For my entire life, I have been an environmentalist. As a child eager to save the whales and pick up litter from the park, as a teen lobbying for the end of garbage incineration and boycotting aerosol hairsprays, as a young adult awed by the EarthFirst! rallies I attended to save the precious old growth redwoods. Long before “global warming” entered common language as a distant and existential threat, I cared – deeply and passionately and often despairingly – about the fate of all the planet’s living beings.
For my entire life, I have always wanted to be a mother – as a child playing with the younger ones in the neighborhood, as a babysitter in high school, a nanny in college, at my first real job as a daycare provider, and in my career as a midwife and child therapist. I have always loved, deeply and passionately, the art of nurturing our young ones. And I longed for, and for many years struggled to, have a child of my own.
Often these two desires, these two equally vital aspects of my essence, have seemed incompatible with each other. In my 20s, contemplating population overgrowth and the unequal distribution of resources, I would argue with my then-fiancé that we were still obliged to procreate, because the world could ill afford to have those of us who cared about the planet breed ourselves out of existence. This was, I realize, a self-centered, hubristic argument. It was both an intellectual justification for my biological drive to have a baby, and a re-working of the age old human fallacy that one’s own cultural legacy is somehow more deserving of preservation than others.
But neither of those competing desires ever waivered. And by my 30s I was dreaming of and envisioning the child I would someday carry, nurture, and imbue with the love of nature and all living beings that I myself embraced.
When she finally came into the world, she was exactly the person I had been imagining. My little girl. The one who not only climbs trees with abandon, but sings to honor them, whispers her hurts to them, and is comforted by their embrace. The one who rescues even mosquitoes and ants when they invade indoor space, and argues vehemently with anyone, adult or child, who questions the worth of a single tiny insect life. The one whose collection of saved seeds began in preschool, who tends flowers with exquisite care and shrieks with delight when the first petals peel back from the buds, and then brightens the house with professional quality bouquets all spring long.
She loves nature and all living beings with a depth and a passion far beyond anything I could have imagined. Did I make her this way? A product of the many mindful moments we have spent together since her infancy, quietly observing the bees about their business in the flowers, listening to the soft ancient hum of the old growth groves, or pausing our joyful splashing in the river to watch an otter float by or an osprey take flight? Or did she come to me this way? Here now because my youthful hubris had an edge of truth to it: the world needs an abundance of people who care profoundly about the planet, and so these souls are arriving.
I do believe that we are born when we are meant to be born, that we are each here for a reason, and have a unique journey to complete, a part to play in the great wholeness that is this living universe. It is a helpful belief system. It spares me from the guilt that could swallow me whole and destroy me, if I let it, for bringing her into this world.
Not, as I would have assumed in my 20s, because there are already too many people and we, as middle class Americans, use way too many resources – though both of these things remain absolute truth. But today my guilt is not for the world but for her. This beautiful being who loves all life so profoundly, arrived in time to witness its destruction to an extent and intensity that none of us can even begin to fathom.
A child on the cusp of the climate crisis.
She will never ponder the distant and existential threat as I did in my youth. She is already living it. Four of her first six years have included months in N-95 masks; smoke days are as common a reason to hunker down indoors as rainy days used to be. Every year she watches me pack our go-bags and line up our boxes of photographs by the garage door. Twice she has had to evacuate, once in the middle of the night, once for weeks before the smoke damage cleared. When she catches sight of a fire truck moving through town she turns to me, worried, and asks “why do there have to be fires every year?”
She will be 7 soon. And all too soon she will begin to know the answer to that question. Oh, little one, because your elders and ancestors made it that way. Because your generation will spend a lifetime paying for our foolishness, and still the debt will barely have begun to be repaid.
I must admit that, even though I have known this was coming for as long as I can remember, even though I have spent my entire adult life telling anyone who would listen that this industrial growth society is so unsustainable that we are sure to experience its collapse… Still, I always imagined we’d have a few more easy years. I didn’t expect she’d come of age with the climate crisis defining the cycles of her earliest seasons, its consequences etched into her first conscious memories. If I had known, would I have invited her in so willingly?
We are here together now. And the enormity of my two incompatible desires has become the defining force of my motherhood. How do I navigate the despair, not only of witnessing redwood fronds browning in drought and oak forests wiped out by wildfire, but of knowing this is only the beginning of the losses my child will suffer, the first of countless living beings she will be left to grieve? How do I keep being not just strong for her, but wise for her, and righteous? How do I model right action when my own stress response system is more and more gravely impacted with each passing fire filled year?
I don’t know. But I am committed to being on the side of the life force in this unfolding chaos. An agent of the Great Turning, raising a fellow warrior/protector for all the living beings of this planet. And so I will continue giving my heart and soul towards finding out.