Julie Zickefoose is a writer and illustrator who has contributed to The New Yorker, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and NPR, where she was a regular commentator. Her latest book is The Bluebird Effect.
We’ve done it. My husband and I are replacing ourselves with two children, a towheaded boy and a willowy, redheaded girl. When we go, they’ll take our places. We started late. It took a while for my husband to talk me into having kids. I was 37 for the firstborn, 41 when our son arrived. So I’m smiling wryly as I build a case for conscientious reproduction on an already overburdened planet. I’ve got no statistics to bolster my argument, no worldwide trends to report, nor do I have the energy to dig any out. I have no desire to see my rather hazy ideas strung up a flagpole as exemplifying anything. All I know is what seems to be true: Having children, and raising them to appreciate the natural world, is one of the most powerful ways to affirm your love for life on this planet.
Married at 35, I was afraid. Afraid to add to the world’s masses. Afraid to give up my freedom to travel or do whatever I wanted. Afraid I wouldn’t be up to the challenge of raising good people. Afraid I’d let them down. I closed my eyes and we took the leap. I’ll never forget what my doctor said when the pregnancy test came back positive. “Get ready for the best ride of your life.” When he saw the raw terror in my eyes, he added, “There are people coming into my office every day who can barely tie their shoes, and they still make the most beautiful kids. You’ll do fine.”
Here’s what I’ve figured out, 15 years later, that I didn’t know that day in the doctor’s office: Having a child rang a bell in me never before struck. It brought me into a much vaster and richer reality than the one I’d inhabited. It awakened me to the blindingly fast progression of infancy to youth, adolescence into maturity. It placed me in a larger context, served me notice that I’d have to pass on what’s good and discourage what was harmful and maladaptive. Not only that, I’d have to save a place for them to live, too. I felt bigger, more significant. This felt like a real job.
Hope for Earth’s future resides not so much in us but in our children and their children, in the continuum of caring that starts with parenthood. If I hadn’t had children, I’d never spend every Wednesday afternoon teaching Science Club at my son’s elementary school. These are kids from the Appalachian foothills. Most of them have never been on a plane. Some start their day with a candy bar and a swig of Mountain Dew. But their passion for learning more about the natural world burns hot. Thirty pack a classroom after school to hear about box turtles, snakes and bluebirds, to comb through the meadow across the road and bring me insects to identify. Their eyes snap with curiosity. They cheer loudly when I struggle through the classroom door bearing field guides and a dozen pairs of binoculars and whatever hapless critter I’ve brought to show them. When they see me treat a mantis, a spider, or a beetle with tenderness, I sense them recalibrating, then copying my technique. When they hear me crow with delight as a flock of migrating nighthawks floats over, they smile and throw their heads back to watch, too. I’m acutely aware that they’re modeling their behavior and attitudes toward nature on mine, and that feels good. It feels right.
I know that being a mother has made me a better person and a better conservationist. It has opened me to the needs and viewpoints of others, mellowed the shrillness and self-righteousness that dogged me when I had no one to care for but myself. My husband and I scratched together the money to buy 80 acres of woodland and field, and we’re letting it recover from the overgrazing and timbering that’s the norm all around us. We will leave the place in better shape than we found it, for our sake and for our kids’. I’d rather hand our self-made nature sanctuary over to Phoebe and Liam than to anyone else. And by extension, my husband and I are proud to replace ourselves with two citizens in whom conservation, recycling, organic gardening, and mindful consumption are ingrained because it’s the only lifestyle they’ve ever known. I believe in kids. I believe that most of them want to do the right thing, and need only to be shown the way. If every conservationist opts not to have them, to whom will we pass the torch?
Viewing a child as nothing more than another burden on Earth’s resources does a great and sad disservice to human potential, both that of the child and the prospective parents. I wonder if there’s an unconscious hands-over-eyes fear like mine at the root of this view, a fear of being inconvenienced by suddenly having someone around who depends on you for everything. Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Goodall, and John Muir were poopy, squally babies once. So were we all. The phase is sweetly fleeting; all too swiftly those babies go on to run and draw and sing and think and write, to look around and wonder if they can improve on things. To become something much more than a simple draw on limited resources – someone additive. Someone you’d throw yourself in front of a bus to save. I watch my son lost in concentration, bent over his drawing of a lumbering tiger. I look down at my sleek laptop and remind myself that Steve Jobs was given up for adoption. A genius unbidden, arriving at an inconvenient moment. Orphaned waxwing, gentian seedling, hatchling box turtle, or red, squinch-faced human infant: It is always worth the time to raise a young thing up.
A thoughtful person’s child is not going to cause the poles to melt; she’s not going to bring down the world’s ecosystems. If you’re game to climb on and ride the best ride of your life – if you model the behavior that’s good – she may someday be one who saves them.
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