Generations to Come: Mother’s Day Reflections on the Future

1013976.largeMy son and his girlfriend say they’re going to have a pig instead of a child.  They mean that literally—they’ve fallen in love with the idea of small pet pigs—and they’ve thought long and hard about the issue of whether or not to bring a child into this world.  Both confess to strong maternal/paternal inclinations, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they would make wonderful parents.

But unlike most people, they are hyper-aware of the troubled times humanity is moving into, as we sail along on our spaceship Earth.

“There’s no future for a child today,” my son says with resignation, and goes back to talking about the virtues of pet pigs, leaving me to sadly ponder the prospect of a piglet for a granddaughter.

When I was their age, in my early twenties, I reached for motherhood as a flower reaches toward the sun.  It was only a question of finding the right partner to make a baby with, and I put quite a bit of energy and focus into that search.  I married at 26 and had my first child at 30, the second at 36.  My role as a mother has determined my life choices ever since.

If I had been thinking as rationally as my son and his girlfriend, well, he might never have been born.  By 1992, his birth year, things were already looking grim, though we were all much less aware of the dark trends at work because the feel-good American media filtered out so much.

Now, social media does an incredible job of keeping us constantly informed about everything that’s going on in our world.

A granddaughter is born and Facebook lights up with pictures and congratulations.  Canada starts its seal hunt, and photos of bloody baby seals flood the web, with boos and hisses and calls for change.

When schoolgirls are abducted in Nigeria, or a boatload of teenagers drown in a sinking ferry, or thousands of people die in a landslide, we hear about it instantly, and as instinctively empathetic humans, we sense another portion of our emotional landscape darkening with grief.

It’s true that there is a lot of sadness, fear, pain and darkness in our world today.  It’s true that the future of human civilization as we know it is highly uncertain.  It’s true that we live in transition times.

But as I look around me on this sunny Mother’s Day morning and hear the birds singing and working busily on their nests in the trees around my house, I know it is far too soon to give up on our future.

Every living being in the ecological web of this planet reaches instinctively for the sun and dedicates itself to providing the ground for the next generation to stand on.

I understand that my son is acting out of an altruistic heroism when he thinks about renouncing fatherhood.  He has always wanted to be a father, and known he’d be a good one: he has been a wonderful older brother, and as a teenager quickly became a beloved camp counselor and mentor to younger kids.  He has an easy, charismatic way with children, and as a father he’d raise just the kind of bright, secure, grounded children that will be needed to lead humanity through the transitions ahead.

OK, so in part I just would much rather have a baby than a piglet for a grandchild.  But I also believe that we must resist the tendency to get so caught up in all the negative news that we forget to simply look around and remember that the sun is still shining, the leaves are unfurling, the birds are singing and a new day is here, full of untapped potential.

Maybe the question we need to be asking ourselves is not only “what will we do with our own precious lives,” but “what will we do for the lives of those precious children—of all species—to come?”  How can we spend our days wisely working to help our ever-loving Mother Earth continue providing the nurturing support she has always offered freely to all of her children?

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Bringing home the bacon and frying it up too: homage to mother-work

Jenny Laird reading on opening night of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

Jenny Laird reading on opening night of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

The theme of last Saturday’s opening night event at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others, was “What do mothers make?”

The answers provided by the evening’s presenters–all women at various stages of their lives–were various, but there was a common theme: mothers make families, mothers make relationships, mothers make community.

Historically, in most societies this has been the primary role given to women—to serve as the emotional heart of families, to make the meals and make the homes that lead to strong, centered communities.

These days, in American society at least, women are expected to do all this and also be successful in their professional lives.  Only the wealthiest American families can afford to have a stay-at-home parent.

In most households I know, especially among people at mid-life or younger, both parents are working hard at their jobs and also trying to sustain a healthy home life.  And in most families I know, it still falls disproportionately to women to keep those home fires banked and burning bright.

We live in a society that measures personal success by income, but puts no monetary value on homemaking, parenting and elder care.

So all those hours that women put in to keeping our families and communities strong and healthy “don’t count.”  The nation sends a pretty clear message through our Social Security retirement system, for example, telling parents and caregivers that the work we do in our homes is an unacknowledged and unrewarded second shift.

Erika Nelson, Nichole Dupont and Michelle Gillett were among those who read work responding to the question posed by host Suzi Banks Baum, "What do mothers make?"

Erika Nelson, Nichole Dupont and Michelle Gillett were among those who read work responding to the question posed by host Suzi Banks Baum, “What do mothers make?”

A recent Pew study showed that 40% of all American households with children under 18 are now headed by women who are the sole or primary breadwinners for the family.  These women are bringing home the bacon and frying it up for their families—and arranging childcare, helping with homework, and doing all the regular home maintenance too, after their “work day” is done.

And then we wonder why so many children and teenagers are struggling with mental health, including ADD, eating disorders, addictions of all kinds, depression and lack of motivation.  We wonder why women are still not gaining equal representation at the highest levels of politics and business.  We wonder why so many women step off the leadership track in their thirties, when the mothering pressure is greatest, or “opt” to choose career paths that give them some precious flex-time.

It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at a society that squeezes everything it can out of mothers as workers and doesn’t recognize or value parenting and homemaking as the essential work it is.  Is this really the kind of society we want to call home?

I end with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Aurora Levins Morales:

“Ours was the work they decided to call unwork.”

Learning from mass murder: we must pay attention to our young men

If this past week had been written up as a movie script, I would have rejected it as totally over-the-top, beyond belief.

Two young Chechen immigrants successfully wreak mayhem and turn a city upside down with their improvised explosive devices, in the very same week that the U.S. Senate Republicans successfully beat back a bill designed to stiffen background checks for gun purchases.

Gabrielle Giffords

Gabrielle Giffords

The beautiful, brave Gabrielle Giffords publishes an impassioned piece in The New York Times, condemning the cowardly Senators who put the interests of the National Rifle Association over and above the interests of the American people.

Meanwhile, down in Texas, an explosion in a chemical fertilizer factory flattened a whole neighborhood, killing at least 15 people and injuring more than 200.  The cause of the blast is still unknown.

And the whole middle section of the country was inundated by heavy rains, storms and severe floods.

Fire, air, earth and water, all the elements seem to be drawn into an intensified dance these days, speeded up along with the 24-hour news cycle.

As the bizarre manhunt for the two Chechen bombers unfolded, and the whole country went into virtual “lockdown” in sympathy with the people of Boston and eastern Massachusetts, it felt like we were suddenly waking up to find ourselves in Baghdad.  Things like that don’t happen here.

Until they do.

boston-bomber-suspect-dzhokhar-tsarnaev I don’t have TV in the house, so I got most of my information on the situation in Boston from print media and radio.  But even the few pictures I saw were enough to convey the sense that the official response to these boys’ stupid act of random violence was hugely disproportionate.

Against a lone 19-year-old kid, thousands of law enforcement officers of every stripe were deployed, in full riot gear, toting rifles, traveling around the deserted streets in armored vehicles.

The kid was presumed to be “extremely dangerous.”

How dangerous could one kid be?

I understand that the concern was that he might have had a bomb or a suicide vest that he could detonate at the very end.

But that is not the way the story went.  In the end, he came out with his hands up, just one stupid, confused kid who surrendered to the police without a peep.

His life is over.

Ours will go on.

In the wake of this latest act of violence within our own borders, we need to take a good hard look at the role of the U.S. as a fomenter of violence, both at home and abroad.

Unknown-1 Not only is the U.S. the largest exporter of arms and weaponry in the world, but we are also the biggest developer of violent video games worldwide, the ones I am betting those Chechen boys loved to play.

Why should we expect that we can promote violence by all kinds of channels, and remain immune to it within our own borders?

What goes around comes around.

If we were serious about wanting peace and security, we would start by radically shifting our focus from creating implements of destruction—be they chemical fertilizers, assault weapons or games that encourage violence—to waging peace.

Waging peace—what would that look like?

One of the most urgent tasks is to change the way young men are socialized.

Let us not for a moment forget that every single act of mass violence that has taken place here in the U.S.—every single mass shooting, every single bombing—has been the work of young men.

Young men are do-ers.  They have heroic dreams—and in Western culture, it’s the young men who can slay the dragon or vanquish the ogre who are considered heroic.

We can honor and nourish that warrior spirit in our young men in ways that celebrate heroes who use their strength and talents productively, to safeguard ordinary people.

I suspect that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is someone who would have made an excellent warrior for good.  He was obviously smart, resourceful and could handle himself well under great pressure.

For reasons as yet unknown, he–like Newtown gunman Adam Lanza, Norway gunman Anders Breivik, Aurora, Colorado gunman James Holmes and so many other young men whose names stand for infamous mass murders—chose to walk on the dark side.

We need to be paying attention to the accelerating rate of these crimes.  They are a sign of the dark times we are living through.

Those of us who believe in peace must recommit ourselves to raising our own internal lights higher, beacons for others to rally around.  Those of us who have the great responsibility of raising the next generation of young men—parents, teachers, employers, mentors—must recognize the tremendous importance of our task.

In the past thirty years, there has been a great deal of attention paid to rethinking the way we socialize young women.  This is definitely essential work.  But we forget about our young men at our own peril.

Having it all: my own story

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

Today marks a milestone for me professionally: 18 years after earning my doctorate in Comparative Literature, after a demanding year-long evaluation process, I have finally been granted a ten-year contract, the closest thing to tenure at my institution.

Why did it take me so long, despite the fact that I had all the requisite publishing and service work and teaching excellence?

Two reasons.

One, I stepped off the tenure track right out of grad school to prioritize the needs of my two sons, the first born two years before I finished my Ph.D., the second six years later.   I chose to work part-time in those early parenting years, not realizing how hard it would be to get back on the fulltime track.

Two, once it became apparent to me that simply moving from part-time to fulltime at my home institution would be difficult, I accepted a lucrative lecturer position at a nearby state university, and did both—two-thirds time at the small liberal arts college, half time at the university—for nine years, while also raising my sons, publishing two edited collections, and directing various major conferences.

Last year the state funding dried up so I lost my second job; and at the same time I finally got a green light to go for that ten-year contract at my primary institution.

It’s still officially only two-thirds time, a fact that may surprise many who work with me, as I have actually taught fulltime every semester for the past three years, and often in the years before that, in addition to carrying a more than full load of committee and service work of all kinds.

If I were a man, would things be different?

Yes, I think so. I would probably have let my kids’ mother make the professional sacrifices, allowing me to go full throttle towards a tenure track position right out of grad school.  As a man, I would probably have been a better negotiator, able to make a persuasive case for why I should be earning a fulltime salary for the important work I put in for my institution.  I might have spent less time cooking dinners and reading bedtime stories, and more time writing that Important Book.

I don’t want this to be true.  I want parents of both genders to be equally likely to intensively parent, write great books or play the cut-throat negotiator.

But in my own case, I know that my gender did matter.  I was raised by a mother who put her parenting role first, and a father who focused primarily on professional success.  Put together, they made for a stellar parenting team.  But I certainly did absorb the gendered messages from them: a mother’s first obligation is to her children, while fathers are out bringing home the bacon.

The problem is that I have needed to be both mother and father to my children, in the sense of parenting AND bringing home the bacon, and there are only so many hours in the day, only so much of me to go around.

I feel fortunate to have chosen a field that gave me enough flex-time to approach something like “having it all”: doing a good job at home as well as at work.  I do not take it for granted, and firmly believe that this precious scenario should be the norm rather than the exception–for the health of our kids, their parents and our society as a whole.

Work-life balance is not just a women’s issue

Anne Marie Slaughter

I decided to bite my tongue and wait to see the reaction to the recent Atlantic Monthly cover story by Anne Marie Slaughter on women and the work-life balance—I knew as soon as I started reading it that it would set off a firestorm of commentary, and I have not been disappointed.

Slaughter, in case you have not been following this story, is a Princeton University professor and dean, who was drafted into the State Department by Hillary Clinton and worked there for two stressful years.  She wrote the article after returning to the snug harbor of Princeton, where, thanks to the flex time allowed by the higher ranks of academia, she is far better able to manage her professional and family commitments.

Slaughter’s main point in writing seems to be that our society needs to adapt itself better to the needs of working women. She calls for more women to get into leadership positions in business and government, and make workplace and policy changes that will make parenting and working outside the home more manageable.

Lori Gottleib, in a blog post on the Atlantic site, has little patience for Slaughter’s hand-wringing over the travails of long hours outside the home.

“The real problem here isn’t about women and their options,” she says. “The real problem is that technology has made it possible to work 24/7, so that the boundary between work and our personal lives has disappeared. Our cubicles are in our pockets, at the dinner table, next to our beds and even next to our children’s beds as we’re tucking them in. In many households, one income isn’t enough, and both men and women have to work long hours — longer hours than ever before — to make ends meet…. The problem here is that many people work too much — not just women, and not just parents.”

Hallelujah and amen to that, Lori!

For myself, I know the only way I can give myself some true down time is to get myself to a place where there is no wireless and no way to plug in my computer—ie, camping, hiking or at the beach—although even there I’ve caught myself using my iPhone to check messages or text people on the fly.  It’s been years—YEARS—since I’ve been unplugged for more than a day.

I can imagine a scenario where our society benevolently decides to use technology to allow more people to work from home, which will make things easier for parents in some ways, but will result in all of us becoming wired-in cogs in the capitalist machine, never really getting any time to ourselves unless we are able to set our own firm boundaries, something that most of us have trouble doing.

I agree with Professor Slaughter that family-friendly workplace policies are needed. I especially appreciated her anecdote about how when she was Dean at Princeton she always made a point of announcing at faculty meetings that she had to go home to have dinner with her family, to give other women permission to do the same without guilt or embarrassment.

But I share Lori Gottlieb’s sense that for most of us parents, the pressures of making a living are simply getting to be inhuman.

At the Strategies for a New Economy conference I attended a few weeks ago, several sessions dealt with the possibility of transitioning to a shorter work week.  This was the focus of a 2010 report by the New Economics Foundation, which argues for a 21-hour work week.  “There is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered ‘normal’” working hours today,” the authors write. “Time, like work, has become commodified – a recent legacy of industrial capitalism. Yet the logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions, where instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures, as well as opportunities. The challenge is to break the power of the old industrial clock without adding new pressures, and to free up time to live sustainable lives.”

The report’s authors suggest that “to meet the challenge, we must change the way we value paid and unpaid work. For example, if the average time devoted to unpaid housework and childcare in Britain in 2005 were valued in terms of the minimum wage, it would be worth the equivalent of 21 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product.”

Imagine if we could invent a society where housework and childcare actually “counted” for something in real economic terms?

Imagine if parents were actually rewarded for spending quality time with their children, for doing all the time-intensive work it takes to raise healthy, productive, happy kids who will become healthy, productive, happy adults?

What if we spent less money on anti-depressants, stimulants and treadmills, and instead gave ourselves room to breathe, and time to relax?

No society can hope to survive without the good work being done by mothers and fathers, unpaid and unsung, day and after day and year after year.

This should not be just a women’s issue.  If more fathers got involved in the day-to-day nitty-gritty of parenting—unglamorous and tedious as it sometimes can be—there would be twice as much impetus to make the changes Slaughter is calling for.

How about it, Dads?

Celebrating the DIY Mom on Mother’s Day

Although I feel it’s my duty to write a celebration of mothers on Mother’s Day, every time I think about what I might write for this post, all that comes up in my mind is a kind of lament.

Becoming a mother was definitely the best thing I’ve done in my life.  When I look at my two big, handsome, talented boys, I am thrilled beyond measure with the knowledge that I nurtured them in my womb for nine months, I gave birth to them, I did all the loving labor a mother must do to successfully bring children up from helpless infants to strong, independent young men.

My boys setting sail

So where does the lament come in?

Shift to a small, smothered voice: I just wish I hadn’t had to do so much of it all by myself.

I suppose I am writing the lament of the single mom, or the “do-it-all” mom, the mom who doesn’t get much help or support from her partner in bringing up baby.

Even when I was married, I did the lioness’s share of the household and child care labor, while also bringing home a paycheck that grew in time to be the larger portion of the family bacon.

My marriage foundered on my partner’s inflexibility when it came to the idea of a man doing housework, and my exhaustion and resentment over having to do it all.

In addition to working two demanding jobs for nine years straight, while also publishing two books and organizing a major annual conference and doing all the other extra labor of being a fulltime academic, I also did all the shopping, cooking, laundry, cleaning and yard work; all the supervising of homework and staying involved with my children’s schools through parent-teacher meetings, volunteer work and car pooling; I made sure all the medical appointments were taken care of, I did all the bill-paying and taxes, and if there was anything left over for a small vacation or a purchase for the house, I handled that too.

I am sure this is sounding very familiar to all those single and DIY moms out there, right?  We know the list could go on and on.

My own mom did all that household stuff too, but without the added pressure of bringing home the paycheck.

It’s probably my traditional upbringing, where my dad went out to earn the money and my mom stayed home to run a smooth, highly functioning household and do her creative work on the side, that makes me feel like having to play both roles myself is somehow too much.

I should be able to do it all with grace and good cheer, without getting crabby with my children or frustrated when things don’t go quite as planned.

That’s what a mother does, right?

At least I can take some comfort in knowing I am not alone.

There were some 10 million single moms in the U.S. as of 2010, and the number keeps climbing.

This Mother’s Day, I want to give a big shout-out to all of us single moms, and the DIY moms who may someday decide that enough is enough, and go down the single mom route.

We need to keep our chins up and not let the pressures, obligations and yes, sacrifices of our position get us down.

We have to just do our best, and not beat ourselves up when we get overwhelmed.

We must remind ourselves that we are doing the most important work in this nation, bringing up the next generation to take their place responsibly and soberly in the difficult social and environmental landscape we must confront together.

I love this picture of me because I look the way I feel: as weathered, but as solid, as the rock behind me

No More Leave it to Beaver

In the lively “Room for Debate” series in this week’s New York Times, provocatively entitled “Motherhood vs. Feminism,” the piece I like best is the one by Annie Urban, who reminds us that “it’s about parenting, not mothering.”

“Too often the discussion about women’s choices (stay at home, go back to work) ignores the role of fathers. To achieve meaningful equality, we need to push for a society that values fathers who strike a balance between their career and their family life too. Women shouldn’t have to be equally uninvolved parents to reach their goals; they should be able to ask their spouses to step up too.”

Hear hear, Annie!

Amazingly, she was the only one of the seven women columnists commenting on Elisabeth Badinter’s slamming indictment of “attachment mothering” who thought to look to the fathers.

Is it because for the six other women, the fathers are so absent from the parenting landscape that their input is immaterial?

Erica Jong, who describes herself as a “zipless gran,” is the only one to point out that the intensive, at-home parenting required of the “attachment” model “takes resources”: “An affluent mom who doesn’t need to earn can afford co-sleeping, making pure food, using cloth diapers and being perfectly ecological,” Jong rightly observes.

She doesn’t say, but it’s easy to assume, that such a mom is supported by a hardworking spouse.  The unspoken assumption about fathers, unchanged since the Leave it to Beaver days, rears its head: the primary function of a father is to pull in the bucks.

But times have changed. For mothers who must work to keep our kids in food and shelter, short-cuts are necessary, and juggling too many responsibilities becomes a fine art. Should I miss the cocktail party after work today, where all the important networking takes place, or should I pick my kid up from day care in time for dinner and a relaxed bedtime story?

How about calling dad to pitch in here? Why can’t he do the bedtime story so mom can go to her cocktail party and chat up the boss?

In my experience, the answer to such a query is too often a flat no—you handle it, honey.  And so she will, making those tough choices day after day, doing the best she can.

It is no accident that women still earn 77 cents on the male dollar.  The other 23 cents go to our unpaid, unsung attention to mothering and family care of all kinds.

Elisabeth Badinter says we should get over our obsession with the “voluntary servitude” of mothering and go play the career game with the boys, giving it all we’ve got.

I’d rather see a kinder, gentler scenario, in which parents, both male and female, work together to balance the conflicting demands of work and child care.

As a society, we could encourage this in a material way by acknowledging the value of parenting via Social Security and other benefits.

By dint of hard struggle we have enshrined the concept of family leave and parental leave in law, but we could do a lot more to support parents through the difficult years when so much is demanded of them on the home front while they are also in their prime career-building years.

Instead, our society seems to be pushing women back into the unpaid homemaker roles, by sinking our efforts to balance career and mothering under the weight of guilt, frustration and sheer exhaustion.

Do we really want to focus the bright minds and creative spirits of 50% of our population exclusively on issues of breast-feeding, diaper rash and what to have for dinner?

Do young men really want to return to the good old days of being the sole provider for a houseful of dependents?

Feminism needs to demand that fathers fully engage in the struggle to make parenting a joyful, cooperative stage of life, rather than a gendered minefield.

And mothers and fathers need to insist on the social support they deserve for the valuable labor they perform every day, both in the home and outside of it.

Cupid, you devil–go home!

I find it really poignant that so many people are Googling “love” and turning up my Valentine’s Day blog post on how I was very happy, last February, to be awash in family love, even though romantic love was absent from my life.

That my Valentine’s Day post is the single most popular post on Transition Times is just evidence of how many people are yearning for love, and happy to find affirmations that there are alternatives to the stereotypical “and they lived happily ever after.”

As the 50% divorce rate in the U.S. attests, very few of us live happily ever after.

For the other 50% who stay married, well—I would like to know how many of you folks consider yourselves truly happy.

My guess is that something like 25% of the people who dutifully marry in their twenties find themselves compatible enough to live happily ever after.

So what does that mean for the institution of marriage?

Is it good enough that a quarter of those who marry in their prime child-bearing years are likely to stay together through the rigors of raising children?

What are the alternatives?

Unfortunately, in our society, there are few alternatives.  Women of means can choose to have children via artificial insemination or surrogate motherhood, without needing the fathers in the picture.

But this is the exception, not the norm.

For most mothers, having the financial, emotional and practical support of fathers (or co-parents, in the case of lesbian couples) is essential.

Raising children is hard.  Raising them alone is much harder.  I can say this with conviction since I’ve been a single mother since 2009, and going it unofficially on my own for longer than that.

For the most part, divorcing women tend to argue hard for custody of our children. We can’t imagine being separated from the little ones we once carried in our bellies—even when they’ve become big hulking teenagers.  They are ours in a way that must be honored.

And yet…they are their father’s children too.  It never ceases to amaze me how fathers can be so casual about their offspring.  They will insist on custody to stick it to their divorcing spouses, but for the most part they don’t have the emotional attachment to their children that we women have.  Or if they do, it is something they are willing and able to forego if need be.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, guys—this is just what I’ve perceived from very unofficial observations of my own family and friends.

All this to say that those who are avidly reading my Valentine’s Day post should be aware that my feelings about love are very complicated indeed.

I love my children.  I love my parents.  I love my brother and his family.  My ex-spouse?  Well, I am grateful to him for the good times we shared, including bringing our two boys into the world.

I wish we could have survived as a couple.

And I am ready to move on.

More words for my son, a warrior for Good

My son read my last post and said that’s very nice, Mom, but it’s all about you!  I thought you were going to write something nice about me, or give me some words of wisdom.

As usual, he was right.

I had actually sat down to write about him, but ended up getting so caught up in the story of his birth that I ran with that instead.

Also, the idea of offering him “words of wisdom” is intimidating.  Most of the time I am just trying to ask the right questions…I am wise enough to know I don’t have the answers.

But let me not shy from the challenge.

What do I wish for my son as he steps out into his third decade of life and enters adulthood?  What do I have to offer him for the journey?

It makes me sad to think about how the actions and inactions of previous generations, my own included, have led to the current threshold upon which he stands, looking out at his future.

My son often talks about looking forward to raising his own children, trying to be the best father he can possibly be.

As I look into the future and try to imagine my grandchildren, I am saddened by all the pressures that they will face, due to global heating, overpopulation and the contamination of the environment.

Will my grandchildren know what it’s like to sit under a blooming apple tree filled with merrily buzzing bees on a perfect May morning?

Will they be able to lie in the tall grass of June without fear of a plague of disease-bearing ticks?

Will they have the pleasure of watching a noble blue heron stalking the riverbank, reaching down with a merciless snap to grab a frog from under a lilypad?

My son wants to be a marine biologist, and has already spent quite a bit of time and energy pursuing that goal out on the water and in the lab.  But every day brings fresh reports of how damaged our oceans are due to overfishing, toxic contamination and ever-acidifying water.

The upcoming corps of marine biologists will have the grim task of monitoring inevitable species decline and habitat degradation, and perhaps suggesting ways to remediate and hold off the destruction.  Rather than celebrating life, they’ll be bearing witness to death.

In my most pessimistic moments, I fear that the havoc of climate change will lead to knock-out storms, epidemics and food shortages that will make huge portions of our planet dismal versions of post-earthquake Haiti.

How can I bear to watch my son stepping out into this apocalyptic landscape, so strong and healthy, so full of energy and hope, so motivated to live his life with high spirits and good grace?

I know there have been many moments in human history when mothers have looked out at the future with similar trepidation.

We simply have to stand back and let them go, trying not to encumber them with our fears, or even with our hopes.

My son’s life is his own to live.  I know that as we cross this Year 20 milestone together, he will begin to pull out ahead of me, leaping boldly and fearlessly into the future.

I hope that during these years when I’ve been nurturing him, I’ve given him some good tools for the journey; some rich memories, and sound habits of body and mind.

The world is waiting for you, my son, and she needs you to stand up and be the warrior for good you were born to be.

Go.

 

Parents, listen up! You need to know, and you need to act–now.

We raise our children so carefully, so thoughtfully.  We make them eat their vegetables, organic if possible.  We send them to the best schools we can find and afford.  We screen their friends and text them anxiously if they’re late coming home.  We worry about their careers, their futures. Will there be any jobs for our precious children when we finally, with great effort and care, get them through high school and college?

Jobs are important, sure.  But why is it easier for us to think about the economy than about the biggest issue confronting our children, and all of us, in the next few years?  I’m talking about the climate crisis and the degradation of the environment. The loss of species, the toxifying of the air, soil and water.  The fact that the planet our children are inheriting is not the planet we were born on to.

Of course, that’s always been true.  The planet has always been changing, evolving, sometimes in violent increments.  But it’s different now.  It’s different because never before, in the history of homo sapiens, have we been so close to the brink of a major, fast shift in our climate.  Never before, at least since we humans have been on the planetary stage, have we come so close to a global extinction event.

Global extinction event.  Where did I get a phrase like that?  It’s surely not my own language.  It’s one of those memes making the rounds of the Web.  But it’s not part of the lexicon of any of the parents I know.  They don’t want to think about it.  They don’t want to talk about it.  They don’t want to know.

How irresponsible is that, and how surprising, for parents who have been so conscientious, so completely invested in their role as primary caretakers and nurturers of their children.

It’s the privileged parents to whom I address myself most fervently. Parents who put so much time, energy and money into the task of raising their children, and do so with all their intelligence, responsibility and good will.  Parents who often have extra money to put towards a winter vacation someplace warm, or a summertime break by the beach.  Parents who are happy to send their kids to specialty camps in the summer, and who come up with the cash for school trips, afterschool lessons, an educational weekend in the city, a junior year abroad.

Privileged parents, listen up!  If you continue to turn a blind eye to the intertwined issues of environmental degradation and climate change, both of which are caused above all by enforced, ruthless economic growth based on the heedless consumption of fossil fuels and distribution of chemicals in the water, earth and air, your beloved children will face a future in which they cannot thrive.

A future in which none of us can thrive, unless it be perhaps the cockroaches, the ants and—for a while at least—scavengers like vultures and crows.

There have been so many disaster movies produced in the past few years—The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, WALL-E—putting out on the big screen our fears about what kind of future awaits us in an age of climate crisis and ecological collapse.  These movies represent our collective unconscious talking to us, presenting worse-case scenarios so that we can prepare ourselves for what may come.

We seem to like these movies because they give us the pleasure of stepping back afterwards and reassuring ourselves that it was just fantasy, not real.

The reports of the International Panel on Climate Change have none of the glamour of the big screen.  But they are saying the same thing as those disaster pictures.  They paint the same picture in different language.

It turns out that those disaster scenarios are real.

Sit with that knowledge for a bit, and then check in with yourself as a parent.  Once you accept that the looming environmental crisis is real, how can you continue to live your life blithely as though everything is OK?

Parents above all have a responsibility not just to take this knowledge seriously, but to act on what we know.  And parents of privilege–the 10%, the 25%–most of all.

We should be vehemently protesting the poisoning of our food, air and water.  We should be doing our utmost to stop the corporations who are wreaking this havoc, to change our own participation in the system, and to envision and manifest a better society that engages sustainably with the planetary ecological systems upon which we all depend.

Never before have we stood at such a juncture as a species.  Now is the tipping point.  Now is the time for us to stand up and be counted.  Now is the time for us to dare to take a path less traveled, to think for ourselves, to do what’s right for us and our children and the world we live in, before it’s too late.

It will not be easy, the road ahead.  There is so much to be done to turn this environmental train wreck around, and so little time.  We may not succeed.

But we cannot continue to play dumb any more.  We cannot continue to keep playing the game as if nothing were wrong, as if the biggest crisis of the past 10,000 years of human history were not on the horizon.  We cannot keep dancing to the band on deck as the iceberg looms before us.

There is too much at stake, for ourselves and especially for our children, whose lives—with any luck, and a lot of hard work—will reach further into the 21st century than ours.  If we care about our world—if we care about our children—we must act decisively, do whatever it takes.  Now.

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