The librarian was nondescript in the way that everyone standing behind a counter is, probably in her 30s, with straight, fox-colored hair. When she took my stack of books, I noticed the way her sweater draped over a conspicuous melon-shaped belly, and I felt a tug in my chest and warmth rise in my stomach. It took a moment to recognize this sensation as envy. Then came another feeling: shock. I had never been jealous of any woman for carrying what looked like an uncomfortable load, or for what would come next: the messy, exhausting job of mothering an infant. Something unfamiliar had come over me.
In my late 20s and early 30s, I was terrified of becoming the sort of woman who was “baby crazy,” afraid motherhood would circumscribe my life. I politely admired but didn’t gush over my friends’ new babies. Compared with many women, I was under little pressure to procreate; neither my nor my husband’s parents had ever expressed more than a tentative longing for grandchildren. But six years ago, when I first held my 2-month-old niece, wrapped in a flower-print onesie and murmuring delicious baby noises, I felt a rush of joy, an indescribable feeling of human closeness.
My husband and I had made a home in Seattle for several years, and my friends of childbearing age tended to be writers and activists, scientists and scholars. When considering kids, they weighed not only their desires and finances but the state of the world. Many of them had read grim prognoses of what climate change would do to life on Earth. Even in the restrained language of science, the future holds unprecedented difficulties and disasters. For many people, these problems were an abstraction, but as an environmental journalist, I knew enough to imagine them in front of me. Driving across the bridge to my house, I pictured city beaches drowned by the rising sea. Watching the news, I wondered when the next colossal hurricane would strike the Gulf of Mexico or the mid-Atlantic. These thoughts are not paranoid. According to scientists’ predictions, if society keeps pumping out carbon dioxide at current rates, any child born now could, by midlife, watch Superstorm Sandy–size disasters regularly inundate New York City. She could see the wheat fields of the Great Plains turn to dust and parts of California gripped by decades of drought. She may see world food prices soar and water in the American West become even scarcer. By 2050, when still in her 30s, she could witness global wars waged over food and land. “It does make me wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have kids,” one of my friends whispered to me. A year later, she was pregnant. What had changed her mind?
I heard a lot of stray comments like this as I sat on the fence between motherhood and childlessness. A male musician I knew wondered when I might have a baby, then mused that most people he knew thought the world was too screwed up for children. A literary agent who took me to lunch asked if my reporting on climate change left me so gloomy that I didn’t want to have kids at all.