In a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, nearly a quarter of millennial and Gen Z adults said climate change has made them reconsider having biological children. But the statistics don’t tell the full story, and several forthcoming books about parental ambivalence and climate change aim to fill in the blanks. PW spoke with their authors about the messy, overwhelming, political, and even hopeful contours of this debate.
The parent trap
The question of whether to have children isn’t a new one, says philosophy professor Anastasia Berg. “It’s important and illuminating to look at this history, both in order to recognize the deep philosophical roots of the question and to understand what’s unique about our moment.” In What Are Children For? (St. Martin’s, June), Berg and her coauthor, literary critic Rachel Wiseman, consult the writings of Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich, as well as Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, and other relevant fiction and nonfiction.
“Motherhood ambivalence literature has become a big genre over the past decade,” Wiseman notes. “We also looked at climate fiction, which displays a deep anti-humanism that we think underlies some of that ambivalence.”
The authors say their book counters the argument found in some climate discourse that humans should welcome our demise as a species. “We make an argument for the fact that having children today can still be not just a meaningful part of a human life,” Berg says, “but a good part of a good human life.”
The title itself is meant to provoke reflection, Wiseman explains. “To think of children as being just another thing to check off your list is the wrong way to approach the question,” she says. “You shouldn’t be looking for a list of pros and cons; once you start doing that, you’re lost. One thing I hope people will take away from the book is a sense of the depth and seriousness of the question, rather than resigning themselves to this sense of mystified ambivalence.”
Philosopher and historian Mara van der Lugt wrestles with the concept of creating another human being in Begetting (Princeton Univ., Apr.). A decade ago, van der Lugt recalls, a friend asked her whether it was morally permissible to have children. “I was shocked by her extreme view; I’d never considered such a thing,” she says. “People are revisiting this question because of climate change and the environmental crisis. I’m opening up the debate to a wider audience.” In the book, Van der Lugt draws on academic sources as well as pop culture references, and engages with varying, often opposing, arguments.
The Conceivable Future (Rowman & Littlefield, Feb.), which coauthors Meghan Elizabeth Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli titled after the nonprofit organization they founded in 2014, distills a decade of organizing around family planning and climate change. “Thirty-three percent of Americans of reproductive age carry fears of having a child,” Kallman says. “That’s a lot of people, and they’re not represented in climate action spaces.”
The first half of the book details the history of the population-control movement and offers a critical look at what the authors see as fallacies that have made their way into normative discourse. With the second half, the authors hope to drive readers to collective action.
“Rather than seeing nonparents and parents as oppositional groups, we invite people to be part of a generational chain,” Ferorelli says. “We’re all in this together. The more broadly we define family, the more we connect with elders and children, the more we respect each other’s rights to a future, the better chance we stand.”
Gender and sexuality studies professor Jade S. Sasser, whose work focuses on climate justice and reproductive politics, examined population control narratives in 2018’s On Infertile Ground. “My first book is a big, broad, treetop-level approach to this topic,” she says. “But when I talked to people about it, they would relate their personal experiences. I realized climate emotions and climate mental health needed to be a part of the conversation about reproductive plans.”
For her next book, Climate Anxiety and the Kid Question (Univ. of California, Apr.), Sasser conducted dozens of interviews and “was struck by how common climate anxiety is among Gen Zers and how that translates into these anxieties about whether to have kids,” she says. “I also thought that anyone who was climate anxious would just not have a child. That’s not true. For a number of people, it was a matter of making a commitment to joy, to the future, and to raising their child with an active awareness of what’s going on in the world.”
The book places communities of color at the center of the discussion. “This is an intersectional issue,” Sasser says. “Climate change hits communities of color differently. Heat events have an impact on pregnancy and birth outcomes, which have long-lasting effects on a child’s growth and development. The people who are hit hardest are pregnant Black women, and the mental and emotional impacts are really hard on communities of color, too.”
The mother load
Some authors imagine, through the lens of parenthood, a world in which everyone can thrive. The most effective way to do so, they say, is collectively.
Becoming a mother was “more bewildering, wild, seismic, difficult, political, and meaningful than I had been led to believe,” says Lucy Jones, author of Matrescence (Pantheon, May), a cultural and personal analysis of the transition to parenthood. “I wanted to investigate why this life stage seemed so fraught, disavowed, and neglected in the culture, and also dangerous in the context of the maternal mental health crisis.”
She divides the book by theme, including birth, the brain, sleep, and society, and draws on her experiences as a science and nature writer. “I found myself searching for accurate depictions or metaphors or stories in which I could ground myself,” she recalls. “I found those in the natural world around me. I also wanted to show how fetishization of the ‘natural’ and the sentimentalization of mothers within this ideology is suspicious and flattening and limiting. What is truly natural is much more diverse and sometimes shocking, brutal, and violent.”
The term matrescence, coined in the 1970s by anthropologist Dana Raphael (also credited with popularizing the term doula), refers to the developmental process of becoming a mother. Jones hopes that as people embrace the term, the shame, taboo, and silence around the realities of motherhood will fall away.
“Sharing our stories has the potential to trouble some of the ideas that our society holds about individualism and self-reliance and infinite growth and denuclearized family,” she says. “The problem isn’t the needs of young children; it’s having to strive for an ‘ideal’ within societal conditions that make meeting that ideal impossible.”
Emily Raboteau, a creative writing professor at the City College of New York, explores climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and racialized violence in the essay collection Lessons for Survival (Holt, Mar.) and comes to similar conclusions. She began writing about these interlinked crises after the release of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on global warming.
The book, which PW’s review called “a vivid and varied consideration of a world in crisis,” also incorporates Raboteau’s photographs of public art in two New York City neighborhoods—Harlem and Washington Heights. “The bulk of the photographs are of the Audubon mural project,” she says. “There are over 100 of them in these neighborhoods now, and they represent birds that are expected to go extinct by the year 2080 if we continue on current trajectories. It’s a reminder that, like those birds, your children are also endangered by multiple vectors and under threat.”
Raboteau emphasizes the concept of mothering and expands its definition beyond the body of people who are mothers. The book’s subtitle, Mothering Against “the Apocalypse,” she says, is a nod to an “understanding of the revolutionary possibilities of care. It’s an animating force and a crucial practice to cultivate.”
In the book’s penultimate essay, Raboteau travels to the Arctic with a question: what do we do with our anger? “I put it to an elder in the Yup’ik community,” she says. “Where he lives is the center of the climate crisis. His people, who’ve been there for millennia, are going to have to move.” His answer: “That’s easy. We take care of each other.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Read more from our Parenting Books feature:
Spit Happens: PW Talks with Liana Finck
‘New Yorker’ contributor Liana Finck chronicles her pregnancy and early days of motherhood in the graphic memoir ‘How to Baby.’
Flying Solo, Together: PW Talks with Ruby Russell
In ‘Doing It All,’ journalist Ruby Russell explores the idea of single motherhood as a means of social change.
Four New Books Examine Adoption, Foster Care, and the Child Welfare System
The authors of four new books look at personal experiences and inequities in the system.