I had no idea that pre-school would be a minefield of meat.
Like any loving mother with a three-year-old daughter off at preschool, I’m wracked with anxiety. But while most moms are busy fretting over playground bullies and e.coli-riddled easels, it’s the spectre of bologna sandwiches that has me waking up in a cold sweat at night.
You see, my daughter, Chloe, is a strict vegetarian. She’s never tasted a hot dog, seen the inside of a McDonalds, or stepped within twenty feet of a supermarket deli counter. The reason is simple: twenty-two years ago, I swore off meat entirely. Call it what you will – my pledge to the animal kingdom or a fit of teenage rebellion. Either way, it felt right, and from that day on I haven’t had so much as a fish stick.
So when my daughter Chloe came along, I hadn’t a clue how to marinate, tenderize, heck – identify – a slab of meat. In a fit of new mother guilt, I pored over medical journals and parenting magazines in search of proof that my meatless ways would render my cherubic-faced child a protein-deprived, iron-deficient waif. But all the research pointed to the same conclusion: with the right mix of nutrients and supplements, I could raise a perfectly healthy child on a strict vegetarian diet. Even my husband, a committed carnivore, agreed to go along for the ride, sanctioning Chloe’s meat-free existence on the condition that she be free to switch to the dark side if the urge arose.
Little did I realize, that dark side would arrive sooner than expected. When I informed Chloe’s pre-school teacher the very first day of class that my daughter is a strict vegetarian, she snapped her gum and responded: “Oh, okay. But she can still eat chicken and fish, right?” I almost fainted.
But ill-informed teachers aren’t my only adversaries. I’m also squaring off against an army of three-year-olds lugging lunchboxes chock full of Chloe contraband. What sort of chance does marinated tofu and mango-flecked quinoa stand against deep-fried chicken fingers? Since her birth, I’ve imagined sitting my young daughter down for a deep philosophical conversation about animal rights. But I figured I had seven or eight years to prep for The Talk. All of a sudden, Chloe’s out of arm’s reach and surrounded by ravenous toddlers threatening to undo years of work.
And hard work it’s been. Raising a vegetarian daughter takes more than loading a diaper bag with hummus and cracker snack packs. Nursery rhymes alone are enough to render the task a full-time job. From “three blind mice getting their tails cut off by a butcher knife” to the kid who “loses his poor meatball when somebody sneezed,” I’ve had to ad lib my way through countless sing-songs. Even Dr. Seuss seemed to have it in for me, what, with his heaping platefuls of green eggs and ham.
But censorship has been the least of my challenges. You try explaining to a Filipina babysitter that shrimp paste isn’t a vegetable. I’ve traveled enough to know that in some parts of the world, the very concept of vegetarianism is incomprehensible. Some people simply don’t have the luxury of refusing dinner entrees – not when half the population lives below the poverty line. I get it. But that cultural divide hasn’t stopped me from doing things I’m not proud of, like checking Chloe’s breath for wafts of hamburger when she comes home from play dates.
Sadder than treating my toddler as if she were some bleary-eyed teenager stumbling through the door after an AC/DC concert is the fact that I seem to be going it alone these days. You’d think that the medical community would show me some love with studies revealing staggering obesity rates among toddlers. Instead, I spend my days fielding e-mails from my father containing links to articles entitled, “Iron Deficiency Anemia.” Even the normally stone-cold nurse at our pediatrician’s office burst into gales of laughter when a routine check-up revealed that Chloe is a die-hard vegetarian – as if it were a role reserved for hemp-wearing, patchouli-loving adolescents.
Yes, raising a vegetarian toddler is tough. But why shouldn’t I want my daughter eating a healthy and cruelty-free diet – even if it makes her different from her classmates? It’s just that these days, fending off weird bacteria strains and schoolyard cliques seems so much simpler than battling bologna sandwiches.
Your turn. Would you (or do you) attempt to raise a vegetarian kid?