This week we booked our first vacation as a family with a baby. We decided to stay within a few hours from home. We're going to Watkins Glen to visit one of my favorite places in the world: Farm Sanctuary. I can't wait to bring Thora to the farm and show her one of the most peaceful, serene, beautiful places I have ever been to. I want her to meet the animals and feel the happiness that emanates from the animals and the very earth there.
That has me thinking of course about veganism and how having a vegan household will play out as we raise our family. It's a topic I think about a lot but have been avoiding in this blog until now. So here goes.
The million dollar question, that is to say, the one question I get all the time but maybe not quite as much as "Did your tattoos hurt?" is, "Are you going to raise Thora vegan?" This is followed closely by "What are you going to do if she eats meat?"
The answers are, simply, yes and nothing.
We are a vegan household. Thora is vegan by default because she is the child of two vegans. There will be and there is no meat in our home. Some people do not allow shoes in their homes, some people don't allow smoking. We do not allow meat. This has gotten me into trouble with some people in the past. I do not mean to offend anyone. I like to think that I am not a preachy vegan, which is both good and bad, depending on how you think about it. Either way, when it comes to people eating dead things, you can do it wherever you want if you must, but not in my house.
I've been veg*n (if you can stand that phrase, which I really can't) for a long, long time.
It started gradually. I remember when I was a small child, my parents and I went to some friends' house for a summer potluck barbecue. There were lots of people there. I couldn't have been more than six or seven. I've always been a good eater, so I was piling my plate high. When I got to the chicken wings, a little girl, who was watching me, asked me if I knew that those came from chickens. I had not yet made that connection so I was startled. She explained to me very patiently that those birds died to be our dinner, and asked me if I really wanted to eat that.
I ate that.
Later I asked my mother about chickens and turkeys and why we kill them to eat them. "That's what they're raised for," my mom said, and that was enough of an explanation for me at the time.
I didn't forget though. I don't remember that girl's name or even whose house we were at but I've never forgotten the interaction. I admit that I am sometimes a slow learner. I became vegetarian abruptly after watching Faces of Death with my dear friend Caleb back in ninth grade. It was a horrible induction. I remember proclaiming that I, like a few of my friends in high school who were older and much cooler than I, was now a vegetarian. I bought a spring roll from the Chinese takeout near school. "That has pork in it," one older and much cooler friend pointed out. I picked out the pieces of pork and ate around them. "That's not vegetarian! You can't just pick out the meat!" I didn't get why not at first. Later I realized two things: that if you eat something cooked together with meat, it too is no longer vegetarian, and that if you buy something non-vegetarian and throw away the animal pieces then the animal died for nothing. I felt mocked by my friend, but she was right. I started getting spring rolls instead of egg rolls. I learned about lard, about gelatin, about rennet. I learned to read labels.
When I was about 22, I stumbled upon a vegan society meeting of some kind or other in the Boston Common. It was eye-opening. I didn't know about vegans or veganism yet but I started reading about factory farming and suddenly it dawned on me that the animals who are killed for their meat have it much easier than the animals who aren't. Eggs and milk are made at a very very high cost. The egg and dairy industries slowly and brutally squeeze the life out of cows and chickens, torturing them in tiny spaces until they are starved, elderly, ailing and no longer able to lay eggs or produce milk, (the term they use, which absolutely breaks my heart because it's so accurate and conjures up terrible images of exhausted and abused hens in my mind, is "spent"), whereupon they are slaughtered for cat food or soup or hamburger. I decided I would try being vegan just at home for a month. At the end of that month, I decided to try being vegan everywhere for another month. I was spending a lot of time in France back then, where they do not believe in eating things sans butter, cream, eggs, or all of the above, so I had to learn to say "I am allergic to dairy and eggs and I will die right here in your restaurant if you serve me anything with dairy or eggs in it" so as not to be ignored by haughty French waitstaff. The look on their faces every time I said that sentence meant either they thought I was crazy or my French was really, really bad. But at the end of that month, I knew there was no going back.
So I've been following a vegan diet for about fifteen years now, but I didn't really get it until about five years ago. Up until that point, I still had wool and leather in my wardrobe, still purchased items like toothpaste that had been tested on animals without looking diligently for alternatives or just going without. For me, true veganism clicked into place in my brain all at once. I watched Peaceable Kingdom with my roommate and immediately, my life changed. I went through my wardrobe and gave away or donated everything that contained any animal products. I used up the toothpaste and the hair and house products I had, and switched over to cruelty free. I joined the co-op. I changed careers and found a job in animal welfare. I started opening up my home to foster chickens and other birds in need. It was all very, very sudden.
As much as I think the animals might benefit from me being a little preachier than I am, my feeling is "I would rather keep my mouth shut and have friends than be the Lone Vegan out to convert the world." I know that people need to hear the horrible truth because while ignorance is bliss, knowing where your food came from and how much suffering goes into your fried chicken sometimes makes you think. But because it took me so long to finally get it, I don't feel that I am the right person for that job. I don't have the right to judge other people who don't get it. If you ask me, you will get an honest, impassioned, and long-winded answer. I will send you books, website links. Talk your ear off. Introduce you to chickens. Lots of people have heard my "chicken period" line about eggs (they are just chicken periods in a shell, how can you eat chicken periods?) But if you don't want to hear it, you will not get lectured from me anymore. Now I don't say anything when people eat meat in front of me. I don't snicker about "vegans" who wear leather, lecture vegetarians (who secretly annoy me more than meat-eaters for so many reasons) about why the dairy industry is so horrible and cruel, or engage in the who's more vegan than who competition that so many vegans engage in. I just don't want it in my house. (Or my office, but I have long since given up on that one.) I am sure some people would disagree with me either by saying that I am not as laissez-faire as I think I am or that I should be doing more, or less. But this is the path I have chosen.
So that brings me to Thora. I do not want Thora to eat meat. Of course I don't. But I am not the Vegan Police. I am not going to put her in jail if she eats meat. I am not her boss. I am her mother. This puts me a in tough spot. I have to stand aside and let her make her own choices while being as influential as I possibly can. I have to make her not want to eat meat and have her think it's all her idea.
I have no idea how to do this except to talk with her about it. Tell her the things that the girl at the barbecue's parents told her. Tell her that animals are alive, that they feel joy and pain. That they should not be "raised for" anything and that they are not here on this earth for us to do with as we wish. That in our family, there is no real difference between a cat and a chicken. And that at every meal we make a choice and that one day the choice will be hers to make for herself. I will read her stories about animals, and introduce her to cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs, sheep. Show her that they love their lives and do not want to die for our dinners. And then I have to stand back and hold my breath and cross my fingers and hope hope hope that she makes the choice I want her to make.
I will respect whatever she does as long as she makes a thoughtful and informed choice. What else can I do? I will still love her no matter what she does. What worries me more than Thora choosing to eat meat is everyone else out there not helping me as I try to teach her to feel as I do. I worry about unsuspecting, uninformed, well-intentioned people who try to feed my kid candy, cake, a snack, a sandwich, a drink. People who give her generous gifts of leather shoes, wool sweaters. People who do not realize what is vegan and what is not, people who have never read a food label in their lives. And then there are the people who might not respect our decision to have a vegan family or household who think it won't matter if she eats this or that just this once and that what I don't know won't hurt me. Her little body will get sick if she eats meat or dairy so this is a concern beyond just common courtesy and respect. I do not know what to do about those people. What if she gets made fun of in school for having weird food before she is articulate enough to explain our choices? What if the school or playgroup or camp staff are not informed and don't pay attention? Ay, it's crazymaking.
When she was a day old there was panic in the hospital that she was jaundiced and in need of phototherapy. My milk hadn't come in yet and she was dehydrated and vaguely yellowish. All breastfed babies go through this and I knew it, yet the pediatrician forced me to cup-feed her formula and I knew I could not exactly say "She can't have that, she's vegan!" I did what I had to do for one feeding and then she was feeling better so I went back to exclusively breastfeeding. I wasn't happy that she only lasted one day in this world without some animal product being forced on her because what I chose to feed her wasn't "enough," but some battles are not worth fighting and that was an isolated incident that didn't make her Not Vegan.
I think it will all be okay. Mistakes will be made and exceptions will occur and one day Thora will be grown up and she'll either be vegan or she won't and I will love her and want to share meals with her no matter what. But even she will not be allowed to bring meat into our house.