Only Joni: Moving Toward Motherhood in the Shadow of Big Oil

5 min
The author and her daughter Joni at Perdenales Falls State Park in 2016 in Johnson City, TX. (Eric Kayne)

We moved to Northern California right after President Trump was elected. After nine years in Houston, Texas, I was happy to swap heat and hurricanes for cool fog and wooded hills. It seemed like the perfect place to raise a family. As I drove west, I kept hearing Joni Mitchell’s song “California” playing in my head.

“Oh but California
California I'm coming home
I'm going to see the folks I dig
I'll even kiss a Sunset pig
California I'm coming home...”

The city I was leaving behind is, of course, more than its dominant industry; it has a huge medical center, a thriving arts scene and incredible restaurants. But during my nine years working as a reporter there, it was impossible to forget that Houston’s economic heart runs on fossil fuels.

If you drive east from downtown Houston, you soon start passing mile upon mile of hulking refineries, storage tanks and petrochemical plants – all bristling with pipes. Looming over this industrial landscape are tall flare stacks, which periodically belch forth black smoke, and sometimes even orange flames.

When I first moved to Hosuton, I would ask, “Is that thing on fire?” and people would laugh — “No, that’s just a gas flare — they’re burning off excess.”

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It was haunting, to live so close to the chugging energy engines that powered our global economy. But there was also a decadent beauty to it all: the twisting pipes, enveloped in humidity and blanched at night by stark floodlights, evoked a scene straight out of "Blade Runner," or "The Terminator."

When I went to the beach, I could see the massive oil tankers headed out to sea. They passed huge cargo ships headed in to port, and steam-driven tankers, which carried only gas, but gas that was chilled and liquified and hidden deep inside, in armored chambers.

I was fascinated, watching the endless parade of ships, moving in the endless stream of global consumption. Was that ship, I wondered, bringing natural gas to Houston, to be transformed into plastic pellets? Or was that other ship over there taking plastic away to Asia, to be made into toys? Or maybe that cargo ship was bringing the toys back from China, to be sold here in the U.S.?

I found myself thinking about our global economy, and its damaging side effects, more and more. I had always been anxious about global warming, but not just global warming; I was worried about all of it: the dying corals, and the acid rain, and the little animals that scientists told us were going extinct, before we even had a chance to identify and name them. I had been mulling these things for years, as I moved from the Midwest to the Northeast and then to Texas. But living in Houston really ratcheted that up; the city served as a constant trigger for my eco-anxieties.

But I also kind of respected the honesty of Houston. Everything was right in your face. New Yorkers and Californians could sniff all they wanted about evil oil companies, but they drove cars too. Houstonians have no illusions about humans and how they impact the earth. They know exactly where the gas in their cars comes from, and what powers the air conditioning, and what that costs their wallets, and also the environment.

I admired the weird contradictions of the place, and so did my husband, Eric. We met in Houston, at the newspaper, and got married. In 2012, our daughter Joni was born. It was mid-December, the last day of Hanukkah, and she was our healthy, eight-pound present.

Joni nursed a little, and then she cried a lot. She cried loudly and with verve. Really, she screamed. One nurse told me she was the loudest baby on the maternity floor. What did I expect, really, naming my daughter after Joni Mitchell. From that very first night, we knew we were in for a wild ride, just like her namesake wrote in her song “Twisted”:

“They say as a child
I appeared a little bit wild
With all my crazy ideas
But I knew what was happening
I knew I was a genius
What's so strange when you know
That you're a wizard at three?
I knew that this was meant to be.”

My husband Eric still looks back on those first few months with a little bit of fatherly PTSD.

“I mean just to get Joni to sleep was a ton of work,” he recalls. “I had to swaddle her super tight. I had to bounce her on a yoga ball for 45 minutes to an hour.”

Eric admits now that he knew pretty early on that he would be totally fine if we were “one and done.”

“I felt, you know, you don't need ten kids to have ‘skin in the game,’ so to speak. You just need one.”

I was more conflicted though. I had always wanted kids, I thought. Kids, plural. In this, I followed the crowd: not many people ever say they want “a kid.” But now that I had “a kid,” I had to decide right away whether I wanted another. I was already 40, so I didn’t have the luxury of time.

Yet a second child also felt like a luxury that two journalists couldn’t afford. Not just in terms of money, but also in terms of freedom, time, energy and creativity.

As we faced that decision, we were still living in Houston. The land of flare stacks, of hurricanes, of floods. I started to doubt whether a second child was something the planet could handle.

“They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.”

“Big Yellow Taxi” was the first Joni Mitchell song I remember hearing back in the 1970s, when I was a little girl. I didn’t really understand it, but I knew it was sad.

Now I felt like I understood too much. I had read some books about the environment and about family size. I knew about the carbon footprint of us Americans.

I really wanted to become a mom, and to give my child the pleasures of an American childhood: the vacations, the birthday parties, the toys and the ice cream cones.

But I also knew a second child meant we would double that level of consumption, and double the emissions. The studies showed that no amount of recycling, or bicycling — not even giving up meat, cars and airplanes for the rest of my life — would ever be able to compensate for the impact of having one more child.

I know a lot of people say that’s not what having kids is about. It’s not a cold, cerebral calculation of environmental impact -- it’s about joy and family.

And some people have even argued that having more kids can actually help the planet. More children means more potential innovators who will grow up to work on solving the world’s problems. Maybe that second kid will be the one to cure cancer, or invent something to stop global warming. I hear that kind of thing a lot in California: innovation and technology will save us. I hope so.

It’s been over a year since we moved to Oakland. Joni is five now, and we’re happy with just her. The decision to stop with her wasn’t strictly environmental, but it’s done a lot to ease my eco-anxiety.

Joni has enough sides to her personality to be her own sibling. And just like her mom, she also thinks about the big picture. Here’s how she explained “science” to me and my mother, during a family vacation:

“A long time ago, when dinosaurs were here, people would not come," she said. "But when people did come, the dinosaurs were extinct. Because they lived a very long time ago, right, mommy? And scientists found their fossils and all their sculptures and bones.”

It’s a great reminder, from my only daughter Joni, that in the end all of us are just the briefest of blinks in the life of this planet.