How Motherhood Made me an Activist

How Motherhood Made me an Activist

And why I’m grateful it did


Becoming a mom is hard. And I’m not talking about the physical duress of growing and birthing a child. I’m talking about what comes next: the sudden shedding of parts of your character that you wore as armour, the reminders of youth, and the sense of your sovereign self, which are replaced with the uneven growth of a new identity as “mother.” In the early months after the birth of my first child, I was bone-achingly tired, incapable of surviving a day without wishing serious bodily harm to my husband, and trying desperately to understand my postpartum self. I was lonely, exhausted, and depressed. I did not consider myself an activist, more of a concerned citizen focused on sustainable fashion, but Trump was now President, so I knew further change was inevitable.


About a year later, my husband and I sat next to each other, bumping and swaying in unison as we rode the subway to the Upper East Side to meet with our financial advisor. Alex wanted to discuss buying a house. I was looking for an ally in my quest to convince him that we could raise two children in New York City without going broke. I had been campaigning for a second child, but Alex was resistant. The first year of co-parenting entailed fights, tears and confusion, so his reticence was warranted, but after 18 months, we were turning a corner. The tipping point came once we realized that this child wasn’t simply an extension of life as we had been living it. Crucial to our survival and happiness in this new phase of life was embracing the change and cultivating a new community that better understood the challenges and triumphs we faced.


Despite the personal and political upheaval that shrouded early parenthood, I loved being a mom, and was sure in spite of Alex’s reluctance, we could handle another baby. Before talk of another child came up, the conversation turned to planning for Adelaide’s future. Our advisor looked at the papers spread in front of him and in his Long Island accent said, “Okay, so she’s nearly two, she’ll be preparing for college when she’s 18, that’s in 2034. Let’s make a plan for that.”


Plan for 2034? Hadn’t I just read that by 2030 it was projected that there would be global water scarcity, which would force some countries to choose between using water for cotton crops and drinking water? Didn’t that same report warn that by 2030 an estimated global population of 8.5 billion would necessitate a 60 percent increase in agricultural production, leaving some nations with the choice between land for food or cotton crops? And, how would the dispossessed, unemployed cotton farmers and textile workers in these countries pay for food and access fresh water? I imagined what 2034 might look like if a battle for land and water was taking place on the global stage between fashion and agriculture. It seemed improbable that in 16 years, our family would be sitting at the dinner table casually discussing college payment plans, dorm rooms, and preparing our 18-year-old daughter for the next exciting chapter of her life. In that small conference room, where I had hoped to claim victory over the battle for the second child, time collapsed and panic set in. The climate crisis of the “distant future” was yanked into the present, and the “people” it would impact was sitting on my lap, babbling, and squirming happily. How could I have another kid?


Twelve months later, the dire findings of the 2018 IPCC report, presented by the UN body that is the global authority on climate change, spread across global media, further condemning my conviction to have another baby. Scientists were done with rational fact-sharing and resolutely announced that we had 12 years to eradicate our global carbon emissions if we want to avoid irreversible ecocide. The goals that had been set at the Global Paris Agreement were deemed insufficient. I sobbed. The decision to have a second child that I had been agonizing over was no longer about my desire, but about what was possible. Could a child born now thrive in the future? What about the child I already had? Now, the propagators of climate change were infringing on my reproductive rights. I felt like they had taken my wish for a second child, doused it in oil, and set it alight. I was furious.


The impacts of ecocide can be seen and felt here and now. As I write this, more than a million residents have been evacuated to avoid a cyclone ravaging North Eastern India, the UN released a report naming human activity as responsible for pushing one million species of animals to the brink extinction, and a cyclone in Mozambique has wiped out the nation’s food supply. All the while, CO2 emissions have been on a consistent upward trend for the last 20 years, hitting an all-time high last year, 150 representatives in the US Congress are climate deniers, and a steady stream of far-right, dictatorial, coal-loving, rainforest-slaying leaders continue to be elected across the globe. The goal of the Paris Climate Accord was to keep the global temperature below two degrees celsius, but we now know that anything above 1.5 degrees of warming will have catastrophic effects. A warming planet goes beyond affecting sea rise and polar bears, it affects agriculture and the way you eat, it shapes migration patterns, and will shape conflicts. For people in the first world, think about a life without avocado toast, where Zara’s pricing increases tenfold, and showering becomes a luxury not a given. In a recent interview, the author of the book, The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells explained, “[Increased] temperature increases violence, not just at the level of states but at the level of individuals. So rates of murder go up, rape goes up, domestic assault goes up. It also affects, believe it or not, incidence of mental illness. So there are higher rates of admission for schizophrenia at mental hospitals when it’s hotter out, and people in hospitals have more outbreaks when it’s hotter out.“


Climate change will not only change what we can consume, but will have detrimental social and psychic effects.  The world that Wallace-Wells foreshadows is dire, and it makes sense that I’ve met a number of female environmental activists who are foregoing the decision to have children. Whether this decision is motivated by their commitment to a low carbon footprint, (the number one way to reduce your carbon footprint is to have fewer children) or fear of our future uninhabitable earth, I can’t know for sure, but the guilt and worry that is felt about having a child is escalating around my peers. I’ve heard friends who are parents debate whether having a second child will mean their first child will have an ally for the apocalypse, or is to sentence two children to death, rather than one.  This is the point at which I have to say, enough. I’m not going to accept the worst-case scenario as inevitable. Ensuring for my daughter’s livelihood beyond my own is not me being optimistic, it is me being a realist. I’m going to unflinchingly ask, How can I be a part of the change? What would happen if I was as committed to being an activist as much as I was committed to being a mother? What had I learned from that commitment?


Here’s the good news: The predictions for the apocalyptic future we collectively face will only come to fruition if we choose to do nothing. As writer George Monbiot put it in a recent article for The Guardian, “Had we put as much effort into preventing environmental catastrophe as we’ve spent on making excuses for inaction, we would have solved it by now.” The fact is, our Earth is changing, our home is changing, and a change in how we live our life on that home is imminent. Whether that change is one we create is through community action like the Natural Climate Solutions call for rewilding, built with ingenuity and passion, or a reaction to by a barrage of horrifying external factors, conflict, and strife like the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the subsequent civil rights infractions—it is up to us and our willingness to step up, beginning today.


I perceived the changes forced upon me by motherhood as a burden until I embraced them as an opportunity. Motherhood destabilized everything. It threw my marriage into flux. Sunk me into depression. Forced breakups with friends and family and the realization that I couldn’t bear to continue with my career anymore. It sharpened my sensitivity to the needless injustice and inequality suffered by many that we claim to abhor but tacitly accept through inaction. It burned to the ground ideals and beliefs that I’d spent my life cultivating and on those embers I let curiosity, passion, and community inform what I rebuilt. Moms are born builders. We know the value of community for survival and how to form it. We know that for a household, a neighborhood, or a nation to thrive, the interests of everyone, not just those who pay the bills, are of equal importance. We know that for groups, if one suffers, everyone suffers. We know that the most glorious, life-enriching rewards are born out of discomfort, giving, and sacrifice. We know innately that mobilizing, in groups large or small, is powerful, and it’s thanks to this lived knowledge that we can avert climate catastrophe.


What do I mean when I say “be a part of the change?” Very simply, I mean find ways to challenge power structures that do not treat ecocide as the urgent threat that it is and house the biggest levers for creating change. For me, that means our politicians. The first time I hosted a phone bank in my home, to support Democratic candidates for the 2018 midterms, I was nervous. I had never phone banked before, far less hosted one. Then I realized it was no different to putting together a birthday party for a toddler: Be specific about times, provide clear instruction, keep the mood upbeat, and make sure your guests are well-fed, well-hydrated, and at some point eat cake. Like a toddler party, the guests at my phone bank had a good time, despite the initial dread of going, because spending time with a group who supports you is always uplifting. It didn’t hurt that we had some encouraging wins at the midterms and our hard work felt rewarded. In the lead up to 2020, I plan to host more phone bank parties just like it. Working on electoral politics is the most rewarding activism to me, though the possibilities to activate change are endless and exist in all places where groups convene, from your neighborhood block to your political party. To be an activist is to be a challenger of norms; it’s an act of rebellion, but it’s also consensus building. It is building mass enthusiasm for an idea that you believe in. It’s asking what we need to do now, to prevent chaos in the future.


Researcher, Erica Chenoweth discovered that for a peaceful mass movement to succeed, a maximum of 3.5 percent of the population needs to mobilize. I can’t think of a better way to assemble that 3.5 percent than to reach out to the moms of the world and ask will you be an activist with me? Will you be part of a peaceful mass movement to prevent ecocide? Activism cannot be done alone. It is an act of community, creativity, joy, strength, and a commitment to hope over fear. Hope itself is a defiant act. Having our children can’t have been a reckless act, it is the ultimate commitment to hope. We will not abandon the future, or abandon the soul, we have no choice but to defend our future and to promise we’ll never surrender.

Words: Laura Jones

Copy editor: Sonjia Hyon

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