One night about 25 years ago I woke at 4 o'clock in the morning and in a tormented voice asked myself "Where are my babies?" I suspect the question was as much biologic as psychological and I had just broken up with a boyfriend. I had a great life -- I was in my 4th year of residency in psychiatry and had come from years living in Paris as a student and in Africa as a doctor. But it was time to settle down. I didn't question why I wanted children.
I had my boyfriends over the years - but as for fathers - until I met my husband no one was suitable. I realized he was the one when at my first Passover dinner he playfully told a couple of nieces and nephews jumping at his side to name the states the broken pieces of matzo resembled.
In three years three children came into my life. I remember thinking that by the time I "woke up" from the experience I would be in my fifties. (I was right.) I clambered about not thinking very deeply about anything - aside from keeping up my practice (part time), my life was focused on keeping my children safe, and nurturing them to feel good about and be honest with themselves.
Until I became a Mom I never really appreciated what mothers do, how selfless they can be, for their children - sacrificing their careers, capacity to earn money, and personal time. If they worked out of the house they would often have two full time jobs. The school functioned and the kids grew up because of the moms - the cupcakes were baked, the stories read, the costumes made, the fights broken up, the stern talkings to about ethics, the lectures on doing homework, cleaning up a mess, giving a helping hand - whether they felt like it or not. Muddy field trips exploring nature and books read about the babies of other species - polar bears and penguins and frogs and butterflies... were opportunities not only to feel cuddly but also to introduce the moral message of caring about the larger world.
And other people's children - who had their own food quirks and bruised feelings - had to be taken into account. This opened me up to respond beyond the welfare of my children.
The older I got, the more this mattered.
We got to know other parents and their kids to make sure they were hanging out with people we could trust.
The contentment and challenge of nurturing and protecting our babies and creating a community where it all could thrive was apparent.
My three children are now in college.
One night two weeks ago I woke at 4 o'clock in the morning and I heard myself ask again, "Where are my babies?"
I still have a wonderful life. But I squirmed - existential questions usually can't be answered in the middle of the night. Being with the babies is a sweet time, a place to lose yourself in small spaces that feel safe and magical.
But it is what lies ahead that is the focus now, and it looms darkly, for more than one reason. And mine are not the only babies to think about.
In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler argues that all civilizations eventually fizzle out. Arnold Toynbee noted that civilizations decline when their leaders stop responding to problems creatively, and are tyrannized by a minority. In contrast, they grow when they devise solutions to great challenges - solutions that reorient the entire society.
As a doctor, educated in science, I believe it - with good reason - when climate scientists say that what we are doing to the earth with the way we are using energy is a catastrophe in slow motion.
I believe it when they tell me that all across the planet our children are threatened by climate change - floods, fires, diseases, food shortages. I believe it when I hear reports that in some water stressed areas children spend the day looking for water instead of going to school.
I believe it when the biologists say that the frogs and penguins, polar bears and birds and butterflies and the great places for field trips are at risk because of climate change. I believe it when the scientists give the statistics that show we are in a period of extinction, right now, that we have not seen in 65 million years!
To save our planet as we know it, a new kind of motherhood has to emerge. One that responds to the global threat to our children and that mobilizes us to action. If we want to make this house, our planet, a safe home, we will need every single mom on board, urgently.
When corporations that spew CO2 and other toxins into the air and water say there isn't a problem, we need every single mom to say "Nonsense - Get a social conscience," and stop buying their products.
When energy is being wasted we need every single mom to say, "Enough! - turn it down, or off," and march in and make it happen if that's the only way it will.
When politicians fail to take action or posture for reelection - ignoring the planetary emergency - we need every single mom to say "You're done. Next up," and support their opponent or run for the office yourself.
And when 2000 square miles of crude oil bears down on one of the most fertile ecosystems on earth, we need every single mom to say "How many more times?" and holler with the crowd demanding clean energy from the wind and sun.
Moms. We need to be all together on this... extending our hands to make this the most meaningful Mother's Day ever: the day we stand up for the sisterhood in stewardship of our greatest collective effort ever, restoring the health of Mother Earth. In the choices we make - the products we use, the energy we consume, the climate conscious candidates we vote for and the actions we take - are we all a part of the creative solutions for the society wide transformation we so urgently need.
Where are the babies?
They are looking for us -- to protect them.
HOME@nwf.org (Helping Other Moms Everywhere)
Lise Van Susteren, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice in Washington D.C. She is member of the Board of Directors of the National Wildlife Federation and serves on the Advisory Board of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.