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What If Your Spouse Isn't Vegetarian?

(Originally published in Veggie Views)

by JoAnn Farb

In previous months I have addressed numerous issues related to vegetarian parenting. I have talked about the importance of setting an example for your children and how much easier life can be if you make your home vegan or vegetarian. Of course the ideal is for both parents to be united in their eating example. I myself am forever grateful that I chose to be vegan before meeting my husband. I recognized before marriage how important it was to me to have a vegan home and raise my children vegan. Although my husband wasn't even vegetarian when we married, he did agree to not bring animal foods into our home and to only eat vegan foods in front of our future children.

At the time we started dating and for a while after we were married, I had this really amazing job; I was a biodecontamination specialist for a multinational pharmaceutical corporation, Much of my time was spent inside factory farms, lab animal testing facilities, and pharmaceutical manufacturing plants. It was actually what I saw first hand in these places that inspired me to become vegan. Although I was successful in my job, each work day I could only hold it together just long enough to come home and break down in tears, relaying to my husband the horrors that I had seen. I believe this influenced him as well.

For instance, one day while consulting in a hatchery, (a factory where hundreds of thousands of chicken eggs are placed in large walk-in incubators with a certain number hatched out each day) I observed newly hatched chicks being removed from their hatching trays, placed onto a conveyer belt to get their first round of vaccinations, and then packed into boxes for shipping to growers. (Free range and organic eggs come from these places as well). Large carts about six feet tall loaded with trays each holding dozens of newly hatched chicks, discarded shells, and eggs that failed to hatch were wheeled over to a window. There, three male workers unloaded the newborn chicks and tossed them through the window onto a conveyer belt. After the live chicks were removed, the remaining contents were dumped into the trash. Were it not for my noticing a couple of really active chicks jumping over the sides of the trays and falling softly to the floor, my eyes might never have looked down. But it was automatic to follow their descent. I looked down. The falling chicks landed safely and proceeded to run around--stepping as they did over the half-smashed bodies of chicks (alive and struggling to get unstuck from their own blood and guts which glued them to the floor) who had fallen off the previous cart and then had been run over by it as it was wheeled away. I wondered why nobody bothered to retrieve the fallen, unhurt chicks and return them to the cart before they too got smashed. I looked up at the men. They were leaning against the wall waiting for the conveyer belt to clear to make room for more chicks, puffing on their cigarettes and telling jokes--It seemed as though everyone but me was oblivious to the suffering. Sad as I was for the half-smashed chicks, I later realized that they were the luckiest chicks in the hatchery.

Almost daily I brought home to my husband stories like this. Every time I saw him eat something that wasn't vegan I connected his actions with the suffering I had seen. It got so that he could no longer unconsciously eat animal products. Gradually the pleasure in doing so slipped away.

I am thankful daily that prior to meeting the love of my life, I knew I wanted to live in a vegan home and raise my children vegan. But I have many friends who came to veganism or vegetarianism after embarking on family life. For them the challenges are many. While I firmly believe a vegan lifestyle is better for children, one must be careful how they approach their spouse if they embarked upon family life with the implied agreement that the family would be omnivorous. The idea is to build consensus, not initiate power struggles or rebellion.

In one family I know, it was the father who gradually started moving towards a plant-based diet after years of his family eating meat and dairy. His wife and four school-aged children were all still very attached to the Standard American Diet. For several years the father hoped that by merely setting the example (he never preached) his children would start to follow, but year after year he failed to see any changes. All the while, the father continued to educate himself and became concerned about the long-term consequences to his family of their dietary choices. So he started sharing little bits of information about diet and animal suffering. He provided opportunities for the children to meet others passionate about vegetarianism (like Howard Lyman) and to let the kids hear about if from someone else. He shared an occasional video on the topic, but continued to honor his children's food choices. He now tells me that several of his children have made major changes of their own free will, like choosing rice milk instead of cow's milk, and cutting way back on meat eating. With each child the process has been different. The parents are hoping that all their children will go vegetarian.

In another family I know, it is the mother who has shifted to a plant-based diet after marriage and children. Her husband is not so enthusiastic about the changes. Their children are young. At first the mother was emphatic about wanting to protect her children from risks associated with eating animal products, but her task was daunting. Her husband, an otherwise compassionate man, was fully enmeshed in the mainstream work world and very attached to his way of life. As I've said before... "The deed shapes the heart," and with many meat-eaters, the act of eating flesh keeps their heart from fully opening up to their complicity in the suffering. While the mother does her best to provide her family with a variety of healthy vegetarian meals, the children are exposed to two different examples, and have opportunities to consume foods that the mother would prefer they did not. While the children are certainly being raised more healthily than the average American, they are still being exposed to more hormones, cholesterol, bad fats, animal protein and endocrine disruptors than they would be on a whole foods vegan diet. How will they choose to eat as adults? We can never predict that for any child. However, Suzanne Havala, primary author of the ADA position paper on vegetarianism and author of the book, "Good foods bad foods, What's left to eat?" was also the product of such a home. Her mother was vegetarian, but never once explained why (the father was vehemently opposed to his children being vegetarian and she wanted to keep the peace). Even when asked she did not attempt to influence anyone. Eventually, each of the four children began following the mother's example. Now as adults, all four children and even Suzanne's father are vegetarians. Suzanne believes the fact that her mother never pushed them made it easier for them to follow her example.

My advice? If you are not yet married, consider carefully how important it is to you to have your children raised vegetarian, and is your prospective partner supportive of this? If you're beyond this point, then you need to consider the best interests of the whole family. Turning vegetarianism into a polarizing family issue is certainly not in everyone's best interest. Quietly setting the example, and discretely arranging for your loved ones to get information about health, environmental and animal issues from sources not appearing to come from you may be your best bet.

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