The doctors say I’m suffering from postpartum psychosis, that I need medicine to adjust the levels of neurotransmitters in my brain. Just a wee bit more serotonin and dopamine, maybe a tad less epinephrine, and they promise I’ll stop shrieking from the tabletops of crowded indoor playgrounds at three o’clock on Saturday afternoons.
A bit unfair, if you ask me, because that particular scenario happened only once. But perhaps they’re right. If I’d taken the drugs as prescribed, I might not be standing up here on trial today, trying to defend myself. But here I am, and here you are, and once you’ve heard the whole story, it’s your job to decide: Am I the crazy one, or is it all of you?
Some background: I’m a climate scientist at the University of Washington, and I study drinking water—where it comes from, where it goes, what we’re going to do when it runs out. Like in fifty years, when warmer temperatures are predicted to make more than half of all US freshwater basins run short. Or in just five years—ten if we’re lucky— when America’s two largest man-made reservoirs will dip to critically low levels, threatening water supply for more than forty million people.
But I digress. The point is, if you strolled through my department and perused the frames on my colleagues’ desks, you’d notice plenty of sweeping mountain vistas and smiling clusters of sweaty bikers in spandex shorts, but a conspicuous lack of offspring. We never talked about it, but we all agreed: no point propagating a species that’s doomed to destruction.
Being an aunt was bad enough. Ever since my sister had baby Andrew twelve years ago, I couldn’t read a climate disaster scenario without calculating my nephew’s age. The Arctic will become ice-free by the summer of 2035? Andy will be 28. Miami will be half underwater by 2060? Andy will be 53.
He went to a progressive elementary school that focused on social justice, and every year they asked me to give a presentation about climate change for the fourth and fifth graders. The week after my first visit, the teacher got a flood of hate mail from parents, complaining I’d given their innocent children nightmares about superstorms and droughts and wildfires burning down their houses. After that I just talked about the little things kids can do to help—recycling, riding your bike, turning off the water while you brush your teeth—but every year, I came home feeling sick. Like I’d just handed out presents wrapped in colorful tissue and tied up with big satin bows, each with a steaming pile of shit inside. “Sorry kids,” I wanted to say, “don’t bother learning math and physics and grammar, because none of it’s going to matter. By the time you’re all adults, we’ll be lucky if we haven’t killed ourselves fighting over water rights.”
So obviously, no baby for me.
But my body must have forgotten to read the latest U.N. report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Because one day, despite the tiny blue pill I swallowed every morning like a prayer, one of my husband’s zealous sperm cells managed to infiltrate the zona pellucida of my reluctant egg—a wall that should have been impenetrable because of all those pills—and suddenly I was barfing up my avocado toast.
“We can’t have a baby,” I told my husband, who was taking out his shock and dismay on a dish towel, twisted so tight it would likely never unwind. “It’s bad enough to imagine the world Andy will inherit.” Besides, the planet couldn’t afford another human. We’d have to clear it out.
Except after I’d scheduled the clinic appointment, arranged to take two days off work, and bought three boxes of whale-sized sanitary pads for the bloody tide that would rid me of my fetus, I couldn’t stop thinking about the tiny ball of cells swimming in my belly. A ball of cells who might one day cartwheel across our front lawn and eat blueberries until her lips turned purple, who might share my passion for licorice jellybeans or my husband’s adorably oversized ears.
I thought I’d be one of those brave women hashtag-shouting my abortion by pill to prove it was no big deal. “Nothing to it in the first few weeks!” Instead I sat for two hours sobbing in the clinic parking lot, too distraught to even walk through the door. When I came home, snot-soaked and puffy-nosed but sans prescription for mifepristone, my husband wrapped his arms around me and said we’d do the best we could.
My body did a brilliant job, and for forty long weeks, I managed to split my mind right down the middle as well: the data scientist half, still crunching numbers that predicted the end of humanity, somehow entirely separate from the mommy-to-be half, blissfully engaged in choosing the right cloth diaper. After an uncomplicated pregnancy, my daughter Sylvie slid into the world red-faced and screaming, and for a moment I felt triumphant. Look what I’d done! Created a perfect six-pound human, with the most beautiful ugly-old-man face I’d ever seen. But the nurses had hardly finished scraping cheesy vernix from her skin before the two halves of my psyche crashed together, birthing a conflict—you might call it my “neurosis”—more painful than any ring of fire.
At first, my fears seemed to have little to do with our feverish Mother Earth. As I swaddled Sylvie in a sheer muslin blanket, I’d imagine finding her hours later, blue and silent in the crib, still wrapped in what had then become a shroud. Carrying her down from the nursery, I’d obsess about tripping, accidentally dropping her or—dear god—hurling her down the hardwood stairs. “You just need to get out of the house,” my experienced mom-friends told me. “You’ll feel better when you get back to work.”
Not my work. Once I was at my desk, adding expected rainfall to melting snowpack and subtracting projected water usage, my paranoia became more specific. I began to see climate change everywhere—not just in the news or the numbers on my screen, but in every cloudless cerulean sky and each purple iris poking through the grass. It’s too early, I wanted to scream, not even Valentine’s Day! I knew better than anyone that weather didn’t equal climate, yet something about Sylvie’s downy head tucked against my chest in the front pack made every sunny day a harbinger of drought and doom. Rainy days were no better— just confirmation that as the planet heated up, winters in the Pacific Northwest were getting warmer and wetter.
Things got worse as the months went by and Sylvie began to delight in the world around her. She’d laugh and point at a warbler in a tree, and I’d think about the dwindling Boreal forest and how those birds might disappear in a few short years. I stopped taking my daily walks, and instead rocked Sylvie in the nursery with the shades drawn.
“How about a sabbatical?” my husband said. “We could take Sylvie and get away for awhile.”
“To where?” I spat back. “Until we colonize a second planet, there’s no escaping this.”
Friends told me I should savor the moments I had with baby Sylvie, that her chubby cheeks and drooly, toothless grins were a time-limited delight. Everything is time-limited, I wanted to say—water in the taps, food in the grocery stores, gas to propel all those same-day Amazon deliveries we can’t live without. Every time I smiled at my daughter, I felt like I was selling her a lie.
“We’re like that woman in Titanic,” I told my husband. “That mom who sings lullabies to her sons, putting them to sleep in their beds even as the ship fills up with water.”
Instead of arguing, he drove me to a therapist.
After asking me three hundred questions, she told me there was a specific name for my condition: climate depression. And the treatment? Not suing Big Oil or impeaching the president, but a simple little pill, taken twice a day with water. “You should start feeling better in one to two weeks,” she said. I laughed until I broke down sobbing, and then she added a mood stabilizer to my antidepressant.
My sister Alison hoped to cure my melancholy through baby playdates, and that’s how I ended up in that god-awful indoor playground in the first place. It was a Saturday in August, Sylvie was now a strapping eight months old, and Alison had decided it was high time her niece socialized with other babies. We’d planned to go to a wading pool or maybe a splash park, until the thick blanket of wildfire smoke rolled in.
Before the record-breaking heat waves of the past few years, August had been the only Seattle month warm enough to qualify as summer. Now, for the third year in a row, our city’s one perfect month was suffocated by smog. Ash blowing south from wildfires in Victoria mixed with soot from the blackened towns of Northern California, and a fine white powder rained down on the Emerald City. Public health officials warned everyone to stay inside, stores sold out of N-95 masks, and asthmatics flocked to the emergency room. “Our daughter will grow up thinking this is normal,” I muttered to my husband.
I longed to climb back under the covers and succumb to the oblivion of sleep when, despite those warnings, Alison and Andy came knocking at the door, bearing masks and smiles and a plan to explore Space Palace, a 3,000-square-foot, space-themed monstrosity complete with coffee shop and beer garden. I couldn’t fly Sylvie on a rocketship to a healthier planet, but apparently I was supposed to pretend.
We were all pretending, I realized, as I looked out the passenger window of Alison’s car at masked bikers and masked dog-walkers and even a masked tree-trimmer riding a cherry picker thirty feet in the air. Smoke was clogging our city and choking our lungs, yet no one—including doomsday me—was doing a thing about it. What could be done? All we’d get for taking to the streets was bronchitis. “Why so glum, sis?” Alison asked.
“Not glum,” I replied. “Just tired.” I knew better than to engage my sister; divorced and recently remarried to a born-again Christian, she saw everything—even burnt cities and melting ice sheets—as part of God’s plan. Sylvie burbled from the backseat, and I resigned myself to a day of faking it.
Predictably, the playground was packed wall-to-wall with shrieking children, all delighted to rip the scratchy paper domes off their faces and breathe recirculated air. The place smelled of socks, pizza grease, and spilled pale ale.
“How long do we have to stay?” I asked Alison. “I don’t think Sylvie likes it here.” We were seated at one of the tables closest to the beer garden, and my daughter bounced in my lap, whipping her head from side to side as her eyes tracked the big kids streaking by.
“She looks happy enough,” my sister said. “And Andy’s already disappeared into the fray.” I squinted into the hamster maze of tubes and slides, but couldn’t spot my nephew. The noise was giving me a headache, and adding to it, from somewhere inside the play structure, a disco-ball planet flashed a nauseating red and green. Twelve minutes of small talk later, I couldn’t take it.
“Here, hold Sylvie, I’m going into the beer garden. Want anything?” It’s possible I drank too much cider that afternoon. I only remember buying two pints, one for me and one for Alison. But after nine months of pregnancy followed by eight months of nursing, the alcohol went straight to my head. By the time I got back to the table, my headache had gotten downright strange, and flickering halos sparked across my vision. Sylvie had started to fuss, and her whimpers became a howl the moment she saw me. “She needs a diaper change,” Alison said, trading my daughter for a tall glass of cider.
“I might be getting a migraine,” I said.
“Do you get migraines?”
I shrugged. “Didn’t think so.”
“Let me change the baby, then. And here, drink some water.” My sister pushed a half-empty glass my way, and reached out for Sylvie. “No, no, I’ll do it,” I said. “She’s wearing those diaper insert thingies you hate, and anyway, I have to pee.” Really, I just wanted to be alone in a quiet stall for a few moments, away from the screaming kids and flashing lights. But the bathroom speakers were pumping Imagine Dragons at top volume, and two preteen girls discussed the smoke as I unsnapped Sylvie’s soiled onesie—the diaper had leaked, of course, and once again I’d forgotten to pack extra clothes.
“Sorry your mama’s a disaster,” I whispered in Sylvie’s ear, sopping up the mess as best I could.
A high, strident voice interrupted my guilt spiral. “Ugh, the mask smeared my lip liner.” The first girl stared into the mirror and blew a bubble with her gum, the same shiny pink as her pouty lips. “Least now you don’t have to spend a week in the woods with your family,” the other one said. “That’s lucky.” Scrubbing her hands together, she admired the thick purple lather coating her fingers. “Think this is going to happen every year?” Yes, I wanted to say, and you’ll be the only ones celebrating. But Sylvie had just planted her heel into the dirty diaper, and I was busy wiping off her foot.
“Blame California,” bubble girl said. “My dad says it’s their own fault for not taking care of the forests.” I yanked the flushable insert out of Sylvie’s cotton diaper cover and rolled my eyes. Forest mismanagement, everyone’s favorite excuse.
“But I thought all the smoke was coming from Vancouver Island, from Victoria.”
“Victoria, yeah.” Bubble girl nodded. “That’s the town in California that burnt down.”
The door thumped shut as the girls filed out of the bathroom, and I flushed the toilet. Victoria, California? Ha. We ignorant humans, so confident in our wrong answers that we even convince other people of them. I felt a bit perkier, buoyed by the thought that maybe mankind wasn’t worth saving after all. Until halfway through washing my hands, I glanced in the mirror and saw the squirming infant on my hip. Who was I kidding? That round, trusting face topped by a single sprout of dark brown hair, those chubby starfish fingers grasping at my breasts— I’d do anything to save her.
The sound was a soothing gurgle at first. Like water flowing over rocks in a river. Then a loud belch, followed by a splash of water hitting concrete. When my toes got wet, I figured I must have dripped soap suds from the sink. Looking down, I discovered an inch-deep puddle, creeping ever higher up my sandals.
The last thing I remember is racing from the bathroom, chased by a torrent of water. Andy says I ran smack into him, hollering “Find higher ground!” and “Save the children!” before I leaped with Sylvie onto a tabletop. From there, apparently I launched into a screeching diatribe about sea level rise for the bewildered patrons of Space Palace. Andy says my apocalyptic predictions were quite convincing, what with the waves of water rolling out from the bathroom and pooling on a concrete floor already littered with breathing masks.
I don’t think it was me who started the chant, but I can’t say for sure. I do know it felt extremely satisfying to shout the truth, especially with twenty-five kids as my backup cantors. I’ll admit, we may have gotten carried away. Right before Alison dragged me down from the table, our chant had become something along the lines of, “Exxon dies! Or else we do!” Maybe that’s how they got the idea I did all this on purpose.
I know it looks bad, what with the forensics engineers discovering not just Sylvie’s poopy insert down the toilet, but her whole cotton diaper wrapped around a bottle of Xanax with my name on it. An accident, I swear. How could I have predicted the bizarre glitch in those dual-flush toilets that enabled a simple J-tube blockage to flood all 3,000 square feet of Space Palace? If I’d wanted to terrorize anyone, I would have brought a pipe bomb. Besides, there’s no convincing motive. Flooding a kiddie center and preaching to a few dozen Seattleites is hardly going to save the planet; most likely, half of them already drive electric cars and make their own backyard compost. But I get why I’m here, of course—we must protect our dear, fragile capitalism from the ravages of wanton protestors. Now, as I watch you all fidget in your pews and furtively glance at your iPhones, I know you’re wondering how long this silly trial can possibly drag on. Tonight you’ll go home and do the things you always do—order takeout, binge on Netflix, curse the Mariners for their seventeenth crap season in a row. But first, you have to make a decision.
On one side, my lawyers plead insanity, and on the other, the prosecution claims I’m an eco-terrorist, dead-set on destroying property and traumatizing children. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I assure you I suffer from neither psychosis nor extremism. I’m just a mama dinosaur, cuddling my baby close as we watch a black speck in the sky.
It’s growing bigger by the second.