Propped up on pillows with a cup of tea – such a civilized way to spend an evening! Of course, it’s two o’clock in the damn morning – such is my unscheduled time management when home alone, and during the respite between academic terms.

At least the Plague is retreating. While I did call in legitimately sick this morning for an academic research meeting, I then dragged my coughing carcass to the bar tonight to play music.  Does this say something about my priorities?  The justification I allowed myself was that I wouldn’t have the energy to do both things in one day, but the academic meeting would go fine without me, and my band would really suffer with a person short.

(The band, the research job, etc.: My meagre contributions to the household revenue stream while I am a student consist of weekly and other sporadic gigs with my traditional world music band, a weekly music-teaching gig at a studio near the university, plus an academic research job which my advisor said would be good for me.  I am hoping that if I can just give it the old college try, that something will click and the research will become interesting. In the meantime, I dread even thinking about the spectacularly dull and obscure tasks I am supposed to be doing.)

I’m going to blab (at length) about a book I devoured at the end of term, which is now back at the library and risks being forgotten unless I write something down.  Maybe One, by environmentalist Bill McKibben, applies the environmentalist perspective to the very intimate question of how many children to have.

When I was a purple-haired, gaunt, sullen and eminently unlovable teenager, it occurred to me that the Earth was overpopulated, and yet people persisted in bearing children. Anyone could clearly see that the Earth was full, and that people should adopt the underfed, unwanted children of the world instead of making more babies. I indignantly felt that anyone who could adopt a baby but decided to bear one instead was selfish for favouring their own genetic material. I wasn’t familliar with the expense and administrative nightmare of adoption at the time, and my understanding of socioeconomic forces was a little fuzzy. My parents and friends let me venomously hold forth on the subject, but some folks were put off. Imagine that!

I had forgotten what it felt like to stare down people’s indignation in discussions of family size until I read “Maybe One” and started discussing it in public.  It seems almost impossible to talk about a relationship between family size decisions and environmental responsibility without hurting people’s feelings. This is a drag, because it’s a super important topic. Nobody walked away from me crying or anything, but I got the sense that people were uncomfortable just listening to me describe the book’s argument, and how I am considering it personally. Bill McKibben really did a bang-up job at keeping a respectful tone throughout the book. He must be either a nice guy and a humanist, or have a great editor.

My darling cousin A and her friend were visiting last week, and we had some interesting conversations about making the dreaded connection between family size and environmental concerns. The first time I mentioned the book, A and I had been talking about Peak Oil and economic or ecological collapse.  In that context, she thought that limiting family sizes might be reasonable.

Her friend, however, seemed to find the whole idea insane that someone would intentionally limit their family size for reasons external to the family. “It’s such a huge sacrifice!” she said. I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms- as sacrificing something that you might otherwise have had – but more as a choice between one kind of fulfillment over another. I take her point though. If, in your heart, you really felt that fulfillment could only come with a large family, then choosing to have a small one for environmental reasons would rankle.  You’d feel like you had made a giant personal sacrifice, and wouldn’t be happy.  You’d have to find other reasons for joy. It would be a hard road.

Both A and her friend are attracted to large families- they want to have lots of babies and stay home full time to raise them. That kind of abundance is very appealing – I have felt its pull too at different times, although a different image of family life appeals to me more strongly at the present. I remember feeling inexplicably sad when several of my friends explained that they choose to have only one child, either because of population and environmental concerns or because of career aspirations.  The meaning of that sadness is hard to articulate – I think it must be an illogical idea of loss, as in “You are such a good parent with a beautiful baby. You could create those kinds of good things again. How can you stand not to?”

Of course there are other reasons to limit family size, which are widely accepted nowadays, thank God. My grandmother had five babies one right after the other in the 1940’s, while running a farm, and by the fifth pregnancy she was so completely exhausted she didn’t know what to do.  She had a tubal ligation at the hospital where her fifth was born, even though the idea of limiting family size was counter to her religious understanding. She felt apologetic and ashamed of this decision to limit her children until the end of her life. I’m so sorry she had to deal with that insane guilt, and I’m grateful for the conversations I get to have about family planning, and for my freedom to make decisions without heavy religious judgement.

That said, the most convincing part of “Maybe One” I found to be the last chapter, which takes a religious perspective. Religion and poetry speaks more closely than science to the fundamental part of our psyches which hold our ideals of family. The author is Christian, but I think the “be fruitful and multiply” commandment is common to several religions. His argument is that having a big family is a good, time-tested way to become a selfless, wise, mature person.  But there are also other paths to that goal, including community service and environmental stewardship – other kinds of “good works” we can do which might be more called for at this point in history.

I find this last idea pretty appealing. I want to have a small family and love them to bits. I also really hope to do important work in my field.  Not “important” like well recognized or compensated, but important for helping societies move in the best direction towards the future.

I read “Maybe One” in the hopes of shoring up a little more context for the day I get to decide whether we want a second kid. According to the book, that decision has the biggest environmental impact of any I will make in my life. That decision will only get made for sure once child #1 already exists – the answer might even be obvious at that time.

When I told him about the book, Z curiously asked “Oh, so are we only planning to have one child now?”  I do not understand how a human being can possibly be so easygoing, but he is.  There’s one reason we are so good for each other. He comes back to me from his business trip this Saturday, and I can’t wait to resume our continuous dialogue of small thoughts.

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