrilled to be named their guardian, but I’m hesitant. He still lives in the same bullying, small-minded town that I worked so hard to escape, and sometimes I hear him express ideas in the vein of “boys don’t cry”—the total antithesis of what I want for my kids.

I want my kids to be safe and happy, in both the short and long term, and I don’t know how to choose!

—Torn Between Two Guardians

Dear Torn,

First, a confession: Although I’ve spent much of the last two decades writing about my experience as a parent (and I talk about it pretty much constantly to anyone who’ll listen), the story I’m about to tell is one I never have before, so that even the people I am closest to don’t know it. My husband and I rewrote our wills three times between my daughter’s infancy and her 13th birthday. (And I thought about a fourth revision too when she was in high school, but I restrained myself: At 16, she was resourceful and independent enough, I knew, to make an imperfect situation work for her if it came to it.)

Let it be stipulated that other than our beloved only daughter, we had nothing of value to bequeath to anyone. Even the house we lived in would have been a burden, not a gift. Still, I felt like a character in a bad novel (or a pathetic news story). You know the one: You have displeased me! I am writing you out of my will!

I’m coming clean about this now not because I think my reticence was silly. I’m still embarrassed. Revising our wills repeatedly still seems like a crazy thing to have done. It seems imperious and capricious and controlling.
Also morbid.

On the other hand …

I had good reasons to keep making changes. The first set of guardians was a married couple with whom my husband and I were very close. The woman was my best friend—there was no one in the world I trusted more, and I could not imagine that would ever change.

And yet it did. She and I had a devastating falling out from which we would never recover. But even if we had been able somehow to reconcile, she was no longer a suitable guardian, for her first marriage had ended and she was in a new one with someone to whom I would never have entrusted the care of my child.

So my husband and I returned to our wills and made the best decision about the future of our daughter that we were able to, given the changing circumstances. I did not feel nearly as confident as I had the first time around—when I’d had no doubts at all—but this time, at least, we reasoned, we had picked someone who would be in our lives “forever.” Someone who literally had no choice about that. We made a sound and practical decision, we assured ourselves.

But we were wrong again.

And so it went.

I will spare you the blow-by-blow. I’m relaying the broad details of this story now only because I want to make clear that I understand planning for our deaths and making decisions about how we want our children to be raised, if we aren’t here to do it, is hard—much harder than I think it is made out to be—and I am immensely sympathetic to your quandary.

When you say that your children are now old enough to express a preference, I don’t know if you mean old enough as in 7 or 8 or old enough as in 13 or 14. There’s a big difference between old enough to be able to express strong feelings about something (I love my uncle! He’s so cool! It would be so fun to live with him!) and old enough to understand completely what’s at stake (If you died, I would rather be raised by my uncle than by your best friend, even though we don’t share all the same values, because I love him very much and feel at home with him).

My daughter was in middle school the first (and only) time I included her in the discussion of what would be best for her if both her father and I died. It was a difficult, painful conversation for us both. But the time had come to revise our wills (one last time, I swore—and as I’ve said, I made myself stick to that promise), and it seemed to me that she was mature enough at this point to take part in the decision. By then she had her own longtime best friend. The parents weren’t people my husband and I were close to, but we liked them and we trusted them and they represented the least possible upheaval should the unthinkable occur. Our daughter, who was horrified when I first brought up the very notion of a designated guardian, found this plan reassuring, even soothing.

Since you’ve already discussed this with your kids and they’ve asked to live with your brother, I’m hoping they’re old enough to know what’s at stake—and if you didn’t frankly address your own doubts about this arrangement, it’s time for a second conversation in which you speak candidly about those doubts. If in fact your children are not old enough to participate in a mature and thoughtful way in such a conversation, you get to—and should—override their stated “preferences.” As parents, we have to do this all the time, of course, in both big- and small-stakes situations, for the sake of our kids’ well-being.

Choose a guardian for your young children whom you trust to complete what you have started. You can make a change in this plan later on if necessary (though I hope you won’t have to do this more than once). It sounds like you are very clear about your friend being the right person for the job. Trust your instincts. (This is almost always the best advice anyone can give you about parenting. The tricky part is quieting all the other stuff that goes on in our minds so that we can listen to what our instincts are actually telling us.)

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

How do you know when it’s the right time to stop breastfeeding your child?

I nurse my 15-month-old daughter first thing in the morning (it lets me have another 15–30 minutes in bed) and at bedtime every day. Some mornings I nurse her again before day care drop-off if she asks for it—and some evenings when I first get home, too. (That one is for me, I know, just so we can reconnect and cuddle for a bit after my workday.) If she’s very sick (like can’t-keep-food-down sick) or during a horrendous night of traveling—you know, that time when toddlers turn into unrecognizable demons because they aren’t sleeping in their own cribs and it’s the only way to calm them—I end up nursing as well.

My husband keeps reminding me that I said I would stop breastfeeding once she was a year old and asks why I am still doing it. What I did do—what I always intended to do—was stop pumping during the day, which made life easier for me. I love the closeness of breastfeeding and she does, too. It’s still one of our main ways to connect. I’m wondering if my husband is jealous (she most definitely is going through a mommy phase), or embarrassed (but I don’t nurse her in public anymore, and in any case he never cared about that before), or just turned off (maybe the visual of nursing a toddler is getting weird to him?).

I don’t know if I’m waiting for another switch to flip, either in her or in me, or what. How do you know it’s time to change the routine or stop entirely? And in the meantime, I don’t know what to tell my husband, beyond asking him to stop asking about it.

—Still the Boob

Dear Still,

I suppose you could just come out and ask him if he’s jealous—either of you or of her—or embarrassed (it’s possible that whether anyone sees you nursing or not, just the fact that you’re nursing your child beyond the period when breastmilk or formula is nutritionally essential may be weirding him out) or turned off. He may be all three. Or he may not want to cop to how he feels—or he may not even know. Whatever his feelings, he’s likely to shield himself with the all-purpose “I just think it’s time” or haul out once more what he believes to be a promise you made to him.

I guess the question is: How much does his unhappiness about this trouble you? How much is it going to hurt your marriage (and therefore, over the long term, all three of you)? And how much would it harm your marriage and your family if you were to take the advice I’m about to give you, which is heartfelt?

But before I give you this advice, I want to say something about my own situation—as is my wont. I’ve spoken before in this column about my daughter’s nursing strike when she was a baby (but not about how traumatic it was, especially in the beginning). One of the legacies of that period, for me, was a decision to let her wean herself when she was ready. The truth is, I was so relieved when she began nursing again that my original plan, which had been to quit nursing once she hit that 12-month mark, seemed both arbitrary and cruel. I liked nursing, and my daughter found it comforting. I decided that I would continue to nurse her until she was ready to quit—or I was.

And there was a natural progression as time passed: She nursed less and less frequently and for shorter and shorter periods. In the end, she was down to once a week for no more than a minute or two except for when she was ill—when my extended nursing really was a godsend, since no matter how dreadful she felt or how high her fever was, she would lie beside me and willingly partake of that particular (and no other!) clear fluid. We got through two horrendously vicious stomach flus that way between her second and third birthdays.

Weaning, when it happened, came naturally, without any stress on either of us. Since nursing is a supply-and-demand system, there came a day when she tried to nurse and there was no milk. She and I were both prepared for this: I had told her the day would come and why.

I was very lucky, I know, in having my husband’s support throughout this process. And perhaps yours will be more supportive if you talk to him about it, and he’s honest about how he feels and you’re honest about how you feel. But if he remains opposed? I’m thinking you won’t be surprised to hear that I believe that nursing is between you and your child and isn’t anybody else’s business. The time to stop is when either one of you is ready—when she doesn’t feel she needs it anymore or when you don’t want to anymore.
Whichever comes first.

For my family, the slow march to the end of nursing, when both of us were ready for it, was just right. You and/or your child may be better served by a more systematic approach. But I truly believe that if both you and your daughter are still benefiting from the connection and closeness that nursing offers, that’s what matters most. What you have to decide is whether you agree with me. If you do, I hope you can persuade your husband to see it this way too.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I’m currently pregnant with my first child. My mom has always been a bit of an erratic driver: tailgating without realizing it, turning her head to look at roadside sheep, getting in the car with a dinner plate, mug, and cloth napkin to eat as she drives. We don’t want our kid riding with her. My father, her ex-husband, is a great driver, and it would really help for him to occasionally be able to bring his grandchild somewhere, but I know that any double standard would kill my mom. Do I make a secret exception for my dad and hope my mom won’t find out? (She will.)