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The Circle of Life: A Mother’s Day Apology

Nobody ever said being a mom was easy.

It used to be that you had to worry quite a bit about dying in childbirth. 

Also about your kids not living long enough to toddle, much less to adulthood.  Back in the Dark Ages, child mortality was so high, kids often weren’t even given names until they were 3 or 4 years old — because hey, what’s the point of cluttering the family tree with offspring that might not reach puberty, anyway?

Those days are (thankfully) past.

But being a modern mom has its own set of problems.

And I’m not talking about being a new mom, either, with a bouncing baby hot out the womb in 2015.  I’m talking about my mom, now in her mid-60s, dealing with some distinctly modern problems that are going to be increasingly par-for-the-course as maternal difficulties go.

We probably all remember the movie The Lion King, and the emblematic Circle of Life song by Elton John and a cast of cartoon animals.  Popular song, and a popular concept: Life, with all its ups and downs, trials and tribulations and individual triumphs and defeats, is still essentially repetitive.

Birth, growth, maturity, wisdom, aging, death, and so on… ad infinitum.  Each of us gets one spin around the circle, and when the upswing of our own transient life seems past, we can rest easier knowing we’ve passed the existential baton to a loved-and-raised progeny or two – kids we’ve brought into the world, loved, raised and shaped.  If not in the strictly biological sense, then at least ideologically.

Of course, not every human does this, but it’s a well-established strategy with some proven, winning examples.

Life, with all its ups and downs, trials and tribulations and individual triumphs and defeats, is still essentially repetitive.

We’ve got quite a lot of old people who have reported significant satisfaction in watching their offspring arcing around the same Circle of Life, just a partial-revolution behind mom and dad, chronologically.

The truth is, up until now the Circle of Life could just as well have been called the Handcuffs of Life.

If you were a cave-mom, your kids were going to be – you guessed it – cavemen or cavewomen.  End of Story.  No upward mobility, no aspirations, nothing but moving up the seniority-rungs of cave-society, until it’s their turn in a shallow grave with some bead necklaces.  And that’s if they’re lucky.

Agriculture didn’t change things much.  Serf farmer moms had serf farmer kids, and so on.

More recently, in the past couple centuries, we’ve had an explosion in the number of available professions in many parts of the world.  Depending on a mom’s perspective, she could be thrilled to see her child rise beyond the family’s traditional station – or maybe upset to see a kid “leave the family business,” if she took a more negative slant.

But the Circle of Life was still on firm footing.  Jaunty new professional options didn’t do much to interfere with the growth-marriage-work-aging-death thing.

But now, things are getting weird.

Especially if a mom’s kids are among a technology-adoring, futurist set – and she is perhaps a bit more Luddite in her leanings.

My mom was born in 1950.  Bless her heart, she still considers vacuum cleaners to be exciting technology.  Microwave ovens are somewhat suspect.  Modern car navigation systems that talk are “creepy.”  And the idea that her grown son “wants to change his brain with drugs”* is something she really prefers not to think about.

* “Why can’t you call them food supplements?” is a conversation we revisit now and again.

But we’re not breaking any new ground in family dynamics, are we?

There’s always been a generation gap.  Older folks always find the music too loud, the skirts too short, the newest gadgets too damned complicated.

But then, there was always the Circle of Life to fall back on.  Curmudgeonly moms and stick-in-the-mud dads still knew that come Hell or high water, the passing of years would inexorably place their offspring into a roughly identical carousel-seat to the one they sat in, one day.  “As you torment me, so my grandchildren shall one day torment you, sucka.” *

* Said with more or less ironic relish, depending on the sense of humor of the parents in question.  I’m happy to say both my parents are on the merrier end of the spectrum.

But the Future is arrived.

And people are taking notice.  Everyone is interested.  Some people are curious.  And some few of us are actually making major life decisions on the assumption that the Circle of Life, long coiled like a packed spring, is about to warp out at the end, arcing off into uncharted territory.

If people are right, who believe that in a decade or two, longevity technologies may extend our average lifespan by more than one year per year… What does that mean for your personal life plans?

Up until now the Circle of Life could just as well have been called the Handcuffs of Life.

If you watch the Paralympic Games, and find your reaction changing from “Isn’t it nice that person is still able to function?” to “Jesus Christ, did you just see that!?”… What does that do to your contentment with your biologically-inherited physicality?

If you’re persuaded by the Extended Mind Hypothesis, and agree that our devices are becoming important adjuncts to our thinking selves… Do you want to have a baby with your sweetheart, or engage in asexual co-evolution with your laptop?

I’m not supplying answers to these questions; I’m just pointing out that these weren’t questions sane people could even ask, until right about now.

But these questions are getting saner.

Incredible technologies are moving the Lunatic Fringe onto center-stage.

Maybe it hasn’t been a Circle for a while now…

During my mom’s generation, the newly-available birth control pill upset the Natural Order of Things and ignited public controversy that remains controversial even today.  The Circle of Life, one could say, got dented.  Humans had put a manual screw-nozzle on the spigot of fertility.

And it was a change that mattered.  The average age at which American moms had their first child raised significantly: from 21 years of age in 1970 to over 25 in 2008.  Predictable markers on the Circle of Life are suddenly shifting around.

Do you really want to have a baby with your sweetheart… Or engage in asexual co-evolution with your laptop?

But the availability of the Pill was one relatively well-defined choke-point on an otherwise untouched Human Condition.

What technology is about to give us, though, isn’t choke-points. 

It’s branches.  It’s springboards.  It’s lots of bizarre-looking options.  The Circle of Life, unchanged in aeons, suddenly has off-ramps under construction.

My mom hates this idea.

And I, of course, love my mom.

I want her to be okay with the idea of an amorphous future.  One that’s less predictable.  One where the progress of life creeps like a vine, curls like a paisley, expands like an ink drop in water…

I understand where she’s coming from.

She wants to understand where I’m going.

But I don’t think any of us, looking ahead, can lay claim to too much certainty when we look at the future.  It seems dishonest to me.  (And, Mom, you also taught me to always be honest.)

The Circle of Life may be breaking, it’s true.

But circles are not the only beautiful shapes in nature.

Spirals are nice, too.

Like this post but you’re not my mom? 
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  1. Taylor says:

    #balla – Would be super interesting to hear you lay out the opportunities are for your mom or someone in a similar situation. Ie. You recognize and are intrigued by these opportunities, what are the relatively safe, cheap, high impact options (creatine?). What’s coming up soon?

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Thanks for the idea-fodder. I’ll see what I can do. 🙂

  2. Arnold says:

    As a health professional, a peer of your parents (born in 1948), and a “noot-head”, I enjoyed this enough to say, “Please write a book on Nootropics (or most anything else) and tell me where to buy it.” I am a fan, seriously.

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      This message made my day, seriously. I think a book is probably not in the cards for calendar year 2015, but I am going to be trying to put out more written content, and I appreciate your planting the idea-seed. 😉

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