No one told me it would be this difficult – or this wonderful – raising a vegetarian child.
A personal account by Tita Zierer
My partner, Robin and I never discussed whether to raise our child as a vegetarian. We’ve been vegetarians for virtually all our adult lives, so it was assumed that anyone sharing our household would do the same, excepting the cats. We did discuss the degree of vegetarianism with respect to dairy and eggs; we eschew these products at home, but reluctantly acknowledge traces of their presence when eating out.
But actually assuming responsibility for a young humanoid raises previously unforeseen challenges and questions. In the old days, otherwise known as ‘Life Before Baby,’ I confess to idyllic notions of angelic babies lapping up strained butternut squash and tofu cheese, gnawing happily on sesame granola, drooling over soy milk and carob shakes.
Epitome of health
Our fantasy baby is the epitome of health – never the victim of colic or ear infections which are associated with cow’s milk, far less likely to worry about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or later, the cancers and heart diseases linked to an animal product laden diet.
‘Life After Baby’ is a little bit different. Micah, my sweet, is a beautiful, charming, bright child but the adjective” angelic” would be a misnomer. He laps up squash with all the enthusiasm of kitty litter; granola is embedded into the rug or fed to Dali, our dog. However, he does like his soy milk.
Although Micah has always been ridiculously healthy (he didn’t have his first of two colds – his only ailments – until he was almost fifteen months old), he is skinny. He definitely doesn’t have that chubby baby fat look about him that people delight in.
Feeding Micah hasn’t exactly been a piece of tofu cheesecake. Micah is a picky eater; there are days when the child consumes little else but peanut butter toast and soy milk. Like his mom, he prefers to graze, rather than sit down and eat a full meal. I survive by eating every couple of hours: apiece of fruit, soup or some chocolate (chocolate is one of the four food groups, isn’t it?). But Micah doesn’t eat enough at his five or six feedings to do much but build very gradually on an already scrawny frame.
Both his dad and I are slim. Despite my healthy appetite, I don’t usually gain weight. Even during my pregnancy, I barely gained twenty pounds. I brought Micah home from the hospital to queries from the neighbours who asked if I had adopted – they hadn’t noticed I was pregnant.
“I’m very concerned about Micah, he’s falling off the weight chart,” our vegetarian-friendly doctor said earnestly at Micah’s six month check-up. “You should start feeding him egg yolks and yogurt. Not getting enough fat and protein could effect his developing nervous system,” she warned.
After quelling my nausea at the thought of animal products in our vegan fridge, we tried free-range eggs and goat’s yogurt. Micah ate these products regularly – not happily I might add – for over four months yet he consistently maintained the same level of weight gain.
In desperation, our doctor referred us to a specialist, a kind man who sent us straight to the Hospital for Sick Children for a flurry of tests. I held Micah still while they drained his arm of what looked like far too much blood for him to reasonably continue life. Once the wailing subsided, he resumed his energetic pace with no interruptions. Even the sweat chloride test for cystic fibrosis had no impact on him. Surrounded by ominous-looking equipment, Micah giggled and charmed the technicians, not looking a bit like a child who was supposed to be sick.
The tests all came back negative for any imagined malady and positive in terms of necessary iron levels and the like, just as Robin and I suspected.
Of course, the doctors weren’t the only ones. We had convinced ourselves during ‘Life Before Baby’ that we could deal with any criticism from the meat-eating world. But I wasn’t prepared for the tendency of family, friends and complete strangers to let me know what they thought was best for our son. My parents stopped harassing me about my diet when I left home, but now there was a tiny innocent, unable to defend himself from the evils of scrambled tofu. They were prepared for battle.
“What about just a bit of chicken – it’s hardly anything and he’s a growing boy, you know,” my mother cajoled. “No, ma. While he’s under our roof, we want him to be a vegetarian,” I replied. And although it won’t prevent future comments, I launch patiently into my shtick on why vegetarianism is the optimum diet for the planet and our health, and how I have gained inner strength from the ethical consistency of not eating animals.
“What about just a bit of chicken – it’s hardly anything and he’s a growing boy, you know,” my mother cajoled.
And so we persevere. Each life development brings new challenges.
As any working parent will confirm, day care is obscenely difficult to find, unless you’ve got gobs of cash. Now try telling day care providers, public or private, that your kid is not to have meat, chicken, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt or eggs. “What about a bit of ground beef mixed in the spaghetti sauce?” asks one ingenuous care provider.
Another day care flatly stated they couldn’t provide such a diet, even for the two days a week for which we needed care. Perhaps hoping I would break down and allow Micah to eat the same slop as the other kids, the worker rather angrily told me that we’d have to provide our own food – and there’d be nor eduction in fees. Much to her chagrin, I happily agreed, more desperate than determined. When I called later that week to arrange our first day, she mysteriously said she’d have to call me back. She never did.
At the child-parent drop-in centre we attend, Micah doesn’t want the soy cheese I carefully remember to bring for a snack — he wants a greasy chunk of Havarti like all the other children. Robin and I don’t make an issue of the contraband cookies and cake smuggled to Micah by helpful grandparents intent on fattening the child up. And it gets worse – birthday parties, and soon sleep-overs and what about camp?
It’s going to be OK. There are lots of great resources out there for veggie families, from the Toronto Vegetarian Association Parents Group, to various books on the subject. I’ve found Dr. Michael Klaper’s Pregnancy, Children, and the Vegan Diet to be helpful, as is Rose Elliot’s Mother and Baby Book.
It is more wonderful than I ever expected, raising this skinny, happy little boy. He can be an absolute joy (although he can be a demon-child too). Instilling in Micah an appreciation for vegetarianism and cruelty-free living is a challenge. But it is one whose reward is the hope that he’ll grow up to have a positive impact on his peers, and ultimately, the planet.
Resources – Toronto Vegetarian Association has several books available for sale or loan: Pregnancy, Children and the Vegan Diet, by Michael Klaper, M.D, Raising Your Family Naturally and Vegetarian Baby and Vegetarian Children by Sharon Yntema. Becoming Vegetarian and Simply Vegan are two excellent general books on vegetarianism that have a separate section on pregnancy and children.
From May/June ’95 Lifelines