Plant-Powered Parents

It was a trip to a farm that made us turn to veganism.

It’s a nice enough place, where the animals look happy and there’s lots for young kids to do. My two enjoyed exploring the play areas and eating chocolate in the café afterwards, and we even saw newborn piglets pressed against their mother in a warm, pink bundle. It was a perfect day out, or at least it should have been. I wanted it to be. It was Mother’s Day, after all.

But just before we left I came face to face with the absurdity of it all.

There I was in the farm shop of this lovely local attraction, having just cooed over tiny piglets and frolicking lambs. The farm shop, with its artisan breads and craft ales, handpainted teapots and homemade fudge. Chutneys and jams. Bird tables, windmills, cherry bakewells, toy animals, chocolate eggs, pork chops, smoked bacon, ribs, chicken breast, steaks, ox tongue, liver, sausages, cheeks, tails, necks – the purple flesh of the animals I’d just spent the last few hours showing to my sons.

It didn’t repulse me and I didn’t rush home to cleanse myself of the blood of the innocent. I just felt sort of… uncomfortable. The whole thing seemed off.

On the journey home we talked about the weird feeling we had. We’d had plenty of conversations about giving up meat before and how it was something we knew we should embrace, but our resolve had always guiltily fizzled out, and truthfully I thought it would then too. Except something pushed me further that day. For the first time ever I didn’t fight the tide and instead allowed it all in. I watched documentaries, I read article after article and let the guilt swamp me. It was all part of the process of opening myself up and witnessing the hypocrisy, deception and cruelty inherent in the nameless system I’d grown up accepting as normal.

And so it grew. We started off committing to giving up meat, but within two days of vegetarianism we realised we couldn’t justify the consumption of eggs or dairy either. And since then we haven’t eaten a single animal-derived ingredient.

I could go into details about the treatment of farmed animals and the brutality of the dairy industry, but this isn’t a post intended to convert anyone to veganism. It’s not about what happened or how we came to change how we eat or live; it’s about the change that followed, the one that came from within us and spilled out into our everyday lives.

Because it turns out eschewing all animal products and living as gently as we can in a modern world designed to commodify everything in it can bring contentment, joy and happiness in a way I didn’t expect. I thought I was signing up to a life of sacrifice and compromise, but I ended up gaining an inner tranquility I didn’t know I was lacking.

It’s not some transcendental BS. I don’t start my mornings singing to the wildlife with a perfect plump bluebird on my shoulder like a Disney princess, but it’s unfair to the change I’ve made to deny that I am happier and more fulfilled for making compassion part of the food I eat, the clothes I wear and the cosmetics I use. My heart is lighter and I’m more freely able to enjoy the natural world and the animals with whom we share the planet. I’ve rediscovered my passion for cooking and creating, which has helped my fragile-at-best self-esteem. I’m healthier! And most unexpectedly, I feel closer to my husband than ever before; we’ve held each other up when it’s felt easier to throw in the towel, reminded each other why we’re doing this, shared passion, pain and anger at what we see as the injustice around us, and we understand the other’s guilt at having been a part of it for so long.

I’m not vegan for my health. I care about animals and the environment, but that’s not my true motivator either. I’m vegan because I want to teach my children that compassion doesn’t end where convenience begins. I want to show them a world where fairness is extended to all living beings. I want them to understand that all life matters and that kindness feeds the soul more than any meal in our privileged bubble ever could. I want to teach them humility and the preciousness of our time on this earth. I want them to learn that the smallest changes can make the greatest difference, to their lives and their fellow earthlings’.

And I want them to know – in the future, when plant-based lifestyles are necessary for the survival of the planet – that their parents were on the right side of history. Their side. Because it’s their world that we’re trying to save.

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The Magical Mundane

Last Tuesday when my husband should’ve been working and I should’ve been taking advantage of naptime by at least looking at the chaos that is my home, we had a conversation over Facebook chat about my current writers’ block. He had this to say on the matter –

“I’ve noticed that it most cases your blog posts cover a distinct, important idea. Babywearing, PND, breastfeeding… All make for essential reading as well as being really engaging reads, but it’s obviously a limited resource. So maybe you need to just let smaller ideas in. A good day you’ve had, a bad day, stuff about Little T being ill, how he’s developed lately… It might be not what you intend the blog to be, which is fair enough, but I think people would be interested in your take on the everyday life of parenting as well as the big ideas. You have a brilliant take on things, and a great way of engaging with the reader. I guarantee that everyone will love feeling like they know you even better through the regular stuff as well as the exceptional.”

He’s right, but it isn’t so much that I need to say something big or important, it’s more that I often forget the overwhelming significance of the day-to-day, which is easy to do when most days are a blur of scattered Cheerios and episodes of Bing.

Little T is 18 months old now, an age of exploration and blossoming independence. His head is a mess of loose curls, his eyes are blue-brown-green and sparkly, and his laugh effervescent and sincere. He eats grapes by the tonne and waves with both hands when he’s happy. He insists on wearing hair clips and tossing his head from side-to-side like a tiny diva, and every emotion he feels shines unashamedly out of his face, bright and fierce.

He is awesome.

But there are little struggles, and they’re mine not his, things that on good days make me raise a quizzical eyebrow, and on bad can keep me awake at night:

Sleep is still a daily battle, though I’m loath to describe it as such because I’m on his side, not against him. At almost 19 months he is still taking two naps a day, both at least an hour long, usually longer, with neither taking place in a bed. He needs motion to fall asleep, especially during the day, so he still climbs in to his Stage 0 Maxi-Cosi Cabriofix car seat with his milk in his hand, nestles down and expectantly waits for someone to rock him.
We started using the car seat as a way to settle him as a last resort some time last year when he became too heavy for me to rock to sleep in my arms twice a day. Big T was still able to do it at night but I was struggling during the day to get him down for naps which resulted in an overtired baby and a fretful mum severely lacking in confidence. What started as a last resort became routine. The car seat worked and we were both happy. Ish.

The problem is that there’s a whole parenting culture out there telling me it’s wrong, that he should be napping in his own bed, alone, and without a dummy because OMFG his teeth will run rampant in a crazy dental pandemic across his face if he sucks something other than a nipple. He occasionally naps in the pram, even more rarely in a sling, and the trouble is if he misses a nap, THE WORLD ENDS. He is manic, grumpy and tearful, and cannot switch himself off come bedtime. Unfortunately this means that as I don’t drive I’m often confined to the house so I can reliably help him sleep and keep our little family ticking along as calmly as possible. Going out for the morning or afternoon usually means committing to a difficult, tearful bedtime with at least two members of our three person household crying and flinging themselves across the room in despair.

It doesn’t help when people suggest ‘making him’ nap just the once. First of all, I tried and it didn’t work. He was distraught. And second of all I still don’t believe in forcing my child to adapt around my needs. It’s hard work and can be isolating but when I see that the cost of my afternoon Starbucks’ latte and blueberry muffin is his wet and salty tear-streaked face at 11pm I know I’m doing the right thing by him. His sleep won’t always be like this. This too shall pass.

Another issue that’s currently niggling at me is that of food.
Some of you may remember my post last year about our journey with baby-led weaning and how after a slow start it suddenly ‘clicked’ and he was delighting in all kinds of tasty morsels as though he’d been critiquing Michelin quality meals since he left the womb. I was unbelievably thrilled. Being unable to breastfeed or even combination feed when he was tiny had left me feeling like a failure; I couldn’t even meet my child’s most basic need! Successful, happy weaning was essential to me to heal and move on from that early defeat. And I’d done it! He was eating well and enthusiastically. I hadn’t messed up this time! I read all about fussy toddlers who sometimes simply choose not to eat, for no reason other than that they’re toddlers and that’s what they do, and I looked at my 1 year old with his mouth stuffed with tarragon chicken and wild rice and thought, “That won’t happen with T!”
Except of course it did. Because toddlers.
I refuse to say he has ‘good and bad’ days because attaching a moral value to whether or not he eats is damaging (I speak from experience as an overweight woman with a complicated relationship with food), but some days he’ll only touch grapes and possibly cheese. Or fruit custard that he insists I feed to him despite never having been spoon fed before. He also refuses to drink water or any other variation (juice, squash, cooled herbal tea). And of course he’s perfectly fine, but I’m not. I worry. I fret. I’ve read Carlos Gonzalez’s My Child Won’t Eat over and over to try to imprint some sense onto my brain, but I regularly fall prey to the old fashioned motherly need to put food in people.

And finally, the last and perhaps most pressing issue for me at the moment is Little T’s speech.
Now I know there’s nothing wrong and he will get there in his own time, but I’m lucky enough to know some other wonderful little people and it’s so hard not to compare. So far he has seven words – ‘more’, ‘ball’, ‘hiya’, ‘duck’, ‘bath’, ‘apple’, and the ubiquitous ‘cat’, which is his catch-all word for any moving creature, including dogs which has made for some amusing encounters at the park (he also says ‘babbo’ when he’s holding on to his nappy cream but we’re waiting for that one to more obviously reveal itself). And while T is pointing at a neighbourhood pigeon and saying “cat!” it seems like other children I know are already reciting Konstantin Balmont and reading the Telegraph.
It’s fine. More than fine. He clearly understands things, follows instructions well, and likes to take the time to consider things before diving in. I love that about him, so why should talking be any different?
But there is a very selfish reason I want him to talk –
I want to hear his voice.
It sounds daft but every time he says one of his seven recognisable words it makes my heart sing. It’s like a taste of a part of him I’ve never known before, a sneak peak of all the conversations about beetles, clouds and fairies we might have one day. I’m drunk on it, that feeling of being a fraction closer to knowing who he is.

I realise now that my biggest flaw as a parent is that I’m impatient. I’m always desperately grasping for the next stage. But it’s not that I don’t enjoy where I am in the moment, it’s that I’m hungry for more, as though if I don’t experience it all right now then it might be taken from me.

But the truth is these moments are so precious because they’re fleeting. So what if he sleeps a lot during the day? It means I get to watch my beautiful sleeping child, have a cup of coffee and collect my thoughts. Our days are chilled out, there’s no pressure. And one day I’ll remember my son thoughtfully picking up a piece of chicken, frowning, then shoving it in his dad’s mouth and I’ll laugh to myself and wish I’d got to see it just one more time. And when he’s speaking in full sentences about dinosaurs my heart will ache for those one-sided babbling conversations he had with his toys.

The worst thing I can do as a mother is to wish any of this away. My son is perfect just as he is, right here in this moment, and I’m blessed to be able to spend these wonderful, frustrating, MADDENING, magical days with him. (But please remind me of that the next time he throws omelette at me and says, “baaabbbooommamamama!” because in that second I will almost definitely forget.)


Eat (Please?)

So you’ve cracked feeding your baby! You’re either a pro breastfeeder, whipping your boobs out in the supermarket/library/park, all while overtaking those childless friends on Candy Crush who don’t have a clue what multitasking really means; or you can wash and sterilise bottles faster than most people can prepare instant coffee and manage to hold onto your child and the bottle with minimal spillage.

You rock, mamas!

But then six months rolls around, and suddenly everything you think you know vanishes faster than your sex life. It’s a minefield of purees and finger foods, potential allergies and weaning poo. Spoon feeding or baby led weaning? When to give water? How to give water? Are shellfish and nuts okay under 1 year? Is it really supposed to be so messy? Is my child eating enough? When will he drop milk feeds? Are his nappies meant to look like that? I’ve asked myself all these questions and four months on I’m still not sure of the answers.

As with most of our parenting choices, we wanted weaning to be baby led. There are deeply considered reasons for this that involve giving Little T freedom to make his own choices, but truthfully a big part was rooted in our desire to sit  back and do naff all. No blending, no aeroplane spoons, no need to specially prepare anything. Bliss! But as is often the case, things that sound too good to be true usually are, though that’s not to say baby led weaning hasn’t been a success, it certainly has – Little T has tried a wealth of foods and has only ever eaten from a spoon that he’s held himself. The problem, for me at least, is that I have absolutely no control. I realise that’s the point, and it’s great that he’s making choices for himself, but man, I had no idea how uptight I really was until we started weaning! It’s amazing what children teach you.

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The very first thing Little T ‘ate’ was an asparagus spear he stole from Big T’s plate at around 5 months. He picked it up and placed it delicately in his mouth like it was the most natural thing in the world. Which it is. He gummed it thoughtfully for a while, then dropped it on the floor before wriggling his way to freedom and stopping dinner time in its tracks. And so went every evening meal time for the following four weeks. He’d sit with us in his highchair or on a lap and play with our food. Sometimes he’d put it in his mouth, sometimes not, but he never swallowed anything. Not a problem, I thought, he’s only five months old. At six months we started taking his involvement in meal times more seriously, preparing his own little bowl of food, filling a cup with water and bracing ourselves for the mess by covering all visible household items with towels.

Two months on, nothing had changed. He was tasting everything we put in front of him – from curry to pineapple to steak to hummus – but rarely swallowing. I suspected that when he did swallow it was more by accident than intent. He was drinking at least 1 litre of ready-made formula a day and showing no signs of being ready to stop, and all the while I was hearing of other children Little T’s age eating three meals a day and only taking milk at night.

Water became a headache in and of itself. We tried two different sippy cups with valves but he just chewed on the spouts. We tried a doidy cup, feeding him with it ourselves (he only wanted to swish his fingers around in it) or letting him pick it up and tip it over in the hope that through trial and error he’d eventually ‘get it’ (lo and behold, the first time we gave it to him he held it on both sides, brought it to his mouth, and took a calm and deliberate gulp – and never since). Recently we’ve tried a freeflow sippy cup and had more success, both holding it for him and letting him do it on his own, but we’re lucky if he has so much as 5ml on the average day. More stress, more guilt, more ‘OMG I’m a terrible mother!’ brain attacks.

When Little T was eight months old I admit I lost my way. He stopped being interested in food even as a toy or curiosity – with the exception of blueberries. All he’d eat was blueberries, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and aside from them sullying my beloved cloth nappies, I felt more and more that I’d missed something or got something wrong. I’d never hated fruit with such passion. It was then that I caved in to my need to see him eat something, anything that wasn’t a sodding blueberry, so I grabbed a spoon and tried to feed him. It was the first time I’d ever pushed him into anything and it felt terrible, which isn’t to say that spoon feeding is awful – it’s not – but for Little T who’d always been in total control it felt like I was betraying him. I’m lucky really that he didn’t shout at me or cry. He simply closed his mouth and looked at me quizzically, as if to say, “What are you doing Mummy? That’s not how it works.” And that was that, bless his heart. He was calm and determined enough that my blip didn’t even have the chance to reach full blipness.

He’s 10 months old now (where the hell has that gone?!) and over the last few weeks he’s shown more and more interest in food. He eats at every meal. He’s still a fruit fiend, but depending on his mood, he’ll have at least a few bites of whatever’s in front of him. He’s even taking less milk throughout the day. All the worry and craziness I felt is melting away, because yet again my son has shown me how well he knows his own needs. Even when I misguidedly tried to derail his progress he kept on going, and now he’s eating more than ever, and loving it.

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It probably sounds as though I haven’t enjoyed the process of weaning, and it’s true I’ve found it frustrating and even distressing at times (he almost choked on a chunk of pear in September – I haven’t had the courage to give it to him since). But there are incredible moments that make it all worthwhile –  the way he scrunches his nose up when he tastes something new or unexpected; how he laughs with a bulging mouthful of cheese; the huge amount of mess he makes and how it really doesn’t matter; washing blackberry juice out of his ears in the bath in the middle of the day; how he joyfully mixes banana with tomatoes and explores the new taste; the way he smiles at us over a meal; the possibly misplaced glee I feel over a nappy that shows evidence of what he’s eaten (there is no moment comparable to that of finding a ‘grown up’ poo in your child’s nappy, trust me).   He’s gone from a small, unsteady newborn who could barely grip a finger to a little boy who can pick up food and nourish himself with hardly any outside input and it’s totally amazing.

Meal times are precious to us. We’re a vision of a functional family in those moments, talking and giggling, and taking turns to help Little T wrestle with a particularly slippery piece of whatever. It’s not about eating for me anymore, it’s about togetherness, laughter and joy, and I have my son to thank for every second of it.