My third daughter, Little M has been a vegetarian for over two years now. She decided shortly after her eleventh birthday that she did not want to eat Sunny’s friends. Sunny is her beautiful yellow budgie who I must admit has converted me from being a non bird person to a huge fan, he is such a funny, friendly little guy.
So little M stopped eating chicken and turkey. I accepted it as fair enough, hoping it was just a phase. Unfortunately however, she soon decided that this aversion to eating meat counted for all other animals and having discussed the matter at length with her, I felt she was old enough to make up her own mind. As always she was extremely articulate about her reasons, so I realised therefore, I had no choice but to support her becoming a vegetarian. It has been a bit of a pain cooking different things for six of us, but actually I am a great believer in knowing where your food comes from and eating as ethically as possible, so I embraced the concept, even serving two veggie meals a week so we can all eat together. Buying organic meat is very expensive for a family our size so I figured it was a sensible idea to eat more veg and good for us too.
Now I wish this was the end of the story but unfortunately it isn’t. Because last year, little M started to talk of the dairy industry and egg production and other such tricky subjects. I say tricky – I have never before viewed them as such, but with an ethically minded 12 year old, they are dodgy topics indeed.
I have to be honest here, I have always viewed vegans with tolerance, but with no real understanding for their cause. I assumed vegans did not want to use animals as a commodity and that any kind of consumerism was against their religion. Odd, but they are welcome to that opinion. Oh I could laugh out loud now at my happy ignorance.
A few months ago, little M asked me if I knew how cows produce milk. ‘Well of course I do,’ I replied, ‘they have a calf and then they are milked each day and we have some of the milk.’
‘Yes but what happens to the calf?’ persisted Little M.
‘Well it also lives with the Mum and has some milk too and everyone is happy.’ I replied confidently.
‘No, Mum you are always stuck in your happy place, they are taken away, sometimes at a few hours old and either bottle fed or killed. Especially the male calves who they have little use for or they are raised until old enough to be used as meat.’
I was a bit hurt about the happy place comment, I mean I know I like to feel that I have done my best with regard to meat consumption by buying free range or organic, but I do try to live in the real world.
‘What about eggs?’ asked Little M. ‘Do you know what happens to the male chicks?’
‘Erm, they hatch out like the other chicks?’ I asked feeling like this was a school exam I had forgotten to prepare for.
‘No! They are ground up in a machine because they are male and there is no use for them,’ stated Little M.
To be honest I was completely grossed out by now – this sounded far fetched and totally unlikely so I hurried off to check it all out on the internet. Believe me my heart sank as I discovered that Little M is right. This is what is done with the male chicks as there is no use for them on such a large scale. Sometimes they are not even anaethatised first, just shoved in the machine. I am an honest Mum so I returned to Little M to discuss this – ‘you are right,’ I replied despondently, ‘but there must be some places where they don’t do this.’
These seemingly harmless questions have lead me to have to do a lot of research on the matter and I have to say this is a pandora’s box of information I wish I had left unopened. Since starting my quest for information, the floodgates of knowledge I would rather not be aware of, have burst open and there is no going back.
I have contacted many organic farms, asking if they follow this barbaric practice of egg production and unfortunately although they do not all kill the male chicks in this way, they generally have superfluous stock that has to be disposed of. I managed to find a Vegan friendly chicken farm in Sussex who let their chickens die of old age and the male chicks are allowed to live but they don’t deliver as far as us.
In vain I tried to explain to Little M that these facts don’t apply to all farmers but are due to the sheer number of people requiring eggs, meat and other produce and the result of inhumane factory farming. In the old days this simply would not have happened as production on such a huge scale was not necessary. I explained how we refuse to buy factory farmed chicken or eggs as it is inhumane, but somehow I was aware with Little M, now she knew this truth, I had already lost the argument.
I argued that she should not be a vegan as she is still growing, she needs the vitamins, it is too extreme, if we didn’t consume any animal produce, farm animals would become extinct, at least some of them do have a happy life etc. It was all in vain, Little M had an entire artillery of vegan images and cartoons which made a mockery of my well rehearsed little speeches.
As is typical of parenting, this whole debate led me to question my entire philosophy, my eating habits and how I feel about animals. I even tried to go vegan for a couple of days and ended up with stomach ache and a terrible craving for meat. Meanwhile little M was becoming increasingly agitated about eating any animal products at all. I remained firm, she was not to become a vegan until she was eighteen, when she had finished growing. Not for the first time, I felt frustrated at the power of the internet, dispersing information which I did not feel my daughter was ready to know. Then a very good friend, suggested that it was causing her more distress forcing her to go against her beliefs. Little M also showed me research about how vegans can live longer than their meat eating contemporaries and I began to waver.
Whether rightly or wrongly, I agreed that Little M could become a vegan if…..she eats a balanced healthy diet (it is quite possible to be a vegan and live off a diet of crisps and rubbish), she has to take supplements daily as it is impossible to get B12 from any source other than animal products and finally she is to eat ethically sourced fish occasionally as it is very good for you and important for brain development. Of course, little M agreed to these provisos and I wish I could tell you that we have all lived happily ever since.
But no, there have been rows, heated debates, judgements and unhappiness. For some reason, it was not enough for Little M to have reached the moral high ground with her own food choices, she has to convert the rest of us also. There have been tears and disillusionment on all sides. I feel as though I as a mother have been judged for being a hypocrite and lost respect from my child over my eating choices and it is a hard thing to tolerate.
‘You can’t say you love animals yet refuse to stop treating them like this!’ she would shout passionately.
‘I don’t want to see these pictures you keep showing me, no wonder you get depressed,’ I would retort.
‘That’s it,’ she would answer, ‘Go back and hide in your happy place.’
And in summary do you know what, that is where I would rather be. This debate is one that doesn’t seem to have any real solutions and now achieving such public recognition in Veganuary, it is likely to rumble on for some time. Not in our house however, as I am afraid I have had enough of arguing – Little M has been told in no uncertain terms that we live in a tolerant society and I do not expect her to go round judging us for our food choices. My other daughters who enjoy their animal products have been asked to respect her decision and leave her alone. But it is an uneasy truce.
The lesson here, I guess is that the world is not a pretty, happy place with lovely little lambs gambolling unharmed in buttercup fields. There is cruelty and unfairness and perhaps that is what Little M is struggling to come to terms with. I have often wondered if becoming a vegan is her way of dealing with the brain tumour that is regrowing albeit very slowly in her head. Thus I haven’t really had the heart to make her eat the food she is so against.
Yet there are break throughs in sight, Little M will finally eat eggs produced by my sister’s rescue hens, as they live a long undisturbed life in her suburban garden, dying only of old age after a happy existence. So there are compromises to be made and this to me seems to be the way forward – tolerance, education but not with the extreme and sometimes fake and often shocking anti meat images vegans tend to promote, or on the other extreme, callous carnivores shoving meat in the face of vegans. There are some fantastic caring farmers out there, who love their animals and spend a whole lifetime producing incredible healthy ethically reared meat. Also we live in a free country and should be able to respect each other’s views and fighting each other is only doing harm – I can see that from the terrible rows reenacted in my own family – ‘You can’t be a feminist and eat meat!’Little M shouted at her older sister the other day. For goodness sake, where did that one come from?
As a result, I have called a stop to any more debates, I believe tolerance is the only way forward. So we have to agree to disagree and thank goodness for now at least, peace has returned to our house. Until one of the girls calls her sister ‘a cow’ and it will start all over again….