Photo: Koa Kalish
My plane touches down onto the tarmac of the San Francisco Airport and I flip off the airplane mode on my phone, waiting for my signal to catch. A barrage of texts and news announcements stream onto my screen: “Are you and Adam safe? Have you had to evacuate?” they read. Evacuate what? I worry before opening one of the news stories entitled “The Tubbs Fire.” I rapidly scroll through the article, aware that the rest of the plane has awoken to this same news and that many of us are now holding our breath as we go through the motions of deplaning and worming our way through customs. I send a series of rapid messages to Adam as I shuffle my way forward in line. “What’s going on?!” I text, “Is the house okay?” “Yes, everything is okay,” he replies, “let’s talk in the car.” I take my first deep breath and my hands move instinctively to my stomach, where they rest for the remainder of my time in line.
The Tubbs Fire was one of over a dozen Northern California wildfires that devastated communities in October of 2017. It became national news overnight, as it was specifically this fire that ended up burning over 5,000 structures and killing at least 22 people. Residents were forced to flee their homes in the middle of the night as whole neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa burned to the ground. My partner Adam and I live just a half hour south of Santa Rosa, in the town of Petaluma. This “firestorm,” as it has since been called, has inked itself into my memory, not only because of its gravity and proximity, but also because it marked the start of my pregnancy.
48 hours before the Tubbs fire ignited I gazed down at a positive pregnancy test in London. It was the tale end of a two-and-a-half-week trip to Europe, where I had been facilitating my course, “Earth Is `Ohana,” a class on embracing spiritual ecology as a response to our climate crisis. The day before I took this pregnancy test I was sharing about the “3-6-9 concept,” which references that our planet is headed toward a 3-degree Celsius global temperature increase, while going through the 6th mass extinction of species, and simultaneously headed towards a global population of 9 billion people by 2050. I had asked the class to sit in silence and reflect on how the sum of these numbers impacts them. For the majority of my 20’s my identity has largely been wrapped up in youth and climate work, understanding and sharing information like this has been the focus of my life for the past few years. The enormity of discovering that I was pregnant was also intertwined in the reality of these numbers. I was excited, yet critically aware of what it meant to bring another human being onto this planet. As I waited outside of the airport for Adam I kept thinking about how the myth of “safer, higher ground” was rapidly fading for many, and that our child would be living through so much more of this climate chaos.
The following days and weeks were surreal. Adam and I planned our future while packing up all the important items in our home. While we watched the ever expanding plume of black smoke to the north of us blanket the sky, family photos came down off the walls and were taken south for safekeeping, to his brother’s house. Checking the direction of the wind before bed became ritual, while we prayed that the fire wouldn’t jump the freeway in the middle of the night. We drove into the hot red haze that was Santa Rosa for my first prenatal appointment and listened to our baby’s heartbeat before being handed smoke masks and being warned that pregnant women needed to stay indoors during this time. As we drove home through the smoke I wondered about who this baby would be, but I was especially curious about why my child was choosing to come now. The sorrow of lost homes and lost lives poured into our small town, leaving evacuated families with nowhere to go except the front of our supermarkets. Store shelves were emptied and sirens raced continuously up and down the freeway while I tried my best to convince my close family and friends that Adam and I were safe, all the while delivering the news that we were starting a family.
“How do you feel?” was often the first question posed in these conversations. “Excited!” I would respond, eyeing the thick haze of smoke outside my window. Mostly I felt sad as I kept mentally replaying a recent visit with one of Adam’s friends. Over breakfast she had shared about her close encounters with the fire. A single mother living in Santa Rosa, she had awoken to the overpowering smell of smoke and, looking outside her window, saw flames rapidly making their way towards her home. Waking her daughter, she ran with her to their car and fled. It was only once they were at a safe distance that she turned to her child and asked if she was okay, to which her daughter replied, “my heart is shaking.”
These words echoed in my head as I remembered how our friend’s eyes filled with tears as she shared this story. This was the first moment I felt the strong surge of maternal instinct race through my body, the feeling of a love so all-consuming that it hurts to the marrow of your bones. In that moment I learned that it is possible to hear and feel the crying of the earth in a new way, that the feeling of your child’s heart shaking makes your own quake. I felt like an animal within my expanding flesh, rubbed raw by the truth that my skin was stretching to house another’s, and that one day this life would have to navigate our world.
As I grow bigger through the months I learn that pregnancy is a time of feeling vulnerable and powerful. I become aware of how my womb is an entire ocean, my body a whole earth unto itself, my baby it’s only citizen. My belly leaves nothing to hide, announcing that I have chosen to always place another’s life before mine, a life I live to protect. At times I have thought of pregnancy as both a consensual and non-consensual experience; consensual in that I have chosen to say yes to this journey, yes to growing this life, but I have not agreed to my gums bleeding and my teeth weakening because the baby needs my calcium. My body constantly feeds this life as my organs rearrange themselves without consulting my rational mind. Growing a child is teaching me that my capacity to give is rooted at a cellular level. I wonder if it’s possible to learn this without carrying a child, and I’m hit by the reality that everything I am going through is one of life’s most natural processes. I am curious how many of my peers will one day join me in parenthood. For most of us it seems inevitable; after all we are all animals.
“How will you balance motherhood and activism?” a friend asks me at the end of a conference. I appreciate her directness; it’s the silent question that I can hear wrapped around the many congratulations that I receive from my peers who know me exclusively through projects related to climate and social justice. I know my pregnancy is a surprising and even shocking turn of events for my current social group, most of whom actively work within “the youth sector.” I am the first of us to become pregnant and I can tell that, by association, I am aging my friends. Suddenly the words “the next generation” has taken on a new and much more intimate meaning. The next generation is no longer us; the next generation is growing in my womb. Recently a friend with whom I attended the UN Climate Conferences reposted a New York Times article on Facebook entitled, “No Children Because of Climate Change? Some People Are Considering It.” At first read I feel confronted by the wave of guilt that washes over me. Through the years I’ve lamented over the many points the article outlines. For me it all comes down to two questions: is it a selfish and destructive act to have a child? and if I do, will my child be okay in an uncertain future? Choosing to have a baby while being so intricately aware of the many ways the world is burning seems crazy. What does it mean to mother a whole generation of children into the devastation of these times? I’m scared because I don’t know. All that I do know is that suddenly my personal timeline has been yanked forward, beyond my own life and into the future of my child’s, providing a new type of urgency to understand where and how I might be most effective. Growing this life helps me to remember that my original introduction to grassroots activism was through mothers. These were women from my home on Maui who taught me the importance of showing up in my own community. From the mother who took her newborn door-to-door to collect signatures, to the single mothers who are currently running for office, back at home our activist spaces seamlessly blend family life and parenthood. These mothers continue to persevere because, as I’m learning, having a child demands a new type of engagement. I feel responsible for creating a healthier world for my baby to grow into, as well as shaping a human being that will play their part in our larger collective healing. I believe that activism and parenthood have always informed each other, but the act of mothering can often be invisible work. As we have started to acknowledge on a societal level, we can never know the true price of a mother or a father’s contribution, but for those who have yet to parent, we still can’t help but attempt to measure and question its value.
I feel every inch of my son’s head pass through me before I see his body gently land beneath my crouching open legs. He is silent until the midwife quickly picks him up to give him a little kiss of air that sets off a loud and continuous wail. His umbilical cord that binds his body and mine is the last remaining connection to our intimate truth of shared flesh. Just like every ancestor that has ever graced this planet, our love originates from an understanding that we were once one. I realize that my idea of what it meant to be a mother was simply theory before this moment. Until he was here I could not know that to birth another human being is to cross a threshold wherein ideas of right and wrong no longer exist. Here on the other side is the reminder that we were once all pure; within each of our origin stories was our own will to let life continue through us. When my son is placed on my chest for the first time, I am relieved of any shame for his life. I realize that dwelling in my previous guilt only takes away from the possibility of what my son’s life might offer. He is proof that within each of us lies the powerful act of creation.
I am a parent now. This new identity has slowly permeated every crevice of my being. It wills me to wake in the middle of the night to feed, to soothe, to hold. I do all these things with a gentleness and patience I did not know I possessed. I have long held the natural world in reverence, but to hold a part of me in this new truth is the closest thing I have known to holiness. For the first time as an adult I feel unapologetically grateful to be a part of my species. To become reacquainted with my humanness is a cooling respite after years of repenting for all that we have done. I had forgotten that we arrive inherently good and, in this amnesia, I had lost sight of our greater potential. In a world dominated by the story of our ugliness I have found it to easy to point a finger, to create boundaries and to have polarizing opinions about the “right ways to live.” Holding my child, I am suddenly able to shed many of these perceptions; instead I am contemplating how I might live from my own inherent goodness so that I may love my work as I do my child. After all, if those of us who care fail to seed the next generations, who will continue this work when we are gone?
This piece was originally written for and published in Loam Magazine's print publication, "Reawakening Resilience".