How To Parent In This Unruly Age

The family tomb in India where I won’t be buried because I haven’t been Christian for 1700 years

The news has long since started to intrude on my life, but it’s still stories to my children. Stories of poverty, stories of shortage, stories of suffering. But, as of yet, nothing that they’ve experienced. We’ve protected them from that with a wall of family money, but I wonder how long that will hold out. Suffering is ringing the bell every day now. I wonder how long till it just comes inside.

An ‘uncle’ died of an OD—a death of despair—but they don’t know why or understand how. There’s no fuel for the car but we pool vehicles with the neighborhood and they still get to school. They see me giving money to the now myriad beggars, but they’ve never seen me run out.

We talk about a ‘new normal’ but this is all they’ve ever known. They know but don’t quite know that something is terribly wrong. They’ve never known ‘right’ at all. I worry about them growing up like this, but everything is relative. It’s us old-timers that are worried. The new-timers can’t miss a stability they never really had.

And of course, we have it easy, behind our invisible walls. Many kids are truly hungry, they can’t not know the gnaw. Many kids are seeing parents truly lose it, they can’t avoid the yelling and violence. Far too often I hear stories about mothers killing themselves and their children. The wolf* is in the village, if not at our door. For our children, it’s just a story, but many real children are really getting devoured.

The knowledge of this eats me up. It’s painful to feed my children knowing that so many go without. We give away constantly, but it’s never enough. It can’t be enough. There just isn’t enough. People talk about a global food crisis but that’s just a fancy word for famine, and it’s already started. And it’s only getting worse.

The entire premise of modern parenting has been that you make a better life for your kids, but that hasn’t been true for generations, and it certainly isn’t true now. My generation was only really able to buy homes, cars, and start families by remaining children. I received parental support until I was in my 30s. My wife still does.

I say ‘really able’ because of course some people were able to do it ‘on their own’, but that’s just the exception that proves the rule. In Sri Lanka, it’s nearly impossible on a ‘normal’ salary to have a ‘normal’ life in Colombo. It’s also become impossible for ordinary people in the west to educate, work, buy a house, and raise children on their own, certainly unlike how it was for white boomers. Education today makes you a debt peon, work gives you just enough to pay interest, houses are scooped up by speculators, and children are a joke. ‘Child care’ is a capitalist commodity, just another thing you don’t have money for.

I suppose the answer as to ‘how to parent’ in this age is that many people just don’t. Capitalism exploded the nuclear family for many people, with the promise that cars and houses and modern amenities would make up for it. But now people are left without large families for support, surrounded by cheap consumer goods and wildly expensive essentials like health, education, and increasingly food. The American Dream was a bait and switch, and everyone that followed it is flapping furiously on the shore.

For the people that somehow reproduced in this hostile artificial environment, what the fuck are we supposed to do now? Even if we got all the goods and money that are supposed to protect us, they can’t protect us from the natural environment collapsing. They can’t shield us from a plague that spread through the air. Privilege can do a lot, but not enough. They can’t shield us from an economic crash that obliterates everything, incinerating the poor first but eventually coming for wealth too.

And more emotionally, they can’t protect us from the pain the Buddha felt as Siddhartha, of being OK yourself but seeing other people suffering. The Buddha’s answer to parenting in those unruly times was to leave his family and find a way out. Then he came back and taught his relatives, they all become monks, and that line effectively ended. So I guess that’s one answer, but to an entirely different question.

The question most parents have today is can I keep my children safe and give them everything they need and want, and the answer to that is probably just no. I don’t believe that in any real sense, I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my children safe, but on the aggregate level, the answer is just no. We’re in for tens of millions of deaths and massive displacement this century and many of them will be children. That injustice is inexorable.

All I do, on the day-to-day, is try and put food in their mouths, choking back the bittersweet feeling it leaves in my own. All I do is try to get them to school most of the time, a target that gets increasinly unreachable. And we try to love them and show them love in a world that needs it, god knows.

My parents went through hell when I was a kid also—wars, riots, insurrections, shortages—but I remember none of that myself. I remember moving, but never getting out. I remember wanting, but never needing. For me there’s more of a hard deadline in terms of the entire fucking ecosystem collapsing, but I don’t know what else to do.

We still hope for something to change, however improbable. What is a child besides hope for tomorrow? We just try to keep them alive and healthy, and as long as they are, we live in hope.

*in recorded history wolves have actually killed vanishingly few people, so no shade on them, it’s a metaphor.