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The California Alisal Fire makes me ask whether I should have kids

Late Friday night, I landed in Los Angeles and was greeted by my mom’s warm embrace before she drove me to the house for my first weekend home in months. A couple of days later, we were on the 101 Freeway again so she could return me to LAX for my flight back to New York. Unbeknownst to us, that same freeway was closed down 100 miles north because of a wildfire that had erupted Monday afternoon.

The enormity of the situation often makes it feel like the most I can do is shrug my shoulders and control what little I can in my small corner of the universe — my body.

As I was growing up in California, the seasons ebbed and flowed with fires, droughts and mudslides, and the threat of extreme weather seemed to grow tenfold each year. Even in New York, a Fourth of July celebration I attended this summer was billed as an “LOL-the-Earth-is-Burning” party — an event where we could all laugh anxiously at the impending doom of climate change. The invitation instructed us to “be hot in solidarity with our climate,” and the host decorated her beautiful Brooklyn townhouse with silly conversation starters like “Are you going to have kids? Yes or no?” But though it was meant to be facetious, I was still thinking about that question three months later when I traveled to California.

In fact, I’ve found the question of what circumstances I’d feel comfortable having and raising kids in to be on my mind more frequently than it ever has been in the past. Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you that I’m the “mom” in the group — I’ve always enjoyed taking care of people, and I want to have children. I just no longer know whether I should.

The choice of whether to have children is a deeply personal one that takes a hefty level of privilege just to ponder. And there’s no point in making any righteous judgment about the perfect circumstances under which to have children, because, I’m sure, any parent would tell me they don’t exist.

For me, however, it’s not about “the right time” to add humans to the 8 billion or so already here or even about increasing our carbon footprint. It’s about whether I think it’s fair to raise children in a world becoming increasingly uninhabitable. In my hypothetical children’s or grandchildren’s lives, the planet might not actually become unlivable, but it certainly will become deadlier.

Learning that the same highway I took every morning to high school had been closed down because of fires forced me to question once again what kind of world we’re living in. And to ask myself: How could I possibly raise children in this climate? In the midst of yet another disaster like the one in my home state, it feels selfish — even irresponsible — to have children.

My mom and I talked about parenting at length while I was home. It turns out that the same thoughts crossed her mind years ago. In April 1999, seven months pregnant with me, she watched the aftermath of the shooting at Columbine High School on TV and questioned the world she was bringing her child into. And a friend recently told me that she had explained her own climate anxiety to her own parents, only to have them counter that on Dec. 31, 1999, everyone thought the world would end when the clock struck midnight. Obviously, it didn’t.

But unlike Y2K and Columbine, climate change and its effects aren’t represented by one specific, potentially life-altering catastrophe. I’ve never struggled to imagine a world where gun violence doesn’t exist because, despite having grown up doing mass shooter drills in school, I always felt it was a random threat — not my imminent reality. Solutions, while in short supply, seem conceivable through local and federal policy changes.

Climate change has never felt like that. The way this issue bleeds into every aspect of life makes it impossible to escape. It exists in the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the mail we get, the showers we take. And while with most problems the solutions can lie in imagining and working toward a better future, the terror of climate change is that our future is set to make this problem only worse.

My optimism about our ability to combat the climate crisis wanes every day. No matter what “sustainable” choices we make, we’re in a lose-lose battle with a problem of our own making.

The enormity of the situation often makes it feel like the most I can do is shrug my shoulders and control what little I can in my small corner of the universe — my body. (Of course, in our current political climate, even that isn’t guaranteed.)

Over the weekend, my mom pointed out that maybe there is no world that we bring our children into that feels entirely secure and full of promise. Maybe that’s just the risk we take when we choose to have kids at all.

But while children have never grown up in a completely secure world, our speculative children, and our speculative children’s, do deserve to grow up in one where skies are blue and waters are clear. As long as we continue down our current path, none of that is guaranteed. And so, “Are you going to have kids? Yes or no?” becomes much more than a conversation starter at a silly party. I’m still not set on my answer, and that’s the most upsetting part.

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