The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Parenting in the age of ‘eco-anxiety’: Wildfire fears, and a deeper dread

Smoke lingers through the valley near Skyway in Chico, Calif., on Nov. 11, 2018, during the infamous Camp Fire, which killed 88 people, destroyed 11,000 residences and burned an area the size of Chicago. (Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post)

Before wildfires wreaked havoc on California this year, there was an eerie calm. The power company, in an effort to deter wildfires sparked by power lines, had just shut down electricity in millions of homes. Overnight, huge swaths of the state went dark. Before the lights went out in my family’s home, I stood outside, sniffing the smoky air with trepidation, listening to tree branches snap in the wind and eyeing the hazy orange glow above the horizon. Despite previous excitement about a workshop in Oregon I’d planned to attend, I warily lowered myself into the driver’s seat. It was difficult to leave my family behind with so many unknowns.

In the mental health field (of which I’m a part), some clinicians might say I was experiencing “eco-anxiety,” and perhaps it’s true. Across the globe, worry related to a changing and uncertain natural environment is clogging up our minds, bodies and news feeds. To be sure, there is real cause to worry. If we do not act quickly to combat climate change, our future looks exceedingly grim: climate-related deaths, mass migrations, environmental devastation, extinction of species. But, other than managing this anxiety to whatever extent possible, are there really any better options?

As a parent raising two young children in California, I’m struck by the peculiar, often unsettling contours of this particular moment: how families are readying evacuation kits, attempting to fit child-size masks, discussing air quality indexes with neighbors — all while maintaining some semblance of ordinary life. At the root, a low-grade anxiety permeates. On the surface, we are resilient and functional.

This new “normal” can feel like a tightrope act at times, for both children and adults. As parents, we reckon not only with the frightening truth about what is happening to our planet but also with the gnawing uncertainty of our children’s futures. As parents, we hope for the best for our children, even as they have been strapped to this supreme burden — as if academic, social and economical pressures were not already enough. Although my oldest daughter is barely 5, I’m aware that navigating the what, when and how much to share with our kids about this crisis is just around the corner. Although excessive sharing can undermine kids’ mental health, too little of it won’t prepare them for the challenges of the future. These conversations won’t be easy.

Climate-change anxiety is now a part of growing up. Pop culture has caught on.

In 2017, the climate crisis crept viscerally close to my home. Ash particles descended like snowflakes, and my husband and I fled town with our then-2-year-old, canceling her birthday party at the last minute and heading to a friend’s home in the mountains. The following year, my husband, who works closely at the nexus of human health, climate and the environment, invested in air filters for our poorly insulated house. Some days later, informing me that air quality in the Bay Area was worse than in Beijing, he drove our 3-month-old to a friend’s house on the northwest coast. For another day or two, I stuck it out with my older daughter, showing up at work as usual, trying to convince myself that everything would be okay if I just went through the motions. Eventually, we followed suit.

This year, at the start of what is now referred to by some as “wildfire season,” we ran familiar scripts in preparing for the pending shut-off: Keep windows closed, gas up car, fill cooler with ice, plant flashlights in strategic locations. Even as it all grows increasingly familiar, I am more on edge than ever. One night, I paused before getting into bed and texted our neighbors to let them know I was home alone with the kids. I was comforted by their reply: “We are home and have food and water for three weeks, including enough for you guys.” Over the course of two days, while both of my children were out, I finally organized an emergency kit in our basement, feeling hugely relieved, and infinitely more like a responsible adult. Instinctively, I didn’t involve my children in this project, although I wasn’t trying to hide the kits, either. When my 5-year-old asked me later about the large bins in the basement, I simply explained that they were supplies “just in case there is ever an emergency and we need to leave quickly.”

“Like the people who lost their homes in the fire?” she asked. I nodded.

The day I left my kids behind to set out on my trip, I felt nervous and guilty. How could I put distance between us if there was a risk of a wildfire breaking out — one that might harm or separate us? By reminding myself that there were no actual fires yet and that “public safety power shut-offs” were a preemptive measure, I could finally push off. Driving north on Highway 5, I passed by the town of Paradise, the site of last year’s devastating blaze, which stole 88 lives, 11,000 homes and more than 150,000 acres. Observing the scarred remains of forests with my own eyes — rather than in print or on a screen — was sobering. The sense of freedom I’d previously experienced on road trips wrestled with the gravity of the moment.

My time away was blissfully uneventful. On my drive home, a pink sunset streaked across the flat horizon, dividing sky and land. When I walked through the door, the lights were on. But the following night, we went black. In the morning, I tried to ignore the tightness in my chest while scrambling eggs for my daughters, packing a unicorn lunchbox, velcroing sneakers and dropping the girls off at school in a state of anxious anticipation — an odd juncture of the mundane and the apocalyptic. I’m not sure if my kids pick up on my anxiety, which tends to peak at night, after they are in bed and I have time to read the news and reflect.

In “Simplicity Parenting,” Kim John Payne offers “filtering out the adult world” as a strategy for nurturing young children. This resonates with me, although I also sense I’m on the brink of entering into a new phase with my oldest daughter, who is growing ever more curious, alert and resilient.

One night, despite the blackout, my husband and I set out on foot for a date night. Passing by street after darkened street, we descended a hill until crossing a power shut-off threshold. Lights suddenly flooded the darkness in the commercial zone. Restaurants and bars were open, and people sat together at tables, somehow rollicking with laughter. We could almost forget the wildfires. Almost.

“So what is our plan if we need to evacuate?” I asked. “We need to have one.”

“Well,” my husband said, “it depends on where the fire is. We need context. That will inform where we go.”

“Shouldn’t we just fly out of here for a week until things calm down?” I persisted. “I can book a flight, and we can always cancel within 24 hours.”

In that moment, amid the eerie revelry of the bar, I realized how this sounded a tad extreme.

In the end, we stayed. Despite fires hemming us in on either side, they hadn’t advanced in our direction, air quality was reasonably safe and we had power again. But the prospect of dealing with this uncertainty every year has raised questions about our family’s future. Should we stay and accept this as part of normal life? Or is it time to stop rolling the dice each year and hoping for the best? As an East Coast transplant, I can imagine living more comfortably in pockets of the country less compromised by climate change. Even my husband, who is more deeply entrenched in this community, is open to discussion.

Meanwhile, I’m not convinced that eco-anxiety is our enemy. When I startle in the middle of the night, I feel rooted to mammalian impulses, which is both humbling and significant at this time in history. If, as research suggests, some anxiety can actually benefit us by motivating us to act, could eco-anxiety be similarly adaptive? When people do not appear fazed or think it can’t possibly happen to them or that they are somehow immune, I find it deeply troubling. A bell is tolling, reminding us we should be alarmed.

As my daughters become more aware of the crisis we are living in, it is my hope that they will find ways to remain alert, engaged and balanced, while not slipping into panic. Learning to live with and manage anxiety — which is intrinsic to the human condition — is an important skill for kids to cultivate, after all. I consider it my responsibility, as their parent, to help build this type of resilience.

One night, the power outage in effect, I sat playing card games with my 5-year-old by flashlight. I had shared with her how, as a child, I used to play card games with my parents when the lights went out. She wanted to do the same. The next morning, my daughter rolled out of bed and cheerfully declared: “I wasn’t even afraid of the dark. Wanna know why? Because I had my eyes closed.” For just a moment longer, I say, let hers be closed and mine open. Her time will come — far sooner than I would like.

Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a licensed psychotherapist, art therapist and freelance writer, and lives with her husband and two daughters in the San Francisco Bay area.

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