Forty Thoughts on a Fourth Daughter

I have four children under age 7. Discuss.

Mark Oppenheimer
9 min readOct 23, 2013


1. Our fourth daughter was born on Bastille Day, which has no particular meaning for me. I took twelve years of French, and I loved France the two times that I visited, but if she’d waited a day, she would have shared a birthday with Rembrandt and Nabokov. And Beverly Hills 90210’s Brian Austin Green.

2. With the first child, everybody visits you in the hospital. By the fourth child, nobody does. Except our friend Allison. Thank you, Allison.

3. My friend Gerardo tells me that there is Caribbean Spanish slang for men who only produce daughters: chancletero, from chancleta, “slipper” — that is, I am a man who wears slippers. A slipperisto, if you will. Nobody knows, etymologically speaking, why a man who makes only daughters is thought to be a man in slippers. Is it because he is not man enough to wear shoes? Is it because he must tread softly? Or is it because your daughters will always fetch your slippers for you. (Mine, ages 6, 4, 3, and two months, do not fetch my slippers.)

4. My dogs — there are two of them — also do not fetch my slippers.

5. One of my dogs is a boy. Archie, we call him. Archibald Ferguson Oppenheimer, after the book-jacket designer Archie Ferguson, whose work I admire. Archie (the hound, not the designer) is the only other male in the household.

6. The father of four has something in common with the childless man: people’s thoughts turn toward his genitals. When you have no children, they wonder if you are capable of having any; when you have four children, they wonder why you can’t, or won’t, keep it in your pants. Those with only one, two, or three children don’t have this problem. They are genitally normative.

7. Very few people Americans have four children these days. In 2010, 19.1 percent of women between the ages of 40 and 44 had had three children, but only 6.8 percent of women had had four children; only 2.7 percent of women had had five or six children.

8. Those who do have four children are presumed to be very religious or not very educated or both. My wife and I are but a little religious, super-duper educated, and just love children.

9. Having six children can be the mark of the eccentric or the genius. The psychologist Alison Gopnik wrote a very fine essay about her brilliant, eccentric parents and the six children they produced, including, besides Alison, her brother Adam, the New Yorker writer, and her brother Blake, the art critic. The novelist and director Galt Niederhoffer is one of six daughters; their father is, according to The New York Times, “one of the most successful (and most idiosyncratic) money managers in the nation.” But maybe four children isn’t enough to qualify as that kind of family, not enough to ensure the fruitful disorder and mayhem?

10. The writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who are married to each other, have four children. So does the psychologist and author Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness. And the novelist Dara Horn.

11. Ever since I was fourteen years old and my sister was born, making me the oldest of four children, I have taken note of other four-child families. John Updike had four children (but he and his wife then divorced, so, you know, asterisk).

12. Writers tend not to have many children, I think. Among writers my age, I can think of more divorces than children. This is especially true of New York–area writers, and truest of all when they edit literary journals. When I am feeling bad for not being more celebrated, my children are a comfort; thinking of more celebrated writers or editors with fewer children is also a comfort. I would call it Schadenfreude, but can one properly take pleasure in others’ misfortune if the unfortunate ones don’t know that they are unfortunate? If it doesn’t bother them, can their lack of fecundity please me?

13. Because this very essay is an attempt to monetize the birth of my fourth child — that is, to help her earn her keep — I feel the tug of superstition, as if my using her this way will cause something bad to befall her.

14. My wife and I are Jews, and Jews do not believe in baby showers, and we never had one, not for any of our four daughters. So perhaps my superstition is to be expected.

15. I am very mindful that many people want more children than they have but have been unable to have them. My wife and I talk about our good fortune almost daily. Having so many children has only made us more aware how sad we would be if we had been thwarted in our plans.

16. Around friends who are having trouble conceiving, I sometimes feel embarrassed by my good fortune.

17. I know what you are thinking. Yes, this was the plan. The first time we met, my wife and I discussed the fact that we both wanted four children someday.

18. I know what you are thinking. No, we did not discuss having each other’s children. It was not love at first sight. But we were both intrigued; that we each wanted four children was part of the intrigue.

19. My wife is one of two children, and they grew up in a small apartment on the Lower East Side of New York. Her visions of larger families came from books, which she read by the dozen in the bedroom she shared with her older sister. The books were daughter-heavy: All-of-a-Kind Family (five daughters and a son); Pride and Prejudice (five daughters); Little Women (four daughters). When our fourth daughter was in utero, we called her Amy, after the youngest in Little Women.

20. I come from a family of four siblings, three boys and a girl. I am the oldest. We were usually happy, not always (what family is?). But I don’t think any of us believes that he or she would have been happier with fewer siblings.

21. About those two dogs. It would be easier with no dogs, but then again walking the dogs provides a twice-daily escape from the chaos.

22. Several times someone has said something like, “Four! Oh my God, that’s insane!” — and then quickly apologized. But I like that reaction. I’m 39 years old now, too old to be special in much. It’s all downhill for my tennis game, for my eyesight, for my memory. Number of children is still something I can win at.

23. Children are a hedge against death. They are a volley for immortality. I have a friend who has one child, and God willing that son will live to a long age and have many children of his own. But what if he doesn’t? We all want to leave something behind. I will leave behind progeny. (Also, maybe, essays written in epigrammatic form.)

24. And I won’t be lonely in old age. Maybe they won’t all love me and nurse me, but the odds are good that one of them will. Maybe two.

25. I hear that Italians and Spanish and Germans and Japanese are all having 1.2 children or something like that. They are becoming countries of old people. If you don’t think that’s sad, you’re some sort of zealot. What kind, I am not yet sure. I’ll let you know when I meet you.

26. Yes, I worry about the environmental cost. But not as much as I should. I justify my actions by saying that the next Oppenheimer may be the one to find an antidote to climate change.

27. I do think that more people should have four children. But I also think more people should have zero. Those who wants lots of children or none are equally tyrannized by the reign of the two-or-three-child norm.

28. No, my wife doesn’t like pregnancy at all. She is unsentimental about it. She has no romance with it. Three epidurals, one C-section. No hypnobirthing, no home birthing, no doula, no regrets.

29. You know how, when you’re driving, everyone going faster than you is an asshole, and everyone slower is an idiot? For me, family size is like that. Parents with more children are insane, parents with fewer are pussies.

30. I am aware that those with more or fewer children than my wife and I have may feel the exact same way about us.

31. So we don’t want five. But no, I will not have a vasectomy. It’s like a wise man once said: “If a man is holding a knife, don’t let him touch your balls.”

32. When my father was a bit younger than I am now, several of his friends, supportive of the Zero Population Growth movement so big in the 1970s, formed a vasectomy pact. They pledged to get themselves fixed after one child apiece. One of the men broke that pact, and when his wife was pregnant with their second child, his friends got angry with him. But they patched things up, and I suppose they don’t talk about it any more. Everyone who lived through the 1970s has something he’d like to forget: hairdo, car, disco records, pantsuit, or vasectomy pact.

33. At T.J. Maxx, you can find many nice picture frames that hold triptychs, series of three photographs, perfect for families of three children. I have never seen one that holds four photographs in a row. This problem could be solved with a web search, or perhaps by Bed Bath & Beyond, or by my taking up woodworking.

34. But I will not take up woodworking now, for I am very, very tired.

35. But not as tired as my wife, who is up three or four times a night nursing the baby, and then is awakened at about 5:30 in the morning by our second daughter, who has at best a distant, somewhat estranged relationship with sleep. My wife is tired a lot. But she rarely loses her temper, even though she works all day — cleaning, cooking, taking care of the baby. When she goes back to work in November, she’ll work even harder. She will go back to work half-time, mornings only. I will do what I did with the other daughters when they were very young, stay home three mornings a week. We’ll get a babysitter for the other two mornings. So, to answer the question recently posed by my old college friend Rebecca: Yes, it can be done without “live-in help.”

36. One of the unexpected joys of parenting with my wife is that it has given me new reasons to admire her. She is a terrific mom. And our children are, mostly, very happy. Parenting has brought us closer together. But we had a close and easy relationship to begin with.

37. We’re happy. But I miss some aspects of life before parenthood. We used to do crossword puzzles together every night. I’d print two copies of the New York Times daily crossword puzzle off the web, and after dinner we’d sit on the sofa and race each other. She tended to win Monday through Wednesday, and I would win Thursday through Sunday. She was faster at easier puzzles, I was better at more difficult ones. Now, it’s been years since we have done a puzzle. We don’t have tickets to the chamber-music series anymore, either. We’ve given up a lot.

38. But we got a lot, too. There must be some principle of economics that describes the situations whereby some items become more valuable once they are yours. That is, you might only pay $50 for a shirt, but some shirts, once you own them, you wouldn’t sell for less than $100. Children are like that. The child you never had may be an abstract source of disappointment, but once you have any given child, life without her (or him) becomes unthinkable. It could be stated more crassly: I don’t think we would have paid more than $50,000 to get a fourth child — I just made that number up, but it sounds right — yet now that we have her, we wouldn’t part with her for anything.

39. To clarify: we didn’t pay anything for her. And that is one of the amazing things about parenthood. It’s an incredible joy that, for most people, can be had for no money.

40. Or, rather, no money up front. Later, there’s summer camp.