Mothering In A Crisis
Written By: Carla Pascoe Leahy – Historian at University of Tasmania, Researcher, Mother and Volunteer at Australian Parents For Climate Action.
Read below or watch the video.
My name’s Carla Pascoe Leahy. I’m an historian who specialises in the history of childhood, parenthood and family. I want to share with you my research into how climate change is impacting families.
I was researching the history of Australian motherhood in 2019 when the Black Summer fires began. As I conducted interviews with Australian mothers, I noticed that more and more of them were talking about the impacts of these horrific fires on their parenting. I began to suspect that we might be seeing the beginning of a dramatic shift in the way we experience day to day family life and hence how we think about family more broadly.
My collaborative research since then has only confirmed that. I’ve been working on two projects with colleagues. The first is interviewing young women in their reproductive years about their feelings about having children. We have spoken with women in their twenties and thirties from all over Australia & what they have told us is heartbreaking. Many of them want to have children, and grew up imagining they would become a mother, but the growing understanding of the climate emergency leaves them feeling uncertain and afraid. They are not sure whether it is fair and ethical to bring new life into this world, when the environmental outlook is so concerning. These women feel deeply sad and often misunderstood by friends and family. Some of them are frustrated and angry that their reproductive years- this limited window when their bodies can bear babies – is coinciding with a critical window for climate action. Fundamentally they are scared of the future.
We also discovered something remarkable.
As we were conducting these interviews across 2022, the change of federal government in May had a marked effect on the tone of these women’s stories. Suddenly some of them felt hopeful that real action would be taken on climate change. It was clear that political decisions were having an influence on these very personal decisions these young women are making about whether to have children.
The other research I have been doing over the past few years is with women who are already mothers. I’ve been asking these women how climate change is impacting their experiences of raising children. It’s been affecting them both during climate-fuelled disasters and as a backdrop to daily family life in the 21st century. These women told us powerful stories of their experiences of fires and floods.
Parents usually bear an additional burden during disasters and mothers’ burdens are particularly great – they tend to adopt emotional responsibility for their children during and after a crisis. But these mothers are exhausted and anxious – there are many Australian families who have lived through multiple and compounding crises over the past four years, including fires, floods and the COVID 19 pandemic.
Mothers are telling us that there is a limit to their resilience when they barely have time to recover from one crisis before another hits.
Mothers are also telling us about the broader emotional impacts of living through climate change.
They are worried that their children can’t enjoy the same natural places & seasonal changes that they did. They are worried about the sadness that ecological destruction and mass extinction will cause their children and wonder how on earth they can explain these problems to them.
Most profoundly, they’re worried about the kinds of futures their children will face after they are gone.
One mother told me that she feels the world is volatile now – that instability is the new normal – and she is trying hard to raise her son to be resilient enough to live through an age of uncertainty.
My research has convinced me that the impacts of climate change are much broader and more profound than we usually acknowledge. If we decide right now that we are not prepared to do everything in our power to tackle the climate crisis, then we had better be sure we understand exactly everything that is at stake.
Climate change threatens everything we hold dear in our human lives, including the things most important to us, like family.
But one of the heartening things I have analysed in my research is that parents feel a particular responsibility towards the future because it is embodied in the form of their children.
Parents feel called upon to preserve the future because it means preserving their children’s futures.
On this Mother’s Day, I remember the thousands of mothers, fathers, parents and grandparents around Australia and across the globe who are hoping and striving for meaningful climate action. Mothers, and carers more broadly, can be a powerful force for change if we let them.