Parenting

How to deal with the oncoming apocalypse when you're a new parent

For a year now, I’ve been a dad. Being a dad is great. My daughter is a chubby, smiley little cutie pie who giggles when she sees me, who likes to dance, and who thinks it’s hilarious to put her pacifier into my mouth. It is hard being a parent, yes, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

My wife and I have always wanted kids, but there was a night in November 2016 where we briefly decided against it. You can probably guess the night. It was a bad night. It was a bad month. The two years that have followed have been no fun at all.

The kicker though, what made us decide to go ahead and have the kid, was that we didn’t want Donald Trump to be involved in our family planning decisions any more than he already would be. We didn’t want the man to hold any psychological power over us, on top of the political and economic power he already wielded.

But the past two years, we’ve both been grappling with the fact that the future our daughter is going to grow up in has darkened substantially in comparison to the one we envisioned we first got married and started thinking about her (then totally hypothetical) life.

For real though, the apocalypse is coming

I am not constitutionally capable of having a rosy view of the future. This may be a side-effect of having grown up consuming almost exclusively dystopian culture. I have long been an aficionado of zombie apocali, of days the earth stood still, of furious roads. I know these are fiction, and that they perhaps distort my perspective on the world, but even setting aside my congenital alarmism, it does appear that we’re coming up on a breaking point. 

The most alarming thing I’ve read recently is The Limits to Growth, a 1972 book put out by the Club of Rome that pointed out that exponential growth (both economic and population) on a planet with finite resources is, to put it simply, not sustainable. The study of LtG was one of the first to use computer simulations to try and predict the trajectory of global political, economic, and ecological systems.

While they ran their simulations, they kept noticing that, on their current trajectory, these systems all collapsed within 100 years or so, and by the year 2100 at the latest. They concluded:

“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

Without a serious global attempt at slowing both population and economic growth, they argued, collapse was almost certainly inevitable, and within a lifetime or two.

The world — briefly — took this seriously. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof, people started wearing sweaters instead of using their heating. But it was seen as too burdensome, too oppressive, for many Americans, and when Ronald Reagan was elected, the solar panels were binned and the era of unrestrained growth began anew. Now, in 2019, if you hear about slow economic growth, or a dropping of the birth rates, it is inevitably mentioned as a bad thing, and not as the only thing that can prevent us from catastrophe.

The LtG team ran a 30-year update in 2004 (with exponentially better technology this time) in which they found that all of their initial predictions were still pretty spot on, and that we still hadn’t corrected ourselves from the “collapse” scenario. We are now 47 years into their 100 year timeline.

And this, for the record, is just environmental catastrophe. This does not even take nuclear weapons, AIs, nanotechnology, particle accelerators accidentally creating a black hole, or bioterrorism into account as potential world-enders (If you want a full list of the things that might kill us all — along with the ways we may survive — read Sir Martin Rees’ great book, Our Final Hour).

Dealing with the apocalypse as a parent

Thinking about this in the context of my daughter’s future makes me want to swan dive off the Empire State Building. The thought of a total environmental and economic collapse in her life time — with the most likely result being that she starves to death along with billions of others — is almost unbearable. I have stayed up nights (not a smart thing to do in your first year as a parent) fuming at the Trump supporters and climate deniers in my life, apoplectic at their callous disregard for reality, at their willingness to take a measly, short-term tax cut at the expense of my daughter’s future. Sometimes, I continue thinking about it into my sleep, dreaming about shouting at them, about burning all the bridges, about reducing them to quivering, weeping heaps.

I know that other friends, other parents especially, feel this way. The panic we feel is not represented in the media, which, unlike us, is focused on the latest Tweets and bits of palace intrigue. If the media mentions climate change, its attitude is, “Oh look, another doomsday report. Oh well! Nothing we can do!” 

To which we all shout back, WE ABSOLUTELY CAN DO THINGS! The reports all say, “if we take no action, climate change will be out of control.” TAKING NO ACTION IS NOT AN INEVITABILITY!

We don’t have our eyes fixated on our retirement portfolios, like our parents’ generation does. We have our eyes fixated on our children’s ability to even get to retirement age. What we see is haunting, and the inability of the rest of the cultural landscape to grasp this is infuriating and crazy-making. 

Earlier this week, I got home from work and my daughter was standing in front of the door waiting for me, and she raised both arms and screamed “YAAAAASSSSS” while charging at me for a hug. I mean, come on. How the fuck am I supposed to reconcile that delightful shit with the world I'm leaving her? How do I bring that into line with this bleak-ass future with clouds of ash, scorched earth, and hills covered in fire? How did I go from hugs, kisses, and gawp-gawps to The Road?

(”Gawp-gawps,” by the way, are an onomatopoetic term that refer to the sound you make when you’re just EATING THAT CHUBBY LITTLE FACE RIGHT UP.)

The darkest thought, the one that the mind pushes away the hardest, is the thought that it was pure selfishness to have her, that our desire to play house has brought into the world a wonderful little creature who will now undergo untold suffering. Indeed, this is even built into the discussion about growth — we can’t go forward having kids at the same rate1. To do so is to doom them.

“You who grew up tall and proud, in the shadow of the mushroom cloud”

Every generation expects to be the last, and most of this is narcissism — it’s impossible and sometimes unpleasant to imagine a world beyond ourselves. But since 1945, being the last generation has been an actual possibility, and this has made us behave in weird ways. 

If you’re a Republican, it means raping the earth so you can take everything you can get before you go. They have openly admitted this on occasion: James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, responded to a question about leaving resources for our descendants with, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”

That’s some evil-ass shit right there. But it’s an understandable (if not forgivable) response to your impending annihilation. It’s hedonism cloaked in religious fundamentalism.

My grandparents’ generation spent literally all of their time thinking about “legacy,” which is why our world is covered in fucking plaques. At my alma mater, Penn State, the football coach was so intent on building a messianic legacy for himself that he handed the children in his care over to a sexual predator. When he found out, he didn’t tell the police. To let this out was to tarnish his legacy. So children continued to be raped. This is how badly some people want to be remembered fondly.

But what if you don’t get the comfort of being remembered? What if you are the end? What might you do? Might you take what you can and fuck those who came later?

I’ve become obsessed in recent months with Queen’s “Hammer to Fall,” a joyful little 20th Century danse macabre about resigning yourself to the inevitably of death and decay.

Here we stand, here we fall 
History won't care at all .
Make the bed, light the light 
Lady Mercy won't be home tonight.

It strikes me as odd that we’re so often encouraged to cope with the inevitability of our own personal deaths, but are never asked to confront the possibility of humanity’s death. Only the bleakest nuclear wasteland stories end in the extinction of the human race, but that extinction is just as inevitable in reality as our own deaths. We may evolve to something greater, we may build rockets that take us to terraformed Mars (although that sounds really unappealing if we have to live next door to Elon Musk), or we may escape the bonds of this solar system and live for millennia. But entropy is ceaseless; the heat death of the universe is coming.

At some point, there will be no one to remember us. What if this fact instilled us not with a rapacious consumptive greed, but with humility? What if we chose to instead live our ephemeral little lives as if they mattered, but not so much that they should blot out other little lives?

Wishing I’d been born

When I told my therapist about how much I worried about my daughter’s future, he asked, “Are you sad you were born?”

“No,” I answered. I have not, in fact, ever regretted being born, not even in my adolescent, “I WISH I’D NEVER BEEN BORN!” stage. Not even in the darkest days of my depression. I mostly like being alive, and I told him so.

“Well,” he said, “You were born during the Cold War. Your parents could have reasonably expected the nuclear apocalypse in the near future when they had you.”

I let it slide that my parents didn’t expect the apocalypse, they were Reagan supporters, which — I can’t even with right now. But the point was a good one. Even if they had been worried, I hadn’t been vaporized into a cloud of radioactive smoke.

“When I went to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam,” he continued, “I remember this moment where I was in the room they lived in, and I saw a little collage that Anne had made with cutouts from magazines. It was the type of thing you see in teenage bedrooms all of the time. And I realized, in spite of how she died, in spite of how young she was, that this was a life well lived.”

This had been sinking in recently with me anyway. All through my depression, I kept thinking about how horrific the world was, how it was dark and full of terrors, how it was bleak and pointless, but I never stopped to recognize that, at least for me, life had been largely pleasant. Even in the face of dreams deferred, loneliness, and the cold emotional deadness of depression, I had mostly enjoyed life. I could die tomorrow, aged 32, and feel that I had lived well. I would want more time, sure, but I would have enjoyed what I got, regardless of whether what cut me down was a heart attack, a bus, or a nuclear explosion. 

My daughter may not get a full-length life. This is true whether the world ends or not. But she can still have a fully-lived life, if I can teach her to live in the moment and enjoy this experience. Even if her life contains immense amounts of suffering, it can still contain immense amounts of joy.  A life cut short by global catastrophe is only necessarily a bad life if you give more weight to the mode of death than you do to the life itself.

That possibility, obviously, is still absolutely un-fucking-acceptable, given that the only reason she should die young is so red-faced, small-hearted, fearful little chodes like Donald Trump can die with a few extra billion in their bank accounts. But. But. To live a short, happy life is perhaps not so bad.

Is optimism possible?

Our inability to imagine a brighter future may, in part, be a byproduct of our culture. Writer John Higgs makes an interesting point. He says in an interview with the Ransom Note:

"It seems to me that the last ditch attempt to say something positive about the future was in 1989 in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventurewhen they say ‘The future will be great – it’s a bit like now, but with really great waterslides’. That was the best they could do. Ever since then the future has been shown as environmental apocalypse, zombie films, all of these things. And to create the future, first you have to imagine it, so this is a very worrying thing.”

Fear tends to inhibit imagination, and given that we’ve all been reduced to piles of quivering flesh over the past few years over the existential threats facing us, whether real (climate change, nuclear war) or imagined (immigrants, communists, Muslims), it’s perhaps unsurprising that our imaginations have failed.

When alternative futures are imagined, they tend to be put forward by 21st century flimflam men, billionaires who believe that AI or automation or Mars will save us, and who will coincidentally make billions more if we choose to heavily invest in those things. And while there could be cool futures with any of those, none of them address the underlying problem, which is the very structure of the society in which we live. If The Limits to Growth is right, then technology alone can’t solve the problem, because technology doesn’t decrease consumption (it usually increases it).

There are people who are imagining different societies, but at the moment, they are relegated to the margins. They are people like Bill McKibben, who in his book Eaarth, imagined a future where our economy is built on sustainability and endurance, where power is decentralized, and where community matters once more. They are people like Gar Alperovitz, who, in his book What Then Must We Do? looks at how a different type of society could be built for the many and not for the few. For Alperovitz, many of the necessary steps are already being taken, under the radar and across partisan lines (I wrote about some of these in an article for USA Today on microbreweries and the political revolution).

What we’re realizing is that the revolution that’s coming is not like the ones that happened in Russia, China, or Cuba, but instead is like the agricultural and industrial revolutions. What comes will be a massive shift in the way we live.

Or, you know, civilization will collapse. It doesn’t have to, though, if we can ditch the laziness of despair and start thinking creatively.

Silver linings

In Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book Hope in the Dark (which you should read if you’ve been in a state of constant despair for the past two years), she points out a curious side effect of the invention of Viagra: when the drug became publicly available, fewer endangered species were being killed for use as aphrodisiacs. Rhino horn, caribou antler, green turtle shell — all of these are traditional folk remedies for impotence, and all of them were rendered obsolete by a medicine that could actually give you a boner. Solnit’s point in this book is that history doesn’t move forward so much as sideways, and that things that were unimaginable 10 years ago are often the reality now. You can’t predict what will change or how.

When I was born in 1986, the end of the Cold War was inconceivable, as was a world shaped by the internet, as was President Donald Trump. It’s not all positive, sure, but I have no fucking clue what my daughter’s life is going to look like at 32, and I don’t know what strange things will take place between now and then. But the seeds of a brighter future are already there.

Take the freshman class of the House of Representatives. They aren’t bogging themselves down in the palace intrigue, they aren’t fixating on the Tweets of a deranged white supremacist, they aren’t “playing the game.” They’re instead out there presenting serious ideas for change, ideas that our current visionless leaders dismiss as impossible, just as the wrinkled old men leading the Soviet Union would’ve dismissed reform and collapse as impossible before Gorbachev took power in 1985.

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As for me, my daughter has sharpened my focus. I’ve joined a local team of environmentalists and I’m organizing a set of lectures at the town library I work at. I’ve decided to stop writing horseshit clickbait for travel sites, and to start writing stuff that can change things. And I’ve started meditating, so I can better enjoy these moments with her, lest they be my last.

When I watch the news, it often feels like I’m on a train that’s barreling over the edge of a cliff. But that was true the moment I was conceived. This only ever ended with me kersplatting on a metaphorical (and, for all I know, literal) canyon floor. The same is true of my daughter. She, too, will die. But I can do what I can to make the fall a fun one, and I can work to keep her falling for a very long time.


[1] The best thing you can do for the environment, by the way, is to have fewer kids. This is far more effective than giving up cars, never flying, giving up meat, or changing your lightbulbs.

So: if you don't really want kids, don't have any! If you do want kids, limiting yourself to 2 will keep you below the population replacement rate of 2.2 children per woman. If you DO have kids, limiting yourself to 2 will mean you're not contributing to population growth. If you want more, that's cool, just talk someone else out of having one, or consider adoption.

The first few weeks of parenting are kind of a nightmare

It has been just over a month since our daughter was born, and I have now heard independently from several different sources an alarming admission. Paraphrased, it goes something like this:

In the run-up to having our kid, all of the courses we took and the doctors we visited told us the same thing: ‘Don’t shake the baby.’ I was always like, what the hell, who on earth would shake a baby? Why does that even need to be said? But then about a week into having a kid, I thought, ‘Oh, I can totally see why people shake babies.’

This, to the outsider or non-parent, sounds incredibly dark. Shaking babies, it goes without saying, is bad. It can give babies permanent brain damage or it can kill them. It is a really sad, upsetting thing to think about. But while I can’t speak for the broader population or prove my point with any real numbers, almost all of the parents I know and have discussed this with have admitted to having those feelings in the first few weeks of their baby’s life. I suspect it is a fairly widespread impulse, widespread enough for healthcare professionals to repeat warnings about it ad nauseum prior to giving birth, even while (I hope) the numbers of people who actually do shake their babies are much smaller.

I bring this up now because I had this impulse, and because the first month of having a baby was absolutely fucking harrowing. I am telling you this here because, in the darkest moments, I went online seeking some sort of confirmation that what I was feeling was, at best, fairly normal, and at worst, not totally abnormal. It took me a long time to find it.

What we don’t talk about when we talk about parenting

My wife and I have both felt a disconnect between the way people talk about pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenthood and our actual experience of it. People like to say that pregnancy is a “magical time,” and that childbirth is a “beautiful miracle.” Pregnancy was not magical for us, as my wife spent the entire 9 months extremely nauseous, and the last few months in intense physical discomfort. She also wasn’t allowed to drink for most of the first year of the Trump Presidency. Let that sink in for a second.

Childbirth, likewise, was not something I’d classify as a “beautiful miracle,” because I reserve the word “miracle" for things that are both uncommon and unexplainable, and childbirth is both extremely common and totally explainable. Nor was it “beautiful.” A sunset is beautiful. A puppy playing in the snow is beautiful. My wife is beautiful. My wife in indescribable agony is not beautiful. It is torture. It had another beautiful thing (our baby) at the end of it, but the process itself was, in a totally objective manner of speaking, a complete goddamn nightmare.

The common phrase for the first few weeks of parenthood is “it’s a special time.” That, too, is misleading. It is certainly different than what we are used to. It is certainly an adjustment. But the comments of “Oh, it is such a special time,” and “Haha prepare to never sleep again haha!” failed to capture, I think, the enormity of those first few weeks. Afterwards, we kept looking at each other and saying, “Why didn’t anyone tell us?” Of course, people did — they tried to. But they held back just a bit, or we didn't quite gather what they were trying to tell us.

Why aren’t we honest about this time?

I suspect there are a few reasons for this. The first is that most people don’t want to scare the shit out of new parents. That is fair. If I had known what was coming, I would have been terrified. Better prepared, but terrified. 

The second is that unless a parent is in those first few weeks themselves, they’ve gotten to a point where their baby is, on the whole, far more delightful than it is difficult. It doesn’t take much — our daughter over the past few days has started giving us her first smiles, and holy hell, that alone almost makes those first few weeks worth it. I am sure in a few months it will be hard to not look at this time with at least some sense of nostalgia.

The third, and perhaps the most insidious, is that Americans in general suck at confronting the darkness within. There is nothing darker than saying, “Yeah, in those first few weeks, in the blackest hours of the night, I felt something akin to hate for the small defenseless newborn in my care,” so most people don’t do it. Better to tamp those feelings down than to give them voice and publicly reveal yourself to be a bad person, mentally ill, or worse, kind of a drama queen. Darkness that’s tamped down instead of dealt with, of course, tends to bubble out in horrifying and uncontrollable ways, but hey — "horrifying and uncontrollable darkness” could replace “E pluribus unum” on the penny as the US motto at the moment.

The fourth and final reason is that it’s just a really hard experience to put into words. Plenty of people said, “Guys — listen to me. It’s really exhausting. It is not easy.” But with a few exceptions, those comments failed to warn us of the encroaching darkness. I am a professional writer, so I am going to make an attempt at explaining it myself now, before I’ve had the chance to let this period be shaded by nostalgia.

What even is a baby

“The comedy of man starts like this,” Father John Misty says, “Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips. So nature, she divines this alternative: we emerge half formed and hope whoever greets us on the other end is kind enough to fill us in.”

The thing about a newborn baby is that it is basically still a fetus. The features that they will take on in life aren’t totally discernible. Their eyes are puffy, their heads are weird-shaped, and they are covered in hair. Their motions are erratic, as they do not yet know that their arms are, in fact, attached to their bodies. They are cold for the first time. They are hungry for the first time. They are frantic to be neither of those things. But the only method they have of telling you this is by crying. So they do that, a lot. The only other things they do is poop and sleep. 

This does not mean you don’t love them. But in descriptions of meeting their children, many parents veer towards the hyperbolic — an instant connection of deepest love, and all that. And I'm sure for some people, this is true. But the thing is, a sizable percentage of mothers don’t feel this instant connection, and are shocked, to some extent, at the alienness of the baby that has now been thrust into their care. Mothers, who just went through the most physically grueling moment of their lives, are not given any serious amount of rest. Breastfeeding must happen immediately, tests need to be done, stitches sewn, nurses and doctors consulted. Fathers are left in a daze at seeing their wives go through that trauma, and, even more so than women, have trouble fully fathoming that they are now fathers.

For the record, I cried the first time I held my daughter. It was a pretty wonderful experience, and she was beautiful, in her weird, monster-y way. I did feel big feelings, and a lot of them were good. But it was, like so many major life events, a situation that was not-quite-as-described. It had been described so many times as an experience of unadulterated joy, and it was much more complex than that. 

Sleeplessness blues

When we got home after a couple of days in the hospital, we put the bassinet next to the bed. Aside from shaken baby, the thing doctors harp on most is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which, as far as syndrome names go, is probably the most descriptive and melodramatic of them. Babies, they tell you, can die at any minute for no apparent reason. You must be constantly alert. So that first night, you are a) either listening to your baby fuss and squirm, or b) are hearing nothing, and are constantly getting up to check to see if she’s breathing.

This is where the infamous sleeplessness comes in, but what I found was that the sleeplessness itself was not the problem. I was pleasantly surprised at how well I could function on three hours sleep and a cup of coffee. What was alarming was the side effects. We need sleep to process the events of the day and our emotions, and there are a lot of emotions that come with having a baby. If you can't process those emotions away with sleep, they end up smashing into each other like a 32-car pile-up, and you become an unstable wreck of a human being.

My first few weeks were complicated by the fact that I’m pulling out of a long depression. Depression for me was rarely sadness — it was more often emotionlessness, so the sudden return of very intense emotions was that much more overwhelming. 

There is a final point to make here: A newborn baby’s cry is torture. No, literally: the CIA coupled sleep deprivation with the sound of colicky babies crying to torture people. It makes sense, evolutionarily — nature would want us to address our babies needs, so why not make their preverbal way of asking for help something that causes us intense distress that we want to alleviate immediately?

But babies don’t always cry for an immediately discernible reason, and in the first weeks, you may not have figured out which cries mean "poopie diaper" and which mean "I'm hungry" and which mean "I have farts inside my body that I want outside my body but I don't know how to work my butthole yet." So it’s the middle of the night. I haven’t slept more than 2 hours at a stretch in a week. And there’s a inconsolable screaming baby next to me. It was never going to go well.

Emotional breakdowns are a fairly personal thing, so I won’t go through the details here, but I will say that I classify one morning as among the worst moments of my life. That level of anxiety coupled with emotional distress brings all of your worst feelings about yourself right up to the forefront, and, having just pulled out of a depression, my worst feelings about myself were fairly raw and fresh.

It made me crazed enough, in some moments, to wish I could do anything — anything — to stop the baby from crying. If it hadn’t been drilled into my head that shaking babies kills babies… well, I hope that I wouldn’t have done it. But I don’t know that I wouldn’t have done it. And not being 100% sure that you would never do something that could harm a baby is a rough, rough thing to know about yourself.

The “It Gets Better” of parenting

At week 5, those moments are still relatively fresh, but they aren’t happening any more, and our daughter is behaving less like a fetus and more like a human every day. It is still stressful and tiring and often not fun. It is sometimes wonderful, but enough is said about that everywhere else.

If you have a newborn or are about to have a newborn and you have read this far, know this:

You are not crazy. It really is this hard. It does get better, but it does so gradually, and that moment where you will actually sleep through a night may seem impossibly, desperately far off, so me saying “It Gets Better” won’t really help you right now. You’re putting in a lot of work with zero returns right now — no smiles, no giggles, no looks of recognition in the baby’s eyes — and that is grueling work. Allow yourself to admit this.

There are a few things that new parents can do to try and get through the first few weeks (which, I promise, genuinely are the roughest). This is what worked for me, it may not work for you.

  1. Go to therapy. The one silver lining of my depression was that I already went to therapy, and this was essential for getting through the first few weeks. My therapist gave me tips on dealing with the stress, but more importantly, he listened.

  2. Don’t take it out on your spouse — instead, commiserate with each other. My wife feels like an old war buddy now. We’re closer than ever. If we’d been at each other’s throats, our marriage would be over. It was that bad.

  3. Try putting in earbuds when the baby is crying. It keeps you from getting too stressed, but allows you to still try to soothe them. The “just put the baby down” advice that most people give is difficult because it doesn’t stop the baby crying, and, if you live in an apartment as we do, you can’t really escape that sound. Earbuds and music at least lowers the decibel level to something manageable. Of course, if you are on the brink of shaking the baby, just put her down and leave the room. But when you come back in, do it with earbuds or earplugs.

  4. Talk to friends that are parents, especially the ones that are willing to be frank with you. If it weren’t for a few friends and family who were bluntly straight-up with me about the difficulty of the first few weeks (“You’re gonna want to give the baby back,” “Hey: At some point in the next few months you’re gonna lose your cool. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”), I would have felt like I was going crazy and would have fallen into complete despair.

  5. If you need support and aren’t finding what you need from family and friends, the place I found it online was — don’t laugh — postpartum depression message boards. I admit that, technically, I have never been postpartum, as I have no uterus, but if you’re a man and you’re a parent of a newborn and you’re dealing with depression, then that’s the place where you’ll find people going through something that feels similar.

  6. Exercise and get fresh air. It sounds impossible in light of all the sleeplessness, but it is a requirement.

  7. Rope in friends and relatives to babysit. Go to the grocery. Sit in a park and stare, haunted, out over the trees. Go get a drink with your spouse. You’ll both be shellshocked, but getting away from the baby —even just to run errands — is a huge help.

It does us no good to not talk about these things, even if they're bleak. "It takes a village" is 100% true, but we are not organized into villages any more, so a lot of us end up feeling isolated and alone in our darkest moments. It doesn't need to be that way.

Featured image by Rick McQuinlan. That's another fun thing, by the way -- even if your baby's super cute, when they really start screaming, their face turns gargoyle-hideous.

An open letter to my daughter at one day old

Dear Sophie:

Hey little girl! Welcome to the world!

These next few years are going to be a lot of fun. You're going to be able to fart and cry and no one will judge. They'll just giggle and tell you you're sweet. You’ll get to play and learn and eat things like pizza and ice cream for the first time. Everyone around you is going to agree on how you should treat other people. They'll tell you to be kind to strangers, to be compassionate, to put others before yourself, to understand that everyone else feels just as deeply as you do, and that you are no better than anyone else. They’ll tell you to share, to apologize when you’re wrong and to forgive when you’re wronged. 

But when you're 10 or so, they'll seem to forget that. Your farts and cries will get eye rolls and sneers. People will start agreeing less on how others should be treated — they’ll say they believe everyone’s equal, but they won’t act like it. They'll give you excuses to think you're better than other people. They'll tell you to trust your fears more than your loves, that humility and forgiveness are signs of weakness, that money is more valuable than love and kindness, and that cruelty is the same thing as intelligence.

Design by  Tim Doyle

Design by Tim Doyle

This is a test. Everything is an elaborate put-on, a very hard game, to see if you remember what you were taught as a kid. It will be very hard, because people you admire will not like you because you are acting the way that we were all taught to act as kids. Many of your friends will forget what they were taught, and will lazily slip into meanness and spite. You’ll be offered very high-paid jobs that aren’t really very good for the world, but which will be fun and dazzling and soulless, and it’ll be very hard to not sell just a bit of yourself to them in exchange. 

You will occasionally make slips, and you'll feel sad about it. It will keep you up at night. But you can choose to stay strong, you can choose to stay kind. And after a while, others will see this strength and kindness in you, and they'll be drawn to it. And you will help them remember what they forgot.

A lot of people will tell you that you'll be rewarded for being good. Some people will tell you that if you're really good, you will get to live in a different, much better place when you die. They call this place "heaven." This is another test. We're not kind, compassionate, and selfless because it gets us something. The secret, baby, if you know what it's worth, is that, ooh, heaven is a place on earth.

You'll get that joke, kiddo, in maybe 15 years, if I can get you into 80's hair ballads. Even then, you're going to think it's a mediocre joke at best. My jokes will be a great test on your capacity for kindness and patience. 

But there is no heaven we yet know of, Sophie, except for the one we create here on earth. We have to love each other and care for each other, not because we'll get rewarded for it, but because if we don’t, our earth turns into the opposite of heaven, a place called hell, where everything is painful, frightening, and lonely. People will try to tell you that this is a real place, too, and they will try to use that to scare you into doing what they want. This, too, is a test. We create our own heavens and hells — anyone who tries to tell you it’s up to someone else is trying to trick you. Don’t fall for it.

When your mommy and I were growing up, things were very steady. Most people like us had jobs and families and where we lived, there was no war, no violence, and no huge, horrible disasters that scarred everyone and everything. Our parents and grandparents were not so lucky. They saw poverty and violence. They saw destruction that had never been seen before. They saw cruelty that we are very happy to have only heard tales of, and to have never seen ourselves.

You, my wonderful sweet girl, will probably not be as lucky as we were. Too many people forgot what they learned as kids. They forgot about kindness, about sharing, about forgiveness. And because so many people forgot, fear and hate and selfishness are getting stronger, as they were when things were bad before we were born. We've also started playing games with the future of our earth. We’ve built ways to blow ourselves up, and ways to slow cook our earth like it’s a big fancy soup. These were very silly things for us to do, but for a while, we honestly thought we were making things better. We know better now -- we're just being stubborn, refusing to admit our mistakes. You, sweetheart, are going to have to deal with the consequences of our well-wishes and our stubbornness. It will be hard. It will be bad. It might be too much for us to handle.

But if you remember what you learned in these first few years, you will be able to stay strong and kind and brave. You'll resist the bad things, and people will see how strong you are, and that will make them feel stronger. Then, even if all of the bad things can’t be fixed, even if it all falls to hell, you will remain a tiny pocket of heaven.

Your Mommy and I love you. We are sorry for what you're going to go through, but trust us, it is worth it. This world is cruel and ugly and brutal, but it can also be kind and beautiful and fun. If you fight the bad parts and seek out the nice parts, you’ll leave this life having done a good job. We believe in you. We love you to pieces, you kicky little potato. We can’t wait to see what you do.

Love, 

Your Dad

Featured photo by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. This post was originally published on my personal blog.

A very political diagram about miracle babies that went off the rails

I've always been annoyed when people call babies "miracles." Not because I'm anti-baby, but because I think we should maybe push our standards a little higher for what we consider "miracles." So I decided to make a Venn Diagram about it. But this is when I was really obsessed with Battlestar Galactica... so it kinda went off the rails.

Apparently, I was a big fan of every-word capitalization at the time, too.

Apparently, I was a big fan of every-word capitalization at the time, too.