Letter to Adopted Sons

Dear Pickle

by Michael Paterniti

Sometimes we can’t tell our young children every truth of life—the good and the bad—as we have learned it. For Father’s Day, goop asked a few men to write letters to their children, to be read…not quite yet.

I’ve been asked to write you a letter, a letter to be read five years from now, when you’re eighteen. You can squint at the part where your dad is talking too much about sex, but someday, after we’ve discussed all of that—safe sex and consent, etc.—and after you’ve found someone, there’s really only one rule Mom and I want to impart. It may sound glib, or even (probably) embarrassing, but it will pertain to everything in your life. It’s just four words, which you might consider our little prayer for you: Be a good lover.

Maybe you can guess why I’m not ready to say this to you quite yet. You’re the youngest of three. You never stop chattering or singing, bouncing or kicking balls. You’re simultaneously obsessed with sloths and Frank Ocean, soccer and animal rights. Unlike your older brother, who can disappear in his room making music for days, and your sister, who lights incense and goes “shamanic journeying,” you hate to be alone. You sleep with a stuffed bear that’s larger than you are; you’re still willing to snuggle. That’s you, at just-turned-thirteen, in most ways still a boy leaning into what comes next. So I want to tell you something about what comes next, because it’s already begun, though maybe you can’t tell. Mom and I can see it happening in your face and body, as you slim and grow, little glimmers of the grown-up you in the angle of your cheeks when you smile now. For being so outward, you’re a little more inward now, too, and that’s part of it, and should be for the rest of your life: Time alone—introspection, even moodiness—is okay, to figure out who you are. Everything else is built on how you feel about yourself, which requires self-forgiveness, compassion, love.

I want to tell you a story about a kid who grew up in a town that was both permissive and condemning, where everything was accelerated. This was way back in the ’70s and ’80s, outside of New York City. You’ve already guessed the kid was me, and I knew nothing about sex. I remember a kid named Todd telling a group of us in the swim team locker room that he was “doing sex” with his girlfriend. In retrospect, I know he wasn’t doing sex at all, if he even had a girlfriend. But I didn’t know that at the time, because an older classmate of ours had just gotten his girlfriend pregnant and, nine months later, had a son. All of this made me feel two things at once: like I was a hairless loser, missing out; and that I did not at all want to do this sex thing I was so bereft of.

In this town, kids drank and did drugs, in part because they wanted to be taken seriously, thinking that was the way. Until we had babies, or got arrested, or later, contrarily, got into college, where these patterns repeated. (My first kiss came at twelve, sober on a trampoline, with my “girlfriend,” who was drunk and who sobbed and told me she loved me, though I knew she was sobbing about something else and didn’t love me at all, because we were twelve, and I could barely look her in the eye she seemed so pretty. And because the only thing I really truly loved was the New York Yankees.) But here’s the thing: Because no one talked about any of this, we all conducted this part of our lives in secret. We lied to our parents; we drove around town at all hours of the night, slept on beaches, had sex on golf courses. We climbed out of late-night windows, adventuring farther and farther from home. In retrospect, some of this was really stupid and dangerous.

Maybe you know already what I’m about to say, but wanting to have sex—and having it—is something we hope you won’t hide. Because you don’t need to. Blessed with parental spidey senses, we’ll have a feeling about it, even if you don’t think we do. And if you want help sorting any of it—the sex part, the love part, the confusion part—we’re here to be some small part of the conversation. Think of us as your emotional ATM—with endless funds.

And this gets to what I really want to say, why I’m writing this in the first place: that part about being a good lover. I can see you wrinkling your nose. Oh god, no, what does that mean? And: I hope he’s not about to explain it. Well, yes, I am. I’ll spare you the Kama Sutra, but if for most of us sex is an expression of love, be a good lover. We want you to be a good lover when you meet someone special someday, to respect and ask questions, to try to know her or him before you know them. Pleasure—giving it, both physically and spiritually—is an important part of this, but so are care, curiosity, constancy, generosity, and shared joy.

We want you to be a good lover, because you matter to a lot of people already, and you’re going to matter to a lot more as your circles grow, and this love of yours—whatever form it takes—matters. How you express it matters. It’s contagious. Being a good lover is of course bigger than being some Don Juan. (Please don’t be a Don Juan!) It’s bigger than intimacy with just one person (though it may begin there). We hope that what you learn from being intimate with someone makes you a better lover of all of your friends and a better lover of the books you read and the games you play. Be a good lover of traffic jams and sudden rainstorms. Be a good lover of the earth itself, because it depends on you now. Take yourself out into the mountains and the surf, to find if you can hear anything that sounds like God. Be a good lover of your dog, too, which will say every last thing about you. Most of all, be a good lover of your family, your family-to-be someday in the future, which will appear as if by some sort of god-magic, as well as us, your family right here: of your brother and sister, who adore you, and of your parents, because we will make mistakes out of our love for you, too. When we’re doddering and old, be a good lover of our frailties—of our repeating stories and our slow-on-the-uptake—knowing they’ll be yours some day.

Maybe this letter is partly a goodbye to the boy you are, though he’ll be right there, inside you, all along, too. There’s a great adventure ahead of you, which includes food and travel, big ideas and, yes, sex. When you leave, bring your books and a dog. Be a good lover to the strangers you meet. We’ll have breakfast ready when you come back, and please, please do. We can’t wait to see who you’ve become, though we already have a good inkling about you, Pickle, just by the way you cuddle with your bear at night.

Love, Dad