22 April 2012

Time, Mind, Earth, Junior

Posted by Callan Bentley

Once again, we roll around to another Earth Day. I find myself in a more-contemplative-than-normal mood this year, and I’d like to take this opportunity to share a bit about what I’ve been thinking. This is a post about the personal side of geoscience – taking data, and its logical implications, and smashing it into life, and seeing what comes out the other side.

Two years ago (to the day!), I went on record here as saying that human overpopulation was a bad thing, and that I didn’t want to contribute to that bad thing, and so therefore I wouldn’t be having any children myself.

So… about that

… My wife is pregnant. We got ourselves knocked up down in South Africa on our honeymoon. Quite possibly during the safari, or perhaps on New Year’s Eve. Somewhere in there. We are expecting a boy. He’s due in late September.We’re calling him “Junior” as a pre-birth nickname.

We were trying to get pregnant; it was intentional. Because I was so public with my condemnation of child-bearing, I feel obligated to give you readers some explanation.  In case this exercise of coming-out as a parent-to-be seems self-indulgent, I can state unequivocally that some readers sat up and took notice of that particular blog post. When Philip and Sam visited, Philip remarked on it, for instance. So, if one person says something, that probably means there’s ten out there thinking the same thing. I feel like I owe those people some explanation for my about-face.

Here’s the back story.

Lily wanted a kid. I didn’t. I wrote that blog post, and I think it precipitated what followed. A few weeks later, towards the end of the school year, she let me know that she was broken-hearted over the whole thing, and that she couldn’t give up on her need to have a baby. She was going to leave me and move to Colorado. But we already had a trip to Turkey planned, and so we took it anyhow. On the flight there, and walking around Istanbul with her, I was the broken-hearted one. I knew I didn’t want to let her go. I knew I would feel empty if she went to Colorado. We both loved hiking, nature, science, travel, food. Life with Lily was better. I began to reconsider my “no kids” policy – was it so important to me that I was willing to sacrifice my relationship with the woman I loved?

So, somewhere on that trip, I said to her, “Look. I can’t lose you. I can compromise. What do you say we get married and have a kid?” And she said yes, with relief and delight that she didn’t have to take that wrenching action. We made it formal a few days later by buying a diamond ring from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and I formally proposed (down on my knee, tears in my eyes) to Lily in the shadow of the Haghia Sophia.

We were married last summer in Bozeman, Montana, a wonderful week-long affair that involved hiking, horse-riding, rafting, hot-springing, and picnicking with our family and friends. It was a sublime stretch of time for us, doing what we love in a place we love, with people with love. I get the warm fuzzies just thinking about it. It was such a good call to have a multi-day wedding celebration; it allowed for quality time with everyone in a way that an afternoon+evening wedding+reception just doesn’t.

We delayed our official honeymoon until the winter break. At work, I had been laying the foundations for the Fall 2012-Spring 2013 academic year as a time of sabbatical, and so we now had a 15-month window (adding in the summers on either side) in which to have our kid. But aiming to have a kid during that window meant pulling the trigger nine months in advance. The earliest we could start trying would be winter break. Hey, how about that – it coincides with the honeymoon trip to South Africa!

Lots of couples have difficulty conceiving, and they have my greatest sympathy — but for us, it seriously happened on the first round of “trying.” I was surprised at how easily it all worked out. Now the muffin’s in the oven. We’re going to be parents. Crazy to contemplate…

So how do I reconcile this with my data-driven assessment of human overpopulation and its negative effects? It’s hard, because it’s not logical. I can only say it’s about my love for Lily, my embrace of being a human in addition to being a scientist or being an environmentalist. Different aspects of my personality and worldview, my intellect and biochemistry are in competition with one another for control of my actions. This is not about reducing carbon emissions or making the world a better place for grasshoppers and and warblers and orangutans. It’s about making a family, about nurturing personal relationships, and trying my hand at something new, radical, and yet somehow familiar.

Why share all these details here on my blog? I think that the decisions I made, the issues I wrestled with, are not uniquely mine. There are other people out there considering their own lives, their own relationship to planet Earth, and my committing these thoughts to print may be useful to one of those people. Let me know what you think. I feel like I’m going out on a limb here.

I’ve been shocked at the level of societal approval I’ve gotten since we announced the big news last week – an outpouring of “Congratulations” which must seem like a strong current of peer pressure to those of my former “no kids” mindset. I’m hopeful about this new phase of life – I know Lily will be the best sort of mom anyone could hope for. Our boy is lucky to have her. For my own part, I’m excited in a nervous sort of way, terrified about health issues, but find that now that we’ve made this decision and committed to this path, I’m not really thinking about the carbon footprint of another American at all. My view is much more focused on our nascent family; the rest of the world has gotten fuzzier, out there on the periphery of my concern. Weird. Things change. My mind has changed. Heraclitus told me this would happen when he made the profound observation that seems to me to be the essence of geology: “Change is the only constant.”

So there: I said it. I’m embracing parenthood. I’m looking forward to teaching my son about nature, about science, about open-mindedness, and about life.

Happy Earth Day!