Eco-anxiety, eco guilt or environmental guilt – whatever we call it, many of us embody this new modern shame as we wake up to the climate emergency and our part in driving it.
A subset of this is parental or “eco mother” guilt. In this post I’m not referring to the shame of increasing my carbon footprint by having children (regardless of what movements like Stop Having Kids and anti-natalism imply). I don’t restrict my measurement of the impact of a new human life to a narrow CO2e metric.
I’m also not talking about the guilt of our outsized impact, where if every human alive lived like a typical British person in a given year, the world’s resources would outstrip demand by May 19th.
Instead, my environmental guilt is my personal inaction borne out of the limited time and energy parenting manifests. The guilt is rather from my complete inability to fully respond to the Climate Emergency and the transformation our society needs.
The truth is, I’m currently half alive, half asleep on maternity leave with my baby amidst ecological collapse. What’s a typical day in my life during maternity leave in 2023? Hint – it’s not a laugh-a-minute riot of pedicures, brunches and binge-watching TV shows (although there is a bit of that):
- 5am: Baby kicks me so I assume she’s irritated. I change her nappy and try to go back to sleep
- 5.50am: It’s becoming clear that baby won’t go back to sleep!
- 6-8am: Breakfast, shower, help toddler get ready for preschool
- 8am: Put baby to sleep in her cot
- 8.20am: Baby rolls onto her face and cries
- 8.20am to who-has-a-clue-anymore o’clock: cycles of feed, hold, feed myself, laundry, dishwasher, food prep etc
- 2.15pm: Baby refuses to nap so hubby takes her out in the pram
- 2:16pm: I stare at my computer screen thinking WTF have I done with my day??
- 6pm: Begin the bedtime routine for my 5-month-old baby
- 7-9pm: Baby rolls onto her face! Once, twice, thrice! Numerous trips up the stairs to settle before admitting defeat and bringing her downstairs to sleep in my arms while we watch an episode of Atlanta
- 9-10pm: After getting her successfully in the cot, I go to brush my teeth and upon my return, that damn squeaky doorknob wakes her up. More settling as baby’s lying in bed next to me
- 10pm: I manage to tug my nipple out of my sleeping baby’s mouth and fall asleep in approximately 5% of the total bed width
- 1-4am: Baby wails, I feed her and enter a chain of broken light sleep cycles
You get the picture.
My eco guilt rises up within me, despite literally having ZERO time alone, without my baby in my arms, on my boobs or out of sight. I feel this overbearing sense of my wings being clipped. Of my failure to not be doing more “productive” things with my time.
I’m here in body, offering my breast to my newborn. But I’m not fully present. My mind is a collection of concerns, both near and far. Today’s challenges and tomorrow’s disasters.
What matters most is the wiping of spit-up off my baby’s chin. No wait, I’m now pondering what crucial systems change to avert disaster even looks like. I’m hearing the call-to-arms of how crucial this year and the ones following it are. The fierce love for my baby and the gravity of the climate emergency co-inhabit me.
How can I be present for my child, focus on her intricate needs and process her various regressions and milestones, when so much must be done beyond the confines of this dark room?
I’ve internalised the idea that tasks related to nurturing and raising my child are somehow “low value” or “a distraction” from all the other “valuable” and “productive” things I should be doing. My day gets eaten up by nothing yet everything all at once. No matter the depths of exhaustion I plunge to, my children are my entire universe past and present. It’s because of them I feel so acutely the dread of the great unravelling, the term eco-philosopher Joanna Macy uses to refer to our epoch of interconnected eco-social crises in her book Active Hope:
The progressive decline and collapse of countless interlocking elements in the social, ecological, hydrological, and atmospheric systems on which life depends.
But what to do when I have nothing left in the tank to give? I eat fruit out of plastic punnets as organising an organic Abel & Cole food delivery requires meal planning I just don’t have energy or time for. I sometimes leave a fucking light on because I’m clutching my baby, phone, a glass of water all at once. I think of all the things I could and should be doing for my local Green Party to ensure that positive eco-social transformation in my small patch of England actually transpires.
But my brain is fuzzy with almost a year of poor sleep and I want, I need, to rest. Joanna Macy also speaks of the necessity of Active Hope during a time of social and ecological change. The emphasis is that it is a practice, “not as something you have [but] as something you do”.
But with that, I choose to not act for this moment. To stop thinking. To stop beating myself up and instead to close this Chrome tab and sleep…. next to my beautiful baby who I’m currently giving every ounce of my being to.
I’m turning down the volume of the planetary emergency sirens in my head. The internalising of society’s devaluing view of caregiving. Giving my baby my full, love-fulled attention is the only thing I need to do right now.