Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Surfacing

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My second child arrived amid disaster. Not my own disaster in any personal sense; I am not among the hundreds of thousands whose lives are ruined. But two catastrophes usher him into my life, their presence a dark backdrop to his arrival. The day I find out I am pregnant, a Tsunami devours entire islands in Indonesia and Thailand, drowning an unimaginable number of people and rendering inconsequential the shock I feel at my own unexpected circumstances. Almost nine months later, just as I feel the first rhythmic cramps that will bring his birth, a hurricane strikes. The extent of its aftermath slowly becomes evident during our first evening together. As I hold my puffy-faced baby in a clean, bright room, I imagine a woman in New Orleans giving birth in a flooded hospital, or on a crowded stadium floor.
Perhaps the pairing of these two cataclysmic events with such pivotal moments in my life causes the sense of foreboding I carry home from the hospital, along with my second child. Or maybe the foreboding comes from exhaustion. My newborn is not one of those mythical creatures that sleep five-hour stretches from day one. Still, theoretically I could get snatches of rest between wakings, or nurse mostly in my sleep. It's just that sleep no longer comes. I stumble through the grey weeks, play with my daughter, feed the baby, buy groceries. At the end of a day I cannot remember how I accomplished any of these things. When I finally close my eyes at night, all I see are waves.

During these endless first few months, my husband, Andy, and I develop a nightly ritual. After my daughter is finally in bed for the night, we collapse on the couch to watch part of a movie, while I nurse baby Solomon to sleep and carry him up to our bed. One evening, in the midst of the never-ending rain, I wrap little arms tight to their sides, while Andy picks An Inconvenient Truth from the top of our pile. Our customary 20-minute installment stretches until the credits end and we continue to stare at the screen. That night, Solomon is restless and unsettled, placated only by my breast. I lie motionless, my body cramped uncomfortably around his, visions of smashing polar ice caps and submerging cities flowing through my mind. Despite the tenuous link between global warming and my own strange post-Katrina/tsunami anxiety, I feel oddly justified. My fears now have a name, a basis in reality.

The next day, aching with exhaustion, I resolve to do something. I will not sit idly by during a moment of planetary emergency. I will not sink into inaction with the future of the human race, the future of my children, at stake. I drop my daughter at preschool and try desperately to get Solomon to sleep so I can concentrate. He refuses to be settled, so I hold him in one aching arm and scour the Internet while bouncing on an exercise ball. I buy carbon credits for our cars, the miles we flew last year, the output of my electrical appliances. Only when I realize I have driven my checking account into overdraft do I stop. I feel good, buoyed up, I am taking action.

Over the next weeks and months I replace our light bulbs, turn the thermostat down, and make everyone wear slippers. I leave the car in the garage and walk everywhere I can, one baby in the sling, the other in the stroller, cloth bags hanging precariously from the handles. I sign petitions, send letters to Congress, forward email campaigns. I wash plastic snack bags and hang them from cabinet doors to dry. I cancel our diaper service, and soak them myself, replacing disposable wipes with squares of cotton. I soon reach a point where I can think of nothing else to do. The momentary elation of these tiny actions quickly grows thin. I berate myself for not being strong enough, good enough, brilliant enough to come up with some way to be more proactive. Should I stand on a street corner holding a sign, or volunteer to go door to door? I search for jobs in environmental organizations, even though I cannot yet imagine returning to work, but find none looking for a lawyer with no environmental experience, (other than Internet carbon off-setting).

My preoccupation grows hand in hand with my mounting sleep debt. I squander the little time I have sitting at the computer reading of multiplying disasters: receding glaciers, dwindling forests, rising sea levels, peak oil, ecosystem collapse. By some accounts the disaster will strike in 20 years, some say in as few as 10. My entire life trajectory suddenly makes little sense. Sometimes the weight of it presses physically onto my chest. I feel as though I am suffocating. My eerily green-glowing light bulbs and carbon credits are meaningless, empty gestures, tiny exhalations in a mounting windstorm. At night I finally sink into sleep, then wake suddenly, gasping to get my head above water.

It seems I am not the only one struck with worry. All around me, other parents swap the latest calamitous news over the din of playground noise. My inbox is inundated with snippets from articles, lectures and magazines, ranging in tone from the cheerily optimistic (let's all buy organic cashmere and save the planet) to the morbidly pessimistic (we have eight years left until the end of oil and collapse of suburbia). Dinner conversation with friends veers frequently to the post-apocalyptic. Survival plans for various disaster scenarios are hashed out over glasses of wine, sometimes with fatalistic jest, sometimes followed by sharp silence.

Like other couples we know, Andy and I hammer out our own short-term emergency strategies. We discuss meeting places, contact points, routes of escape. Having mocked survivalists for years, I feel slightly silly as I fill our garage with five-gallon jugs of water, cans of food, medical supplies and duct tape. Andy, a vegetarian who leaves me to usher spiders from the house and set bait in mousetraps, suddenly talks of buying a shotgun. He wants to learn to shoot, to hunt food if necessary and defend our family if law and order break down. At first I laugh him off, then argue vehemently. Slowly, over the course of months of these conversations, the Katrina footage never fading from my mind, I begin to wish he'd just go and buy one and lock it up in the house without my knowledge.

As lost as I am in my new baby fog, it seems this is the year that climate change becomes a household issue. Disaster preparedness pamphlets pop up in preschools, grocery stores, the local YMCA. (Apparently my bins in the basement aren't weird, they're responsible.) Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Even our reluctant President makes a few statements of broad acknowledgment. For a short time, I am hopeful. Maybe it's not too late. However, despite the increasing public awareness and rapidly rising gas prices, things continue as normal. I stare incredulously from my detached, exhausted place, but nothing seems to change. The facts are overwhelming, impossible to ignore, but ignoring them seems to be the predominate response.

I wonder often throughout this long, sleep-deprived year whether I would be as preoccupied with the future of the planet, or lack thereof, if I did not have children. At this moment, life in North America is still affluent and comfortable. Leaving aside the worst predictions, it is entirely possible that for most of my own lifetime, energy prices may rise dramatically and weather patterns may shift and intensify, but life in my privileged little corner of the globe will otherwise continue as I currently consider normal. If I did not have children, I could live my life in comfort and relative unconcern. How deeply can one really feel the pain of unknown generations to come? But, I do have children. And some day they may have children too. I have read no predictions that leave their lives unaltered. The future that I've always imagined for them may be nothing like the world they will inhabit.

As the baby slowly morphs from appendage to person, this becomes my predominate concern: what world do I prepare my children for? The business-as-usual version where a decent education, some extra-curricular enrichment and a bit of good luck will ensure them middle class security and some measure of happiness? The world where college funds and 401(k)s and investments in private schools make sense? Or should I try to somehow prepare them for a post-apocalyptic future: one where they will have to eke out their own livings amid constant natural disaster? Will they really end up in the technology-driven, class-divided, American-dominated, ever-more-globalized trajectory they were born into?

This becomes the background to my thinking on numerous issues, from what to buy to how to invest to where to live. We are unsettled in career and geographic location anyway, torn between two countries, families on two coasts, and competing desires for career/family balance. To these deliberations we add our fears of climate change, rising sea levels, urban unrest, oil shortages. The waters become so murky that I cannot picture myself and my family anywhere. Do we pursue my legal career and a second residency for my husband in New York City or San Francisco? Both are cities we have lived in before and considered returning to. However, both are also overpopulated, oil-dependent and destined to be under sea level in the not too distant future according to many predictions. Do we instead opt for a more rural, simple existence and buy a parcel of land somewhere where we can grow food and maybe raise a few chickens? The specter of environmental disaster is not the only consideration guiding our thoughts, but it is an unshakable factor-a trump card often played by my more rurally-inclined husband, that I can no longer completely discount.

My quest for concrete action continues. Along with it, the web of interconnected issues expands. Search as I might, I cannot seem to find any obvious avenue for my own dramatic contribution, no ingenious idea for carbon reduction, no chutzpah to start a political movement. Instead, I find small actions and imperfect ones at that; more tiny steps beyond light bulbs and cloth bags.

The most fundamental and obvious contribution is to consume less, and this I attempt to do. However, it is not easy. As any new parent will attest, babies seem to require an enormous number of things. Many of them are large and plastic and many seem to be indispensable. There is a continuous stream of products for beautifying and simplifying parenting and for purifying and edifying one's children. I am drawn by their endless promise. I try to resist, to question my purchasing motives, to think about how long an item will last and where it will end up. I consider packaging, buy from "green" labels, shop in bulk, opting frequently against convenience. I turn to second-hand stores, get things off Craigslist, borrow from friends. I understand that my overall consumption matters far more than the cosmetic or minor greening of the products I buy. Nonetheless, these small measures salve my conscience, making me feel better as I continue to consume far more than my planetary share.

It seems that for every message against consumption, there are at least three counter messages, many of them "moral" ones, urging me to buy. I must keep my children safe, myself young and vibrant, my house Zen-like and peaceful, my technology at least somewhat up-to-date. How can I be good or happy, a competent mother or strong woman without the necessary things? These purchases make me feel good. New jeans and a great pair of boots remind me I'm something more than an un-showered, stained and saggy mother. Hand-made German wooden toys with non-toxic, vegetable-based paint, not only amuse and educate my children, they look nice scattered around my living room. Many of these things I consider my birthright-I need an attractive home, fashionable clothing, decent cosmetics, well-dressed children. But slowly, I begin to understand them as extravagant luxuries that come at a cost far greater than the amounts of money I spend on them. However, even knowing this, I continue to buy. For I discover that I am no different than my neighbors or friends, or the imagined uncaring masses whom I rail against in my most passionately self-righteous moments. I too cannot feel the urgency at every moment. I too act as if nothing were wrong.

One recurrent theme that emerges from my search for action beyond the three Rs is localism. I read about the efforts of so-called "locavores" who attempt to eat nothing from outside a certain geographic range. My husband and I try to emulate them wherever possible, buying as much food as we can from local sources. In the summer this is relatively easy; we shop at farmer's markets, choosing from a wide range of fruits and vegetables grown in the Pacific Northwest. I enjoy the process of hunting out local food, meeting some of the farmers who grow it, hearing about the particular conditions and challenges of a given growing season. In the winter localism becomes more difficult: my toddler and baby have apparently inherited the palate of a globalized, modern, American, rather than a native Northwesterner. They shun applesauce, greens, and potatoes, begging instead for tropical fare like mangoes, bananas, and kiwi. I feel furtive and guilty loading grapes from Chile into my shopping cart in February, but the motherly fear of vitamin deficiency and the battle of picky eating trump my convictions. True localism doesn't work with young children, I rationalize. Of course for most of human history it had to, and in the future, it may again.

Even more satisfying than buying locally, we soon discover, is not-buying locally. Growing and foraging our own food slowly become central family activities. We build raised garden beds in the yard, fill them with organic soil, plant seeds, water and weed. My daughter, the vegetable-phobe, stands outside picking peas and lettuce and eating them by the handful. I steam and mash home-grown carrots to spoon-feed the baby, feeling powerful and pure. We forage for shellfish, digging clams and oysters all over the Puget Sound. Soon we are gathering berries, then wild greens, then mushrooms, first with mycological societies and experienced friends. We spend many weekend days tromping through the woods, children strapped to our backs or toddling along the path at our sides. After a few months of learning, we fill baskets with wild kitchen mushrooms: porcini, chanterelle, morel. I am nervous about all of it at first. But my confidence soon increases, and I am quickly surprised by how safe and easy it actually is to gather hundreds of dollars worth of delicious food on a morning walk with my children.

Gardening, foraging, buying locally, consuming and driving less: these things make me feel somewhat proactive and, as a result, more optimistic. They, along with the supplies in my basement, also give me at least the illusion that my family could weather short-, or even long-term disaster. I know my actions are far from perfect. I probably contribute to the problems in more ways than I help, although my search for new ways to lessen our footprint continues. Clearly, nothing I do will change the planetary outcome. I have yet to find a dramatic angle for a massive social movement. Of course, it may not be necessary for me to do anything at all. The world may very well continue on its current course, ushering billions in India and China into the industrial age with nothing more than a few hiccups. Human ingenuity and modern technology are powerful forces. Marshaled in time, they may stave off disaster, reverse carbon levels and perfect new, clean, renewable energy sources that allow us to keep consuming and living our comfortable, suburban lives.

Although hopeful, I am unable to believe that things will remain entirely unchanged. I feel certain that my children will live their adult lives in a world unlike the one in which I came of age. But hasn't that always been the case? Things have changed dramatically in the past few generations, and we have done just fine. Despite the dark speculations and my wildest disaster planning, I am too programmed, too comfortably middle class to abandon it all and move out to some property in the wilderness and learn to survive off the land. I have invested too much in this way of life to give it up completely just yet.

So where does that leave me? Right here, on my current trajectory, saving for college, planning for an unaltered future. Yet I am also trying to raise my children to be prepared for whatever awaits them, with an awareness of the issues and a moral obligation to consider the impact of their actions. I will try to provide them with an understanding of where their necessities come from and empower them to obtain some of them in the same way their great-grandparents did, without a lengthy web of fossil-fueled assistance. I want them to understand that their comfortable, suburban lifestyle is neither inevitable nor universal. Most of all, I want to foster in them a flexibility and toughness that will allow them to flourish no matter their circumstances. I will try not to rush to solve their every problem, alleviate their every discomfort or provide a material solution to their every need. Only time will tell if this will be enough.

Camping with my family on the slopes of Mt. Rainier one summer night just before my son's second birthday, I lie awake in my sleeping bag, unable to drift off amid the tangled limbs that surround me. Lying there, slowly watching the hours pass, I realize suddenly that my suffocating nightmares have ended. It has been months since the last time I woke to water crashing over my head. It now seems slightly quaint, my preoccupation with the tsunami and Katrina. I think about the mythical woman I imagined so often, the one who gave birth on the stadium floor. Her child is also nearing two. I wonder how her life has moved on.

I sneak quietly out of the tent, stepping around the sleeping bodies of my children. Outside I breathe the sharp night air, the smell of damp soil and leaves. Enormous Douglas firs surround me, silhouetted against the blue-black sky, the moon low behind them. A breeze washes through the branches then disappears, leaving only the faintest trembling of needles. Crouching beneath trees that have stood in this spot for hundreds of years, I feel small, safely insignificant, an inconsequential part of something unbroken and enduring. It is hard to imagine anything that could alter a world so vast, so endless. More than anything, I want my children to feel this, this sense of peace in their own insignificance, breathing in the night air in some unspoiled forest. If nothing else, I can raise them to know that this existed, that this is the world they belong to; this is their beautiful home. I crawl back in the tent beside my sleeping family and listen to them breathing in the night.


Karen Barnett has been a social worker and a lawyer and is currently full-time mommy to her four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. Originally from Canada, Karen currently lives in Tacoma, Washington where she spends most weekends camping and foraging in the Puget Sound. She is working (very slowly) on a novel and beginning to think about returning to a so-called “real job.” She can be reached at barnett.karen@gmail.com.


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