My son is three months old. He has no idea what the world is, what it has become. I can say anything in front of him. I can curse, I can cry. He’s happy or he’s sad, there’s no cause and effect. I can read to him from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book that spends hundreds of pages drawing an analogy between a child growing up and an invasive tree species flourishing in a sidewalk crack, a book full of compassion for the poor hated by the rich, casual about the hatred it portrays for people of other cultures. He doesn’t understand a word.
Every day I take him on a tour of what I jokingly call “the estate”, our sixth of an acre in Detroit’s distant north suburban sprawl, barren when I moved here, now abundant with ripening apples, cherries, strawberries, saskatoonberries, raspberries. He can’t eat them; he doesn’t understand what they’re for, but I figure he can interact with the flowers. I break off a stem of bleeding heart and shove it in his fist. He hovers in my arms over the Siberian roses like a pudgy bee, breathing in bewildered gasps. His eyes crinkle; he cringes from the sun. I stand him barefoot in the grass on his flabby, undeveloped knees, and he cries.
My wife and I tried for three years to conceive. We exhausted the usual method, then experimented with folk remedies, natural medicine. We talked ourselves up to a course of fertility drugs, then another and another. She had to terminate an ectopic pregnancy, and it devastated her, and me. We recovered. We kept going. Finally, we resorted to in-vitro fertilization. It would have been prohibitively expensive if we weren’t both well-educated people from educated families. You only get to do IVF if you have privilege. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The trans-vaginal ultrasound, that procedure conservative legislators in the US want women to undergo seemingly as a form of torture before they’re permitted to choose an abortion: she had so many of those I lost count. I had to stab her in the hip with a three-inch needle every day for months, switching hips every other day to give the bruising a chance to go down. It was fucking hard. She cried a lot. I drank a lot. I got impotent for a while. And I ran over and over in my head all the arguments I could come up with why we didn’t have to do this, why we should anyway. Depending where we were in the cycle, I had to be able to convince myself it was okay if it didn’t work, and also, simultaneously, that it was worth all this pain if it did.
For a moment, right at the end, it looked like it wouldn’t. We went from seven fertilized, viable eggs down to one. And I saw an end to it. If it failed, we could stop. With that last egg, she got pregnant. My reaction could not be characterized as joy or relief, though everyone seemed to want that from me. I felt like I’d been clenching every muscle expecting to be punched in the stomach for eighteen months only to be told the punch isn’t coming. I didn’t want their congratulations. I was exhausted, bewildered, and we had nine months to go. I kept right on expecting the worst. I don’t think it was the same for my wife. She’d been the one getting stabbed, probed, but she’d been able to invest in this positive outcome like I couldn’t. Maybe she had to.
As it turned out, those nine months were easy. The kid grew, turned, came into the world and took a breath. We told ourselves it was karma, payback for the pain.
In the meantime, Lord Farquad got elected, took office, and started dismantling everything good or hopeful he could get his hands on. What woefully insufficient protections were in place against rapacious, fatally short-sighted exploitation of the natural world in pursuit of profit fell away like scales. Willfully oblivious selfishness—not those notions of freedom and equality beaten into my head since I was a child—begins more and more to seem as if it’s always been the default.
Into this world, I have brought a son. I no longer have the luxury of playing devil’s advocate. I have to be good for him. I have to make the world good for him, even such as it is. So I have little choice but to attempt to rewrite this story, his story, as a story of redemption. Maybe that makes me an unreliable narrator. Maybe you want to take this with a grain of salt, dear reader. Too fucking bad. That option is no longer on the table.
It occurs to me having a child might make a decent trial run for living through an apocalypse. If I can adapt to this, I can adapt to anything.
I know he can adapt to anything, because he survived being born.
“Your life is going to change,” my brother-in-law said, after I delayed too long admitting to my family that the IVF had worked. He was already a father. I resented him for the platitude. This was what I’d been dreading—having to perform that joyful anticipation I had been told to feel but could not. I had no idea what he was saying.
I understand it now. Becoming a father has uprooted me from everything I know, forced me to find all new places to grab hold of the same landscape, the same people, the same life. I am no longer my own. He gets the best of my emotional, intellectual and financial resources. Which is not to say he’s my whole life; I have managed to accomplish a few other things since he was born. I made a heart and a peace sign out of lights and coat hangers and hung them in our windows. I called my congresspeople every three days to complain. I supported the people I love and the causes I care about. I listened uneasily, unconvinced, to all those arguments for how much more important protest writing and art had become, and struggled on with the incorporation documents for my nonprofit literary magazine. Reckoning 2, which you’re reading right now, is officially sanctioned by the IRS to do good through art and not pay taxes on it. The irony is not lost on me. I have, somehow, through sleep-deprivation and tears, written this. (This much of it, at least. You’ll know if I finish.)
I’m doing it for him.
Maybe that will come across as a platitude. You, childless progressive activist, perhaps newly radicalized, attending rallies and protests, calling your congresspeople every three days, casting about for what more you can do: maybe you’ll see me as a lost cause for the cause. Everything I do is for this adorable little blob. If I didn’t have him, I could be investing the resources I intend for his future in supporting Indigenous activists, Black Lives Matter, legal counsel for immigrants. You would be absolutely right.
But you’d be failing to grasp the revolution in perspective this little blob’s presence has wrought. In my revisionist history, this is the bottom line, the reason we kept going in spite of all the pain and counterarguments: helping a new person into the world and then helping them come to terms with that world teaches us a part of what it is that can’t be learned any other way. I didn’t know what that knowledge would amount to. But I knew it existed. I see it in my parents, my grandparents, in every parent of every child I’ve met. I knew there was only one way to get it. For that, I was willing to expend all this emotional labor, all these resources. Maybe that makes me selfish—even as I am learning to be more selfless than I’ve ever been? Maybe I’m taking unfair advantage of the privilege I was born with. He wouldn’t exist without it. But I can’t grudge him that. Not anymore. He gives me hope I won’t have to.
Let me tell you how I expect my son’s life to go, in this horrible new world, in spite of it.
He’ll grow up with his feet in the dirt, in the garden, in the woods. He’ll track dirt all over the house. He’ll eat dirt. He’ll eat as much food as I can manage to make my meager sixth of an acre produce, and more. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about how to grow food.
He’ll get sick, he’ll get well. Maybe he’ll be allergic to the world, because of everything his parents were exposed to before he was born. Or maybe his body will adapt to the new toxins, the changes, the pollen, the invasives.
He’ll get to know cats, dogs, ducks, chickens, sparrows, robins. He’ll meet frogs and toads, then watch them get scarcer. Maybe he’ll never meet a salamander. He’ll never see an intact, living coral reef.
He’ll visit the coasts, he’ll visit mountains, but he won’t get to know them, not like I did. But he’ll know the lakes, the woods. He’ll watch them get taken over by invasives, watch those invasives naturalize, learn to love them, to live with them. He’ll watch them get replaced by subdivisions.
He’ll know the wastelands, the ruins of industry. He’ll watch them crumble and sprout trees.
He’ll hate mosquitoes, but be fascinated by the industry of ants, bees, spiders. He’ll get ticks. I’ll spend half my life picking ticks off him. He’ll eat bugs, lots of them, and like it. Crickets taste like shellfish. Maybe he’ll never eat shellfish.
He’ll have cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and friends. He’ll never have a brother or a sister. I wish that could be different. I love my sisters and I don’t know who I’d be if not for them.
Around when he turns seven, maybe I’ll realize he’s not my son at all, but my daughter, and I’ll have to do a lot of rethinking I thought I was ready for, about what gender means, about his relationship to the world, and mine. Because try as I might to be open-minded, I’ll have been operating for a long time on the assumption that he’s got a lot of the same privilege I had. It’ll take time to adapt—and in that time, I’ll hurt him, and I’ll let him get hurt. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about pain.
He’ll meet and know and love his gay cousins, black cousins, brown cousins, his Christian grandmother, his Muslim uncle, his pseudopagan pantheist father, and he’ll take all that experience out into the world and learn more than I’ll ever know about empathy, about difference.
He’ll meet assholes, complacent, relentlessly selfish assholes terrified of change. He’ll go to school with some of them. He’ll feel ostracized and alone and I won’t be able to help him. One day he’ll realize how many assholes exist in the world. He and I will struggle together to understand how they could have gotten that way. We’ll fail.
He’ll embrace technology, but he won’t be dependent on it—not the way I was. His laundry and his transportation and his white noise machine will be solar-powered, clean. I’ve already explained to him what the internal combustion engine is, how people mow their lawns with dead dinosaurs. He doesn’t get it. I’ll keep explaining until he does. By the time he’s twenty-five, they’ll have stopped making new internal combustion engines. By then, it will be too late. By the time he’s fifteen, the earth will have warmed past the 2 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris accords. We won’t see any drastic change; it will have happened too gradually. But passing that milestone will drive home to people what they’d been able to ignore. People will be moving away from the coasts. Detroit and its water-rich, post-industrial surrounds will get populated again. Space will be at a premium. Maybe we’ll take people in: my sisters’ families, my parents, strangers immigrating from Florida or Bangladesh. They’ll become part of our family; it’ll be like having siblings, the closest he’ll get.
Or maybe fossil-fuel-based transportation infrastructure will fall apart before we can replace it, long-distance travel will become a thing of the past, and communities will get a hell of a lot tighter-knit. Maybe he’ll have to learn to farm for real, to subsist. I couldn’t—if it happened now, I’d starve. Not him. He’ll feed his family, his community. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about community.
He won’t solve the climate crisis. That was up to me, up to us, and we’ve pretty much failed. I’m not putting that expectation on him.
I wish I could say I wouldn’t put any expectation on him at all, but I know better. Already, three months old, he is my embodiment of hope, exactly like in all those clichés about what parents want for their children. I can’t help hoping for him everything that’s too late for me. But I don’t have to force them on him. I don’t have to blame him.
He’ll learn to live with the climate crisis the way we’re all already doing whether we know it or not. I’ll teach him everything I can; it won’t be enough. He’ll grieve for what we’ve lost, he’ll grieve for what we haven’t lost yet. Maybe he’ll blame me. He wouldn’t be wrong.
Eventually, he’ll move beyond where I’m capable of predicting anything.
Maybe I’m wrong about all of this. Maybe he’ll take up with the assholes, reject everything I’ve tried to teach him, get rich fixing prices on cancer medicine or selling payday loans to the poor. But I can’t countenance that possibility, any more than I can countenance the possibility the oceans will acidify, kill not just the corals but the algae that produces sixty percent of the oxygen, or that Lord Farquad will build that wall.
Then again, I couldn’t countenance the possibility that Lord Farquad would be president. So maybe it is all going to shit, and there’s nothing I or my kid or anybody will be able to do. A nonprofit literary magazine isn’t going to save us, no matter how diligently, fiercely and eloquently we all think radical, community-building environmentalist thoughts. A little adorable blob isn’t going to save us no matter how many epically selfish, racist egomaniacs’ rotten hearts he melts. There certainly is a plausible scenario in which my decision to have a kid, to devote my resources and time to him instead of fighting what might be coming is the deciding factor between a future with coral reefs, ocean algae, art and free exchange of ideas, and the one where it all goes to shit. But it’s too late to care about that. In my revisionist version of the story of his incredibly short life, it was always too late. I refuse to accept a binary between his life and the continued betterment of the human race.
All that time I spent advocating the devil—he’s made me realize that was my mistake. My wife was right to commit, to overcommit, even after she miscarried, even when she was being probed with rubber gloves and (when she was lucky) warmed gel, when I was stabbing her with three-inch needles every night. I was hurting her, hurting myself, trying to have it both ways, trying to make it something it could never be. She was strong and I was weak. I see that now only because he exists, only because he has revolutionized my understanding of what having a child means.
Maybe this revelation isn’t for everyone. Maybe not everyone needs it. Maybe, to people who aren’t white, aren’t straight, aren’t privileged children of educated families, some of this is so painfully obvious I’ve spent this essay embarrassing myself. I needed it. I needed to write it. I needed my assumptions undermined and broken up and reassembled around someone who wasn’t me.
I came very, very close to never getting that. There were so many opportunities for me to turn aside. In the course of writing this, through insomniac moments at two a.m. feedings, all those diapers I changed while he screamed, he’s made me realize the reason I didn’t. All revisionism aside, it wasn’t any anticipation of ungleaned wisdom. I persisted through all that pain because it was what she wanted. I’m better, wiser, better prepared for this incredibly uncertain, ominous future because she believed in it more than I could. If it hadn’t worked, I never would have known.
He has blue eyes, for now. They’ll get darker. For now, I can sing to him “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as I struggle futilely to lull him to sleep while he squirms and digs sharp baby fingernails into my neck. I can look forward to learning what my blue-eyed son has to teach me when he’s seen everything I haven’t. Hard as those lessons might be.