I'm Sorry: Parenting in the Time of Global Despair

“The lake feels like lotion!” the little boy shouted to his friends, treading water at the base of the ladder, “so smooth and refreshing.” I lay on the other side of the dock, my head propped up with a life jacket, reading my book, Love Becomes Us by Amy Bloom. It was hot, hotter than it had ever been in the Pacific Northwest where I live.

My family had been lucky. We escaped to this mountain lake on a planned trip with my brother-in-law and his kids. Instead of 108 degrees, it was only 99 and we could hang out in this cold glacial lake all day long.

The little boy shouting was eight or nine years old, skinny and tan, happy and energized. He jumped off the dock over and over, laughing with pleasure every time. I remember the days when my daughter had that kind of ease, that kind of access to simple pleasures.

These days are complicated. The world feels like it is ending. There was the pandemic, over a year of lockdown seeped with fear and longing. And now this heat, record-breaking, devastating —to  people, animals, and nature. This heat is preparing our region for fires that will destroy more land, more humans and wildlife, more homes, more trees. Like last summer, we will be stuffed into our homes, windows sealed, hiding from the smoke outside.

When I was eight or nine I didn’t think about the earth. We never talked about it. I remember waiting in line for gas at the Shell station on 54th street with my mom. I remember her explaining that Jimmy Carter was rationing gas because there was an oil crisis. I lived a life, essentially into my twenties with the ignorant luxury of not worrying about our dying planet. Back then we didn’t talk about climate change or global warming. I wish we had. Maybe if we had things would be different now. The planet I am leaving my daughter wouldn’t be so hot and angry and scary.

My daughter is sixteen now. When she was eight she knew things about the earth. In third grade, she raised money to support people who lost everything in the Japanese Tsunami. She’s always known how to recycle and compost. She grew up with Hybrid cars and conversations about red meat at dinner. She is keenly aware of the crisis our Earth is experiencing.

And, she is becoming an adult during this crisis. Like Elizabeth, the protagonist in Bloom’s, Love Becomes Us, my daughter is traversing the complicated emotional landscape that comes with adolescence. Elizabeth is wise beyond her years. She can see the hypocrisy of her parents and the other adults around her. Like most teens, Elizabeth is struggling in her own way to just get through the painful, confusing adolescent years.

As I read my book, I can remember what that felt like, how my emotions moved through me when I was that age. I have glimpses, flashes of memory. I remember when I was seventeen and all I did was cry. I cried on the road trip I took with my family. I cried in my room at night. I cried over gifts I got at Christmas. I cried and cried and I didn’t really understand why.

Yesterday I told my daughter that I was tired of her speaking to me like she was mad at me all the time. “I’m sorry,” replied, “I do feel angry all the time.” She said it so matter-of-factly, with such certainty that my vision blurred for a split-second. I scanned my brain for something to say but there was nothing. “Noooooo,” I cried to myself, “I don’t want this for her.”

I’ve been here before. It’s the heartbreak of motherhood, the moment when I know clearly that there is nothing I can do, no balm I can smooth over a scraped knee, no lullaby I can sing, no goodnight story I can tell to make everything feel better.

I think about the earth all the time. I am terrified about where we’ve been in the last year, afraid of what is coming. When I talk about my worries, sometimes my daughter will say, “Please Mom. Please stop. I can’t hear this right now.” And I know she is frightened too. Unlike me at sixteen, she is aware. She knows things.

While my daughter is living the emotional thunderstorm of hormonal adolescence, there is a blanket of disaster overlaying everything. How will she manage this? How will she find her way?

The path we are on, the too-late feeling I have about our planet, is often too much for me so how do teenagers who are just waiting to get to the next phase manage it? What do they think when the next phase is filled with 108 degree days, fires in the rain forest, and global droughts?

There are good times too, like yesterday when my daughter and her cousin sunbathed together for hours, took the kayak out, and loudly sang songs on the deck that echoed across the lake. I know that along with being angry, my daughter is happy too. Like all teenagers, her landscape is complicated and unpredictable.

Adolescence is a global disaster in itself. It is an earthquake, tornado, tsunami, and hurricane wrapped into an eight to ten-year period. I know my daughter will get through this period. And as she ages, she will figure out how to move through all of the disasters in front of her. She will find moments of joy and celebration and excitement along the way. But I feel for her. I feel for all of the teenagers right now. Their burden is profound, beyond any that I could have imagined at that young age.

There’s no balm, no simple fix for this. When the conversation about the environment comes up, as it so often does these days, all I can do is look at my daughter, and say, “I’m sorry” because I am.

I really, really am.

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