Dear Umbra,

I am totally frustrated with my in-laws. They know how important it is for us to raise our infant in the least toxic environment we can manage. However, when we go to their house, I have no control over the situation. We arrived there for Easter vacation only to find out that three rooms had been painted and two newly carpeted — and not with eco-friendly materials! There was also a new dresser in our room that smelled horrible! I was furious. The next day our son woke up with a swollen eye and a cough. They thought I was completely crazy for thinking that the paint could have irritated him. Their motto is, “Our children are fine and look what they grew up with”! On top of that, they gave him PVC sippy cups and plastic toys to mouth, and let him crawl on a painted countertop that is chipping. They even used Windex in front of him. In our house, we are trying to be very eco-friendly by using natural cleaning products and laundry detergent, organic sheets and mattress for baby, and secondhand clothes for him also. We have pulled up the carpeting, put in bamboo floors, etc. Anyway, I am fed up with swallowing my words! Pretty soon I am going to explode and it won’t be pretty! Help!

Robin
Silver Spring, Md.

Dearest Robin,

Like some of our other readers, I feel that you also must cool down. Your expectations for your in-laws are clearly unrealistic. They do not share your knowledge, or perhaps your opinions, about toxins in the home and the rearing of healthy children. If you explode, you will a) prove yourself to be a freak dog of a first-time parent; b) alienate your quite valuable in-laws; c) put your partner in an uncomfortable position; and d) create a difficult precedent for your child’s future interactions with other families.

Sweet retreat or toxic torture chamber?

I’m sure you are not anxious to finish reading my apparently unsympathetic response, particularly as you may also know that I myself am childless. I do have some questions for you, though. Do you have any resource materials about raising a baby in an intentionally toxin-free home and how to negotiate the inevitable transitions to other locations? It’s a little frightening to hear about your infant’s reaction to paint fumes. Of course, the wee one is in the stage of ultimate sensitivity. But when will that stage pass? You’re going to have more peace of mind if you know when normal household products and general environmental toxins will become less harmful to the tot.

At some point the little joy must enter the normal world of carpet adhesive, dust mites, dioxins, and hot dogs, and I’m concerned about his ability to develop a resistance to these incoming health missiles. Ignoramus though I may be, I think you need to make a timeline for ending the hermetic isolation of your child. Obviously the in-laws’ home is currently unacceptable to you, but one day you’ll have to allow the boy to visit his grandparents. Thus, parameters of time and space must be delineated. At what age will your boy be able to handle everyday environmental toxins? At what pace will you allow him to be exposed to normal homes? What exposures do you most fear, and which exposures are not so bad? Plastic toys are ubiquitous — is that truly the battle you wish to fight? Or shall your energy be saved for new paint and carpets?

Get this clear in your mind so that you know your priorities and can explain them to others. Decide, with your partner, what the limitations are for your baby’s visits to uncontrolled society. Then lovingly demur from visiting the in-laws until he is older, or clearly explain to them the substances and situations you wish to avoid. Normal people have no idea that carpets are fume-ish when new and riddled with disgusting mold when old. I just mentioned your problem to a visitor here in 2B, and he said, “What’s wrong with carpets?” Naturally, I showed him my collection of carpet samples in various stages of dust-mite production, but until that point he, like your loving in-laws, was ignorant.

Sedatingly,
Umbra