Michael: This essay of Kate Schapira’s in Catapult, about the decision not to have kids in the age of Trump and climate change, was the direct inspiration for my Reckoning 2 editorial about making the opposite decision. We’ve talked a lot about this since. Kate has very kindly agreed to share a little more of that discussion here.
Kate: What has having a child/becoming a parent done to your sense of your range—the scale and the arenas in which you operate as a person, how much your calculations take in, where you geographically and physically go, what you consider your physical and social territory? Has it contracted, expanded, shifted the ground of your participation in the world as it’s becoming, how big you think and/or on what level of detail? This is such a written question, but I really want to know the answer!
Michael: Becoming a parent has shoved me into a lot of new arenas, given me an understanding of people I didn’t before—mothers are a huge example, a huge cross-section of humanity with which I was never before able to empathize like I am now. It has also shut me out of some arenas I used to frequent. I travel less, at least for now. But I talk to more people where I am; I have things to talk to them about, where I didn’t before. I think, in terms of my capacity to participate in all these arenas, it’s a wash. Everybody has a fixed amount of time in which to live and act; there are no fewer hours in the day now than before I was a parent, there will be no more hours in the day after my kid is eighteen and out of the house. But I see how I am forced to be more organized, and I see the potential for that to ripple out and have increasing impact the more comfortable and better I get in that. It may be the same as for any newly adopted responsibility? Starting a literary magazine, for example: much of the work there has felt like a chore, and it’s certainly work that has taken away from time I could have spent on my own writing. Filling out applications to the IRS for nonprofit status I might compare to an equivalently bureaucratic task I’m performing on behalf of my kid: filling out his passport application. It’s frustrating now; the payoff down the road I expect to be huge. So, an answer to the question about level of detail: I am forced to participate in the world at a much closer level of detail, but also to anticipate in a much larger scale than I have before. The level at which the kid sees the world is incredibly myopic, and I am responsible for so much of what he sees, but the fact that he is already in some senses an autonomous being reminds me constantly that the little details I choose to show him now are setting up bigger and bigger things for the future.
Kate: You write in your editor’s note about how you have to recast this story as a redemptive one. In order to do what—what’s the necessity?
Michael: To cope. That’s the hard answer. I’m doing that thing everybody does that makes storytelling so essential to being human: I’m choosing the interpretation that fits the narrative I’ve chosen for my own life, the new one that includes me being a father and him being my son. Now that I’ve done it, I can look at the pain and see it as a gateway to something better. And because of that, I can give the halfway constructive and optimistic answer to your questions just above. In certain real respects, it’s an act of will. I’m not even going to articulate the other version of this story; I’m not going to dignify it with my time. You could look at it as magical thinking, but in making that choice, I am encouraging myself to make decisions to further that narrative—proactive instead of fatalistic—to make the story true.
Kate: You also write about your obligation to “make the world good for him” and then later, you’ve written about some of the elements of that good world in the future tense. Can you talk about what you’re doing to bring them about–what brings that word “making” into it for you? What’s the relationship between the present pattern of your life and that future?
Michael: Small acts that accumulate. I want him to be proactive, progressive, I want him to see what’s possible and work toward it, I want him to care. I want him to know and find joy in the good things about the world so he’ll care. I don’t see how anybody accomplishes anything without caring, intensely. So that’s my starting point. Part of making the world good is not letting the awful parts overwhelm. We walk along my neighborhood brook a lot. Sometimes we go wading. We observe the Asian carp, the half-domesticated ducks, the muskrats, the feral housecats. When I first moved here I found its level of environmental degradation pretty bleak. Now I see it’s kind of amazing. He certainly sees it that way, which means I’m not just helping him, he’s helping me. Sometimes we drag a huge piece of discarded plastic out of the streambed, or pull invasive weeds and eat them. And then I go off to a town meeting to agitate on the brook’s behalf, on his behalf. I can’t stop my neighbors letting pesticides run into it off their lawns, but I can make clear to them that I’m not using pesticides and why. Eventually I’ll be able to make it clear to him. But for now it’s enough for him to be delighted at the way one duck out of twenty is always on lookout, warning the others of our presence.
The relationship between all that admittedly very small-scale action (there’s a lot more like that, more all the time, but most of it’s at that scale) and a better future, to me, is him. I know how cliché that sounds, believe me. Twenty-five year old me is rolling his eyes so hard right now. But it actually does work like that for me. He personifies the future.
Kate: Can you talk about what you do with your doubts, your fears, your griefs, when you feel them?
Michael: Sometimes—my chosen narrative and all of this above notwithstanding—I succumb to them. What that tends to look like is me lying on my basement floor staring up at the rafters for awhile drinking homebrew. Other times I channel them into something productive. Lately that’s shoveling snow, or turning over the compost, or figuring out some new small way to reduce my family’s negative impact on the world or balance it out with something constructive. For the new year, I’m getting into the habit of using cloth handkerchiefs instead of disposable tissues. I’m running a contest in my town for kids to design a logo to go on reusable cloth bags to hand out to residents at our annual cleanup event. Sometimes those little things help, sometimes they don’t. But I feel better coming up with more of them than sitting around moping. I look for inspiration in what I read. At the moment, it’s adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. Learning helps me. Helps me believe I can get better at all of this, at thinking about the future, at helping my kid learn, at seeing the good and focusing on nurturing it instead of letting the entropy overwhelm me. I go away from people into as much nature and isolation as I can manage—sometimes I take the kid—and wear myself to exhaustion. That usually helps.
One more thing that really does help, always, is talking it out in earnest with thoughtful people who feel the same way and want to make things better. So thank you for this.