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Choosing a Guardian

Maybe it was a hormonally enhanced fear; maybe it was that ER episode I shouldn't have watched, in which a mother-to-be dies in childbirth. Whatever the reason, when I was eight months pregnant I became obsessed with choosing a guardian for my unborn son.

Because Dennis saw my fears as mere last-minute jitters, I turned for support to the most responsible couples we knew, who had kids ranging in age from 2 to 10; surely their wills had been signed and sealed by the time they learned their babies' Apgar scores. To my surprise, most of them confessed that they had somehow managed to keep putting it off and putting it off.

But when Alec was born, I understood: Contemplating his destiny after my demise was almost unbearable. And who'd want to sit down and pore over credentials of siblings and friends  -- as if they were (unbeknownst to them) applying for a job? I also began to see how a discussion of guardianship with your partner might become a sparring match on issues like the importance of religion, the relative weight of blood ties and friendship, and the effect of a guardian's education, financial status, even geographic locale, on a child's prospects.

Julia Glass, winner of two Nelson Algren Fiction Awards, writes about health for several national magazines.

A Difficult Decision

Most couples can feel reasonably confident that they'll be around until their children grow up. But accidents do happen. For some parents, it is other people's tragedies that make them face this unpleasant reality.

Jill Marks, of Barboursville, Virginia, says she brought up guardianship long before she and her husband had their daughter: "It was a theoretical, light conversation, but I'd been affected by something that happened when I was a teenager. A friend's sister  -- who had three children  -- was killed in a car crash, along with her husband and in-laws. Because no guardian had been appointed, her aging parents had to raise those kids, who were 1, 3, and 5. So I cared passionately about getting my will written and choosing a guardian as soon as Elizabeth was born."

But too many parents draw out the decision-making for years, often because painful disagreements stall the process. In their first attempt, one couple found themselves critiquing each other's best friends: His was too despondent, hers a workaholic. Another couple disagreed over the eligibility of the husband's two brothers. She liked one brother's family in part because both parents have careers they love, and she felt the wife would be a great role model to her daughter; her husband argued that his other sister-in-law, who spent more time at home, would be more attentive.

Throughout such standoffs, it's essential not to forget that you share a worthy objective. If a mate's most paranoid, critical qualities surface, remember the noble cause they're serving: your child's future.

Family or Friends?

"The hardest thing about this decision is knowing that nobody is ever going to be you," says Rusty Eidmann-Hicks, of Colts Neck, NJ. "My fear is that no one could be as gaga about Susannah as we are  -- our families are all so spread out across the country that Susannah doesn't see her relatives too often." Yet despite choosing nearby friends to be Susannah's godparents, Eidmann-Hicks and his wife are set on choosing a family member as guardian for their 1-year-old.

The question of kith versus kin was raised early on as Lisa and Larry Keller, of Tesuque, NM, discussed their general priorities in choosing a guardian for 3-year-old Hannah. "Any child who's lost both parents is going to need a lot of help from someone who's strong enough to offer whatever emotional support she needs to heal," says Lisa. "If the people with the most stable household are friends, isn't that where you'd want your child to be?"

Jill Marks, recalling that conversation she and her husband had before parenthood, says the person they agreed on then was Bill's best friend, "who we knew would be most likely to raise a child the way we'd raise our own. But ultimately, when Elizabeth was born, we chose my sister. She's always been wildly in love with Elizabeth."

A couple who turned their focus from family to friends are Georgiana Goodwin and her husband, Michael Harvey, who live in Lyme, CT, with 4-year-old Sophia. "I don't have siblings, and my parents are too old, but my husband has lots of relatives in England," says Goodwin. "The problem is, the ones who'd be the right age to take on a small child we just don't know that well." One day, they realized that the best candidates were right under their nose: the parents of one of Sophia's friends, with whom they'd become friends as well. "They share our values, are financially stable, and have a happy household where tons of cousins and other kids congregate. Sophie loves it  -- and they love her."

Tough Choices

For some parents, appointing a guardian is complicated either by a familial embarrassment of riches that makes it tough to choose, or by a selection that's clear-cut to you but would surprise or even upset others. And if you make your decision known, will you hurt the feelings of family or friends you passed over?

One couple agreed easily on someone they saw as an obvious choice, yet took more than six years from their oldest child's birth to get it down on paper. "We chose a brother of mine who's gay and lives halfway across the country," says the mother. "My husband and I are in complete agreement that he has so many wonderful qualities we'd love our children to have. When we asked him, he was very moved. He told us that he'd even come live in our house, to make the transition as easy as possible for the kids. I think we hesitated to make it formal, though, because we knew that many people would hardly see him as a natural choice, especially since we have other siblings."

Even couples who make uncontroversial choices may feel uneasy telling anyone other than the guardian. One woman I know thought she'd want to let her family know  -- until one of her husband's brothers mentioned which sibling he'd chosen as guardian for his children. "It wasn't my husband," she says. "Though I'd never have expected him to choose us, and wouldn't have given it a thought if he hadn't told us, once he did, I wondered why it wasn't us."

Lisa Keller, however, maintains that what's most important is setting up the smoothest transition possible. "I think your whole family should be aware of your decision, so that later, there are no surprises. You wouldn't want to complicate things for your children in the midst of a tragedy."

The Big Favor

"Amazingly, people don't always consider that they should ask the person they want to be guardian," says Derek Wolman, an estate lawyer at Wolman, Babitt & King in New York City. "Or they mention it in passing because it's a personal issue and they feel funny talking about it. They get the person's consent, but that person may not fully understand the ramifications. Unless you tell them you're naming them in your will, they may be shocked if it comes to pass." Discussing financial details is essential, he adds. "Be clear on the provisions you've made  -- and let the guardians air their feelings. The burden of expense comes in a close second to the day-to-day responsibilities of raising a child."

If you're concerned that your request will be seen as presumptuous, remember that anyone would feel tremendously flattered. "It's quite a compliment that someone would trust you with something so precious," says Jill Marks.

Tell the prospective guardian that you don't need an answer right away. Make it clear you're open to any questions and that there will be no hard feelings if he or she declines  -- and be prepared to accept refusal graciously.

"My husband and I decided to change guardians after our second child was born, since my husband's brother, whom we'd picked at first, now didn't seem right," says one mother. "It seemed only natural to ask a couple we were very close to, friends whose son was friendly with ours and with whom we'd taken family vacations. They said they were deeply honored and wanted to think about it. Well, they actually came back and said no. They said they loved our kids, but it would be too much. I was stunned and hurt, and was worried it would damage our friendship. Then I realized that part of why I love them so much is that they're so conscientious. In the end, we were all fine about it."

As you mull over the options, be sure to consider continuity as a factor. As I contemplated the diverse "destinies" that different guardians might offer our son, I chose a couple whom I feel love their own son with the same kind of love we give Alec, who not only would include him in that circle but make every effort to keep his parents alive in memory and spirit.