Climate Change On Political Change, Climate Change, and the Choice to Not Have Children
My partner and I were trying to have a baby despite our climate fears. Then Trump was elected.
Where were you on Inauguration Day? I was sitting across from James, my husband of thirteen years, the person I’d been looking forward to having a kid with. I told him I wanted to be agile and available: “I don’t know what the next few years are going to require of me”—I meant, in terms of energy, commitment and sacrifice—“but I think it’d be a lot harder to be responsive with a baby.”
Babies, I knew from watching my friends have and raise them, contract your world to their size; they exhaust you, they drain you, they hold you to them. Insofar as you’re available, you’re available to them. It wouldn’t be easy, I thought, but it would be simple: How seductive, to know exactly what I was supposed to do, what my responsibilities were.
Four months later, James and I went to my parents’ house for our family Seder. Everything was in bloom or leafing out as my mom and I walked around the yard together, and every moment was a moment I hadn’t told her yet.
My friend Erika lives at the foot of the Blue Ridge in Virginia with her husband John and their two daughters, six and three, whom they’re homeschooling. They have chickens and rotating vegetable beds and a wood-burning furnace. When I went to visit, we walked into the brushy, thin woods—growing back after clear-cutting—stepped over a red eft in the path and paused under a mossy archway of osage orange trees, where the girls narrated their ongoing game about a society of hunter-gatherers, occasionally looping me or Erika in with a question or a repeated assertion.
Eight years ago Erika and I collaborated on a book of poems, and last year it was published. We made outfits out of garbage to wear while we read from it on a Charlottesville street corner, because the book is about waste—trash, consumption, dehumanization, contempt, overkill. It also ended up being about children: having them, not having them, protecting them, not protecting them. Erika and I didn’t plan that part: It emerged as a property of our collaboration, our digging and scavenging through piles of excess.
Now her kids exist, lively and curious and precocious, with pockets of odd knowledge and free rein of the ground they run on. And after fertility treatments, a ruptured ectopic pregnancy that required emergency surgery, the accelerated thawing of the permafrost, and the first few months of Donald Trump’s presidency, I came to a decision and more or less informed my partner.
He said okay. What else was he going to say?
I know that if I’m serious about it, I should start birth control of some sort. In the days after the election, cis women who could (as far as they knew) get pregnant were urging each other to get IUDs, so that they won’t have to seek abortions in vain if Roe v. Wade is overturned. But I don’t want to get an IUD because by the time it’s time to remove it, I’m not sure there will be enough medical infrastructure left to do it safely. That’s the other thing: It seems likely to me—seemed so even on that day, before the rollbacks on EPA protections and the climate science gag rules and the reopening of the Keystone XL pipeline—that the fragile progress toward using the law to reduce capitalism’s damage to the world was about to be destroyed, along with countless fragile ecosystems, so that a few might profit. I don’t think a child of mine would live to grow up. I don’t think your children will.
But there’s no way to tell a person with a baby, or about to have a baby, why you’ve decided not to have one without sounding like you think they’re a jerk for having one. Two of my friends are pregnant and wildly ambivalent about it. One stated firmly, all throughout the years of our friendship, that she didn’t want children. When she was about to tell me of her pregnancy, she sat me down over weak Indian food with an earnestness that made me think she was going to reveal an affair with my partner or a terminal illness. She was worried about how sad I’d be, and I couldn’t tell her—even though maybe it would have relieved her—that I’d changed my mind. She said, “I can’t imagine raising this child without you,” like she thought I’d abandon her for having something I couldn’t.
“I love you,” I said. “I’m going to be so happy to hang out with you and your kid.”
As for making sure I never have a child only to lose it, I pin my hopes, if that’s what you want to call them, on the organic circumstances that kept us from getting pregnant (until they didn’t) and on the passage of time: I’m thirty-eight. I seem to enjoy betting against myself.
But resolve or no resolve, I still look over at the woman in the coffee shop doing the stand-up-and-sway to sleep her infant and get clogged up in the sinus area. When I interact in public with babies I don’t know, I sometimes worry that they or their parents can smell my yearning and my grieving. That I’m like the witch who bargained for Rapunzel, and took her from the only mother in fairy tale history who hadn’t already died.
On the back deck at my parents’ house, I talked with my dad first, a dry run for telling my mom in the sense that we’ve talked less together about this as a thing he wants. The mugginess from earlier had blown off and the back yard was now cool, now bright. “I get it,” he said. “I get the math you’re doing.” He asked what form I thought the direness would take: “Migrations? Unrest? Panic?” Yeah, panic, I said; and the hoarding of resources and power, even more extreme than now. I worry that if I had a kid, I’d abandon my efforts to counteract those atrocities because, I told my dad, “I would have this one very specific and dependent person who I had to keep alive.”
My mom is a potter. A few years ago, her friend’s husband came to her and commissioned an urn for his wife’s ashes. His wife was then still alive. She would get to see it. My mom had to think of this person, whom she knew, as dead and alive at the same time, and she had to think of herself that way, too.
There have been epochs, and there are still cultures, better at this: the superimposition of the beloved and the corpse, the green meadow and the wasteland. Maybe if the epoch and culture I know best were better at it, we wouldn’t be in this mess, where we’re racing toward the wasteland as fast as we can. Some people even say that it frees them—that being dead-alive favors a state of mind in which no one can take anything from you and in which you can then act without fear.
The rhetoric of “our children’s children” that people use to talk about climate change has infuriated me for years. A woman with a two-year-old in her arms once said to me, “His generation, the younger generation, is gonna be the one that figures out a way to turn the big floating garbage patches into an energy source.”
Whether they talk about future generations as victims or problem-solvers, people who speak this way are expressing a willful ignorance: Climate change and its attendant ills are killing children and adults now, as I write this. Climate change has already racked up death tolls as droughts lead to famines and whole families are swept away in floods.
In the evenings in Virginia and on the train going home, I wrote down what we saw, what we said, what we did. My compulsion came from not knowing how long any of it would last. But anything that would take out the osage orange trees and the phoebes and the swan’s-neck moss would also take out anyone who might read the record I was keeping.
I hadn’t wanted to visit Erika, to put in the work to make writing and publishing seem like a big deal when it felt like the smallest deal in the world in light of escalating brutalization and exploitation. All the essays that came out after the election about how important writing is, “now more than ever,” filled me with distaste and distrust. But my time with Erika—reading from our book, planning our unofficial busking performance, talking with her about the economics of natural gas leases in the town she’s from and her difficulty in discussing politics with her husband—was good time, both nourishing and complicated.
Particularly, Erika’s conscious presence with her children—the result of many micro-decisions she’s built up over years into practices consistent with her priorities, her promises to herself—puts me to shame. I’m less calm than that, less fair, more self-aggrandizing and less patient with almost everyone, including myself. I can see the way their family creates and recreates an ecosystem of movement, so that even when they’re adversaries, they’re part of the same system. And watching her daughters learn and explore on their own terms made me feel more generous toward their family’s life as they’re choosing, day by day, to live it.
One of the thrills of having a kid, one thing I was looking forward to, was getting excited with them about the nonhuman world. Erika and her daughters and I all stopped to stare at the red eft, whatever the eft thought about it. My own family—the family I grew up in—points things out to each other in the woods and on the street, a legacy of noticing and an ongoing pleasure. My partner and I do this together, too. There’s no earthly reason why I can’t do it with other adults, or other people’s kids, while there are still earthly things, nonhuman people, relationships to exclaim over.
My mom walked over to her kitchen window, saying, “Kate, look.” At first I thought she was pointing at something outside, but no, it was a slender, delicate-winged insect, one that neither of us recognized, resting on the frame.
Climate change is a future thought, the way human people talk about it, the way human scientists write about it. Recently, though, scientists have become more and more willing to use the past tense: The river moved. Climate change moved the river. Climate change cradled the ticks, woke the pollinators out of step with the flowers, froze off the fruit trees, held back the rain.
Children too are a future thought, the body’s vote of confidence. Of those people who become parents, some of them fight tyranny in many forms and nourish all the people around them—not just their own child—with a fierceness far beyond anything I’ve done so far or may ever do. They live in the presents, the presences, of those babies as they try to bring life into a livable condition. At a house party held by climate and reproductive justice group Conceivable Future, my friend L, who is Black, said that they thought giving a home and life to a Black baby felt like an act of defiant survival.
L is an artist who makes, among other things, time capsules for the year 3000. Often their visual and performative stories are stories of diaspora, of Black displacement and survival, of leaving the world behind: “My work is an attempt to both connect to and heal the past,” they wrote, “[and] process current events that threaten me and my community’s future . . . by creating an ideal future for myself and projecting that into a wider world where Blackness not only survives but thrives.” They talked to me recently over brunch about wanting to interview their grandmother, a teacher for many years and a woman of stories.
Together, we’ve led workshops that use collaborative art-making, discussion and reflection to imagine tools for livable futures. L is quite a bit younger than I am, and says that if they have children at all, it would probably be through adoption, a long way down the line. Once again I’m visited by a kind of double exposure: my present pleasure in listening to a smart friend while eating together, and the desire to say to that friend, over our plates, that there is no line.
One reason I didn’t want to tell my mom about James’s and my decision not to have children is that I didn’t want to tell her that I’d given up on the future. But who am I to set myself up as a prophet, even a failed one?
Between telling my dad and telling my mom, James spoke about his unease with knowing something our families didn’t: “They’re still going off the last information,” he said, remembering when we were trying to conceive and disappointed that we couldn’t. I felt this, too, like a lie of omission. We were letting them sorrow for us when they didn’t need to be, or when they could be sorrowing about something so much worse.
I said to James, “I still feel like it’s the right decision, but I don’t want to just ride over the top of you about it.”
He said he didn’t think I was. I asked if it made him sad. “Sometimes I get a little sad,” he said.
We were lying on the futon in my sister’s old room in the early afternoon, before the Seder. Passover is one of the only Jewish holidays my family celebrates, and I love it for the adaptability within its insistence on continuity, on the necessity and sufficiency of telling the story. We always say who we miss, and this year, I spoke about Olga, my grandfather’s first cousin, who died at the age of one hundred a few months ago. Nearly half my life ago, I interviewed her and her older sister Esther about their lives. An arrogant twenty-one-year-old, I thought I knew what I was asking them to do. I didn’t.
They told me stories they preferred not to talk about, and though there were silences and evasions and injunctions not to write things down, they offered me many: the story of the day their mother disappeared; the story of the day the Nazi officer came to the door and gave Esther—standing there with her daughter in her arms—twenty-four hours to run; the story of the shelter Olga found in a convent.
“Let’s remember our own capacity for generosity,” I said to my family in the present, at our Seder table, “and our ability to provide shelter.”
I no longer think that telling the story, or any story, is sufficient. I want to be useful, active, able to take risks—to block pipeline construction with my physical presence, to house people whose lives new laws, or renewed lawlessness, threaten—and a child would make that harder. But press on the resolve, scratch it: How useful am I now? I have no child now; if I were serious, wouldn’t I already be doing more? The absence of a responsibility that I already don’t have isn’t, by itself, going to make me any freer or braver or wiser. We all want what we’re already doing, or were going to do anyway, to be the right thing to do.
When you keep a record in and for the present, you’re etching the moment into yourself more firmly. You’re making it part of you for the nearest of futures, the very next moment: you’re living in it a little more. Whatever writing does for the person who reads it, it asks the writer to pay this kind of attention, full and cutting: to weigh and acknowledge both importance and evanescence, to make not a promise but an offering.
When you learn by acting in the present, by planting bulbs that don’t come up, by reading books about the Triassic period from the library, by climbing trees and asking questions and making up stories, you’re learning to know and trust yourself through doing and feeling. If it later helps you to earn a living, or pursue a course of study, or be a better parent, spouse, friend, citizen, that’s a bonus. And if you die before that happens, you won’t have damped down all the years of your life in compliance with a future someone else told you was desirable.
My mom and I sat next to each other on my parents’ sun porch, close together with her arms around me: I could feel her skin, her potter’s muscles. “We’ve decided to stop trying,” I said. “It doesn’t feel like the right place for our efforts right now. And we want to be able to respond to everything else that’s going on.”
I repeated some of what I’d said to James in the beginning, and some of what I’d said to my dad earlier in the day. Outside, the chickadees went back and forth. My mom is losing some of her hearing, but she can still hear the sound their wings make going by.
“Thank you for telling me,” she said. “I always want you to tell me things.” She said we were making “a very understandable, well-grounded decision,” holding me like I was still her baby.
“I‘ve been worried,” she said. “All these babies”—my cousin and his partner were at our Seder with their one-year-old—“and I’m thinking, ‘Is Kate sad about this?’ My friend Karen was worried about talking to me about her new grandchild, that I’d be jealous or something. Maybe I was for a little while, but it’s really not anything.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I said.
“You’re not a failure,” she said. “This isn’t a failure.”
We were looking out the window at the cherry and peach trees she planted, and the crows that have lived there for many crow and human generations. My sisters and I grew up in this house, and my parents have lived there for thirty years. “I really want you to be able to stay,” I said, meaning as they get older. We picked up the conversation we’d started about a year back, about their love for their friends and the place they’ve made their home, their fears about getting frailer and needing more from others—how they could stay, what might make them leave. We all have some number of years to live.