A mother's eco-anxiety

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  • Stories
July 22nd, 2021
An image of the author, Sarah Spengeman

Here are Eco-Anxious Stories, we are often repeating the phrase "You're not alone". To us, this is the ultimate source of comfort, courage, and compassio. It tells us that we are connected in our ability to sustain ourselves and our families, we are connected by our environment and our planetary eco-systems, and we are connected in our grief over the destruction and pain caused by the climate crisis. It also reminds us that we are connected in our power, in our capacity to change things, connected in the possibility to make things better for all that can be saved. Because it is so worth saving.

This story comes to us from Sarah, who was inspired by her friend Laalitha to share her experience of fear, loss, and hope. Thank you, Sarah.

Despair comes from isolation, but hope comes in community

I’ve worked on climate change for many years now, so I’ve always been concerned. Knowing the threat is real and my strong desire to protect all beings who calls this planet home has been what has motivated me to do this work in the first place. But last year everything changed for me as my concern and commitment was transformed into dread and despair.

Last summer, in the midst of COVID, I woke up in the middle of the night to multiple streaks of lightening, one after the other, splitting the sky in a terrifying display of power and light. That was bizarre, I thought, as I went about my day the next morning. It wasn’t until about 24 hours later I learned that the lightning storm had sparked wildfires in hundreds of places across the Bay Area where I live.

I felt completely alone—even with my husband and daughter there with me.

Over the next few days, we learned the fires were exploding, fueled by the record heat and dry conditions. As I was driving home from picking up my daughter, I saw ahead of me an enormous smoke cloud ominously block out the horizon, and over the next month, the air quality became so toxic we could not go outside for 30 days. Ash rained down on us and covered our patio, our garden, and our car. We taped up every window and door as smoke found its way inside of our house. I packed a suitcase with clothes and supplies for our family in case we had to flee in the night.

But what was really scary, was the extreme heat. Our home did not have air conditioning (we put it in this summer to prevent this from happening again) and as 100-degree temperatures persisted outside, our tightly closed windows and doors kept it hovering at around 90 degrees inside, even overnight. Because of COVID, there was nowhere to go. We were too afraid to go to a cooling center and risk getting sick. I knew I could survive the heat, but I became increasingly anxious for my two-year old daughter. We kept her cool as best as we could with water and fans, and even put ice packs in her bed to cool it off before we put her down for the night. But I couldn’t sleep. Would my daughter’s small body suffer heat stress?

Feeling completely alone

In the middle of a pandemic, with nowhere to go, I felt completely alone—even with my husband and daughter there with me. The state where I grew up, where California’s cool forests and beaches have soothed my soul for my entire life, had become an unlivable inferno.

I reached out to women around me to join this circle and we started to meet weekly sharing our fears, hopes, and what we were learning...

Finally, after a month indoors, firefighters made progress, the winds shifted, and temperatures dropped. In my neighborhood, we all came out of our houses and breathed in the cleaner air. But something had shifted inside of me. I had seen the climate crisis up close. And I knew if I was to break out of my despair, I needed others who not only shared my anxiety and fear, but who were committed to fighting hard for the places and people we love.

So, when I saw that the editors of a new book, All We Can Save, were encouraging women to host discussion circles to reflect on the essays together, I knew that is what I had to do. I reached out to women around me to join this circle and we started to meet weekly sharing our fears, hopes, and what we were learning from the wisdom of the women activists in the book.

Traveling through this crisis together

After we finished All We Can Save, we chose to continue meeting to discuss new books by eco-women, who are teaching us even more about how to turn our anxiety into action. Even though each one of us is scared or discouraged from time to time, or often for some of us, there is hope in traveling through this crisis as a community.

Being a mother comes with its own unique worries and fears too. The love I have for my daughter is a fierce, protective love that feels instinctive and primal. My happiness and well-being is deeply intertwined with her happiness and well-being. When she cries, I feel it deep in my soul. I worry that we have created a world that will hold much suffering for her and all other children as they grow. Constant fires, deadly heat and storms, droughts, food scarcity, and the conflict and violence that often accompanies instability.

And I know my kid is one of the lucky ones, who will grow up with much more privilege and safety than millions of other kids whose poverty makes them especially vulnerable to the threats of the climate crisis. As the Pacific Northwest baked last month, my mother’s heart ached for children who were suffering through the heat and the mothers who, unlike my family, would not be able to afford to install air conditioning.

To be the mother my daughter deserves, I have to fight my fears and dedicate myself to creating a healthier, sustainable, more just world. Still the anxiety and struggle of motherhood is real. And so, I have also created a podcast to connect with other mothers and to tell their stories to create a community of parents who are standing together with our kids and staking our ground. We will fight for all children because they and the world we call home is sacred, precious, and so worth fighting for.

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  • By Sarah Spengeman

In Closing

Our eco-anxious stories are messy and beautiful. If you feel like sharing your story would bring you a sense of clarity and meaning, reach out to us. In the meantime, find rest and hope in the interconnections.