I used to dream about becoming a mother.
I learned from the mothers at the women’s shelter about what it’s like to raise children in a crisis. We are apt to say, now more than ever, that children are resilient. Adaptable. With a strong support network and maybe a bit of art therapy, children can get over just about any childhood adversity. Right? This is what we discuss with moms constantly. The most important thing is just to be there for your kids, validate their fears and concerns, and not take the acting-out personally. Women who use shelter services are in crisis, but it’s usually temporary.
Unlike the climate and biosphere emergency.
Figuring out that I’m a lesbian put a little bit of a stick in the wheels of my plan to be a mom, but I’d watched enough TV dramas to know that lesbians are always somehow getting pregnant and I figured if the right woman came along, we’d figure it out. Then the right woman came along and just as the conversations about options started, so did my cancer experience. Neither of us can have biological children.
In an effort to make myself feel better about this revelation, I looked up the impact having children has on the climate. According to a study published in 2020, and reported on by The Guardian, the absolute most impactful thing you can do to fight climate change is to have fewer children. Having a child in a ‘developed’ nation has the largest carbon cost going.
Respondents of the study gave stunning insights: “A 31-year-old woman said: ‘Climate change is the sole factor for me in deciding not to have biological children. I don’t want to birth children into a dying world [though]I dearly want to be a mother.’… A 40-year-old mother said: ‘I regret having my kids because I am terrified that they will be facing the end of the world due to climate change.'” These are incredibly layered and complex statements, and I’m seeing more and more admissions like these from strangers on the internet as well as my own circles.
The study also showed that younger people are more concerned about the impact of climate change on their descendants than older people, which seems to come less from older generations exhibiting ignorance of the climate crisis than having an unwarranted overly optimistic view. (Maybe that is ignorance?). Younger people have a devastatingly pessimistic perspective of the future. The study stated that out of 400 young respondents who referenced the future, only 0.6 per cent had a positive view.
Without meaning to bond over our lack of kiddos, my close circle of friends are all child-free. Some by choice, some by circumstance, but all were exposed to the pressure to have children throughout our lives. Where did my goal of motherhood come from? I knew that while my mom loves her kids, she did not always love being a mom or love being around children constantly. There was no pressure from her for me or my siblings to make her a grandparent. None of us have.
But we do live in a patriarchy (yes, still!), and under patriarchy, one of women’s main reasons for living is meant to be having children. And because we live in capitalist patriarchy, women who are encouraged to have children often struggle to support them, especially when single, especially when working. And because both aforementioned modes of social control are also highly influenced by colonization and racism, we have been told that having children is especially important for white people. This all despite the evidence that the number one way to create true equality and, some would say, save the world, is to enshrine women’s reproductive rights globally.
Enter the Birthstrikers.
“BirthStrike is as much a support group as it is a political statement, says spokeswoman Alice Brown, a 25-year-old charitable campaigns manager from Bristol,” writes Elle Hunt in The Guardian. The movement was created by Blythe Pepino, who was galvanized into action after seeing one of Extinction Rebellion’s lectures that bluntly laid out the “catastrophic reality” of the climate crisis. From the Guardian article: “And so Pepino decided to publicly announce her decision – strategically making the personal political – by setting up BirthStrike, a voluntary organization for women and men who have decided not to have children in response to the coming climate breakdown and civilization collapse.”
Women are asking this question everywhere on the planet where they have a choice about having children. Is it okay to have kids? What will their future look like? Am I bringing someone into the world who may well suffer horrifically in the coming storms? Do I have any right? BirthStrike, Alice Brown says, “is about saying: ‘It is OK to make this choice, but it’s not OK to have to make this choice.’ We should never be in a situation where we are genuinely scared to bring life into the world.”
As much I applaud women who have done this intense delving into their choices (or lack thereof), I hesitate to say that individual action, even with the math stating that for every year of a parent’s life a child “costs” 58 tonnes of C02, will have the impact we need in order to stop the complete collapse of the biosphere and life as we know it. It’s no longer about what you or what I do, though of course we are all responsible for what we put into and take from the world. Addressing the climate crisis is going to take global, sweeping, immediate, and intense action from societies, governments, corporations, institutions, and industries.
And the answer isn’t policies that limit children to one per family, especially in the maw of patriarchy where son-preference has created a world with hundreds of millions of missing girls. Controlling women’s procreative capacities is never going to bring about justice.
As interesting as it is that my core friend group is fairly happily child-free, I also love many women who are mothers, and who are determined to raise conscientious, kind, world-changing children. It is never my intent for any mother to feel shamed or blamed for the decisions she made on this planet where it’s been made impossible to do the right thing, or even know what that is. This is not a problem of mothers having children: I blame the unfathomably cruel system entirely focused on resource extraction with no thought to the consequences on the next seven generations.
I have seen the beauty and joy that comes from being a mother, and though I’ve vacillated on what my own future holds, in a way I am glad the decision was taken out of my hands because I have no idea how I would make such a call. Having a child is the ultimate act of hope, and I am just not that hopeful.
In Canada, it’s estimated that there are almost 30,000 children in foster homes awaiting adoption. It is neither easy, nor inexpensive, to go this route. But it is a good and viable option for people who want to be parents but believe the positives of bringing another child into the world do not outweigh the negatives, real and potential. And in many ways, the issue is rather resolving itself: birth rates around the world are plummeting, mostly attributed to women’s liberation.
Climate change is already forcing us to make difficult decisions. To give up on dreams, to forgo experiences like travel, to consider our impact from the massive to the minute. The farther down the path we go, the more harrowing the decisions will become. I am so glad that I know so many cool kids currently on this Earth who will have a hand in forging a better world for us all – sometimes I wish I could have added my own offspring to this upwelling of unwilling warriors.
But I do think Auntie is going to be a pretty important position, when it really hits the fan. And that I know I can do.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her column, She Speaks, has appeared in the Huntsville Doppler since 2018. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, volunteering with Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services, and her role as a front-line counsellor at the women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development. She was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, short-listed for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize, and received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. When she isn’t writing, she’s designing a tiny house which she intends to be the impetus for a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.