The perfect ending is a gorgeous thing, all the loose ends neatly knotted, all the confusion gone. It’s a motionless bird on a wire — calm, brightly plumed, contented, with no need to fly off or find a worm or do anything but sit in the sun and enjoy the day.
Illustration: Keri Rosebraugh
If only parenthood were like that.
That’s the kind of wistfulness I’ve been indulging in over the past few weeks as I’ve worked with Grist on its special series about green parenting. The project is jam-packed with tips and information about everything from safe bibs to school lunches. Reading it, I’ve been inspired by the expert advice, grateful for the guidance and humor, comforted by the fact that so many millions of parents are committed to greenness — and freaked out enough to want to grab the nearest pacifier (Jack Daniels, anyone?).
I’m imagining I’m not alone here. It’s hard not to have a high-blood-pressure moment when we’re faced with data about the poisons in our world, the exposures we’ve had to the poisons, the exposures our children may have had to the poisons, and the fact that setting things right will take a daunting effort involving governments, corporations, courts, and citizens around the globe.
So when Grist asked me to write a conclusion to the series, my first thought was: I can’t. The loose ends are everywhere and they’re growing like kudzu. The more I learn about perfluorooctanoic acid, pesticide residues, VOCs, PCBs, off-gassing, and lead-filled toys, the more confused and paralyzed I feel. It’s overwhelming! And my second thought was this: maybe that’s the whole point.
Parenthood, by its nature, is a messy thing, filled with anxiety, unknowns, bad plans that turn out OK, and good plans that go comically wrong. Green parenting gives us the burden and then some: it puts our kids and the whole planet on our shoulders. If we were Atlas, we’d definitely shrug.
But what if we lightened the load — what if parents vowed to stay underwhelmed? We’d have to take basic safety measures, of course, like staying away from mercury-filled fish and tossing out Poison Me Elmo and his toxic-lead toymates, among other things. If we had extra time (don’t laugh), we could also work on one green issue that grabs us, whether it’s water pollution, renewable energy, or simply keeping the “dirty dozen” most-pesticide-laden foods out of the family diet. Beyond that, we could just follow the advice we give our kids. We could do our best.
Perfection, for one thing, isn’t an option. And personally, I’m glad, since I’ve failed to achieve it for so long. In my 11 years as a parent, I’ve spent countless dollars on organic foods but let my daughter eat piñatas-full of candy. I’ve shredded and ripped out my basement floor tiles, only to find out they all contained asbestos. I’ve given one of my best friends — a fantastic enviro-ista — a cute foam chair for her son that was probably a PBDE waste dump (she chucked it).
But I’ve also tried to make my peace. Living an über-green lifestyle, I know, requires total control — and that’s something no one has over their offspring.
I love hiking and being outside; my daughter hates most outdoor activities that don’t involve trampolines. I like farmers’ markets; she dislikes crowds. I love fresh raspberries and organic yogurt in the morning; she craves Krusteaz frozen pancakes with bacon, bacon, and a side of bacon.
I could let this stuff drive me crazy — and sometimes it does. But when I’m at my parental best I focus my energy on doable things, and do them. After getting this Grist assignment, I threw out the old plastic bowls in my cupboards and gave the non-organic apples in the fridge to the pet rabbits. I started buying bottled organic milk from a local dairy, eighty-sixed the noxious toilet-bowl cleaner, and bought my daughter a puppy (now she has to go outside to walk the dog!). I also purchased those recycled facial tissues recommended by Alan Greene as a small step with a big impact and, thanks to Montana’s cold weather and the fact that I’m allergic to the puppy, I’m getting really good use out of them.
In the end, I’m not sure I’ll ever be that bird in the sun. Total serenity and parenthood don’t seem to mix (unless, that is, the kid is sleeping). Tidy conclusions don’t seem possible, either. But underwhelm-ment is a goal I can live with. And maybe that’s the best beginning.