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Life's longing for itself
[Editor’s note: This essay is a little longer than usual, with an approximate reading time of 15 minutes. I’m just giving you a head’s up in case you want to set it aside for some downtime over the holidays. The usual links and recommendations can be found below the essay.]
Soon after meeting my now husband, on our third date, I asked him why he was so sure he wanted to have a kid one day.
He responded simply: “What else am I going to do with the next forty years of my life?” It sounded flippant, but I soon came to view it as more thoughtful than that.
Dan had done a lot in his then-37 years. He’d left the northern English town he grew up in and felt suffocated by. Lived in other countries. Pursued his dream career. At one point, he had the big six figure salary. He had published a novel. Road tripped across the United States. Moved to Australia for love. Moved back to England when that didn’t work out. He even became a Person on the Internet for a while, the kind who received spontaneous marriage proposals via email from bookish women. In other words, he’d done all the things he set out to do, as well as a few things that he never expected to.
However most of those things, he admitted frankly, had been underwhelming and certainly had not left him with the satisfaction he’d imagined they would. But they did leave him with lessons, wisdom, and a mountain of mental health issues to work through in therapy.
Chief among those lessons was the fact that much of what you doggedly spend your life pursuing — success, romantic love, fame, validation, a hot body, wealth — are just poor stand-ins for what you actually need: an acceptance that life is suffering, you are deeply imperfect, and the true work of being here is learning how to be kind to yourself, and then extending that same kindness to others. That’s the hardest, most liberating work of all.
With that knowledge in tow, what sense would it make to continue to pursue success/fame/money/wealth with the next forty years, he reasoned? He already knew where all that stuff leads: a dead end. Why not pass some of those lessons on, or even better, learn them for the second time, this time through the eyes of a kid. Plus, he said, he just wanted a pal, someone to go on walks with in the morning with the golden retriever he hoped to one day have.
Ever the skeptic, I was surprised to find this argument so convincing. In that strange first pandemic year, it was hard to know what to do with my life anymore, but I sensed that perhaps I was talking to a person whose hazy longings for the future were similar to mine. Still, I can assure you that no one was more surprised than me when, just over a year later, I found out I was pregnant with our child.
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For millennials who share a vaguely similar worldview to my own, there is an implicit question that lies underneath any pregnancy announcement. It’s not always spoken, but heavily implied: How can you bring another life into all this?
In the midst of buying all the bottle sterilizers and bassinet sheets and velcro swaddles, you have to wonder if you might regret this monumental, irreversible, life-altering decision to have a child. You have to imagine what their life might be like after you’re gone, and then subsequently feel guilty about buying all this baby gear.
In writing this essay, I am adding to what has become an emblematic genre for members of my generation: the justification of why I am (or am not) having children in the era of climate emergency.
There are plenty of valid reasons to choose not to have children, and more specifically, to not have children given the state of things on earth. I used to make a version of that argument myself, and certainly respect those who feel that choice is right for them. But I have to admit that a prior version of myself who was pretty convinced I didn’t want children had never thought too deeply about the world I was, by virtue of my argument, saying I was okay with.
If you took my particular argument to its endpoint, it would be easy to then justify the idea that there’s no point in trying. No future to save. No way we can make this better. Nothing worth sticking around for.
And perhaps even worse, my own reasoning strikes me as disingenuous now. Because while I may have been implying that the decision to forgo children was based in some kind of stoic responsibility or sanctimony, I had no problem simultaneously keeping up the trappings of a life that was, by all other measures, unsustainable.
Unsustainable for the planet, yes, but perhaps more pertinently, unsustainable for myself, too. My entire life was predicated on the notion of getting on a plane at a moment’s notice, with minimal friction. I lived in a city that made it very hard for me to rest; there was always something to do, something to see, someone better to be — just as capitalism wanted. I found myself always striving for more or new or better, no matter how hard I worked. It was exhausting.
Like many ambitious people, my work was my life — my purpose, my identity, my reputation, my priorities, and my value system all rolled into one. Any meaningful time or activity I managed to spend outside of work was a mere aberration, a distraction, a nice-to-have. In short, my life had no deep commitment to time or place, and my body and spirit could feel it.
As I’ve chronicled in this newsletter over the past three years, the pandemic disrupted that cycle of burnout for me in rather spectacular fashion. I knew I needed to change basically everything about my life in order to not repeat it. So I did. And then shortly after, I met Dan.
Slowly, I began to feel like there was a softening, an opening, an unraveling. The kinds of things that had formerly felt like they might limit my life now felt like they would expand and give it more meaning. And despite everything going in the world, it still felt like there was plenty of meaning to find.
In late June of 2022, our son Rafe was born seven weeks early, during a heatwave. Just over 36 hours after delivering him and 12 hours after being discharged myself, I was driving back and forth from our flat to the Special Care Baby Unit at the hospital, where he was being cared for until he grew big enough for discharge.
Like all NHS hospitals, it was hot as hades in there. My lactating, hormonal self was a veritable furnace as I sat there for hours pumping milk with one hand, holding Rafe with the other. My back was stuck to a leather hospital recliner and my front was skin-to-skin with Rafe, both of us attempting to heal the various injuries and indignities of birth. Our only privacy was the celestial-print muslin I frequently draped over our heads — carefully avoiding getting tangled in Rafe’s tiny wires and probes — so we could pretend it was just us two again.
At the end of those long, awful days, once we’d done Rafe’s 9:30 pm feed via his nose tube, Dan and I would drive out of the hospital parking lot into the kind of summer nights that never seem to end. Turning up our road, away from the sea, we’d look achingly at the tail-end of yet another gorgeous orange sherbet sunset — the ones the town where we live is famous for — and sigh. “Maybe next summer we’ll enjoy them,” we’d say. When your kid is in the hospital, it turns out, it is impossible to enjoy anything at all.
Since those summer days, I’ve thought about next summer, and the 10 or 20 after that, and what they will look like for Rafe’s life. I know it will be different. I doubt he will feel the same levels of boundless opportunity and optimism that I did when I embarked on adult life. I doubt he will travel the world as much as I did by age 30. I also doubt it will take him very long to realize that many of the impressive institutions that grant you permission to do certain things are actually not worth much deference at all.
But in all the ways Rafe’s life and prospects might be worse or more limited than my own, I think there are plenty that might be better, too. Because a world where we teach children to question our culture’s expectations for more and faster and better, and invite them to honor their limitations rather than try to fight against them will, I suspect, go a long way to changing the world too. When you really stop to think about it, the values that have driven the destruction of the planet are, at the end of the day, the values we all collectively hold and act on. We can choose new ones.
In my twenties, I used to observe the act of modern parenting as a kind of capitalist slog, where the goal is to optimize another first world consumer to succeed under this wretched system. I know that sounds dark, but I suppose that’s because back then, I subconsciously saw my own life that way, too. Bringing another human into that would only make that task harder—and submit someone else to the messiness, chaos, and disorder of life. Why would I do that to them, and to myself?
The answer, I’ve come to find, is because doing so reminds you of how human you are. And perhaps the best antidote to the rapacious culture of capitalism is to really accept the constraints of that particular state of being. The utter mess and chaos of it all. To not spend the next forty years trying to optimize your life so you can just barely survive under it, but instead look for a different path, one with less resistance, lower expectations, and a lot more humility and rest.
I don’t see my job as a parent to optimize and remove obstacles from Rafe’s life in a scary, unstable world. I won’t try doggedly to make his prospects undeniably better than mine by ensuring he exceeds all his development milestones, has an endless array of amazing enrichment opportunities, expensive educational paths, and eventually a shiny and impressive career. Instead, I see my job as preparing him to confront a different world, one that I know may be materially worse than the one I grew up in.
To help with that, we have a post-it note on our fridge that reads simply: “Rafe knows what he needs.” It’s a reminder that we are the ones who have to train ourselves out of the high expectations, the tightly wound schedules, the “normal” (and therefore broken) way of doing things. He is much less corrupted by all the same values that have ruined the planet. He is already perfectly human, and it’s our job to protect that for as long as we can and see what arises from it.
In that way, as Mary DeMocker wrote, “protecting children’s imaginations is protecting the climate.” Giving them space to exist and problem-solve and come to grips with the world on their own terms is, in itself, a profound act of resistance.
When your baby is in the Special Care unit, the pediatricians and neonatal nurses who tend to the babies are very careful about managing your expectations.
They give little in the way of prognosis, speak in vague terms about date of discharge, and are careful not to sound too optimistic when doing their morning rounds. They give only baselines—no baby leaves before 35 weeks gestation or weighing 2 kgs—rather than cheery best case scenarios. Weights are taken every other day, because the daily fluctuation of grams breeds obsession, which you see all over the faces of every parent in there.
Indeed when your baby is in Special Care, your entire existence revolves around getting them out. Every day, you leave the hospital and drive home to sit amidst all the still-pristine baby gear you so lovingly bought. You numbly eat dinner and take a shower to prepare yourself for the next long day. Every so often, it dawns on you all over again that the baby you carried for months and just birthed isn’t … with you? It’s a surreal and deeply unnatural experience that every hormone and instinct in your body finds intolerable.
Sitting in that sweaty vinyl hospital recliner for hours and hours, I remember that it was hard to tell where I ended and Rafe began. It was precisely because I was still so physically and fundamentally connected to him that I began to worry that his nascent consciousness might be picking up on my impatience and desperation to get him home.
As the 35 week benchmark came closer and closer, I didn’t want this little being — struggling to get back over 2 kgs after losing 11% of his birth weight — to already be living on a deadline. The last thing I wanted for his first week on earth was to feel like he had to aim higher, to do better. He needed me as much as he did when I was still pregnant, and it was my job to give him that without asking for anything in return.
Dan and I both made a conscious effort to cool it, which meant vastly lowering our expectations of when we might be able to take him home. This, of course, made us very sad all over again. We mentally prepared for weeks more of this particular version of hell we were living in, where the only times we weren’t impossibly sad was when he was resting on our skin. We knew from sitting next to the other unlucky parents on the ward that weeks could easily turn into months.
But just as soon as we abandoned hope, things took a turn. The jaundice finally went away for good after teetering above and below the treatment line for several days. And then one morning, our favorite nurse in the unit suggested we try taking out Rafe’s feeding tube. Babies don’t generally learn to suck and swallow until after 35 weeks gestation, but being passively fed every three hours via tube, she explained, wasn’t helping him do what we suspected he already had the strength and ability to: feed on his own. As brutal as it sounds, he needed to learn what hunger felt like. Otherwise, he may get stuck in the unit for longer than he needed to be, too comfortable with being fed on a predetermined schedule.
The nurse patiently sat with us during every feed that day, and with her help, Rafe took to it like a champ. That same night, he and I stayed in a hospital room to prove that we could feed independently and were ready for discharge. He had no problem making his hunger known for the first time in his life with big, bellowing cries. The next morning, eleven days after he was born, one day shy of 35 weeks, and a few grams lighter than 2kgs, the doctor said we could go home.
We had abandoned all hope of our expectations being met, only to find that they were exceeded.
When I was pregnant I took comfort in a line from this poem by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran.
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you, but not from you…
Life’s longing for itself. I think you can see that longing everywhere, if you’re looking. In the seeds that germinate long after you have given up on them. In the achingly slow yet steady way the morning sunlight returns to your bedroom wall in February, filling you with hope. In the persistence of a pre-term baby who learns to feed as soon as he’s given the chance to get hungry. In the people who get up day after day, despite everything, and do the kinds of things they believe will make the world better.
It’s in the sparkle of someone’s eyes when they talk about a great idea they’ve suddenly had. In the way that your body craves the precise foods it needs to stay healthy at the precise time they are in season. And it’s reflected in the surprising fact that, as Ezra Klein convincingly wrote in the New York Times, “the people who have devoted their lives to combating climate change keep having children.”
When I got pregnant under the particular circumstances I did, I didn’t feel it was my place to decide that life itself is done longing. Maybe it was because I’d slowed down enough to allow some of my cynicism and resignation to soften, or, like Dan, I’d burned through enough of the other things that life has to offer to know they were dead ends for me. But whatever it was, I felt like this “little flicker of something”— as the ultrasound technician described Rafe’s heartbeat the day I found out I was pregnant — wanted to be here. Whoever he was going to be was coming through me, but not from me. Who was I to say no?
That’s not to say I’m hugely optimistic about what the future might hold, though I’m not entirely hopeless either. But at the same time, I’ve also given up on the notion that life is only worth living if it’s some optimized, seamless, shiny, and ever-improving existence. Life, from microbes to megafauna, just isn’t like that. It never was, but it keeps longing anyway. Despite the onslaught of the headlines each morning, I just don’t think that longing is going anywhere.
So, back to that question, how can I bring another life into all this? Perhaps a big part of the answer lies in what climate writer Elizabeth Weil meant when she wrote: “the possibility of the Apocalypse is our work.” The old me — the one who was sure she didn’t want to have kids — was living her life in spite of the catastrophe, almost pretending it didn’t really exist. That will drive you nuts, make you sick, and lead you to pursue all kinds of perverse incentives. From what I can tell, it’s also what most people in the developed world are doing right now.
I think something changes when you put the catastrophe front and center in your consciousness. The world as we knew it is over. Accept that it’s happening, say good riddance to the values that got us here, and then decide your actions and future choices based on that. What do you still have to look forward to? What do you want to leave behind? What will motivate you to work, to care, to find meaning?
That certainly doesn’t mean having a kid for everyone, but for me, much to my surprise, it did. As writer Angela Garbes put it, “parenting is a very hopeful and revolutionary act because [it means] I’m believing we can make the world better even if I am not physically there when it happens.”
Rafe is approaching six months old now, and sometimes when I’m staring at his unreasonably cute little face, I ask him what he’s going to be interested in, what is going to ignite him one day. Maybe he will be an artist, or be fascinated by machines, or ballet, or bugs. The thing I’m most excited about in my life right now is finding out the answer to that.
But just as when he was in Special Care and I was desperate for him to come home, I’m going to try for as long as possible to abandon all my hopes of what he might be, so I can allow him to decide what he wants to become. I don’t want him to pick up on my cynicism or fear or world-weariness, lest I rob him of the answers or solutions or new ideas he might think of all on his own.
I expect that amidst the joy and wonder of figuring all this out, he’ll experience no small degree of strife, pain, struggle, and grief. But that’s just how life is. I want to give him a chance to get hungry, to long for life itself.
In case you missed it, paid subscriptions for this newsletter are now active again, after a postpartum hiatus. You can read the update here.
Things I enjoyed reading
A deeply satisfying, delicious read about the origins and cultural persistence of the slow cooker. [Longreads]
I found reading Sheila Heti’s alphabetized diaries strangely addicting. A fun experiment with form that wasn’t too high-minded for me. [New York Times]
What will become of the microbiomes of babies born during the height of Covid lockdowns? This is fascinating and a great case not stressing about the dog slobbering all over the baby. [The Atlantic]
What happens when you buy a house and find out it has a dark history? [The Guardian]
“I have observed a change, or really a narrowing, in the public behavior of people who use Twitter or other social media a lot.” [New York Times]
Things I enjoyed listening to
This podcast episode about avoiding “dread” by carefully choosing what to commit to over the holidays is actually much more profound and expansive than that. It’s ostensibly for parents, but useful for anyone who struggles with people-pleasing and over-committing, habits which tend to run really deep. [Good Inside]
I’m enjoying the Hard Fork podcast from the New York Times which covers the moral depravity of Musk’s Twitter, Silicon Valley’s meltdown, and the stupidity of crypto with just the right amount of snark for me. [Hard Fork]
A new project
My partner Dan is launching a new fiction project on Substack.is a novel (in chunks) about a man (in bits). The story takes place over a year, between January and December, and the novel will be serialized in its entirety during that time. Dan's writing is funny, sad, hopeful, a touch vulgar, and always a little uncanny. (His last book is here). I'm excited to see where this story ends up. For now, it feels good to have the creative juices flowing in our house again.
“That is what has spurred me to write. My engine, as it were. It is my belief that a rich, spontaneous joy lies at the root of all creative expression. What is originality, after all, but the shape that results from the natural impulse to communicate to others that feeling of freedom, that unconstrained joy?” —Haruki Murakami
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