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Personal Essay: Mothering in the Age of Extinction

Personal Essay: Mothering in the Age of Extinction

I am sitting in a hotel room in D.C., still in bed under the covers at noon, unable to move until I absolutely have to for a work thing, cycling through the catalogue of losses: sea turtles, because of the sand getting too hot; most birds, forced to shift their habitats and migratory patterns to find suitable food or temperatures, are fucked; coral, bleached and drab; California…I probably shouldn't live there for much longer. Then I get a call from my husband and the kids: "Hi mom, I miss you!" the littlest one says. "Mom, why do you have to go away for work?" his older brother chimes in.

Work trips are usually a slight respite from the carrying of immediate and long-term concerns at the same time, all the time. At home, it's relentless: my three-year-old tells me with absolute glee that he can't wait to be four and I think about how much less habitable the Earth is getting every year; my seven-year-old asks for a snack, and then peppers me with questions about what college will be like, and I think of the Greenland ice sheet melting and wonder, with a lump in my throat, if college will even be a thing when he's older, while also being careful not to give him too many junk snacks.

I am worrying about their present and their future, whether I'm doing enough for them and enough for humans, and it fills me with both grief and white-hot rage. Parents have always worried about their kids’ futures and presents at the same time, and that goes double for mothers who are marginalized in any additional way. Wearing climate goggles is a new version of this special fear, performing hope when you feel terror, preparing your kids for the worst without letting on too much. Trying to make them resilient but not bitter, prepared but not terrified.

Lately I've had a lot of conversations with my friends about their decisions to have or not have kids. Mostly they fall into the latter camp. Often because of climate change. They either don't want to contribute to it or wouldn't want to subject their kids to a future that has already been darkened for them. In either case, as my friend Anna Jane put it recently, "It pisses me off that climate change even comes into the decision-making around that at all."

Mom friends, meanwhile, share their climate grief with me, their full-body anxiety. The dread they feel for their kids' futures, a weird and profoundly sad thing for a mother to feel, looking into the face of a cheery five-year-old. The low-level panic that hums through their bodies while doing normal everyday things like packing lunches and planning play dates, the sudden realization as they're stressing about balancing work and parenting that things are about to get so much worse as "work-life balance” morphs into "work-survival balance.”

Sometimes I wish I'd made a different decision on the kid front; I've been a climate reporter for 20 years, I knew the score. What was I thinking? But it's also mostly the images of my kids (and yours) embroiled in resource wars, losing their innocence far too young, wearing gas masks to high school (because of the fires, duh), and an accompanying sense of righteous indignation on their behalf that propels my work on the subject.


If that conjures up images of Sarah Palin and her "hockey mom" schtick, I get it. So-called "maternalism" has had a long and fraught history. Maternal rhetoric can feel really gross and gendered and filled with expectations forced on female bodies.

But it can also be quite powerful. Mothers have always been key organizers and social justice activists. Maternal rhetoric was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, the abolitionist movement, and more recently, the gun reform movement. What feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins calls "othermothering" and other researchers refer to as "community mothering" has been a powerful part of organizing in Black communities. The idea is that you nurture not only your own children or family members, but also the community around you—it isn’t done exclusively by women, although it often has been. Anthropologists like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy have seen this approach across multiple communities, and in fact Hrdy credits it with the human brain evolving toward emotional intelligence.

In many marginalized communities, "community mothers" are the ones leading the charge to clean up the water, get transit working, hold police accountable, and protect and care for their neighbors – actions that regularly lead to major statewide and even nationwide shifts. So much so that Collins rails at some of the critiques mainstream feminists have leveled at maternal activism. “This type of thinking sets up a hierarchy of feminisms, assigns the type engaged in by U.S. Black women and women in Africa a secondary status, and fails to recognize motherhood as a symbol of power,” Collins writes in Black Feminist Thought: “Instead, the activist mothering associated with Black women’s community work becomes portrayed as a ‘politically immature’ vehicle claimed by women who fail to develop a so-called radical analysis of the family as the site of oppression similar to that advanced within Western feminism.”

Second wave white feminists often rejected motherhood as a patriarchal institution that oppressed women; it was a key part of the rift between white women and women of color in the feminist movement. The civil rights movement, on the other hand, embraced and harnessed the maternal; organizers there understood that while modern society may use the role of mother to punish women for seeking independence, that was not driven by motherhood but by patriarchy, and capitalism, which desperately needs care work to remain free labor. Perhaps this is yet another lesson the climate movement could and should learn from the civil rights movement. In addition to the ideas that you don't need eternal optimism and hope to fight for what's right, that knowledge and information rarely shift power structures, and that community organizing is a critical (maybe the critical) part of addressing intractable social problems, civil rights organizers understood that mobilizing maternal activism, tapping into the ethic of community mothering, is a powerful tool in the organizing toolbox. It's one that's been completely underutilized in climate. Mostly because anything other than hard data and charts has been avoided by the movement for decades.

But as we collectively begin to acknowledge climate grief and the need to process it, in order to act (thanks in no small part to the work of climate psychology researchers like Renee Lertzman), mothers have often been left out of the conversation. We talk about population, about whether it is or isn't "responsible" to have children in a climate changing world—that conversation comes up every decade or so—but we rarely hear about how today's mothers are processing climate grief for two (or more), or how our panic might be directed toward action. We talk about the youth climate activists, but we rarely hear from the parents who are enabling, and inspiring, their activism, inspired by their own desperation to protect their kids from the worst-case scenario. For the most part, on climate mothers are a wasted resource, and we can't afford to waste anything anymore.


I spend a lot of my time reading the letters of dead men. Men who felt some kind of way about climate change—or "the greenhouse effect" and "global warming" as it was known then—before another guy convinced oil companies and politicians to change it to "climate change," which sounded suitably vague and natural. Letters from scientists sounding the alarm about a catastrophe headed our way, and letters from businessmen warning of a profit catastrophe. “Scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect the global climate,” then Exxon CEO Lee Raymond said in a speech he gave to the American Petroleum Institute’s annual gathering in 1996, nearly 20 years after his own company’s scientists warned that "man can afford 5-10 year time window to establish what must be done. It is premature to limit use of fossil fuels but they should not be encouraged." [emphasis mine]

"Everyone agrees that burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide and that such concentrations in the atmosphere are rising," Raymond said. "But it's a long and dangerous leap to conclude that we should therefore cut fossil fuel use…. I'm not proposing we dismiss the possibility of climate change. But I am asking that we apply common sense to the debate. Many scientists agree there's ample time to better understand climate systems and consider policy options. So there's simply no reason to take drastic action now." This motherfucker.

These speeches and memos infuriate me. And again, I'm reminded of parenthood and its requirement of endless trade-offs, thousands of choices between short-term and long-term benefits. Do I leave my kid sleeping during an unexpected nap, and take advantage of a free hour of work time, but deal with the consequences later when he's up until ten, or wake him up now and deal with his tantrum but get him to bed at a normal time? Do I let the other one stay home from school when he really doesn't feel like going, or insist that he go? Opt out of the work-work-work American thing, or enforce the rules and make sure he can function in the society we live in today? Should I just let him play Roblox for an extra hour on the iPad so my husband and I can have an uninterrupted conversation, or get him off that thing because it turns him into a creep? It's a constant choice between me, my kids, and the greater good. And I almost never feel like I'm making the right decision.

As the climate changes rapidly around us, the decision-making just gets harder. What will actually help them most in the years to come? How do I prepare them for a society that might operate by completely different principles?

Meanwhile, fossil fuel execs are like those shitty parents who always choose their own convenience, and then expect everyone else to accommodate their asshole kid. They have to balance the present and the future, themselves and everyone else in daily decisions too, and they choose short-term gain for themselves every day. And then tell us that we need to make more responsible consumption decisions, that's the real problem. As I write this, Big Oil, who speaks about “simply supplying a demand” has moved into plastic, looking for a new market for its oversupply of natural gas and even crude oil. The industry has even decided to get into the manufacturing of plastic itself, in facilities that belch carbon dioxide.

Here, too, there are parallels. Especially for moms who work in climate. Every day I have to choose between what's best for my own kids—probably more undistracted time with their mother—and what's best for everyone's kids—doing everything I can to ensure a livable planet. What's best for me and what I feel compelled to do for my family and my community and my species and my planet. I spend most of my days looking for ways to tell the story of climate change and why it's more of a threat now than ever, why action is so delayed; hoping to help people understand, process, and get to a point of action; thinking if we can just mobilize at a massive scale in the next few years, maybe just maybe we can avoid global chaos. And for a lot of those hours when I'm worried about humanity, I am shushing or ignoring the little humans who are in my direct charge.

Just before Thanksgiving last year, I had to evacuate my kids during a California wildfire. Rain was predicted the next day, which would help to put out the fire, but I worried if the storm was too intense, it would kick off mudslides. "This is climate change," I thought to myself. Then I was summoned urgently to the bathroom to wipe my three-year-old's butt. I was panicked, because I grew up in California; I know how quickly fires can move, and how little notice they give. But I had to pretend it was no big deal for the kids.

I've always thought community mothering was a cool concept, and have yammered on at more than one person about how it's the approach we should all be taking to both raising children and being responsible members of society. But I'd never really internalized it, never considered "community mother" as a role I myself might play, and I'd still always felt enormous guilt over missing time with my kids, even if I was working on something that felt truly important for the public in general. The increasing urgency of climate change has made it all click.

In a documentary about Dolores Huerta, the legendary organizer who co-founded the United Farm Workers, her kids are very open about the fact that there were times when they were growing up that their mom chose her cause over her children. There's resentment there, but there’s also pride. They talk about how they had to share her with the world, and how as they got older they realized that her work was important to their whole community. Working on climate accountability has helped me crack the work-life-parenting balance: I don't sweat the small stuff, I appreciate every minute I spend with my kids, make a point to hold and cherish these moments before the storm, and see my work for the greater good not as a conflict with motherhood, but as an integral part of it.