At the tender age of 28, the prospect of children – once a tiny speck on the horizon – is now glooping its way towards me like The Blob, all demanding and sticky. Do I want them? There was a point at which I would have decidedly said no. The snot, shit, insomnia and life-long commitment seemed like an unappealing package. And yet, this past year, children have started to actually seem… sweet? I can almost imagine holding little hands, blowing little noses, and imparting something like wisdom onto tiny little ears of my own making.
For the womb-owning of us with the privilege to see children as a life choice (choice being the important word) the conversation around children is a contentious and somewhat taboo one, even between women. It’s historically revolved around fertility and societal pressure on women to have children. For decades, women have been revolting against these expectations; largely by not having children, or by redefining what motherhood looks like by having children later in life, adopting, or simply having children in your life through other relationships.
Yet now, a new dilemma presents itself, like a punk debutante scandalising the motherhood ball. Climate change! Yay! Now, questions like ‘do I want children?’ and ‘can I have children?’ feel impossible for me to resolve without first answering ‘should I bring children into a dying world?’
After the recent code red confirming irreversible damage to the planet and the past year of floods, fires, tornadoes and droughts – the climate crisis is no longer emerging and very much here. How can we consider motherhood of the traditional kind (i.e. womb-owner creates baby in own womb) without talking about climate change? In order to try and unpick my own feelings, I decided to speak to five different women I know, of varying ages, situations and backgrounds, about how they are squaring climate change and motherhood. The response was refreshingly honest, sad and hopeful in equal measures.
Sophiya, 19, UK, currently has no children.
“Honestly I’ve always wanted to have a child and didn’t really think about the climate as a factor contributing to that until quite recently, as it’s become more common in discussion. I think it is a strange and personal sacrifice to make on an individual level compared to reducing emissions etc. on an organisational level.
“I have thought about how the world is likely to be a much darker place for a child in a few decades time with the way that climate change is going alongside the bucket of social issues and stigmas inherited by each generation, but I don’t believe it will be a place where life isn’t worth living.”
Heidi, 28, UK, currently has no children.
“Climate change doesn’t really impact my decision on having children. I think having children still feels like such a distant possibility that I haven’t considered what their future would look like, it’s very much just an idealised blur of swing sets and birthday cakes. The stark reality of the climate crisis doesn’t factor into my distant daydream version of being a mother.
“When my potential children stop being cute little prospective fantasies and start being tangible humans, I think I’ll feel very panicked over what their future will look like. I don’t think it will stop me having children, but it will make the decision much harder.”
Jiwon, 31, South Korea, currently has no children.
“I am considering adopting children. Climate change is not the reason for this decision, but people’s ignorance about climate change has definitely affected my decision. If you picture your life with your children, the first thing you think of for your kids is safety… If you can adopt a baby who is already in this world, you can be the parent you wanted to be and offer the baby a chance to live in a better environment.
“Currently I am suffering from endometriosis stage 4, meaning I’m facing infertility. Adopting is not 100% my choice and it became a substitute. I am not happy about this situation, so if my condition improved, I might change my feelings about having a biological baby.”
Something that interested me about all of the women I spoke to was their recognition of climate responsibility and how they were coping with this. Some took it very seriously, others recognised a feeling that they should be more responsible – but had either overlooked climate – or were actively choosing to ignore it. All of the women who answered were in the fortunate position to live in countries where they have access to contraception and abortion, making them the ultimate decision makers in this process. When you’re contemplating the end of the world – this is a heavy cross to bear.
The palpable outcomes
The impact of overpopulation has been widely documented, with fun websites like Population Matters featuring graph upon graph in which upward trajectories of people mean downward trajectories for virtually everything else(1). However, there is some myth-busting to be done when it comes to population. You won’t find any of the countries with the highest birth-rates, such as African countries like Niger or the Congo, in the list of top carbon-emitting countries (2). The obvious reason that population is an issue is consumption in first-world countries; if we have babies, they’re going to be consuming too much – but this isn’t necessarily the case worldwide.
So – adopt a zero carbon lifestyle? Build a nice little yurt and raise some forest babies? Even if I could manage this, it still doesn’t resolve the issue of how climate change could impact the lives of the new humans you’ve created.
An obvious solution is to adopt; but this requires an immense amount of time and significant financial backing. And for me, there is something magical about pregnancy. I’ve never been able to get over the fact that it is possible to create a person inside your body. Mad, right?! The booming IVF market proves that I am not alone in this feeling, the industry projected to be worth £33 billion by 2028 (3). To delve into women and our biological urges is another article, but for those that have them – women are being asked to deny an overwhelming emotional and physical longing to reproduce. None of the women I spoke to were clear cut about their feelings on having kids, and talking to those who had children about the joy and love it had given them made the loss of not having them palpable.
Cristina, 41, UK, currently has one young child.
“When I first decided to try having kids, climate change was not on my radar at all. That was about six years ago, and it should have been obviously, but it wasn’t. For me personally – I couldn’t have made decisions about kids with the same brain as having had one.
“Had I been more climate conscious at the time, I could see myself maybe making a decision not to have kids because of it, because having not experienced what it’s like having a kid, and the full range of emotions and love that comes through it, that is so – for me – so vast, so deep, so incredible, I now fully stand by anyone’s decision to do what they want.
“It’s such a big thing having a kid, the impact on your life and your body has made me personally not want another one. Somewhere in there is also climate, but if I am being honest, I am sort of using it as a reason, because it makes me feel better about not wanting to have any more.”
Mandy, 70, British and has two children.
“I gave birth to my children in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I experienced a real physical longing to be a mother, but at that time, climate change was barely thought about. I’m not sure how I would handle that longing if it were now.
“I think some people feel that having a child is a sort of optimistic act, but I now know too much about climate change to share that feeling. I believe that the human race will survive and eventually deal with climate change, but I think that before that happens, the suffering across the world will be intense, so I guess that means that I would probably choose not to have children now. But that’s a painful decision, and my heart goes out to young women today who have to make that choice for real, since my children have been the joy of my life.”
Why is it a women’s issue?
The problem with this issue from a feminist standpoint, is the emphasis is on women to resolve it. There has long been a conflation between femininity and the earth, starting with the almighty Mother Earth: the concept that the earth is female and that to care for it is a female quality (caring itself being viewed as a female role).
Contrastingly ‘petromasculinity’, a term coined by Professor Cara Daggett(4), emphasises the relationship between fossil fuels and white patriarchal orders. Conservative white men are more likely to be climate deniers than any other demographic, with research showing many men would not use eco-friendly products like canvas bags for fear of being viewed as gay or effeminate, that vegetarianism is viewed as wimpy and effeminate, and if you’ve ever been to a barbecue, you’ll know that grilling meat is the ultimate hetero flex.(5)
The recent BirthStrike movement has seen women giving a firm answer to this question, refusing to have children until action is taken on climate change, with its founder Blythe Pepino saying: “It is OK to make this choice, but it’s not OK to have to make this choice. We should never be in a situation where we are genuinely scared to bring life into the world.” (6)
The unfairness of this burden on women is clear, but we all know life is unfair, and perhaps our children will feel that their lives are unfair when they’re facing environmental catastrophes in 20 years’ time. What a cheering thought. But don’t worry! This article is actually about to get unironically cheerier.
There is still hope?
For the women wanting to have children in spite of the climate crisis, there is a distinct factor: hope. First, the belief that things could get better and a desire to improve things for their children, and naively or not, the impact of our own individual actions is negligible in comparison to systematic change.
A 2017 report from the Climate Accountability Institute demonstrated that only 100 companies are responsible for more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (7). This is not to suggest that individual actions don’t make a difference, but to make a huge personal sacrifice against for little gain does begin to feel debatable, in comparison to riding your bike to work, opting for a staycation or using a girly reusable bag.
“Whilst thinking about these questions I asked a few friends, and we agreed that there is an awareness of the link between having children and climate change, but this awareness tends to fall in the same pile as knowing airplanes are bad for the environment, but still taking one to go on holiday. I sense a bit of a social pressure rising as climate change and children become a bigger topic. Ideally, this will be a topic we consider kindly as a collective rather than another subject to have an opinion which views anything different as right or wrong.” – Sophiya
“I’ve never heard anyone considering their family plan based on the climate crisis. Many parents (at least the people I know) never give enough time to discuss the various issues and the impact they will cause or have in their life by their actions, and this is kind of shocking to me.” – Jiwon
“Other women my age have recently become grandmothers, but most have not expressed to me any fear regarding the future for these children. One or two, who are members of Extinction Rebellion, have voiced the same ideas as me. They are driven to rebellious acts and protest on behalf of their children and grandchildren.” – Mandy
The refreshing conclusion
Speaking to other women about this issue only confirmed its complexity. I was expecting firm pro and anti opinions, something to persuade me of a yes or a no, but instead everyone felt a mixture of both. In a world that’s increasingly divided, it was refreshing to have a conversation in which we allowed ourselves to fall in the middle, to sit on the fence, to straddle both sides.
The opportunity to express malleable and manifold opinions highlights that most difficult decisions have no right or wrong answer, only advantages and disadvantages. It remains a difficult and personal decision, not an intellectual one, the responsibility of which still falls to women – as it always has – making climate a feminist and feminised issue. As for me, I am more undecided than ever. Much like all of the women I spoke to, the guilt from my head is in conflict with the hope from my heart, and only time will tell which one wins.
- Population Matters. (2021) Available at: https://populationmatters.org/
- Carbon Footprint by Country (2021) World Population Review. Available at: https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/carbon-footprint-by-country
- Global IVF Market 2021 Size & Share | Market Worth USD 36.39 Billion and Exhibit 10.1% CAGR by 2026 (2021) Global Newswire, Published 2 February 2021. Available at: https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2021/02/02/2167897/0/en/Global-IVF-Market-2021-Size-Share-Market-Worth-USD-36-39-Billion-and-Exhibit-10-1-CAGR-by-2026.html
- Daggett C. (2018) Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire. Millennium. 2018;47(1):25-44. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0305829818775817
- Karpf A. (2021) How Women Can Save the World, UK, C. Hurst & Co. Ltd
- Hunt E. (2021) BirthStrikers: meet the women who refuse to have children until climate change ends, The Guardian, Published 12 March 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/mar/12/birthstrikers-meet-the-women-who-refuse-to-have-children-until-climate-change-ends
- Griffin, P. (2017) The Carbon Majors Database, CDP Carbon Majors Report. Available to view: https://bit.ly/3Dn3NQ3