This confession is not going to make me popular. My kids may not like it. If you’re a grandparent, you might not either.
I don’t want to be a grandmother.
It’s not vanity.
It’s not because I’m turning 60 this year and the idea of being a grandma reinforces just how old I really am.
It’s not because my daughters, Ruby, 24, and Lucy, 21, are too young to have kids — as recent university grads, they are still finding their footing.
It’s because this world, as beautiful as it can be, is entirely too inhospitable for any future potential grandchildren I might have.
My Oma was 29 when she delivered my mother in her own bed in 1944 in the Netherlands while German bombs rained down during the Second World War.
My mother was just 18 when she delivered me in 1962, alone in a hospital room, just before the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of war.
But by far the biggest and deadliest war — the one that makes me despair for the kind of world any future grandchildren of mine would inherit — is the war we humans are currently waging with our planet, which is on track to be ravaged by climate change in the coming decades. The United Nations has sounded a “code red for humanity” after 234 of the world’s leading scientists from 66 countries delivered the most crucial report card on climate change last year, a 3,900-page document that gives humanity a great big F for screwing up the Earth for future generations. The climate emergency is deepening into a climate catastrophe. Some say an apocalypse.
Do I want my grandchildren living in an apocalyptic world? Absolutely not.
Global warming levels are set to pass the crucial 1.5 C limit by the early 2030s, setting us on a path for increasingly severe climate disruptions. As temperature rises and weather patterns change, the spread of disease, harmful air pollutants, and food insecurity will be rampant. Children born today will face two- to seven times as many climate disasters as their grandparents did, including wildfires, storms, floods, and droughts. Imagine your grandchild not being able to play outside because of wildfire smoke that will make it hard for them to breathe. Or going hungry and thirsty because of a scarcity of food and water.
Any baby born in North America today will be enduring the devastating effects of climate change throughout their childhood and young adulthood. How will we, as grandparents, protect them? We can’t.
That’s why the dream of being a grandmother (and make no mistake — it would be the most wonderful dream to hold a child of my child in my arms) seems more like a nightmare to me.
My ex, the father of our daughters, is an eternal optimist who doesn’t believe in focusing on the negative.
“Relax,” he says. “People had children during the Ice Age. The glaciers have melted before, and people survived.”
I envy him his lack of worry.
And yet when we married in 1986, we were both firm in our resolve not to have children. The world was overpopulated, we said. Having children was an exercise in narcissism, we said. When our friends had kids, we publicly adored their progeny but privately wondered about the wisdom of bringing more people into the world.
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That is, until I turned 34 and woke up one morning with an intense longing that was entirely new to me – I wanted a baby. Right then and there. My principles flew out the window – as did the birth control we had used faithfully for 15 years.
Often there is no logic to our actions. We fervently believe one way, then act another way entirely.
There’s hope for the future, you say. If we just keep up our fastidious recycling and hang our wash out to dry, we’ll be fine, right? No, we won’t. These things are a mere trifle in comparison to the kind of actions that are required if we have any hope of preserving the planet — the biggest of which is not having children and grandchildren who will go on to produce a lifetime of carbon emissions that will contribute to the climate emergency. A child born into the developed world leaves a 58.6-metric-tonne carbon footprint annually, according to a study published in Environmental Research Letters. Next to not having kids, the best things we can do for the planet are to live car-free, avoid air travel and eat a plant-based diet. All of which are a lot more difficult than simply switching to LED bulbs.
There are plenty of people who are having fewer kids or no kids at all in order to do their part to reduce global warming. New York Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has questioned whether childbearing is morally acceptable. “There’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?” she said on Instagram.
Members of groups such Extinction Rebellion, BirthStrike and Stophavingkids.org are vocal about not having kids as a way to bring attention to the severity of the ecological crisis. Then there’s the “antinatalist” movement, which promotes the idea that having children is morally wrong because this life is nothing but a vale of tears.
But while you can be childless by choice, you can’t be grandchildless by choice. That’s up to your kids.
I wish I could be more like my friend Maggie, who revels in the bliss of her three grandchildren. “I can’t think about the planet blowing up in 100 years,” she says. “I think about today and how much joy they bring into my life.”
Is our desire to have grandchildren inherently selfish? It is driven by evolutionary biology? A desire to give and receive love? Can all three be true at the same time?
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Is it supremely heretical to expect my daughters to be deprived of the experience of motherhood, an experience that has given me the greatest joy in life?
I think the answer to that would be yes.
The writer Gore Vidal recalled his grandfather saying: “Never have children, only grandchildren.”
He was referring to the unique bond grandparents have with their grandchildren, a bond that can surpass the relationship they have with their own kids. In fact, a study examining grandmothers’ brain functions suggests they may be more emotionally connected to grandchildren than their own children.
I think this was true for me and my Oma. She could be tough on my mom when she was growing up, but she doted on me. She loved me unreservedly and I adored her. I sat on her lap after Sunday night family dinners (while my Opa read the Bible) until I turned 12 years old and reluctantly realized I was too long and lanky to do that anymore.
There’s no question grandmothers can be a great gift in their grandchildren’s lives. It will be up to my children, of course, to determine if that’s a gift I will ever get to experience.
But if I don’t get the chance, I can’t say I’ll be sorry.
Anne Bokma is a writer in Hamilton, Ont.
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