Navigate to News section

Letter to My Unborn Son

This Father’s Day, one dad contemplates life with four girls and a boy on the way

Mark Oppenheimer
June 15, 2018

Dear Future Son:

A few months ago, we told your four older sisters that we were expecting a boy to arrive sometime around Labor Day, 2018. Reactions were mixed. Suffice it to say that after a period of intense sister meetings, from which your mother and I were excluded, they seemed to have arrived at various places of denial, acceptance, or resignation. Since that time, they have not often raised the subject of you. With one major exception: A week after the announcement, Ellie, the 9-year-old—you’ll recognize her as the one with blue hair—approached your mother and said that she had been doing some thinking, and she thought she saw a silver lining. “Well,” she said, “maybe he’ll be trans.”

By the time you are old enough to Google your old dad and comb through all the stuff I have written, you may have a sense of whether or not you are trans, and if you are, then I tell you this: Mazel tov! I hope you have raided your sisters’ old clothing bins and saved us a bundle. I also hope that you are the most secure, loved, well-adjusted trans-girl in the world, since we can’t afford to pay for therapy. You are the child of our middle-aged poverty. Trans or not, if you have any “issues” you need to “talk through,” you may have to talk to your dog.

And you have yourself to thank for the dog, since your sisters, at around the same time they were praying for your gender dysphoria, approached us with a deal. “We’ve had a sisters’ meeting,” Ellie said. Now, for your mother and me, sisters’ meetings are never good news. They usually result in our having to spend an hour explaining some point we took to be obvious and self-explanatory, like why we can’t homeschool our daughters with a “Hogwarts wizarding curriculum” or why we’re not going to let them decorate one side of the house with a 20-foot Master Chef mural “to honor Gordon Ramsay.” In a best-case scenario, a sisters’ meeting might produce, say, a multi-page letter explaining the necessity of acquiring a trampoline. (Yes, son, that trampoline in our backyard, that very one.)

And this was not a best-case scenario sisters’ meeting. “We’ve decided,” Ellie said, “that we’ll forgive you for having a boy if you get us a dog.”

“But we already have a dog,” I told her.

“And a cat,” your mother said. “And the cat’s an asshole.”

(In truth, your mother used a less profane word to describe the cat, Franny, who mostly hangs out in the basement eating food and pooping out absurd percentages of her body weight. “Asshole” isn’t your mother’s style. What she actually said was, “And the cat’s defective.” But I know what she meant.)

“But we need another dog,” Ellie said. “Besides, if you get us this dog, we’ll love the baby boy.”

This was a strong negotiating position, especially with your mother. As you may already have discovered, every human in a 21st-century industrialized society has a preferred form of late-night internet pornography. For many, men in particular, the preferred late-night internet pornography is, in fact, pornography (don’t worry about what this is). For many, and especially for a lot of women I know, their late-night pornography is or some other real-estate website. And then there are those who look at wedding dresses, fancily decorated cakes, or celebrity gossip. (Which at least isn’t fantasy sports, beloved of so many men.) Your mother, in case you didn’t know, looks at She basically thinks she has about as good a husband as she wants, or possibly deserves; and she likes her house just fine. She never wants a new pair of shoes, and she’s so averse to shopping that I have to buy her underwear. She has fewer material needs than anyone I know, which is why, as you’ve noticed, we don’t make a big deal out of her birthday. But some part of her, the part that grew up in a New York City apartment building that banned pets, always thinks another dog is a good idea.

Credit your older sisters with this much: They know when they’ve been dealt a strong hand. Having been just cool enough to us over the preceding week to make us wonder if we had, in fact, selfishly destroyed their lives by conceiving you, they offered us terms for our own absolution. They probably could have said, “Name the boy Laura Ingalls Wilder Aly Raisman Oppenheimer, and we’ll forgive you,” and we’d have said, “OK.” But a puppy—it was something your mother was primed to want anyway, and I felt I was getting off easy.

Hence, your dog, Minnie (short for Minerva McGonagall). The one we adopted five months before you came along. The one we’d like you to talk to instead of asking to see a therapist.

Which brings us to the question that everybody has been asking us, because it seems more polite than asking, “Was he an accident?” (I kind of wish they’d ask us, because then I could say, “No, it took us two years and one miscarriage to get pregnant with him,” and the looks I’d get would be just priceless.) But instead they ask, “Oh, were you trying for a son?”

And here’s the God’s honest answer, son, and I am trusting that, whenever you read this, you’ll have achieved the maturity and wisdom to understand that we love you no matter what, that all of us, even your sisters, and certainly the rescue dog who owes its cushy adoptive situation to you—yes, you—love you in a non-negotiable way that transcends your gender, whatever it is. Here we go: No, we were trying for a fifth girl. Because we love having daughters. Because we have the clothes already. Because with five girls we could say, “Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof!” (in the play, not the original short stories, in which there were seven girls) or “Like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice!” Because it’s just kind of hilarious to have five children of one sex, and if you’re going to do something as crazy as have five children, you have to accept that you will be that crazy family and kind of lean into the celebrity status, and five daughters sounds a mite crazier than four daughters and a son. Also, because I don’t much like the things that I fear boys will bring into my house, like fantasy football, or Drakkar Noir.

So there it is, son. We wanted a daughter. If Ellie has her way, we’ll get one. But if not, we’ll have a son, you, and we’ll love you just as you are, however you are.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.