Let me begin by telling you about the first time I tried to talk to a group of other parents about climate change: it went badly.
My twins were small, just barely in preschool. A neighbor of mine hosted a regular moms’ group, and once a month, I’d walk over to her house to spend time with a group of other new mothers. We’d go around in a circle and share what was on our minds: I’m worried about the current political regime. I had a miscarriage and I’m heartbroken. I’m struggling to relate to my partner. It’s been eight months since the baby was born and I’m still not sleeping. Usually, other women would chime in with gentle affirmations of solidarity each time someone shared; usually, I experienced the group as warm and supportive.
One day, I worked up the courage to bring up a topic I’d been carrying inside for a few months, a festering dread about climate change: I’m worried that the planet won’t be a livable place for our children. I’m terrified that the hurricanes and fires will just keep getting worse. The headlines are saying there are only 12 years left to prevent climate catastrophe, and it feels like the world is hurtling toward collapse.
There were no affirming comments in response to the fears that spilled out of me; there was only a sticky, uncomfortable silence. The silence was finally broken by another woman who shared her annoyance that her partner constantly wanted to have sex, and that was that.
I’ve learned a lot about skillful climate communication since then, and I’ve learned (the hard way, might I add) that airing your fears about impending climate apocalypse with a group of people who aren’t prepared for such a conversation isn’t likely to lead to positive results. Though research published this year shows that the vast majority of parents in the US are worried about climate change, collectively, we still don’t have a lot of practice in having meaningful climate conversations with others. Many parents are still carrying the weight of climate worries alone.
But this is changing. Earlier this month, I co-facilitated two climate cafés for parents at the Montshire Museum of Science, a children’s museum on the Vermont-New Hampshire border. Climate cafés are facilitated groups where people can come together for the explicit purpose of sharing their thoughts and feelings about climate change in a gathering of supportive peers who are there for the same reason. The climate café model is emerging as one of several group support models that hold promise in helping people cultivate emotional resilience amid the escalating threat of climate change. For some, worries about climate change can be almost unbearable to hold alone; talking with others who share the same concerns can go a long way to lighten the emotional load of climate distress.
The themes that arose during the climate cafés earlier this month were themes I’d heard echoed by parents many times before: Sadness about the loss of familiar seasons and beloved traditions, as climate change radically alters weather patterns. Overwhelm around the extraordinary amount of plastic and consumer waste that can accompany modern parenthood. Rage at the fossil fuel companies whose greed is eroding our children’s future and at the profound injustice of climate impacts. The heavy weight of discussions about family size, and the sinking worry that young children may not want to have children of their own some day.
For many parents, being able to talk openly about climate change without fear of bringing down the mood in a conversation can be a huge relief. Though many of the topics discussed in the cafés were painful ones—tissues were close at hand—the conversations also touched on how parenting can be a radical expression of hope and on the importance of joy.
Parents deserve spaces to process our thoughts and feelings about climate change for a number of reasons, not least because our own mental health matters in its own right. But making space to honor our inner experience of climate change may help those of us who are parents show up more fully for our children, as well. There’s increasing acknowledgment that children deserve honest, age-appropriate discussions of climate change, but research suggests that nearly 40% of parents may experience their own emotional distress about climate change as a barrier to these critical climate conversations. When parents have support in navigating the emotional terrain of our climate distress, we’ll be better equipped to support our children in navigating theirs.
At the end of one of the cafés, a participant shared a favorite Mary Oliver poem, “Don’t Hesitate”: If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There were smiles, hugs, exchanged phone numbers, and a palpable sense of community as participants left. Climate change isn’t an easy topic to discuss; it requires courage and vulnerability. But on the other side of these conversations is something we may not be able to access in any other way: the profound gift of being truly seen by others without judgment—the balm of belonging. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.